A guided tour of Lochnell Mine gives the visitor a vivid sense of what lead mining was all about – a job which separated the miner physically and, to a large extent, socially from the wider world in which he lived. It concentrated his undivided attention on winning a basic living for himself and his family in conditions, which were always physically dangerous and also hazardous to health.
It taught him, when at work to be dependent on the trustworthiness and comradeship of his mates and this special relationship coloured his leisure time activities too.
The entrance to Lochnell mine is at the south end of Williamson’s Drift. After passing through a timbered passage, the drift opens out and has an average height of 7 feet and a width of 4 feet.
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The history of Lochnell Mine extends over a period of 150 years and reflects the various changes which took place in winning the lead ore, draining the workings, organising the miners to carry out their activities, and rewarding them for their efforts.
The part of the mine, which is open to visitors, is described in terms of the minerals found, the methods used in cutting the rock, winning the ore, ventilating the workings, and transporting men and materials to the surface.
The origin of the mine goes back to the early years of the Quaker Company which held leases on the lead veins at Wanlockhead from 1710 to 1756.
Messrs Crawford & Company, who succeeded to the Quaker Company’s Lease between 1756 and 1842, re-opened the trial drifts in 1757 but abandoned them in 1759 because of poor ventilation. This is referred to in the mining records as follows: –
“August 1758 – Williamson’s Drift on the south end of the Coves vein, was laid on the 30th July last for want of air. The price was £5 per fathom. The small progress made was owing to the miners not having air enough to enable them to work. In place of six pickmen employed formerly, only two pickmen could work and these only on two or three days in the week….”
Where the entrance tunnel joins the vein, you can see the first piece of lead ore which was found in the South Cove vein.
The lead ore, or galena, at Wanlockhead, yielded about 60% pure lead. This piece of ore is plate-like in shape and was left in the vein by the miners to bring them good luck in their searches.
Gold and lead miners were free men, unlike coal miners and this allowed them to move around from mine to mine. Men came from different parts of Britain and some even from different European countries. Women were not employed down in these mines, but boys as young as 8 years old were expected to start work. They would work in the streams washing the lead ore in all weather conditions, all year round for 2 pennies a day. By the age of 12 boys could then work in the mine, hauling out the galena in small troughs or sledges.
The mine was worked for a further 24 years until it finally closed in 1861. By that time the workings had reached a depth of 500 feet below Thomson’s Drift. Again, closure was caused by the failure of the hydraulic pumping engine to cope with the quantity of water entering the workings, and the ore was still putting-down in the vein when the workings were abandoned. The mine environment was dangerous and men worked without the benefits of modern safety methods. Accidents happened frequently as this report from 1870 shows.