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Sopworth Geological Models

Thomas Sopwith Geological Models c.1841

Engine

Weatherhill Beam Engine c.1834

History

Post-Medieval
Lead mining was on a relatively small scale until the mid-18th century, but from this time until the early twentieth century much of the North Pennines was dominated by lead mining and the landscape was transformed. Levels were driven miles underground to exploit the lead veins, and the ground surface became studded with mine complexes, dressing floors and smelt mills. The Rookhope Pig, a 50 kg (112 lb) piece of lead, now exhibited at the Weardale Museum is an early example of the prolific production of these mines which were on a truly industrial scale. The major companies were WB Lead (owned by the Blackett/Beaumont family) in Weardale and the Allendales and the London Lead Company in Teesdale and Alston Moor. The hills were criss-crossed by reservoirs and leats providing water power to various sites. The working water wheel which is the centrepiece of the Killhope Lead Mining museum appears massive today but was unremarkable at the time with a number of wheels as big or bigger in operation in the area. In contrast the surviving hydraulic engine at the Allenheads Heritage Centre is an example of the innovative approach of mining surveyor Thomas Sopwith and his friend the industrialist William Armstrong.

To transport these materials to smelters and then to market, pony trains were used until the coming of the railways. The Stanhope and Tyne Railway, opened in 1834, was one of the first railways in the country. Its construction presented fantastic difficulties to overcome the rugged terrain and all means of power available were used - locomotives, horse power, self-acting inclines, cradles and rope haulage by standing engines, of which the Weatherhill Beam Engine, now exhibited at York Railway Museum is a surviving example. From the vast network of private and public railways that spread across the North Pennines only two heritage lines remain – The South Tyne at Alston and the Weardale Railway.

Although the church and the mining companies made a fortune from the lead, the miners themselves certainly did not. Many lived in small farmsteads scattered throughout the dales, working their shifts in the mines and also growing produce to support their families. Insights into these frugal communities is provided by examples of home-made quilts, spar boxes and knitting sticks. Given the poverty of this existence it is unsurprising that an anti-establishment strand runs through the history of the North Pennines throughout the post-medieval period. From the struggles of tenant farmers to maintain their rights in the aftermath of the English Civil War, as recorded in the documents held in the Weardale Chest, the sufferings of Allendale Quakers in 1660 and the lead-mining families’ enthusiasm for Methodism – numerous Chapels were built here from the mid eighteenth century - to the ‘Battle of Stanhope’ in 1818. This was a skirmish between the bailiffs of the Bishop of Durham and a group of miners accused of poaching red grouse, as recorded in the traditional ballad The Bonny Moorhen.

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