Manx mining history is focus of antiquarian society lecture

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The Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society’s series of winter lectures in the Manx Museum lecture theatre in Douglas continues on Saturday when Pete Geddes explores the island’s mining heritage.

Although the industry’s peak was in the 19th century, there is evidence that mining was going on in the Bradda Head area in ancient times, as stone mauls (heavy hammers) associated with very early copper mining were unearthed there in the Victorian era. Indeed, Bradda is a part of the island where metal ore-bearing rock and its accompanying tell-tale veins of quartz are conspicuous in the cliffs.

Written references to mines in the area are first found in historical records dating from the Norse period of island rule, when in 1246 King Harald of Mann and the Isles granted a charter to the monks of Furness Abbey – in what is now south Cumbria and the mother monastery to Rushen Abbey – giving them the right to dig at Bradda for metal ores.

Fast-forwarding to the 17th cen tury, Captain Edward Christian was writing that the rocks of Bradda Head contained ‘much silver’ but it would appear that the closeness to the sea – and no doubt the turmoil of the English Civil War – made it too difficult to do anything about it.

After the 1660 Restoration of King Charles II in England and Charles, 8th Earl of Derby, in the island, mining of lead and copper ore in the Isle of Man became more systematic, with both lead and copper ore being extracted. The Lord of Mann granted permission for a smelting mill to be constructed. However, hopes that seams of coal would be found in the island ultimately ended in failure and disappointment.

In 1700, mining was taking place in the north west of the island, with 2,271 tons of iron ore being shipped from the Maughold area and in 1708 the Douglas merchant John Murrey had a lease on all the Manx lead and copper mines as long as he paid the Lord £3 per ton of metal ore dug up. However, within a few years he surrendered his lease and the Earl of Derby was offering incentives for others to try their luck at mining. Strangely attempts to mine at ‘Foxdayle’ in the 1720s ‘met with least success’ – though that may be because at the time zinc had no value.

It was in the 1780s that miners from Cumberland were encouraged by landowner John, 4th Duke of Atholl, to try for metal ores in the Laxey Valley. After a slow start the area became a major source of British lead and silver ore as well as by then more valued zinc. The greatest testament to this success is, of course, the giant Lady Isabella waterwheel built in 1854 and in his talk Pete Geddes will explain how that monumental aid to draining the mines of water came to be built.

Other mining waterwheel cases and ruined mining engine houses can be seen in other parts of the island, such as Foxdale, where Victorian miners – some originally from that great centre of mining, Cornwall – achieved success where earlier generations had failed. However, by the 1930s the island’s period of successful mining was over, leaving us only relics of an era of great industry.

Pete Geddes’ talk will begin at 2.30pm on Saturday and will be followed by tea.

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