Copper Mines at Coniston

by David Murray on 20 July 2011

in Coniston Water, Copper, Cumbria, History, Industries

For many centuries the presence of copper in the Lake District mountain rocks above Coniston Water provided a livelihood for people in the area. Now Coniston coppermines are mostly visited by walkers and mine explorers (scroll down for video). Looking at the area today it is not easy to imagine a time (much of it before modern-style industrialisation) in which people living on the slopes of Coniston Old Man made a living from iron, copper and slate.

Coniston is not the only Lake District area to have a copper-producing history. The Keswick area was another centre of this metal extracting industry, especially the Newlands Valley. In their early years the Coniston copper mines sent their output to Keswick by packhorse to be processed. After the smelting facility there was destroyed in the late-1700s the ore was taken by boat down Coniston Water from a quay at Coniston Hall to the Nibthwaite Quay. It was then carried to the coast by cart. From the port at Greenodd, and later from Ulverston through its canal, much of the ore went to St. Helens in Lancashire. There it was smelted and and made into copper cladding for the hulls of sailing vessels.

Coniston Copper Mines: The Early Years

The Coniston coppermines certainly go as far back as the 1500s, and possibly longer, although most of what is still visible on the surface dates from the mid-19th century. The mines were worked up until the English Civil War of the 1640s but then there was a break before they were revived. For some of the time, as also at Keswick, the enterprise was led by experienced German miners. The Company of Mines Royal, which had also run other copper extraction enterprises in the Lake District, had control of Coniston’s “Coppermines Valley” toward the end of the 16th century.

The Antiquities of Furness (1774)

In 1774 the antiquarian Jesuit priest Thomas West wrote in his book, The Antiquities of Furness, as follows:

“The fells of Coniston have produced great quantities of copper ore. During the rage of the civil wars the copper mines in Coniston fells were shut up. After the Restoration, Sir Daniel Fleming had an inquest of all the old workmen then living, concerning them, with their opinion of the charges necessary for recovering the said mines. The following abstract is given here, as it may be of some service to future adventurers. The original is at Rydal hall. … “

[West then lists nine different areas of working with depths, thickness of the seams, and comments on the quality of the the ore, including mention of other metals present such as lead, silver and gold. He then continues …. ]

“About 140 workmen were employed in these works, and the ore was carried on horses backs to the smelting-house at Keswick. About 20 miles distant from some of the works the ore was raised at different prices, according to its goodness, from 2s.6d to 8s per kible, every kible being near a horseload. The ore was first beaten small, and washed and sifted then weighed or measured.

“Before the works were left off, a proposal was made for erecting a smelting-house at Coniston, as more convenient for building houses, a nd better supplied with wood and peat, with the convenience of an iron forge, then at Coniston, being only seven miles from the sea-port at Penny bridge, five of which were by water down the lake, and two miles of land carriage on a good road.”

For reasons now unknown West does not mention in his 1774 Antiquities that the Macclesfield Copper Company reopened the Coniston coppermines in 1758. For almost the next forty years they were again in production but then there was a hiatus of about thirty years before they were once again reopened. This time production took off in a big way controlled by the firm of John Barratt, and copper became the basis for several generations of local prosperity, at one point employing as many as 400 men.

Coniston Coppermines in the 19th Century

This prosperity rubbed off not only on Coniston village itself but also on the surrounding area. The 1851 census describes John Biggins of neighbouring Torver as a “calker-maker”. As John Dawson says in his history of Torver, “Calkers are pointed pieces on horseshoes placed so as to prevent slipping; no doubt in regular demand at a time when so many horses would be working up and down the steep and slippery ways to the mines and quarries. Numbers of horses were also employed inside the Coniston copper mines to haul out wagon-loads of ore, a situation in which calkers would give the animal a better grip where the surface was wet and uneven.” Dawson also mentions other makers of industrial equipment such as pick and hammer shafts.

Coniston Water now became an even busier commercial route than it had been previously. Boats were already carrying slate from the quarries. Now they also carried copper ore. At Nibthwaite Quay, near where Coniston lake becomes the River Crake, two buildings became known locally as the “Copper Houses”.

By the late 1840s the Furness Railway had its line running from the Furness area and up the coast of Cumberland. Already thought was being given to the possibility of a branch line to Coniston. After an earlier false start the line was opened in 1859. It was promoted heavily by the owners of interests in the Coniston copper mines because getting the increased volumes of copper ore down to the coast by the traditional water and land route was becoming more and more difficult. In the following year the line was extended to run beyond Coniston to the Copper House at the mines. Although in later years the Furness Railway emphasised the tourism aspects of the Foxfield-Coniston branchline, its reason for existence was copper.

The End of Coniston’s Copper Era

Copper-based prosperity did not last. Good quality ore became available in large quantities from other parts of the world, especially South America, at prices with which the Coniston copper mines could not compete. By the end of the nineteenth century it was all over.

Coniston Copper Mines Today

Today the Coppermines Valley is virtually silent apart from voices of walkers. Many signs of the old industry survive and remain the subject of great interest to many thousands of visitors each year as well as to industrial archaeologists.

There are, however, considerable dangers lurking behind the entrances to the mine workings. Visitors to the area should under no cicumstances enter the mine workings unless properly authorised, equipped and accompanied. Unless you’re an experienced caver or mine explorer and are properly equipped look at them from the outside only, and when back down in Coniston village take a look at the Ruskin Museum where you’ll find a wealth of information about Coniston copper. For now as well you can take a look at this YouTube video from AditNow, Jun 25, 2009:

(NOTE:This post is a revised version of a 2009 page on our old Lake District site.

Related Posts:

Coniston Coppermines – includes links to interesting and useful books.

Lake District History and the Future

Where to Go and What to Do in the Lake District: South & Central


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