A mining history

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2018

Ellis Davies takes a look at some of the tourist mines around the UK. 

Mining plays a large part in Britain’s history. Whether you look at the Welsh coalmines that powered the industrial revolution, the mines of Cornwall that put the country at the top of the global ladder for tin production, or the lead industry in the north of England that reaped riches in the 19th century, mines tell the story of the social, economic, and industrial history of Britain. 

It is fitting then that many of these sites are now museums, open to the general public. Although underground mining in the UK isn’t as common in the modern day, we are able to explore its mining past at tourist mines such as Poldark mine, Cornwall, Killhope, North Pennines, and Big Pit, Blaenavon.

Big Pit 

The latter closed in 1980 after 120 years of service, and opened as a visitor mine in 1983, owned and operated by Big Pit Trust Ltd.

Located in South Wales, which is synonymous with coal mining, with a coalfield that extends from Pembrokeshire to Torfaen, coal from the region was used extensively to power shipping and other forms of transport, as well as to support the iron and steel industry of the 19th and 20th centuries – iron ore extracted from coal measures was used, particularly in the areas surrounding Merthyr Tydfil. These ironstone beds stretched to Blaenavon – the eastern side of the coalfield – that had the advantage of seams that were easier to mine. This, along with the local availability of limestone used in the metal smelting process, a high rainfall to provide water power, fire clay to line furnaces, and Millstone Grit to provide silica for refractory bricks and the lining of later furnaces, meant that all the ingredients needed for iron making were in hand.

The result was the Blaenavon ironworks – the first multi-furnace works in Wales, and, by 1796, the second largest in the UK. These ironworks created the first large scale demand for coal in the area, and many mines were opened to meet the demand – over 162 drift mines and 34 shafts have been recorded.

Big Pit was first sunk in 1860, at which time it was known as Kearsley’s Pit. The mine is actually an amalgamation of several separate mines, and has a complex history. Mining started on the site with Forge Level (c.1812), followed by the Forge (c.1835), and Coity Pits (c.1840), all of which supplied coal and ironstone to the Blaenavon Ironworks. Kearsley’s Pit was used as a ventilation shaft, although it may also have wound coal or ironstone before 1880. That year, Kearsley’s Pit was renamed Big Pit after having its diameter and depth increased.

Its creation was a response to one of the periodic slumps in the iron industry, with the aim of increasing sale coal production, but it is likely that some ironstone was also mined in the early years. In 1896, 528 men were employed, producing gas and house and steam coal. By 1908, the manpower had risen to 1,145. The pit moved to full mechanisation in 1967, and was renamed Blaenavon New Mine in 1973 when a drift was installed to the surface from workings in the Garw seam, which had a maximum thickness of 30 inches. This drift conveyed coal to the washery and the Big Pit shaft ceased winding coal and was used only for occasional movement of the around 500 staff and supplies. 

From this workforce, Big Pit went on to host 90,000 visitors in it’s first year as a museum, and currently averages 150,000. In 2000, the Blaenavon area was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one year later, Big Pit became the National Mining Museum of Wales – and later Big Pit National Coal Museum (BPNCM) – and part of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales).

A spokesperson for the BPNCM told Materials World, ‘Big Pit is a special place that tells the fascinating story of coal mining and the way that industry shaped modern Wales. It’s a tale of victory and defeat, joy and disaster, riches and starvation during one of the most dramatic periods of Welsh and world history.’

Today the site has the majority of its original buildings, much the same as they were when the mine closed – and the winding wheels still turn. Tours are operated covering a portion of the mine, on which visitors descend the shaft to which Big Pit owes its name. It is elliptical, and at 5.5m at its widest point, was the biggest in the Blaenavon area in 1880. Most cages were designed to wind one dram at that time, but Big Pit’s shape and size allowed two drams to be loaded into the cage side by side. Former miners lead the tours to give the visitors an idea of the history and experience of mining – tour guides instruct visitors to turn off their headlights at a point during the tour, to experience the true darkness of an underground mine. 

‘The tour underground lasts around 50 minutes and covers a circular route of approximately 750m,’ BPNCM said. ‘Visitors are no further than 250–300m from pit bottom at any one point during their tour.’

The pit operates a maintenance programme as if it was a working coalmine. Daily maintenance is carried out when necessary, and a yearly winter maintenance programme is implemented, including replacing boards and timbers, repairing floors, and checking and repairing water flow and pipes.

Not a drama

Cornwall is also rich with mining history, boasting wealthy deposits of copper and tin that propelled the remote and rugged southwesterly corner of England to the forefront of British and European industry. The writer George Lipscomb wrote of the area, ‘though rugged the surface, the interior is fraught with the richest treasures,’ in the 1790s, and that the ‘industry is a strong pillar of the state.’ 

Now a widely known name thanks to the BBC drama, Poldark mine is located near Trenear, Cornwall, part of the parish of Wendron, the oldest mining district in Cornwall, which is in the oldest granite in the area by 20 million years. Poldark’s harshness can now be experienced by visiting tourists, with the mine describing it’s tour as ‘not suitable for the nervous’. The Cober River Valley, in which Poldark lies, was one of the most important tin streaming areas, which started during the Bronze Age. 

The Poldark site was used as a tin-stamping mill from 1493. Wendron entered the Cornish mining boom in the 1700s, boasting rich deposits of tin. Underground extraction was carried out until 1780, working a tin lode, known as Wheal Roots Lode. It became a heritage site in 1972. 

Tin mining in the area was powered by the River Cober, which was diverted along leats to work waterwheels and other machinery. Formerly known as Wheal Roots, Poldark Mine is served by a mile long leat branching from the river at Porkellis Moor, created around the end of the 13th century by Cistercian monks. The site is also likely to have been host to the world’s first water-powered tin stamping mill, with the tin mill and water wheels recorded in the Royal Assession Rolls as still working in 1493 when a lease to a John Trerys was renewed. The mill continued to be used until the late 1870s. 

On any given day, it is estimated that 40,000 men worked underground in Cornwall during peak production, with women and children working on processing on the surface. Shaft collapse, poor working conditions, mining-related diseases, and poverty were, however, a constant reality for those who worked in Cornwall’s tin and copper mines, while merchants and owners were able to accumulate great wealth from the area’s abundant materials. 

Poldark is one of the few mines to display the underground workings, and has lots of steps and very narrow passageways. The tour goes down around 30m into the mine, passing through low, narrow, winding passages and up and down to various levels. During the tour, the guide walks visitors through the history and the workings of the mine. The site also features the only underground post box in the UK, from which letters and cards are specially stamped.

Above ground, the accompanying museum displays a variety of artefacts that illustrate the history of tin mining in Cornwall, and in particular Poldark. The site is scattered with old machinery, including steam and beam engines – the former used to pump water from the mine. A large waterwheel is also featured in the grounds, and, like much of the machinery in the site and surrounding gardens, is fully functioning. 

Poldark is the only complete underground mine open to the public in Cornwall, providing the only hands on experience of the tin mining industry that put the rural area on the map. 

Lead in the north

The Pennines, in the north of England, sit on an orefield that was England’s largest producer of lead and silver in the 19th century, running from just north of Scargill, Yorkshire, to Hadrian’s Wall.

The ore in the area came from a variety of limestones and sandstones. The veins are said to have formed around 290 million years ago, when hot, mineral-rich waters, heated by buried Weardale Granite, flowed through cracks and fissures underground. When these fluids cooled, the dissolved minerals crystallised in the cracks to form mineral veins. 

Killhope lead mining museum, as it is now called, is located near Cowshill, County Durham, and, as the Park Level Mine (its previous name), was a part of the prosperity of the North Pennines orefield between 1853 and 1910 – with a brief re-opening during the First World War. Killhope became one of the richest mines in Britain for a few years in the 1870s, mining lead ore separated from waste using a giant waterwheel built around the same time – the wheel is now one of the only two surviving William Armstrong of Cragside’s waterwheels. 

The mine is situated within a former medieval hunting forest, once the possession of the Bishopric of Durham, and for which responsibility eventually fell to the Church Commissioners. From 1696–1882, the mineral rights were leased to the Blackett-Beaumont family, followed by the Weardale Lead Company. Construction of the site began in 1853, with the adit – horizontal access passage to a mine – as a cross-cutting horse level passage, leading west to intercept lead veins previously mined by hushing and shallow shaft based workings. The remainder of the site was built between 1862–76.

Park Level is typical of the majority of nucleated mines during the mid-19th century, with its ore works sporting a mechanised crushing mill. This was built in 1874–76, and is an example of a more advanced water powered mechanised separation plant from the late 19th century. It replaced a Burn Bottom mill, which was demolished when it was unable to cope with the volume of ore produced at the site. The wheel of the crushing mill is the largest surviving waterwheel in the north of England, with a diameter of 10.3m.

Restoration of the site began in 1980, with the mineshop being the first building to formally open to the public in 1984. The building comprises the mine manager’s office, the smithy, and the stable, and is where the tour of the mine begins. 

The mill was restored in 1991. Although much of the original machinery had been removed, there was enough evidence to design and construct replica machinery to replace it. Killhope also has some woodland walks that follow the watercourses used to drive the wheels and washing floor, as well as other mines and waterwheels down the valley. 

The preservation of the UK’s mines as tourist attractions allows the modern day public to experience a part of the country’s history first hand – albeit a tame version. The mining museums at these sites provide a snapshot of an industry that played a large part in shaping the UK.