Coffin adit level on Brackenfell, Grasmere
I wanted to go a bit more in depth, and describe in a separate post each of the four mining sites we have explored and surveyed in 2013 for the Windermere Reflections Project in further detail. Stupidly I have chosen to start with the most complex of them! Namely the Elizabethan lead mining complex at Greenhead Gill.
The Greenhead Gill mine complex is located in a narrow isolated ravine-like valley on the open fellside sandwiched between Stone Arthur and Rydal Fell to the north-east of Grasmere village. The documentary and archaeological evidence points to at least two separate phases of exploitation at the mine, the first was the relatively short-lived Elizabethan workings, which were one of several small scale workings established around Grasmere. Then in the late-nineteenth century the original mine was reworked and exploratory excavations were undertaken to the south of the main complex using drilling and powder-blasting technology.
Surveying at Greenside Gill mine
The Elizabethan workings were organised and run by the Company of Mine’s Royal under the guidance of Daniel Hechstetter and we are blessed with considerable documentary records that provide us with records of equipment, general layout of infrastructure and disbursement cost for construction, maintenance and wages. In certain cases, the sources can possibly be related to the archaeological evidence surveyed during the present project; these include a water wheel and stamp mill referred to in the documentation.
Sixteenth century depiction of a dry stamp mill
After the accession of Elizabeth to the throne in 1558 private enterprise of all sorts was encouraged, particularly that from which the crown would benefit through levy or taxation. Mining was one area in which the crown and wealthy landowners could benefit if the right mining expertise could be found. Discussions with the German mining company of Haug and Langnauer after 1561 paved the way for the creation of the Company of Mines Royal, via Letters Patent in 1564 for exploration purposes then incorporation by Royal Charter in 1568 as a new joint stock company. The company based themselves in Keswick, quickly establishing a smelter there and immediately setting to work prospecting and extracting ores of copper, lead, iron and silver at locations throughout the Lake District fells.
The site of some of the initial trials can be seen today on the exposed veins near Alcock Tarn, along with two coffin levels and related working at Brackenthwaite, located to the north of Dove Cottage.
Location of early lead mining around Grasmere
The period between May 1568 and July 1569 is likely to have witnessed the main development of the mining operation at Greenhead Gill. Initial work is likely to have concentrated at the northern end of the site where the most northerly of the four mineral veins at Greenhead Gill is visible in the beck. Early extraction is likely to have focused on the exposed mineral veins, resulting in the creation of the surface workings seen today on the western side of the gill and also higher up on Grains Gill. The sinking of both shafts was started during this period.
Elizabethan extractive pits and shafts – Greenhead Gill mine
The earliest substantial workings are at the north end of the complex and consists of two vertical square-cut shafts with further open surface workings stretching between them. The steep hillslope has been cut back to a vertical edge by extraction and two slumped oval depressions are also evident. These workings are located just to the south of an ore-stained section of stream bed, which was presumably where the earliest trial surface working of the ore vein was undertaken. The only other potential Elizabethan era extraction is found at some distance upslope to the north-east of the main complex where there is a small stone wall retained working floor where the ravine has evidently been surface worked along the orientation of the ore vein.
Northern rock-cut shaft – Greenhead Gill mine
Survey drawing of the northern half of Greenhead Gill mine
In the wider area to the south-west of the main mine complex, there is evidence for extensive surface exploration in the form of a large curvilinear hushed channel located on the steep hillside west of Greenhead Gill. This excavation would have been used to chase near-surface deposits of the ore vein downslope of the main complex. Prospecting in the form of hushing was widespread during and after the Elizabethan period in the Lake District
Large hushed channel on the hillside above Greenhead Gill
In September 1569 ‘four great augers to bore the wooden pipes’ were transported from Grasmere to Newlands. This entry would suggest that at least one of the shaft was then supplied with either a suction or a paternoster or ‘rag and chain’ type pump. This would have been constructed of a series of connected hollowed-out sections of timber up which water was drawn from the shaft and to allow mining to continue. Shallow open workings could be dewatered by hand, winching the water to the surface in heavy wooden ‘kibbles’ however, this was impractical for deeper shaft workings where pumps would be needed. The account books for 1569 record that nine water kibbles (fashioned from wooden planks bound together by an iron band) were taken to the mine, and is the same year that a pump was installed.
Sixteenth century depiction of a suction pump
While it was feasible to sort and crush small volumes of lead ore to a usable and transportable size by hand, the volume of lead ore being raised in 1568/9 from St Benedict’s shaft would have been too great to use manual methods economically. In May 1569 the head carpenter Wolffgang Hochholzer was involved in starting construction of the stamp mill; the felling and transportation of 63 oak trees and sixty thick planks to site is recorded in the company accounts for that month. By July the timber frame was complete, with work continuing to erect the stone walls and build the stamps. The stamp mill cost £107 7s 3d to complete, and was a huge investment for the time.
A later inventory drawn up by the Mines Royal of property surviving at the disused Grasmere mine recorded the stamp as measuring 36ft x 31ft and constructed of stone with lime and very good timber. The inventory for the stamp mill included a great waterwheel with axle tree, and three launder supports ‘standing without the howse for the troughs or water race of the great wheel’ . Beneath the stamps there were large ‘troughs’ which contained the ore during stamping, indicating that rather than being a ‘dry stamp mill’ this was a ‘wet stamp mill’ where the ore was crushed by the stamps within a steady flow of water. The water aided the separation of the heavier lead ore from the lighter gangue or natural rock while also washing the ore to assist with subsequent sorting and grading.
Sixteenth century depiction of a wet stamp mill and buddles
The ore raised from both shafts was presumably carried over in wooden ‘kibbles’, to the dressing floor for initial sorting and crushing by hand on a ‘bucking floor’. Given the quantities of ore being produced in 1569 it is possible that the ore store located on the edge of the working floor was built at this time. The opening at the back of the surviving structure would have allowed ore to be tipped in from the rear and it still presently still contains ore-rich material. The main processing area has two phases of working superimposed with at least one nineteenth century dry-stone structure (a miners bothy) constructed on top of the Elizabethan platform.
Processing waste on the main working floor – Greenhead Gill mine
The main Elizabethan processing area was where the reduction and sorting of veinstone into grades suitable for further processing took place, the ore would have been alternately dressed, stamp crushed and washed. The structure consists of a large trapezoidal working floor that has been levelled behind a platformed retaining wall on the east side of Greenhead Gill. Adjacent to the platform are a series of small enigmatic wall foundations on the southern end and some square areas that may be the locations of troughs, sorting tables or primary buddles for separating ore from the veinstone immediately adjacent to the stamp mill.
Detailed survey drawing of the Elizabethan mine and working area – Greenheasd Gill Mine
Platform for the Elizabethan stamp mill with later bothy on top – Greenhead Gill mine
The ruinous bothy structure surviving on the working floor clearly post-dates the Elizabethan mine working, however, the northern end wall of this structure is of an earlier, more massive construction than the rest of the building, and it would appear that this is an earlier wall against which the bothy was built. The north wall is most likely to be the load-bearing footing wall for a water wheel. This putative structure is too small in size when compared to the extent of the stamp mill recorded in the Elizabethan documents and it is likely that the stamp mill took up more space on the southern end of the working floor, as defined by the substantial kinked retaining wall on the west side.
The bothy and ore bin on the stamp mill platform – Greenhead Gill mine
The water wheel would have provided power for the Elizabethan stamp mill. When mounted on the bearing wall it would have been fed from a long water leat that runs diagonally down the steep slope for around 155m on the east side of Greenhead Gill towards the working floor from Rowantree Gill. The water would have been taken-off at the downslope northern end via a wooden launder running to the water wheel to provide power for the stamp mill, but could also have served to provide water for a wet stamp mill operation.
Survey drawing of the southern half of Greenhead Gill mine
The other obvious surviving evidence for buddles are located to the south of the mine; where there is a group of adjoining buddles located in the base of a dried up streambed on the eastern side of Greenhead Gill. The streambed has been blocked on the upslope end and water has been taken off at a small dammed area. The water would have been fed over a wooden launder, via a platform so as to regulate water flow onto and between the cascade of buddles, and then the water would have drained down and back into Greenhead Gill further downslope.
The survey has confirmed that Greenhead Gill is one of the most important early lead working sites in Cumbria which was relatively short-lived but forms an important facet of the Company’s exploration and subsequent exploitation of various metalliferous ores of the region during the Elizabethan era. The relatively untouched nature of the main mine complex and the surviving extant surface remains for both extraction and processing contemporary with the earliest working of the site demonstrate a very rare survival of comparable remains both for the region and nationally.