As I mentioned in previous holiday posts, the entire area of NorthEast England is rich in heavy industry and particularly mining history. Despite there being centuries more material underground, most mines are now closed as it is somehow supposedly more economical to get raw materials from China or Australia.
Just a 3 or 4 miles from our holiday cottage is the Killhope Lead Mine museum, just over the moors in the beautiful but eerily remote Upper Weardale. I went there in 1984 when the museum opened, there wasn’t that much to see then but it was still great for a young boy. Now it has transformed beyond all recognition and is suitable for young and old boys as well as anyone else interested in Industrial and Social History and in my case no doubt, family history too.
Killhope Mine had a relative short history in the late 19th century before closing in the early 20th century. Only 50 miners worked in the lead mines and though in their own ways may have been slightly better off than their coal mining brethren, it is almost a case of splitting hairs. The conditions the miners endured were terrible. Miners who lived more than 3 or 4 miles away would be forced to sleep in this dormitory room. Normally 25 men would sleep in this small room but if snow or storms stopped them going home then 50 of them would stay here, many sleeping on the rafters. It was filthy and even the health inspectors of the day said they would prefer to sleep in the mines than spend a night here. Many caught serious and often incurable diseases here.
This is the managers office. The owners of the mine made over £100,000 each year whic today is in the many millions of pounds. Meanwhile the poor miners were paid in pennies. Worse than that, they were paid 6 months in arrears and had to buy their rudimentary equipment from the mining firm. Some mining companies were so strict that men were charged for the fractional erosion of their chisels and pick axes from years of hammering at the underground rock.
This area here was where boys would work, sifting through the spoil with water and the equipment shown to get at the raw material. I can’t stress how bad the climate is here and the boys were merely sheltered by a small wooden screen to stop the wind blowing the rain and snow in their faces… Not much use at all in an area that even today receives so much snow that the RAF sometimes has to airdrop food to villages cut off for weeks by snow.
Those shiny granules are the raw materials we are looking for! We all know of outsourcing today but even back then an outside company was brought in to go through the even finer waste. Fantastically the leader of these men who charged a lot more due to his ostensibly superior skills was known as the Slimemaster. What great name he could be some sort of super sized evil slug villain in a superhero film!
Whilst we all know that tech companies today buy up the competition to secure their business and increase profit margins, the owners of Killhope mine had unknowingly to anyone else developed links with the much more easily exploited and profitable mines in Spain and closed down their UK operation to run their business in Spain instead.
Thus giant Victorian era wheel stood derelict for over 80 years before being renovated and brought back to life. It is a symbol of the local pride of the people of doing an impossible job in the worst conditions possible. Even then, mining wouldn’t pay all the bills do many also had to run a sheep farm. It’s no surprise that many miners would eventually leave for the USA, Australia or South Africa where they were amazed to find their skills both rare and highly appreciated in monetary terms.
That bring said, one family went to the USA and struck it rich in the gold rush and promptly returned back to the moors where they bought a farm rather than live out their days in luxury and comfort in the Carribean. I guess things haven’t changed that much by the fact I could holiday anywhere in the world and yet return to somewhere supposedly barren but one which I know and love do well.
Obviously there was just one last thing to do and maintain family honour and that was to go inside the mine properly. Usually the mine tours take around an hour and run with a dozen people. However the staff very kindly let us charm them into giving us a private tour.
Just as back in the day, the mine had freezing cold water at thigh level seeping through the roof and walls. Back then the men tried using goose fat and other things in a vain attempt to keep their feet dry. Can you imagine working a mile deep into a mine with just a candle to see by, mining by hand with a foot or more if near freezing water running by for day after day, year after year. Luckily I had some modern Wellington boots but the water was still freezing.
Fresh out of the mine. The second mine and including yesterday’s cave, the third time I had ventured underground in the last few days. Obviously I dint suffer from claustrophobia but both myself and very lovely guide both felt something like elation at getting back above ground, just like the miners must have felt.
Above is a representation of a Tudor era mine. Men would be lowered underground to dig whilst hanging from a rope. A very dangerous job which excavations have found many men and boys to be trapped by cave ins, alive only to slowly die from thirst and starvation.
One unexpected bonus of Killhope is that their remoteness is home to the rate Red Squirrels. I’ve written before about these iconic but endangered British species if squirrel and I’ve never seen any before. I went into a Hide in the woods and to my delight I saw 6 or 7 of them, one a juvenile. They were scurrying around preparing for winter. I spent 15 minutes filming and photographing them.