a shortened version of the chapter by Dave Bridge in Lakeland’s Mining Heritage

When a descent is made from Great Gable into Borrowdale by way of Brandreth and Grey Knotts, skirting the crags of Gillercomb and turning north-west down the long shoulder towards Seatoller, it is hard to imagine that beneath one’s feet a famous Lake District mining industry was once in full swing. But near the place where Newhouse Gill drops steeply to join the River Derwent at Seathwaite the scene changes dramatically. Here the ground is pockmarked with shallow pits and cuttings, grassy mounds and ruined stone shelters. Spoil from more extensive workings leads down to the ancient boundary wall of Seatoller Common at the 1300 ft contour where a deep pit adds to the scarring of the landscape. Beyond the wall the fellside is pierced by a series of levels or ‘stages’. A working of great depth lies half hidden beneath a camouflage of holly, and more spoil is concealed in the wood below. For nowhere else in the world have such large quantities of graphite of the purity of best Borrowdale wad been found

Unlike other parts of the world where graphite occurs in metamorphosed rocks as bedded shales or as flakes disseminated throughout the country rock, in Borrowdale it is associated with an igneous intrusion. This fact was recorded by the 19th century geologist J Clifton Ward who also noted a system of veins associated with the deposit. The graphite is confined to a 400 metre stretch of the vein system, and the richest finds appear to have occurred at the junction of the intrusion with the Borrowdale Volcanics. The graphite occurs as lumps or nodules in pipes of anything up to 3ft by 9ft in cross-section, and in sops or ‘bellies’ away from the veins, and was located by following quartz strings which often contained thin graphite coatings. The random occurrence of the deposits and the numerous false leads made wad mining a frustrating affair, particularly in later years when the surface outcrops had been worked out, a fact borne out by the labyrinthine nature of the workings.

The exact time that the wad deposits were discovered is obscure, but it is likely that the Furness monks would have known of their existence. There is good reason to believe that the market for the mineral was opening up towards the end of the 16th century, and more progress was made in the early 1600s by German miners from Keswick. The nature of the deposits – lumps or nodules generally varying in weight from less than one ounce to 6 or 7 pounds and occasionally upwards of 50 lbs, which could easily be removed by hand from the pipes and sops and required no treatment other than washing and sorting – meant that once a rich deposit had been discovered many tons could be extracted in a short time with little expense and the market flooded. For this reason sale agreements included a condition whereby, to maintain the re-sale value, the proprietors undertook not to open the mine again within an agreed period.

As a result stealing of the wad was a perennial problem as best quality wad was soon to fetch 12s per pound or over £1300 per ton. For that reason a security lodge was built at the entrance to the upper workings where dwelt and armed guard day and night to keep an eye on the site. When the mine was reopened after a period in the 1760s, the eight workmen employed there were closely watched by six overseers who frequently searched their pockets for wad.

In 1800 the lower part of the Grand Pipe was at last de-watered. This development heralded a new phase in the mine’s working methods because internal connections eventually enabled wad from different parts of the mine to be trammed out by this new route. A substantial building was constructed at the entrance with a room where the workers changed their clothes under the eyes of a resident security guard. Three years later their efforts were rewarded with the discovery of a very large deposit of wad – Dixon’s Pipe – which surprisingly had eluded the miners until now. This yielded 500 casks of the best wad containing about 140 lbs each.

Discoveries such as this must have been a great relief to all concerned. By now the Keswick pencil makers were beginning to set up factories, although from about the mid-1830s the pencil industry turned more and more to composite mixture of powdered graphite with powdered clay. The demand for pure graphite diminished, although a stock was kept for the very best pencils. In 1891 the last of the mining companies went into liquidation as their hopes of further finds receded. The pencil works continued to draw on their stocks of best wad, but by 1906 foreign imports had completely taken over the sadly the story of Borrowdale wad came to an end.

Seathwaite Wad, and the mines of the Borrowdale valley : Ian Tyler, Blue Rock, 1995
Pencil people, the story of a Lakeland industry : Thomas F Smith, Bookcase, 2017

Keswick Pencil Mill and Museum (NY 263238). Factory built 1937 by Cumberland Pencil Company to replace 1920s buildings on same site. Across the road is earlier pencil factory of Ann Banks and Company of 1886, weir still visible. Museum on site records history of pencil making from discovery of graphite to modern technology.

(Page created 19/04/05.Last updated 07/11/22)