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England Occupations Mining and Quarrying (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Mining and Quarrying[edit | edit source]

Mining[edit | edit source]

The current definition of mining is the extraction of minerals from below ground level, and this could be deep down or open-cast (surface) mining. When an ancestor is known to have been a miner, a common mistake is to assume that he was a coal miner when in fact he could have been involved with the extraction of any number of minerals from gypsum and flint to gold and graphite. Quarrying involves taking various types of stone, sand, and chalk from its bed, typically a surface operation. This section includes information on the extraction of some of the more important minerals of the wide variety with which the British landscape has been blessed.

Mines and quarries may have been held by the crown or privately, and the coal industry was nationalized in 1946 under the National Coal Board, being privatized again in 1986 as British Coal. Thus the surviving records are held by a number of private and public bodies. The State only became directly involved with employment conditions and safety in private mines and quarries from 1842 and these records are at the Public Record Office, see their leaflet D35. Sources for the history of mines and quarries can be found in the PRO leaflet D64, and Naylor’s Discovering Lost Mines makes interesting reading. Information about mines and records of miners should be first sought through county or local archives who will be able to advise on their deposits plus the existence of private archives and local museums. Museums are also listed by Blatchford. Another source for Mines and Mining it the UK would be the National Archives.

In such a dangerous occupation the likelihood of your ancestor’s family being touched by disaster was high, and family lore may indicate a mining tragedy in the past. The story of a family historian’s investigation and the sources she used was nicely given by Nock. Mining History UK lists all miners killed at work in England, and there is a North of England Mining Accident Victims 1858-1899 Index covering the four northernmost counties.

Coal Mining[edit | edit source]

For more information on coal mining, see the article Coal Mining in Great Britain.

The major coal mining areas of England and Wales are in:

  • The north-east stretching from Nottingham to Leeds and from the river Tees to the Coquet. This area was exploited from as early as the 12th century. The cities of Barnsley, Doncaster, Durham, Newcastle, Pontefract and Wakefield were founded on coal and their names evoke powerful images of smoking chimneys, slag heaps and pit-head winding gear.
  • South Wales, especially the Rhondda valleys, where the former steep green hillsides became covered with the colliery buildings and interminable rows of terraced houses. Development here started much later and mostly in the second half of the 19th century, the population of 1,000 in 1851 swelling to 160,000 by 1921 (Siân Williams).

A New Geological Map of England and Wales, with the Inland Navigations; exhibiting the Districts of Coal and other Sites of Mineral Tonnage

There are two Shire books that are readable and well-illustrated, Coal Mining by Hayes and The Collier by Griffin, and Bailey (1982) has descriptions and illustrations of the methods used in the two main areas.

The Public Record office contains many coal mine records, but absolutely no records of personnel. Records of private collieries existing before nationalization in 1946, where they still exist, are now in their local archives/county record office and may contain personnel records. Those seeking information about pre-WW II miners should first contact them; some have extensive collections, for example Sheffield, South Yorkshire. In some cases there are local museums devoted to the industry, thus Durham Mining Museum Archives has a nice website with much information on its collieries and the history of mining, including sample pitmen’s bonds, binding workers to their masters and laying down conditions, from 1766 to 1843. For those whose ancestors came from Wales, the South Wales Coalfield Collection at the University of Swansea is unique Bennett. British Coal has records from 1946 held in different locations; individual miners’ records are mostly kept by Hays Information Management.

Copper Mining[edit | edit source]

Copper is one of the few metals, others being gold and silver, which occur naturally in a more or less pure state rather than having to be extracted from their ores. It has been mined for over 4,000 years and used early on for tools, vessels and mirrors, and later for wire and coins. It also occurs as ores and with the development of smelting it was mixed with tin and zinc to produce the stronger and more durable bronze and brass alloys. In Sheffield cutlery was made by silver plating on to copper, and there are dozens of other uses. To learn about copper mining see Atkinson, and Bailey 1982.

Copper mines have existed from the southwestern tip of England to the far north of the Scottish Isles. The busiest were in Cornwall and Devon with others in North Wales (Hey), Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and the Lake District, and also in Bute, the Shetlands and Orkneys in Scotland. Roman, German and French experts have been imported to develop the industry over the centuries and there was much exchange of labour between these areas as old mines were exhausted and new ones opened up.

The invention of the steam pumping engine about 1712 by Newcomen allowed the Cornish copper mining industry to prosper at a time when global demand for copper was increasing rapidly. As a result Cornwall’s population almost doubled during the 18th century, and nearly doubled again during the next 60 years. The increase came mainly from migration from other parts of England, notably Devon, where branches of my west Devon Chowings family travelled over the Cornish border to find work in the mines in the early 19th century. When the Cornish copper boom ended a large ore deposit near Tavistock in south Devon opened up and the miners migrated back again to work it. This was short-lived, however, as richer and more easily worked deposits were discovered overseas and the Cornish and Devon copper mining industry collapsed in the 1850s. Many of these miners then emigrated where their expertise was welcomed in the USA, South America, South Africa and Australia (Gribble and Gribble).

Gold Mining[edit | edit source]

The Romans appropriated the gold mines around Dolgelly, Merionethshire, Wales from the native inhabitants and both open-cast and underground techniques have been used there. The yield has always been small but has been traditionally utilized for royal wedding rings (Bailey 1982).

Graphite Mining[edit | edit source]

The purest deposits of graphite in the world were mined at Borrowdale in the Lake District of England. This substance, known also as wadd, black lead, plumbago, or black cawke was used for pencil lead, as a rust preventer, a fixing agent for blue dyes, for glazing pottery and for black-leading fire grates. In ancient times it was used to brand the local Herdwick sheep and as a medicine of dubious merit. Huge profits from the active mines were made in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but by the late 1830s the deposits were exhausted and the families of the miners moved elsewhere (Bailey 1982).

Iron Ore Mining and Smelting[edit | edit source]

From the pre-historic Iron Age making iron involved mining in shallow pits and smelting on windy hills. Development of cast iron depended upon the new blast furnace which required huge amounts of fuel, provided at first by water or charcoal, and later by coal and coke allied with the development of the steam engine. The important 15th-17th century iron working centres of the Weald of Kent, Sussex and Surrey which turned out vast quantities of horseshoes, cauldrons, nails, guns, cannons, firebacks, and assorted tools had completely faded by the late 18th century for lack of nearby fuel.

The newer technology arrived in the midlands and the north of England in the 1560s and continued developing there and in South Wales throughout the ensuing four centuries. The Industrial Revolution was born at Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, which now boasts an award-winning museum. It was on the edge of coalfields and on ironstone and limestone and in 1709 the ironmaster Darby, together with a succession of other notable engineers, pioneered the use of blast furnaces together with huge forges and rolling mills here. The resulting pollution gave the area its name, the Black Country, and this area was the biggest iron producer in the world up until the mid-18th century.

Further development of the iron industry took place across Britain and steel making was introduced by Bessemer in 1856. In the east Midlands, especially near Corby, Northamptonshire, iron and coal deposits led to the development of the steel industry here during the period 1880-1920, but this has now declined. North-east England, which has large amounts of coal and iron, saw the greatest development of the steel industry in England. From Sheffield and Rotherham in South Yorkshire to Middlesbrough and up Tees-side to Durham there have been great steel works for over two centuries. The name Sheffield is synonymous with quality steel, and it specialized in knives and cutting tools, the trade being regulated by the Cutlers’ Company. Further north bulk steel for car bodies, ship and boiler plates, railway lines, bridge girders and so on are produced. Good histories of ironworking are provided by Hey, Gale and Bailey (1982) and there are many museums worth visiting.

Lead Mining[edit | edit source]

The most notable deposits of lead in Great Britain are in the Peak District of Derbyshire, with others in Somerset, Shropshire, the Yorkshire Dales, Durham and the Lake District. They have been exploited since Roman times, particularly as a by-product in the quest for silver. The production heyday was in the 18th and 19th centuries but the high cost of upkeep meant that new foreign competition made them uneconomical. Uses included church roofs, gas and water pipes and cisterns (until it was discovered to be toxic), coffins, in paint and the alloy of tin and lead made pewter which has been in use from Roman times. In a similar manner to the stannaries, the Derbyshire Great Barmote courts were fiercely independent regulators of local mining and trading laws. Willies, Bailey 1982, and Hey are excellent sources for lead mining, and Campbell-Passmore (1992-1) details lead miners’ records and practices going back to 1194.

Tin Mining[edit | edit source]

Cornwall, and to a lesser extent Devon, were major sources of tin that was being worked before the Romans came to Britain mainly by streaming, that is washing out the waste alluvial sediment with running water whilst leaving behind the heavier metal. The tin industry had become so important by the reign of Richard I (1189-1199) that a charter for the stannaries made the workers their own masters with their own parliament and courts, and exempt from ordinary taxes. Shaft mining was introduced here in the 15th century and tin and copper were often dug from the same mine. The demand for tin increased from the 19th century onwards with the growth of the food canning industry but, as with copper, overseas deposits started to compete and Cornish miners emigrated so that foreign mines were said to be ‘holes full of Cornishmen’. Although vastly diminished, tin mining still proceeds in Cornwall surrounded by the derelict engine sheds of former mines (Bailey 1982, Atkinson 1985).


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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