Lead and Zinc

A shortened version of the chapter by Ian Matheson and Chris Jones in Lakeland’s Mining Heritage

Augill Smelter (G.Brambles)

Lead was one of the first metals to be discovered, and has been in use for at least 8000 years. It is a soft metal, which is easy to work and does not corrode. Its main ore, galena, occurs widely, and can be smelted at temperatures which can be reached in an ordinary campfire. It is often associated with zinc and copper, and usually contains a small proportion of silver which can add to its value. The gangue material forms much the greater part of the content on a vein, and used to be regarded as waste. Now materials such as barytes and fluorspar are often the more important products, and the metal ores are regarded as a by-product.

In the Lake District zinc was produced mainly at the mines of Force Crag, Threlkeld and Thornthwaite. Lead was found in many places, but the principal mining fields were in the Helvellyn, Newlands and Caldbeck areas.

There are no records or remains of very early mining in the Lake District, and few records for the centuries after the Romans left, but the Elizabethans  operated lead mines in the Derwentwater area – at Stoneycroft, Brandlehow, Barrow and Thornthwaite – and in the Caldbeck Fells at Red Gill and Roughtongill. In 1564 a lead mine was opened in Greenhead Gill at Grasmere, but this venture was not successful and the mine closed in 1573, although the remains that can still be seen today are well worth a visit.

Mining in the Lake District was generally in decline during much of the 17th century, and there is no record of great or continuous activity so far as lead mining was concerned during the 18th century. Lead mining at Greenside, however, may have been started as early as 1650.  Top Level was driven in 1790, some 40 fathoms below the summit and stoped out to the surface. Although that mine was then abandoned for several years, it was later to become the richest in the area, being worked more or less continuously for the next 150 years after the formation of the Greenside Mining Company in 1822.

Some 2,400,000 tons of lead ore were produced during the life of the mine, and 2 million ounces of silver. In the early days the dressed ore was taken elsewhere to be smelted, firstly to Stoneycroft Gill – a distance of ten miles up hill and down dale – and then, from 1820, to Alston where the London Lead Company had erected an up-to-date smelter. Only during the 1830s was a smelter built on site at the foot of Lucy Tongue Gill, and a flue arched with stone was cut out of the bedrock, ending a mile away on the Stang, where there was a stack. The course of this flue can easily be traced today, and part of the stack is still standing. The smelter was in operation until the beginning of the 20th century when the decision was made to send the dressed ore by road to Troutbeck and from there by rail to Newcastle upon Tyne for processing.

Greenside Mine is unique because it was the first mine in Britain to use electrical winding and underground haulage, generating its own electricity by means of water turbines. Water was brought from dams built at Red Tarn and Keppel Cove Tarn, two miles distant from the mine. Extensive remains can still be seen of the system of dams and leats which gathered every available drop of water from the mountainsides. Twice there were serious floods caused by breaching of the dams. The water was discharged into a 15 inch pipe, giving a fall of 420 feet to a Y piece which directed the water through a vortex turbine and a pelton wheel powering two 100 hp dynamos. The plant operated until 1936 when the National Grid was brought in.

By the end of World War Two the workings had bottomed out into the Skiddaw slate, and despite a programme of exploration no new ore reserves were found, and the mine moved towards its final closure, which took place in 1962.

The last mine to work in the National Park was Force Crag, which has had a long and varied history, opening and closing at various dates, but mainly from the early years of the 19th century, according to profitability, real or anticipated. Although lead was extracted in the early period, the focus in more recent times has been on zinc and barytes.

Outside the National Park the main area of mining activity for lead and associated ores was around Alston in the North Pennines, an area which has hidden some of England’s greatest mineral wealth. Mining in the area has a long history, but by the beginning of the 18th century owners of the mineral rights were the Earls of Derwentwater. However, following their disastrous involvement in the rebellion of 1715, their estates and mineral rights passed to the Crown, and in 1735 were granted to The Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, better known as the Greenwich Hospital.

The other factor of crucial importance to the area was the granting in 1692 of a charter to a company which, by then known as the London Lead Company, became the largest single employer of men on Alston Moor until the end of the 19th century. The Company leased the mines from the Greenwich Hospital for a duty of one-fifth or one-sixth of the ore actually produced, and brought them together under a single system of development and working. The London Lead Company was in the forefront of many of the changes affecting the mining and metallurgical industry all through the 18th and 19th centuries. And not only was it involved in mining and smelting, but also in every other aspect of life in the North Pennines, including schools, brass bands, chapels, sporting events and welfare services.

One example of the scale of the works undertaken by both companies was the acceptance by the commissioners of a proposal to drive a drainage level from Alston to Nenthead, with the purpose of both draining existing mines and also exploring and hopefully locating new mineral veins at depth. The route eventually chosen followed the course of the River Nent, and the tunnel driving commenced in July 1776 with the tunnel eventually being nine feet square and nearly five miles long. The Nent Force Level, as it was known, was built so large in order to act as a canal with which to bring out the spoil created by tunneling. The canal went as far as Nentsberry Haggs Shaft, some three miles from its entrance, where a massive ‘step’ of about 160 feet was created before the level continued in normal proportions to its end at the Brewery Shaft in Nenthead. The level became something of a tourist attraction, but regrettably discovered only one new vein to justify the £80,000 that it cost and the sixty-six years it took to complete.

In 1882 the London Lead Company sold its entire holdings in mines and mills to the Tynedale and Nent Head Zinc Company which in 1896 sold out to a Belgian company, The Vieille Montagne Zinc Company. They continued development around Nenthead and were responsible for many technical innovations, not least the incredible use of air and water at the Brewery Shaft near the smelt mill. From 1949 to 1961 the leases were taken up by  Anglo Austral Mines Ltd, who reworked the spoil for flourspar, but since then the area has remained idle.

It is hard to predict the future of the Alston Moor area, for it is virtually certain that mineral veins remain which may yield enough ore to make their exploitation commercially viable. Time alone will tell.

Greenside, a tale of Lakeland miners : Ian Tyler, Red Earth, 1992
Wythburn Mine and the miners of Helvellyn : Alan McFadzean, Red Earth, 1987
History of lead mining in the Pennines : Arthur Raistrick, Longmans, London, 1965
Two centuries of industrial welfare : Arthur Raistrick, Moorland, 1977
The German mines of Caldbeck and the discovery of an early primitive wagonway : Warren Allison & Samuel Murphy, CWAAS Transactions, 2010
Mines of the West Pennines : Richard Smith and Sam Murphy, NMRS Publications, 2011

Tindale zinc smelter (article)
Force Crag mill (article)
Nenthead (website)


Click here to view the list of minor vein mineral sites (including zinc)

Greenside Lead Mine NY 365174 The lower mill site and smelter buildings have been converted to various types of hostels. Remains of higher workings and a mill of about 1840 are visible, as are the mile-long smelter flue and leats cut into the fellside to bring water to the wheels of the crushing mills.
Hartsop Lead Mine NY 394119 Remains of the miners bothy and part of the crushing mill are still standing. The open-hearth smelter, the Lake District’s oldest surviving example, is along the footpath to Hoggett Gill.
Myers Head Mine NY 416128 A massive water-wheel pit and stone supports for launders are visible.
Augill Lead Smelting Mill, Brough NY 825135 Erected in 1843. The outer walls are intact, and main chambers and flues are visible.

 (Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 05/04/20)