Tales of Mining and Miners

After the war Eric became involved in many things and a fundamental change was his move away from of engineering. However, as is always the case with Eric, what he moved to and how he moved are far from simple stories.

It all began because of the large spoil heaps left in the area by the lead miners. It was discovered that the area was rich in fluorspar, and that the spoil heaps contained large quantities of high grade “fluor” and other minerals.

Fluorspar has many uses including for fluxing steel, making cosmetics, paint, spectacle frames and waxes. The area was also rich in barytes, a heavy compound used as an alternative for lead in atomic piles and to settle dust in coal mines during blasting.

However, to hear Eric speak it is the beauty and multiple uses of fluorspar which attracted him to the industry. There were plenty of jobs available, but he actually started work as a builder, working for Mr Marsden a mine owner who was also a farmer. New regulations meant that farm buildings had to be upgraded, and so Eric started off by improving and modernising his boss’ cow sheds so that his milk could be sold.

After the building improvements were finished Eric’s boss asked if he would like to take a lorry, have the men load it with fluorspar and drive it to Youlgreave. Eric of course jumped at the chance to do something different, but when he saw the lorry he had a few doubts. It was the strangest vehicle you ever drove and if you turned the steering wheel one way it went the other. It would never have been allowed on the roads today of course, but Eric managed to get it loaded with 6 tons of ore and tip

it at the plant in Youlgreave, returning for a second load later.

His success in this venture meant that he was given a better lorry and asked to start ferrying people and ore about, particularly to the treatment plant associated with the open cast Dob Mine in Bonsall, which mined fluorspar. The ore quality was very good (80 - 90%) and after doing the job for a week Eric was asked to stay on. After a moment of thought Eric said, “But what would I do, I might get bored?”

“Well, do anything you feel like,” said the boss, and so with the opportunity to try his hand at so many different things, our Eric decided to give it a go.

There are no prizes for guessing which part of the business he decided to try first - blasting! He describes the two chaps who did the charging and blasting as “comical and primitive” but got on with them very well. Eric talks about the way they would place the charges, jump out of the hole and shout, “FIRE!” There would be an almighty bang and half the place would blow up.

One day they were getting nearer and nearer to a house and a lady popped her head over a wall. “Would you please stop blasting,” she said. “You’re blowing all the pots off my kitchen wall.” So they started back filling the holes with spoil to muffle the blast and reduce the effect.

One of the blasters was a chap who had been nicknamed “Sixy”. Sixy was a born comic and is described as a “real country character”, able to catch rabbits and foxes, but who had been completely useless at school. Unable to do anything with him, the local school had sent him to Youlgreave, where the schoolmaster was a severe ex-officer called G.W.Gimber and who managed to handle him.

Well, one day when they were blasting, the charges were fired before Sixy had got out of the hole and an enormous boulder came crashing down within inches of our hero. “I’ve never seen anything so close before or since in my life,” says Eric, and they were immediately moved to another area.

The mine owner had an incredible ability to smell out rich ore veins and also sometimes upset people in his attempts to extract it. On one occasion he was about to blow up a particularly rich area when a group of hikers ran towards him, protesting that it was a footpath. So he waited for a quiet spell when there was no-one about, and blew it up anyway. The spoil was replaced of course, and the footpath restored.

Another mining adventure happened when they were asked to work towards Masson Cavern, now a beauty spot by the Heights of Abraham, but then owned by a Mr Arups, who had owned coal mines before the war. Arups wanted Eric and his men to build a road from Salters Lane to the Heights of Abraham and provided them with an enormous bulldozer and scraper, which was far too big for the job and had to be sent back.

Well, the four of them managed to construct a sort of road, but it was very rough and Eric had to drive along it in his lorry carrying ore. “I couldn’t carry a big load,” says Eric, “because the road was at an angle of 50 degrees and I was in danger of toppling over.”

On one occasion he had just started off on his journey and was leaning against the door of the lorry when it burst open and he fell out. Luckily, the old lorry was only crawling along in bottom gear and was faithfully following the ruts which had been made on the road by previous journeys, and Eric was able to recover and climb back in the cab, Sixy slamming the door shut behind him. When Eric looks back on the incident he recalls how close they were to a real disaster, because if the lorry had rolled over it would not have stopped until it crashed into Matlock Bath in the valley below.

Mining in that area produced the most marvellous fluorspar and fossils, particularly from the Cavern, and the fluorspar was so pure you could almost see through it. Ore was taken to the treatment works at Dob Mine, Bonsall where it was crushed and washed. A man named Siddons was in charge and he was an expert at washing the ore.

Eric of course, drove the ore to Bonsall and describes the steep approach to the plant which limited the loads they could carry to only 4 or 5 tons. He also describes the day when he and another driver, Bob were both driving lorries up the hill, and Bob let Eric go first.

“You get to the top and I’ll set off when I’m satisfied that you’ll be about there,” said Bob. So off went Eric and as he reached the top he met the owner, Mr Horrocks and his son coming down in their sleek Daimler motor car. Of course, they met Bob as he was almost up and there was no room to pass. Bob just managed to stop in time, but then Mr Horrocks called out, “You’ll have to back up.”

“I bloody won’t. You can back up,” called Bob, who was an expert user of dynamite and used to remove tree roots and things for people. There was nothing he couldn’t blow up.

“You’ll have to back up. It’s my road” called out Horrocks.

“I’m loaded” called back Bob, “you can back up, whether it’s your road or not.”

“Oh, get out and let my son drive. He can fly an aeroplane” called back Horrocks.

“I don’t care what he can fly, he’s not getting in my lorry,” said Bob, at which Mr Horrocks called him yellow.

“I’ll blow you and your bloody motor car into Bonsall if you don’t back up,” shouted a by now furious Bob, and wisely Mr Horrocks did back up to let Bob pass by.

Not to be deterred, Horrocks called out that what Bob wanted were some lessons in driving. Eric does not know to this day how Bob held his temper.

A Move to Mill Close

Eric’s next job was at Mill Close Mine, which used to be one of the biggest lead mines in the world, employing more than 2,000 people. At the height of production they worked three shifts a day and each shift mined more than 300 tons of ore. Eric’s father-in-law, who worked down the mine, told him that the ore seams were so rich that they used to tunnel through and leave as much lead behind in the walls or under the tunnel floor as they had removed, although of course they did go back eventually and recover what they had missed.

The end for the mine came quite suddenly, with the onset of World War II, when it was mysteriously flooded. Some people suspect that it was sabotaged, because a major shareholder was Consolidated Gold Mines and it

was felt that their German interests had encouraged them to deliberately cease operations. Eric believes that they could easily have pumped the water out, because they had some of the finest submersible pumps in the world, including a huge one called “Jumbo” and a smaller one known as “Baby Alice.”

Whatever the reason, the mine was abandoned, and work begun to try to salvage as much as possible of the expensive equipment which had been left underground. It was as late as 1944 before they had managed to remove most things and Eric remembers a huge pile of equipment - electric motors and pumps and piping - piled high on the hillside.

Bill Twigg (of the same Twigg family trading today in Matlock) made himself a fortune buying and reselling the equipment. The hillock he sold to Eric’s boss, who then proceeded to exploit the massive spoil heaps left from the lead mining operations.

The amount of lead left in the spoil was incredible. For 6d a ton you could fill a lorry with 5 tons of spoil and take it to Youlgreave for washing. Typically, they would recover 3 tons of lead from it - a 60% recovery, and sell it to Endhoven’s for smelting. With lead selling for Ł120 a ton, Eric says “it made good ale money.” People even smelted lead articles at home and sold the lead. Everyone was having a go, and this went on for quite a long time.

Walking today through the green fields and paths around Winster it is still possible to see the old mine entrances, now covered over, and the remains of the spoil heaps, covered with grass.

It’s hard to imagine now what it must have been like in those days not so very long ago, when the hills bustled and throbbed with the activity and life of the mines.

But it is interesting to stand among the remains of that once great industry, and to listen for the ghosts of those brave men, the “characters” of a bygone age.