Lead Mining in the Yorkshire Dales
A life of exremely hard work
Mining families worked hard and had a precarious existence as they were only paid by the amount of ore produced. If a vein ran out it was not uncommon for men to work for weeks with no profit. Boys were sent to work at an early age (usually around 10 years) to the 'washings' where they worked for about eightpence (approx. 3p) per day. They worked under often cruel conditions shovelling bouse from the crushing rollers. Some children also worked down the mines. It is recorded that one father used to carry his son down 400 feet of ladder on his back at Duke Shaft, Grassington Moor.
By the age of 17 or 18 boys became part of the gang working for annual or half-yearly bargains. They would work with a skilled miner who expected them to do all the hard work. By the 19th Century men’s wages varied from 10-18 shillings per week (50-90 pence) with smelters earning the most.
Many women worked on the surface 'buckering the ore' or minding the 'hotching tubs' (the agitation tubs used to sieve out the ore from waste). In the 17th Century it is recorded that women earned as little at 1s 2d per week (approximately 6p) plus two flannel petticoats per year. Later in the 19th Century they earned a shilling a day (5p) for 10 hours of work and were provided with woollen skirts. One old lady was known to take her turn at the hotching tubs and knockstone at the age of 96!
Conditions underground were grim. It was always wet and cold but the biggest problems were 'bad air' and miner’s dust which caused may lung problems (including fatal infections and TB). Mines used ventilation machines to freshen the air in the levels but the introduction of dynamite in the mid 19th Century added the new hazard of poisonous fumes. The average lifespan of a miner in 1860 was about 45 years.
Income levels were so poor and erratic that most families also maintained a smallholding with a few cattle and pigs and poultry providing food and extra income. Women would also make their own butter and cheese. Meat was cured with salt. Knitting was also a widespread method of making a little income as well as clothes. Men, women and children knitted at every opportunity – even walking to work across the fells was to the sound of clicking needles. Nothing was wasted – miners' tools were often made with recycled materials (look at the drill handle in the image), and old cloth was used to make mats to guard against the cold of the stone floors. Can you see what the rug is made of in the picture on this page?