National Stone Centre

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Published 28/07/2022

A View from a Mine Shaft

nsc ecton mine volunteers helmet


No, that’s not a typo.  They do let me out of the shop occasionally – even if it’s only to take me down a flooded mine!

In fact, the trip for volunteers to Ecton Mine on June 13th (anyone superstitious?) proved a real treat. Once one of the richest copper mines in the world, it is situated in the Manifold Valley near Hartington.

Our guides Graham and Richard of the Ecton Educational Trust made us welcome. Then they promptly marched us to the top of Ecton Hill.

The steep hillside is covered in old mine shafts and spoil heaps. Mining began here in earnest in the 1600s, but the discovery of an antler pick revealed that the first people to dig here were actually our Bronze Age ancestors some 4000 years ago.

The copper ore takes the form of a series of irregular vertical pipes the largest being Ecton Pipe itself. At the height of production in the late 18th century, this was the deepest mine shaft in Britain. The workings go deep enough to easily accommodate the Empire State Building (including King Kong!).

Owner the Duke of Devonshire made a fortune from the venture. It’s said he built the Crescent in Buxton from the proceeds.

Much of the copper went into brass production. But the Duke also had a contract with the navy to supply copper sheathing for the hulls of their sailing ships. This was the latest innovation for protecting wood from attack by barnacles and the dreaded boring worm. (No, it’s not true that the latter sealed the ship’s fate by talking the crew to death!)

The celebrated engineers Matthew Boulton and James Watt came in the 1780s to install a state-of-the-art steam engine. This replaced the horse power previously used to raise the ore and pump out water from the mine. Today the old engine house stands empty. The mine shaft itself is capped with concrete to prevent wayward sheep (and foolish humans) from falling in.

Our route back down the hill involved negotiating a field of inquisitive cattle – a load of bullocks (term for a male cow). Honestly!

Back at the visitor centre, our guides proved the perfect hosts by supplying us with teas and coffees. But having been lulled into a false sense of security, we were each given an indemnity form to sign. From here on, we proceeded at our own risk. Worried anyone?

On the way to the mine entrance, we passed Ecton’s curious landmark. The castle folly has a copper church spire, and an upper floor that can only be reached from outside via a rickety bridge. It even has a unique blue plaque – which states that nothing of interest ever happened here!

Sporting hard hats with lamps on we trudged single file into the cool, dark mine. It soon became clear this would be a test of our wellies, as much of the time we were paddling in water.  Groans about wet socks – and the occasional suspect squelchy noise – were both blamed on leaky footwear.

The mine is a maze of tunnels cut through the limestone, and the deeper workings have long been flooded.  At one point, our guides asked us if we’d be able to find our way out without them. Oh my goodness! It would be like something from a disaster movie.

We finally reached the massive man-made chamber which lies directly below the hilltop engine house. By staring upwards into the gloom, we could see faint rays of daylight through tiny holes in the concrete cover.

The men used to work down here by candlelight. To experience what that must have been like, Graham lit a candle and we all turned our lamps off. How on earth the miners could see what they were doing goodness knows. And using gunpowder with all those naked flames around just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Richard told us that miners in Cornwall even took damp gunpowder home with them to dry in front of the fire!

In 1769 a traveller called William Efford paid a visit to Ecton Mine. He described the experience as one of terror:

Such a horrid gloom, such rattling of waggons, noise of workmen boring rocks under your feet, such explosions of blasting …. ten times louder than the loudest thunder.

He also noted “the glittering light of candles, and nasty suffocating smell of sulphur and gunpowder.”  Tough times indeed.

Thankfully our guides did not abandon us to our fate. We all made it safely back to the welcoming sunshine outside.

A big thank you to Graham and Richard for this fascinating insight into the miner’s world of 250 years ago.

Viv Smith