Swaledale at the start of the 21st century is known mostly for its beautiful countryside: A long and deep glacial valley running from Keld at the western end, to Richmond at the eastern end, where the valley opens up into the Vale of York.
Rugged and wild, with barren uplands of peat moorland where the hardy Swaledale sheep roam and graze, giving way lower down the hillsides to the slightly more fertile soils around the river Swale’s path through the valley. The famous and popular coast to coast walk passes through Swaledale, and the Tour de France had a stage running through it (and over its hills) in 2014.
But this rural idyll of country walks, teashops, holiday homes and picture postcard scenery is only a recent invention in Swaledale: up until the end of the 19th century, the hills around the valley swarmed with hundreds of men engaged in the industry of extracting minerals from veins beneath the moors.
Men toiled underground, chimneys on the moortops spewed toxic gases from smelt mills, ponies pulled carts of metal ingots to market in Richmond, and the life of those in the dale was hard and poor.
The main mineral being extracted from the hills was galena, which produces lead. Lead has been used throughout history for many things: roofs, pipes and bullets being some of the most common, though it was also used to create stained glass windows, paint, dyes, and a glass glaze.
Lead is obtained primarily from the galena ore, which is a very silvery, heavy material. This is then smelted in a very hot furnace to produce lead, which as well as being extremely heavy and non-reactive, can also be easily pounded into flat sheets and then manipulated into whatever shape desired. Lead is so malleable that a relatively thin sheet of it can be shaped by hand.
Lead was mined in Swaledale (and the other northern uplands) from at least the time of the Romans. Littered around the countryside in many places are circular depressions in the ground where a “bell pit” shaft was sunk into the ground, and ore extracted.
The galena would then be smelted to create lead, with the earliest known method to do this being simply a very large open fire on the hillside called a “bail hill”, where the lead would pour out the side to be collected and cooled into ingots called “pigs”.
Apart from the acne scars of the bell pits, not much physical evidence is left of the earlier lead mining activity. The most obvious remnants visible today of Swaledale’s heavy industry are the ruins left behind from the heyday of the 18th and 19th centuries. These were good times, for the most part.
Particular events made it even more profitable: for example, wars often necessitated the removal of lead roofs to melt down for huge quantities of bullets, but it was not so easy to recycle the spent bullets back into roofs, so the outbreak of peace usually meant good times for lead miners as people wanted roofs over their heads again.
The good times were rare however and it was usually only the mine bosses who saw any kind of decent share of the profits as miners were paid only according to the amount of ore they brought out of the hills.
Miners and their families usually struggled to survive. They would usually have a smallholding of a few animals, and a very common sight was to see people going about their daily business knitting: miners would knit while walking the miles to and from work, both to produce things for their own needs, and to sell. It was always hard to make ends meet for the men of the dale and their families.
There were many jobs a man (or boy) could have in the industry. Even before men could head underground with a pick and shovel, prospectors and surveyors would have to find the veins of galena. These veins are not like coal, which is usually found in a long horizontal seam, but are vertical columns of galena ore and other minerals (fluorspar, often) dotted around the landscape.
One of the most common methods to find these veins was called “hushing”, and this practice has left very visible, lasting scars on the landscape.
To those who don’t know, many of the small side valleys jutting off from places like Gunnerside Gill and Arkengarthdale may seem entirely natural, when in fact they were created just a couple of hundred years ago: springs up on the moor tops were dammed to create large artificial lakes.
The dam would then be demolished and the torrents of water running down the hillside would strip all topsoil and loose material off, washing it down to the streams in the valley bottom. Thus, the tops of the ore veins could easily be seen, and mining begun.
The veins were usually only a couple of metres wide, but extended down to very great depths. Mining them was usually done by driving in levels from lower down the hillsides, and from these levels the miners would then dig up and down into the veins, with the ore (and copious amounts of draining water) going back out of the level.
The men who worked at the face, blasting the rock and finding the ore, were called the “orewinners”. The other group of men who worked underground were the “deadmen”, whose job it was to take the “deads” (the useless rock) and deposit it in spaces in the mine left open by previous working.
Boys over the age of about 12 would have the job of dragging mine carts of ore out to the surface (though in some levels, small ponies did this task).
Once on the surface, the ore was “dressed”. This involved separating it as much as possible from other rocks.
Large pieces could be done by hand, but for smaller pieces of ore a method called “bousing” was created, which involved using water and gravity to separate the heavy ore from the less heavy surrounding materials.
In some places the remains of these “bousing teams” can still be seen, with streams redirected into a sluicing system. Later on, purpose built metal vats full of water were constructed in some places which were worked mechanically.
The galena was then taken to the smelt mills, which were usually built as close to the levels as possible. These buildings housed furnaces, where the ore was fed in and the smelters used their skill and experience to produce the purest possible lead.
The smelters were the highest paid men in the mining operation as it required considerable experience to be able to produce good quality lead.
The men doing it may not have been aware of the chemical terms for what they were doing, but it was quite sophisticated chemistry that they were performing, first turning the ore into lead oxide, and then adding carbon to remove the oxygen to produce the finished metal.
They controlled everything: lighting the furnace, choosing the type and amount of fuel to use, and the casting of the lead pigs at the end of the process.
Coal produced the hottest fire, and Swaledale had a good supply of coal from the Tan Hill collieries, but too much coal produced inferior lead, and so the smelters generally used wood when they could get it – as wood was a scarce commodity in the very barren dales – or the more easily obtainable peat, dug from the ground in the surrounding moors.
The remains of the peat drying buildings can be seen at Grinton and Old Gang mines. At Grinton, the furnace buildings themselves are very well preserved, and the remains of two furnaces and the waterwheel building which powered the bellows are still in good condition (usually to be found with some sheep sheltering from the wind, and an owl in the rafters looking for rabbits).
After smelting into lead pigs, there was nothing left to do except transport it to market.
Many local towns had active lead markets, particularly Richmond and Northallerton. The lead ingots would be taken by pony and cart down the dale to these towns and sold.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Spain and the United States were producing much greater quantities of lead at much cheaper cost.
Over the space of a couple of decades, the mining operations in Swaledale and the rest of the Yorkshire dales came to a halt as the mines became unprofitable to work.
The orewinners eventually became “dead men” also, in an economical sense.
A Hard Day’s Night
It’s hard to know what the miners and their families thought about the decline of the local industry. Life in the mines was tough. Very tough. Miners had shifts of up to around 14 hours underground, doing back breaking work in dark, cramped, wet and cold conditions, often with oxygen levels so low that candles barely had enough oxygen to burn.
On top of this, they had to walk to and from the mines from their homes in the villages, a walk which could be many miles each way and would often be done in the cold and dark.
Despite all this hardship, with the decline of the Yorkshire lead mines, many of the miners left to go and work in other mines. Many left for Lancashire to work in the coal mines.
Others went further afield to the United States. There are parts of Lancashire and the United States where Swaledale surnames are still common. It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that Swaledale lost two thirds of its population within ten years (1875-1885).
Reeth – the largest village in the dale – had a population of 1,425 in 1821. A century later this was down to 616, and has risen only very slightly since then.
With the departure of mining and most of its population, life in the dales became much quieter, and very different in character. Farming (mostly upland sheep, and some cows) became almost the sole economic activity in the dale, with a little bit of knitting the tough wool of the Swaledale sheep into coarse but warm woolens.
It was only with the widespread acceptance of the idea of “enjoying the countryside” that the Yorkshire dales began a return to activity, and this activity is still what keeps the Yorkshire dales going today, even though quite a number of small businesses and artists have taken up residence in the area (Reeth in particular has a large number of artists and artistic endeavours).
Teashops, bed and breakfasts and a few small shops cater to the tourists and walkers passing through.
The evidence of lead mining is there for all visitors to see. The hushes – the artificial valleys created by unleashing a torrent of water – are like rocky scars, and huge amounts of shattered rock reach all the way down to the bottom of the valley (an easy place to casually pick up fossils and the odd scrap of galena).
Today, coast to coast walkers may not even realize what they are walking through. And then those same coast to coast walkers head up onto the hill tops between Gunnerside Gill and Old Gang mines, where there is a slightly surreal wasteland of crushed rock, ground down almost to a fine, sandy powder which becomes surprisingly mushy when wet.
Sat in the middle of it all still sits the crushing machine, cast iron and faintly monolithic in the bleak landscape, made in Leeds.
Underground, for those experienced and brave enough to venture, are many fascinating and well preserved remains.
St. Francis Level in Gunnerside has engine and winding mechanisms still in place hundreds of feet underground. Bunton level is an easy exploration for those with wellington boots and a torch.
And above ground, the buildings in various states of decay, and old flues from the smelt mills heading up the hillsides, and even the odd chimney still sticking up incongruously in the middle of empty moorland.
These buildings are there for all to see, but perhaps not many people even realize what they are looking at when they walk past, maybe assuming them to be yet more classic Yorkshire Dales stone barns, rather the remains of heavy industry from a couple of centuries ago.
Note from the author/photographer
I took these photographs on a single winter’s day. I got up early, had a good breakfast, and enjoyed the experience of being taken close to my destination in a comfy seat. I then had the good fortune to have a sunny, relatively mild day for my trek around the locations.
I first stopped at Grinton, somewhere I have always loved (and did a survey of when I was much younger). I looked at the new information boards in the old smelt mill which show what the site would have looked like, and I filled up my water bottle at the spring that used to feed the reservoir (probably the best water in the world).
From up there it isn’t too far down to the village of Grinton, if that’s where the miners happened to live. But a lot of them did not, and would have come from further afield, from villages such as Reeth and Healaugh.
Then on to Old Gang mines. For miners living in the nearest village of Low Row this would have been a long, hard walk before they even started working. In the middle of a winter’s blizzard, in the dark, it wouldn’t have been an enjoyable way to bookend a working day down the mines.
The only people I saw around Old Gang mines that day were a couple of youngsters on a quad bike (in one of the photos), out leaving feed for the grouse (one of the newer sources of income for the dales: providing opportunities for rich people to come and blast simpleminded birds with a shotgun every August).
After passing through Old Gang I worked my way over the incredibly desolate tops to Gunnerside Gill. I saw nobody, and nothing. No animals. No trees. Only rocks and heather and the abandoned stone crushing machine. Hundreds of men used to troop over and back this hill each day between Old Gang and Gunnerside.
Gunnerside Gill was empty too. Just the barren hushes and the old mills at the top of the valley, with nothing but the sound of Gunnerside beck running alongside.
In a way, it’s the bleakness of the landscape which has made these buildings endure for so long: in a lushly forested area they would probably have been built out of timber and long since disintegrated. But up in the Yorkshire Dales, timber is a rare commodity, while stone is plentiful and free.
At the end of the day I felt tired. In reality, all I had done was walk less than fifteen miles and take a few photographs. I hadn’t also had to work a 14 hour shift at a rock face in the cold, dark and wet.
Given that, it’s hard to know what to think about the decline of such an important local industry. On the one hand, people now come to the Yorkshire dales to enjoy their natural beauty and peace and calm.
On the other hand, that dangerous, hard work hasn’t disappeared; it has simply been relocated to countries where such things are still accepted as normal, and where their labour is cheaper.
In Swaledale at least, now all you can do is stand in the middle of the ruined Old Gang smelt mill and look at the crumbling stonework and the neatly stoneflagged floor and imagine the hustle and bustle of when hundreds of men worked there day and night.