ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 37, September 1998


From Buttermere to the bobbin factory

The Lake District was until recently an industrial area. Bob Bewley reports

To many visitors the Lake District is a tranquil landscape where we go to get away from it all. With a tourism industry generating over 12 million visitors every year, the area's peaceful qualities could be regarded as being under threat, but the view that the Lake District is a quiet retreat is in any case something of a fallacy.

Few people now associate the area with the industrial revolution, or with industrial remains. Yet it can claim a number of `firsts' in terms of industry. Not least among them is the Neolithic axe factory in Great Langdale, in use about 5,500 years ago, which produced the raw material for the impressive green-stone polished axes of the period.

Further north on the slopes of the north-eastern pinnacle of the Skiddaw massif, Carrock Fell, lies a rare outcrop of gabbro stone. This was used in the Bronze Age for making distinctive battle axes. Although these products were more for ritual than everyday use the quarrying, manufacture and subsequent trade in them allows us to regard the area as an `industrial region' in prehistoric terms.

In the medieval period there was the chance discovery of graphite in Borrowdale by a couple of shepherds. After a violent storm a number of trees had been blown down and in the root of one tree shepherds found unusual stones which turned out to be graphite. For many years they used them for marking their sheep. Eventually the potential of this material for writing as well as armaments was realised and pencil manufacture became - and still is in Keswick - an important industry. At one point in the 18th century graphite in Borrowdale was so valuable for casting round shot and cannon balls that a daily consignment was transported by armed escort to the Tower of London, and the entrances to the mines were protected by guard-houses.

These small industries, like so many in the Lake District, have left little trace but with the industrial revolution, numerous other industries developed and also died. The list is a long one but includes coal mining, especially in the West, and iron working, especially in the South.

The West Cumbrian coalfield was once a major coal-producing area and turned Maryport into England's third biggest port for a short time last century. Some opencast mining is still practised but all underground pits are closed. Iron ore had been mined during the Middle Ages and was smelted at small hearths, known as bloomeries, many of which survive as low mounds and are marked on Ordnance Survey maps. In the 18th century blast furnaces resulted in fewer but more permanent sites. The most complete example in England of an 18th century charcoal-fired furnace survives at Duddon Bridge, west of Broughton in Furness. It was because of the proximity of a steel industry at Workington and White-haven that Vickers opened its factory on the south-west coast at Barrow-in-Furness, and although steel is no longer made, the Vickers plant survives.

Lead mining was mainly practised on a small scale but begins at least as early as the 16th century, when the Company of the Mines Royal used German miners in the north of the area around Carrock Fell. The industry flourished along Ullswater at the Greenside mines, which remained open until the 1960s. Copper mining was also a large industry, particularly around Coniston. The abandoned 19th century mines, marked on OS maps, are not officially open to the public but their underground tunnels and galleries can easily be visited - although at some risk to the visitor.

Slate and stone were also quarried and used locally as well as exported. Thomas West, author of the first guidebook to the Lakes in 1774, wrote that Coniston had at the time `the most considerable slate quarries in the Kingdom.' A massive stone quarry, still working, can be seen from the road as you ascend the Kirkstone Pass from Windermere. Slightly less obvious is the Honister green-slate quarry, now disused, on the west side of Honister Pass between Borrowdale and Buttermere.

There were a number of other industries, some of which, like 19th/early 20th century gunpowder manufacture, were located in the Lake District partly because of its remoteness - for example at Chapel Style in Langdale. This is also reflected today in the position of the nuclear power station and reprocessing plant at Sellafield on the coast.

Other industries grew up which made use of local resources such as trees. Perhaps the best example is the bobbin industry. Bobbins of all shapes and sizes were needed in huge quantities for the textile mills of northern England. By the 20th century bobbins for wire were a major product, and in the 1950s the spout bobbin had become the biggest seller. A spout bobbin is that handy piece of wood, used as a spacer, that fits between a drainpipe and wall.

In the Lake District and surrounding areas there was a total of 127 bobbin mills, half of them concentrated in a restricted area in the south of the area around Coniston and Windermere. Each mill would have had its own coppiced woodlands of mainly birch but also ash, alder, chestnut, hazel, oak and sycamore, so that there was a regular and renewable supply of timber. Much of the woodland that still survives in the area - and nowadays seems so rural - was originally planted as a raw material for industry.

The last Bobbin mill closed in October 1971, at Stott Park, near Newby Bridge. It remained neglected and disused for several years but has reopened as a demonstration mill run by English Heritage. In 1835, when the mill opened, it was powered by a water wheel but this was replaced in c 1880 by a steam engine, and latterly by electric motors. At its peak over 6,000 bobbins were produced every day at this mill alone, but the decline in the British textile industry and the arrival of plastic meant the days of the wooden bobbin were numbered. The steam engine is still in working order and a visit to the mill is a realistic reminder of the conditions of 19th century factory working, which with ancient machinery and poor health and safety conditions continued here into the 1970s.

The coppiced woods at Stott Park have now been brought back into manage-ment and charcoal production, on a small scale, is a renewed industry for the area. Earlier this century and throughout most of the last, the manufacture of charcoal for iron production concentrated in the southern area because of the abundance of woods. Other cottage industries such as the production of `swill' carrying baskets made of oak shavings were made possible by the products from the coppiced woodland.

To have visited the Lake District in the mid-19th century would have been a very different experience from today, not just because of the improvements in transport, but because of the number and variety of industrial activities going on in the landscape. Whereas today's economy is based on tourism and subsidised agriculture, the thriving industrial economy of the past provided support for, and was supported by, the agricultural economy based on sheep.

Tourism, however, has helped maintain a population of 42,000 within the National Park. This population has developed new locally-based industries, not just by rejuvenating former practices such as woodland coppicing for charcoal, but also by introducing new small industries. A walk down the main street in Ambleside, past the so-called `smallest house in England' owned by the National Trust, brings you to a glass blower's workshop, Adrian Sankey's, as just one small example.

It is tempting to view the Lake District landscape as static - perhaps because its most famous feature, its mountains, have remained much the same for millions of years. In reality the area has seen constant change. Standing on the summits of the mountains or the valley sides the remnants of former human occupation sites can be seen all around.

Perhaps the most dramatic change of all was made in the early 18th century, when the fields were enclosed by the construction of the area's ubiquitous dry-stone walls. Like much else in the Lake District, field walls give an impression of an unchanging rural landscape, but in fact stand witness to a landscape alteration that was planned and undertaken on an industrial scale.

Fact file

Dr Bob Bewley is Head of Aerial Survey at the English Royal Commission, and author of The Lake District (English Heritage/ Batsford) which will be published next year

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