Iron mining

A shortened version of the chapter by Richard Hewer and Alen McFadzean in Lakeland’s Mining Heritage

The iron industry has slowly matured within the Lake Counties for centuries, with industrial growth spreading from the small bloomery and forge sites, coastal plateau workings and the narrow veins of the fells to the huge mining and iron smelting complexes of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The industry declined duriing the mid 20th century because of dwindling ore reserves, cheap foreign imports and the pressures of economic viability.

The mining areas were divided into well-defined regions. Major deposits occurred around Egremont, Cleator, Cleator Moor, Ennerdale, Eskdale, Millom and Ulverston, with numerous smaller deposits within the Lakeland fells – Langdale, Coniston and Grasmere for example.

Western Lakeland

The Whitehaven region has evolved from several distinct groups of rock. The carboniferous limestone overlying the Skiddaw slate on the south eastern side has in turn been overlaid by the coal meausures in the north-west. The southern area is covered by the St Bees sandstone. The principal ore bodies occurred within the seven bands of the carboniferous limestone series, the latter having been subjected to varying degrees of earth movement and faulting, whilst the iron solutions penetrated the fault lines from above and below. The resultant ore bodies formed large flats (bodies of solid ore) which connected with the bedding planes of the host rock, irregular bodies occurring as large swellings within the vein, or true veins or faults whereby the haematite solution followed the lines of weakness. the miners were forever optimists for, just ahead of them, the vein could open out into a new and profitable shoot of ore.

Large, shallow deposits were extensively worked by the early miners. Development was rapid – easily worked deposits provided greater profits – but with this ambitious drive came the dangers and disasters. Roof falls were commonplace, holing into abandoned workings and slides of disturbed ground were all part of the miner’s way of life. In several instances, where all the ore had been removed from the slats, it was necessary to fill the large voids with waste rock, and in some cases sand was blown into the cavities leaving only heavily timbered shafts for access to the lower workings.

Several varieties of iron were mined. The most common type was compact, hard and massive, and of a bluish-purple hue (hard blue) usually associated with the flats. Kidney or pencil ore was often found in irregular deposits in the first or second limestones. Specular ore was something of a rarity often found in cavities (loughs) and saved to be sold as specimens by the miners (a lucrative sideline). Lesser ores consisted of dark ‘black’ soft ore; smite ore (very greasy and highly coloured; muck or ‘ring’ ore.

Research and fieldwork has shown that the deposits were exploited in Roman times. Several bloomery sites suggest operations by early British or Norse settlers. Many of the sites date from the late medieval period but could have obliterated earlier workings. The earliest documented evidence of mining within Egremont parish related to Bigrigg Mine in 1179. The surface cover was shallow and the deposits easily exploited, probably as open casts. Between 1179 and 1635 the search for further deposits was intensified. During the later years a large pure deposit of ore was discovered at Langhorn which, by 1709, when it was still being worked, had yielded over 21,500 tons of ore.

In 1784 Crowgarth Mine tapped a particularly rich body of hard blue ore. 20,000 tons were transported to the Carron Foundry in Stirlingshire. After this date there followed a 10 year slump in the iron trade which slowed development work in Cumbria. However, following this unsettled period the metal prices improved and mining gained momentum until the decline in the 20th century. Advertisements often appeared in the local papers offering plots of land “with great prospects of iron ore”.

Exploration within the Lakeland fells was spasmodic. The veins of haematite were small, rich, but often mixed with stone. Tranpsport was difficult and iron prices were low. During the 1840s prospectors tried any likely veins, but it wasn’t until the mid 1860s and early 1870s that serious attempts to work the lodes were instigated. The valley sides of Ennerdale Water received considerable attention, especially at the sites of ancient workings. The Crag Fell Mine was the only producer of any quantity. Meanwhile Floutern Tarn (Red Gill Mine) received notoriety for the activities in share dealing by Faithful Cookson who was also associated with several other ventures in the area and in neighbouring Eskdale. The trials around Scale beck and along the flank of Gale Fell provided a limited amount of ore which was sorted, cleaned, bagged and wheelbarrowed away!

The Kelton and Knockmurton mines were the only large producers of ore from the Skiddaw slate formation. The mines were owned by William Baird & Co of Gartsherrie, Scotland, who had ventured south in search of quality ore for their blast furnaces. Between 1869 and 1913 over 1.25 million tons were raised, much of which was transported to their works though some went to the Moss Bay and Harrington furnaces near Whitehaven and a little to the Midlands.

The mines of Eskdale have fortunately left us with the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. This was consrtucted solely to serve the mines, and was nearly ‘lost’ when the workings closed down. Nab Gill Mine, further developed in 1870 by Whitehaven Iron Mines Ltd, worked the veins in the Eskdale granite. It produced roughly 8000 tons per annum, but tonnage declined after 1881. The iron ore was extracted by overhead stoping and removed from Nab Gill by way of an inclined tramway to the main line.Gill Force and Gate Crag mines on the south side of the valley were the second major producer, served by a branch line from the Railway. Several small workings dot the valley slopes.

Southern Lakeland

The haematite ore fields of Furness are bordered to the north by Silurian slate and to the south by permo-triassic sandstone, the host rocks being a succession of six distinct limestones deposited during the Carboniferous period. Unlike the non-ferrous mineral veins of the nearby Lakeland mountains, the haematite lodes of Furness conform to no particular pattern. Only in certain circumstances – mainly in the southern and eastern areas of the ore field – do they manifest in true mineral vein form, the deposits of the north and west being in highly irregular masses.

Large-scale mining has taken place at a number of locations between the towns of Barrow and Ulverston. The major ore deposits were situated at Askam, Roanhead, Park, Yarlside, Stank, Mouzell, Crossgates, Marton and Lindal;  with peripheral deposits at Urswick, Stainton, Pennington and Plumpton. Across the Duddon Estuary, in the carboniferous limestone between Millom and Haverigg, ore was mined at Hodbarrow from one of the largest bodies of haematite ever discovered. Three miles to the north-west an outlying vein in the Wicham Valley yielded haematite ore from the fault between the limestone and the older Skiddaw slate.

Just when mining began is a point open to conjecture. Archaeological evidence determines that ore was smelted in the vicinity of Urswick during the Iron Age by indigenous Celts. Cistercian monks from Furness Abbey commenced mining at Orgrave, on the outskirts of Dalton, prior to 1235, and by 1300 had developed several locations for the winning of ore, mostly in the vicinity of Dalton. These initial ventures were probably open cast workings, exploiting shallow layers of mineral worked with ease once the overlying boulder clay had been removed.

Mining methods varied considerably across the Furness and Hodbarrow ore fields. In the narrow mineral veins around Urswick and Stainton, traditional methods of stoping were employed. In the veins, cross veins and ore flats of Whitriggs – where the ore tended to mass in irregular pockets between the limestone bedding and natural rock fissures – the ore was systematically robbed, allowing the roof to collapse and reveal more ore. In the gigantic ore bodies (sops) of Park, Roanhead, Mouzell, Elliscales and Lindal Moor top slicing became widely adopted. This was a method similar to the board and pillar system of mining coal, the difference being that the pillars were also removed, allowing the roof to crush down on the sole while another slice was being worked underneath.

The Hodbarrow deposit was, like the sops of Furness, large and irregular. Top slicing was employed prior to 1922, but problems with subsidence and the close proximity of the sea brought about a change in policy and the adoption of bottom slicing. Ore was removed in slices from the sole of the deposit and the resultant voids filled with a slurry mixture of water and sand to prevent instability.

Water was a problem in the Furness mines. With the country rock being carboniferous limestone underground runners and feeders were plentiful. Cornish beam engines were installed here and across the Duddon. Horizontal pumping engines were common throughout the district, while during the early years of the 20th century several companies resorted to electrification as a means of improving their de-watering systems.

After the peak years of the 1870s and 1880s, decline was hastened by the gradual exhaustion of some of the older pits and the import of cheap iron ore from other countries, notably Spain. In Furness the last big pit – Woodbine Pit at North Stank – closed in 1946. The end came in 1960 when the Margaret Mine and inclined drift in Henning Valley, Lindal, was bought out by a large concern and subsequently closed. Hodbarrow Mine continued in production until March 1968 when its greatly reduced work force of 103 men was laid off, bringing to an end haematite mining in the south of the county.

Furness iron : Mark Bowden (ed.), English Heritage, 2000
The red earth (The iron mines of Furness) : Dave Kelly, The Author, 1998
The red earth revisited : Brian Cubbon, Peter Sandbach, Colin Woollard, CATMHS, 2021
The red hills (West Cumberland) : Dave Kelly, Red Earth, 1994
The iron moor : Alan McFadzean, Red Earth, 1989
Cumberland iron (The story of Hodbarrow Mine) : Alan Harris, Bradford Barton, 1970
Master of them all (Iron making in Cumbria) : Various, CIHS/HMS, 2007 (see publications)
The metalliferous mines of Cartmel and South Lonsdale : Max Moseley, Northern Mines Research Society, 2010
The story of iron ore mining in West Cumbria : Mervyn Dodd, The Cumberland Geological Society, 2010

The Mines of Eskdale (article)
Iron ore mining around Lindal-in-Furness (web site)
Hodbarrow mines – a description and photos

Cumbria sites listed in the MMP Step Three Report for iron and steel industries:

** sites are of “clear national importance”, * sites are “of national importance”


Grid Ref


Florence Mine NY017102 **
Nab Gill Mine, Boot NY173013 **
Hodbarrow Mine NY175785 O (i.e.destroyed)
Violet Pit, Roanhead Mine SD207749 **
Roanhead Magazine SD20927536 *
Askam S5 Pit spoil heaps SD209766 **
Elliscales No4 Pit engine house SD22587482 *
Stank Pit pump house and mine SD232707 **
Colorado Pit windmill SD235754 *
Woodbine Pit SD236723 *
Poaka Openworks SD244772 **
Henning Wood Mine SD246764 *
Daylight Hole and Diamond Pit SD253764 **
Lowfields and Parkside Mines SD259760 *
Urswick Fell Opencast SD260740 **

N.B. Peter Sandbach writes (12 September 2006):

I may be responsible for the suggestion that a magazine exists at Roanhead. If so, I was wrong. It is actually an engine bed for No 16 Pit, but fitted with an arched roof about 1945 to serve as an air raid shelter (See CATMHS Newsletter 58). Two of the sites mentioned no longer exist. Elliscales No 4 engine house was demolished last year and the remains of a windmill near Colorado Pit have gone.

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 06/12/22)