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METHODS OF MINING AT THE EDGE

INTRODUCTION

This page provides a summary of the mining techniques used at Alderley Edge.  Separate pages cover the other activities needed on a mining site and the processing of the ore.  Varying techniques have been used at Alderley Edge during the centuries with different types of hand tools and later the use of explosives.  This page separates mining into six main periods.

Bronze Age and earlier -o- Roman -o- Medieval -o - Post medieval -o - Mid 19th century -o- 20th century  

BRONZE AGE AND EARLIER MINING

The earliest miners at Alderley Edge are believed to have used crude stone hammers to batter the mineral out of the rock. Many hundreds of hammers have been found associated with the mines at Engine Vein, Stormy Point and in the Brynlow area. The firm dating of these hammers has so far defied archaeologists but similar sites around the country and evidence at Alderley back the idea that they were used during the Bronze Age. A wooden shovel found with stone hammers in 1874 has been dated to around 1750 BC substantiating the idea of Bronze Age mining.

To make the rock easier to break, it is probable that they used fire-setting where a fire is lit against the rock face softening the rock and encouraging it to crack.  A successful experiment was carried out at Alderley Edge some years ago to see how easy firesetting would be.  

Bronze Age stone hammers Bronze Age hammerstones. These hammers (illustrated in an article by Charles Roeder) were found in the 19th century but probably date from 2000 to 1500 BC.

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ROMAN MINING

Roman mining appears only to have taken place at Engine Vein where a Roman coin hoard was found in a shaft.  This shaft was excavated under archaeological conditions and a piece of wood from the bottom has been dated to around 75 BC.  This is a little odd as the Romans did not reach the north west until about 75 AD but it is thought likely that the wood was old material re-used or from a fallen tree.  Despite this, it can be said with reasonable confidence that the shaft is Roman.  It is notable that the Roman shaft and gallery are considerably larger in cross-section than other passages until the late 19th century suggesting that the Romans did not have to pay much for the labour used!  The passages are comparable to those found at Roman mines at Dolaucothi in Wales and in Germany.

Looking up Pot Shaft. The shaft was so-named when a pot of fourth century Roman coins was found buried in the top.

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MEDIEVAL MINING

There is very little evidence for mining between Roman times and 1697.  In a perambulation in 1598, there are references to the 'mineholes' when the parish bounds are described: 'And so lineally to a little mere-stone in the track way towards the mineholes and so to the mere-stone at the top of the hill and from thence on the north side the minehole directly to the Saddlebole.'  It is possible that these refer to Stormy Point but whether this was the ancient mining or relatively recent cannot at present be told.  Archaeological work at Stormy Point may still reveal more information.  Pillar mine is a likely candidate as there is evidence that it might have been firesett, a technique used at that time and described below.

Fireseting illustrated by Agricola Firesetting.  Illustrated by Agricola in the 1550s, this picture shows the technique of firesetting which has been used from prehistoric times to fairly recently as a way of softening rock.

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POST-MEDIEVAL MINING

Mining in the late 17th and 18th centuries used iron picks which leave very distinctive wall-marks. Another recognisable feature of mines of this period is the small size of the passages where the minimum of material was removed. These tend to be narrow at head and foot and wider at shoulder-height giving rise to the name coffin level. It appears that blasting was rarely used at this time although a few small diameter shot-holes have been found such as at the end of the adit in Brynlow.  These holes have clay stemming in place so must have been used with explosives rather than plug and feather wedges.

Post-medieval coffin level A coffin level. These passages (named after their shape) are found in mines prior to the late 19th century and are dug by hand picking.
Early shothole in Brynlow Early shothole in Brynlow. This shothole is at the forefield (working face) of a narrow and low level which may have been driven by Charles Roe in the 1760s.  Shotholes appear to have been used sparingly as most of the passage is handpicked.

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MID-19th CENTURY MINING

In the 19th century, blasting was used extensively except when a passage had to be shaped, for example to make room for an air duct. The first step in blasting is to prepare the 'face' and drill the shotholes. The holes used were about three to four feet long, circular or triangular in section and drilled by hand. Black powder was put in the bottom two to three feet, possibly in the form of a waterproof paper-wrapped cartridge. On top of the powder, a clay plug was placed and tamped in firmly. A powder-filled fabric fuse was placed through the clay plug. When all the shots had been set, the miner lit the fuses and retired a safe distance. Each shot, if well placed, could bring down a couple of tons of rock. The rock came off the wall in large and small pieces and the largest pieces were broken up again by hammering. After sorting out any waste rock, the miner placed the ore into wooden barrows to wheel it to the nearest underground railway where wooden or iron tubs (trucks) were filled. The tubs could be pushed out of the mine or, as in the case of West Mine or the Hough Level, to the bottom of an incline up which they were hauled by rope by the steam engine.

Most of the mines consist of large chambers linked by man- or tub-sized passages. The chambers are the stopes from which the ore was removed; the largest stope in West Mine is more than 60 metres (200 feet) long by 15 metres (50 feet) wide and high. The connecting passages are usually much smaller, typically 2 metres (6 feet) high by 1.2 metres (4 feet) wide. All parts of the mines at Alderley are generally accessible by walking but in a few places the miners dug shafts from level to level for ventilation or to make tipping ore into trucks easier. When the miners were digging out the chambers, they left the roof flat or arched depending upon its strength. Occasionally, a rock pillar might be left if the span was particularly large. As a result of this policy and the natural strength of the rock, there has been no general subsidence at Alderley. Shafts which went through to surface were often capped with stone slabs if they were closed off during the working life of the mine. However, shafts which were left open for access or ventilation were often lined or capped with timber and in the last 50 years these timber linings have rotted away leading to several cone-shaped hollows in the fields around Windmill Wood where material has flowed into the mine passages below.

Some mining records exist which show that the mining was organised on the Cornish principle of having teams or 'pares' that contracted for particular sections of work.  The work could be sinking or raising shafts, driving levels or stoping out the ore deposits.  From the data, we can, for example, deduce that one pare (4, 5 or 6 men and boys) could drive two fathoms of horizontal level in the sandstone in a week.  Assuming six days work, this means two feet a day which is roughly the distance removed on each round of firing.  It suggests that it took a working day to drill the eight or nine shotholes required, charge and fire them and muck out the debris (the following morning).  As space is restricted at the face, this would mean each shothole taking about an hour to drill.  While two of the team would be drilling, others would be removing and stacking waste, laying track, extending ventilation lines and, in the case of the boys, fetching and carrying, taking messages and operating ventilation fans.

West Mine shown in the late 19th or early 20th century The entrance to West Mine. Taken in the late 19th century, this picture shows the entrance to West Mine at the end of a deep cutting in the ground.

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20th CENTURY WORKING

Mining in the 20th century appears to have taken place at Wood Mine (in Sand Cavern), West Mine (near the entrance) and possibly Doc Mine.  The techniques were similar to the late 19th century mining except that high explosives such as dynamite were used in place of gunpowder and the drills were rotary, either air powered or manual.  We can also see from some pictures from the 1920s that the haulage level at West Mine had some sort of electrical signalling system in place.

20th century mining in West Mine 20th century working.  The distinctively square passage in West Mine which dates from the early 1900s.

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Last updated: 26/12/2010
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