Going underground: echoes of Napoleonic-era mining found at Alderley Edge

Alderley Edge’s rich mineral resources have attracted the attention of miners as far back as the Bronze Age. Now, though, recent investigations have revealed traces of rather more modern activity, as Carly Hilts reports.


Around 15 miles south of Manchester, the soaring sandstone of Alderley Edge rises from the Cheshire Plain. Rich with mineral resources, it has long attracted the attention of local communities – mining activity at the site can be traced back into the Bronze Age, when intrepid groups in search of copper made intermittent visits over a period of some four centuries. This was on a much smaller scale than the famous Bronze Age works at Great Orme in Llandudno, North Wales – thought to represent the largest prehistoric mine in Europe (see CA 130 and 181) – and only fleeting glimpses can be seen at Alderley Edge today, as later mines have disturbed or destroyed a lot of earlier evidence.

Members of the Derbyshire Caving Club have discovered a 19th-century mineshaft at Alderley Edge still full of objects relating to the workers who once harvested cobalt from its depths. Pictured are Ed Coghlan of the caving club, and National Trust Archaeologist Jamie Lund. PHOTO: NT Images-Paul Harris.

Nevertheless, we can still tell that Bronze Age miners were digging pits there to expose mineral seams, and were then suddenly quenching fire-heated rocks with cold water to shatter the surrounding surfaces. Once exhausted of copper, these pits were often then reused as rubbish dumps, leaving behind tangible traces of the miners’ efforts, including discarded and broken hammer stones, some of them grooved around the middle so that they could be swung on a cord and dashed against the mine wall. Another key insight into this activity’s antiquity came from none other than Alan Garner, whose fantasy novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen drew so much inspiration from the Alderley Edge landscape and local legends (CA 238). As a schoolboy, Alan had come into possession of a mysterious wooden paddle from the site, and for years he strove to establish its date, suspecting that it was much older than the ‘Victorian’ and ‘Tudor’ descriptions he had been given. Finally, after Alan persuaded John Prag at Manchester Museum to have a look, it was revealed that the paddle was, in fact, a Bronze Age shovel (Alan tells this story in his own words in CA 137).

There then seems to have been a hiatus of around 2,000 years before miners returned to Alderley Edge, but in the Roman period new shafts were dug once more. Traces of works from this period are also rather ephemeral, but in 1995 the Derbyshire Caving Club (who have leased the mines from their present owners, the National Trust, since the 1970s) discovered a hoard of over 500 coins dating to c.AD 340. These had been buried in the top of a 10.7m-deep shaft, whose walls bore distinctive marks matching examples known from Roman mines in Spain, created using a particular kind of iron hammer pick. This find sparked the creation of the Alderley Edge Landscape Project to explore the mines’ history in subsequent years (CA 315), and the Derbyshire Caving Club continues to investigate their depths (as well as provide public tours; see ‘Further information’ on p.16).

Part of a windlass with hemp rope wrapped around it, used by the miners to raise heavy loads to the surface. PHOTO: Ed Coghlan-Derbyshire Caving Club.

From copper to cobalt

After another 1,500-year gap, written records for the site attest that mining resumed at least in the late 17th century, but the most extensive activity dates to the late 18th and 19th centuries – creating a honeycomb of tunnels stretching for 8 miles underground, as well as the vast caverns that captured Alan Garner’s imagination. By now, the main target of the miners was not copper, but cobalt – a mineral that had been used to create vivid blue colouring on porcelain, paper, and glass since the medieval period. Early cobalt mining in England was short-lived, however, in the face of more plentiful Continental imports – but when these were cut off by the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars, the search was on for sources closer to home. It was soon established that the best seams were found close to areas rich in copper, particularly at mining sites in Cornwall, Cumbria, and Cheshire, and in 1806 cobalt was discovered at Alderley Edge too. Anticipating a lucrative English cobalt market, the then landowner, Sir John Thomas Stanley, leased out the mining rights at the site – but this boom was not to last, and the Alderley Edge mines were wound up in 1817 when cobalt imports resumed.

It is this episode in the site’s history that has been illuminated by the most recent discoveries by members of the Derbyshire Caving Club. While investigating an area of the mines that had been closed off for centuries, they found a mineshaft thought to have been exhausted and abandoned c.1810. Extending 10m underground, it was in an unusually pristine condition. More commonly, the club’s Ed Coghlan said, disused tunnels on the site have become filled with rubble or rain-washed sand, while any more accessible passageways have often already been emptied of anything of interest. There, though, they found a Napoleonic-era time capsule full of objects testifying to the 19th-century miners’ presence.

Many of the finds were deeply personal, including tobacco pipes and leather shoes. PHOTO: Ed Coghlan-Derbyshire Caving Club.

These included wooden support struts and pieces of machinery that the workers would have used, including a windlass that would have been employed to shift large quantities of raw materials. It is the first windlass to be recovered from Alderley Edge, and was a rather surprising find as – Ed Coghlan explained – equipment would normally be taken with miners as they moved to another shaft. The fact that this example had been left behind might bear witness to how suddenly they had been called to move on to a new site.

Underground artefacts

The National Trust and Derbyshire Caving Club have been researching the mine since its discovery last autumn, and other finds were much more personal, including leather shoes, clay pipes, and a metal button from one of the workers’ jackets. The team has even identified an imprint left by one miner’s corduroy clothing as he lent against the wall of the shaft, and distinct fingerprints in blobs of clay that had been moulded and stuck to passage walls to hold candles. Other traces included a series of inscriptions that had been written in candle soot. Most of these are fairly simple clusters of initials and numbers executed in places thought to have been ‘cribs’ or rest areas, but one is more elaborate, comprising the letters ‘W S’ written with something of a flourish, and accompanied by the date 20 August 1810.

Written in candle soot, ‘W S’ left their initials in the mine over 200 years ago; their identity and the purpose of their presence at Alderley Edge remain unknown. PHOTO: Ed Coghlan-Derbyshire Caving Club.

So far, the researchers have not managed to find out who ‘W S’ was; could they have been a mine worker, or a visiting mine manager or estate owner? And might their confident sign-off have been a spontaneous gesture to record their presence, or to mark a more significant occasion such as the final day that the mine was in use? Speaking of special significance, the discovery of a small clay bowl that had been buried in the passage wall might offer an insight into superstitions believed by some of the miners – was it intended as some kind of offering or gift to thank mine spirits for a particularly productive cobalt seam, or to ensure the continued safe use of these underground spaces?

To preserve the pristine conditions of the mine shaft, it has now been sealed up and oxygen within the space will be allowed to run out – but in order to make details of the mineshaft (and its contents, which have been left in situ after being photographed and catalogued) more accessible to the public and future researchers, the National Trust has worked with specialists at Christians Survey and Inspection Solutions, supported by the Robert Kiln Fund, to create a digital ‘fly-through’ video of the tunnel and its contents so that interested parties can see it for themselves remotely (see box below). In the meantime, Derbyshire Caving Club continues to explore Alderley Edge’s network of mines ancient and modern; it remains to be seen what other secrets will be uncovered deep underground.

Further information
To find out more about Alderley Edge and to explore the new fly-through of the recently discovered mineshaft, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/alderley-edge-and-cheshire-countryside.
For more details about public tours of the Alderley Edge mines, see www.derbyscc.org.uk/alderley/current_visiting.php.