Mining & Quarrying

graphite mine

Graphite mine

How did it all begin?

We are not sure how far these industries go back. We think medieval monks from Furness Abbey (50 miles away), which owned land in Borrowdale, may have used graphite from Seathwaite to draw lines in their books for the scribes to follow. Small quarries provided stone for local buildings.

From the 17th century there was a huge expansion of stone and slate extraction, which supplied the “great rebuilding in stone” of cottages and farmhouses in the valley. This altered the landscape of Borrowdale and provided a livelihood for the valley’s inhabitants well into the 20th century.  The Honister slate mine still provides a livelihood for local people today.

Organised mining developed in the 16th century in Borrowdale when German miners came on the invitation of Queen Elizabeth I. Working for the Company of the Mines Royal (established 1564) they were able to prospect and dig for minerals wherever they wanted, including the Earl of Northumberland’s land in Borrowdale. Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, was to contest this in court against the Crown. He lost the case. Did this contribute to his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in the Rising of the North? It cost him his life when he was publicly executed in York in 1572.

The Germans mined throughout Borrowdale extracting iron, lead, copper and the purest deposit of graphite in the world. They had a base on Vicar’s Isle, now Derwent Isle on Derwent Water. Many would have integrated into local life and some married local girls.

By 1638 the German connection had ended but their legacy was to live on. They had taught us how to mine – a skill that we were to pass on around the world in the 19th century.

Miners and quarrymen in Borrowdale – you may be related!

Families of miners and quarrymen still live in the valley today. They have fascinating memories and speak knowledgeably of the past. Did your ancestors come from here? [Look at our story book and share your comments and stories.]

The wonderful things that come out of the ground

As you travel through our spectacular green valley ponder on some of these and what they might have been used for. Iron – tools, utensils, gates, railings and decorative work

Lead – (which had some silver content) – roofing, pewter, pipes, cisterns and silver for coins

Copper – coins, plating, pipes, utensils and vessels

Zinc – (small amount) – galvanising other metals, architectural castings and paint Graphite – moulds, lubricants and pencils

Slate and Stone – building, roofing and some ornamental

Saline Spring – there is a salt well near Manesty where, in 1820, a bath house was built to provide therapeutic salt-water bathing

brandelhow mine

Brandelhow Mine

Graphite – black lead, black cawke, wad, plumbago – many names for the same thing and as many uses!

Discovered in Seathwaite, it was the most expensive substance ever mined in Cumbria. Medieval monks may have used it to draw lines in their ancient books for the scribes to follow. Shepherds may have used it to mark their sheep. Ordnance people certainly used it in the casting process of cannon balls – it made them smoother and rounder, which meant they went further and straighter. The early pencil makers of Keswick used it to create the world’s first industrial pencil making centre – an industry that still continues in Cumbria today, although the Borrowdale graphite is no longer mined. Black Sal, The Dandy Wad-Stealer and many other thieves made illicit gains from it. Armed guards protected the mine day and night. Thousands of people viewed it at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

The names of the early owners, miners, agents, superintendents and guards live on in the records.

quyay foot

Quay Foot slate quarry

Slate and Stone

Borrowdale slate and stone was extracted at several places in the valley including Honister, Yewcrag, Dubs, Rigghead, Quay Foot and other smaller sites. Formed as a result of tremendous forces and heat from volcanic activity over 400 million years ago, it has provided a livelihood for people in Borrowdale for over 350 years.

Here’s how… Roofing slate is extracted by explosives to give clogs (big lumps of slate). The clogs are docked (once by chisel and mallet – later by diamond saw) to reduce them in size for…. …Riving (splitting the slate down the grain by chisel – a skill still performed today). The resulting thin pieces of slate are dressed (shaped to size).

The slate was once transported down the mountainside by sled – with one man running before it, controlling the heavy load with a combination of strength, balance and agility– one slip would have meant serious injury or death! The quarry workforce was often drawn from the local farming community.

The slate and stone was used for many houses and barns in Borrowdale. Honister slate also provided material far and wide for monuments and buildings as diverse as the headstone of the great wartime inventor Barnes Wallis, and the roofs of Buckingham Palace and Scotland Yard.

For more information visit: Keswick Mining Museum, & Pencil Museum, Keswick

Photographs by Richard Hyde.  Historical pictures courtesy Keswick Mining Museum