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Lead mining was a major industry in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale from at least the middle ages up to about 1900, as indeed it was in parts of Nidderdale and Wharfedale. However, despite the fact that we know lead was in use in Yorkshire during the Iron Age and both the Roman and Saxon periods, there is no direct evidence of lead mining in Yorkshire before the 12th century. Whilst it would be a major surprise if the Romans did not extract lead from Swaledale, there is no firm evidence. All we do have are the reports of two finds of Roman lead pigs (ingots). Both areas were intensively mined from the 17th to 19th centuries, leaving it highly likely that any Roman workings have long since been destroyed.

Whellan is the first known writer to mention the pig of lead supposedly found at Hurst (Whellan 1859 p.503), which he describes as “At the smelt works was, some years ago, a large pig of lead, which bore the name of the Roman emperor Hadrian. This pig has been removed to the British Museum.”  However, Speight (Speight 1897 pp. 207-8) describes the inscription as “Adrian”. It has been proposed that this could suggest a broken pig (Swales 2012), and Speight does indeed use the description “piece of lead”. The British Museum has no record of the lead pig, despite a search having been recently made, and so it is possible that it was disposed of if deemed incomplete and therefore unimportant. Alternatively, the lack of an “H” could just be the result of a written recounting of a verbal account, with a Yorkshire dropped “H”! English Heritage Pastscape cite Clough (Clough 1962 pp.106,107,115) as stating that the pig was found in 1855 when miners broke through into Roman adit workings, but at the time of writing I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of the book to determine the source.

The second Roman lead pig was reportedly found sometime around the 1870s at Crackpot Gill in the Little Haverdale valley by Mr Francis Garth. The finder’s daughter recounted to Edmund Cooper (Cooper 1973 p.15) that it had the imprint of the emperor’s head and some Roman lettering, and that her father had melted it down to fix iron crooks in gateposts.

As Swales sums up, “the stories of the Swaledale finds must be considered to have some credibility. The locations and descriptions seem entirely plausible; the sparse, unembellished details have the ring of truth; and it would appear that at no stage has anyone gained from promoting the stories. However, without the finds and without any evidence other than hearsay we can only guess at whether they are true or distortions of something, or merely romantic invention.” (Swales 2012).

Whilst it is not by any means corroborative evidence, the recent re-discovery by Hugh Toller and Bryn Gethin of a Roman road leading north from the fort at Bainbridge through the mining field (past Crackpot and within 4 miles of Hurst) proves that the Romans regarded the area as important enough to merit a road running through it. There may even be a second road, as suggested by Fleming (Fleming 1996, p.100), from Hurst and Marrick down to Ulshaw Bridge in Wensleydale.

Mike Haken 2014

Marrick/Hurst Pastscape Page

Bayley, Justine 2002, “Non-ferrous Metalworking in Roman Yorkshire” in Wilson P & Price J Eds. 2002 “Aspects of Roman Industry in Yorkshire and the North” Oxford: Oxbow Books

Clough, R.T. , 1962, “Lead Smelting Mills of the Yorkshire Dales” Self-published

Cooper, E., 1973, “A History of Swaledale”, Clapham: Dalesman

Fleming, A., 1996, “Early Roads to the Swaledale Lead Mines” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 68 pp.89-100

Hartley, M. & Ingilby, J., 1956, “The Yorkshire Dales” Cambridge: Dent

Speight, H., 1897, “Romantic Richmondshire”

Swales, W., SWAAG website 5/9/2012 Record ID 604 http://www.swaag.org/DB_VIEW_Specific%20Rec ord%20Number2.php?swaagrec=604; accessed 1/1/14

Whellan, T. “History and Topography of the City of York and North Riding of Yorkshire” Vol.2 1859, Beverley

Swaledale &
Greenhow/Grassington Lead Mining
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