Although famed in the 19th and 20th centuries for its coal industry, Derbyshire’s association with mining goes back much further. Lead has been mined in areas of the county since at least Roman times, and extraction continued until the 1950s. Last to close – in 1954 – was Magpie Mine, located on the edge of the lead-bearing limestone plateau near the Peak District village of Sheldon. Maybe it would still be producing lead today, were it not for the notorious Widows’ Curse!
These days it can be difficult to appreciate the importance of lead to our ancestors. By the 17th century it was widely used on the roofs of churches, other public buildings and the grand mansions of the wealthy, to help make them watertight. It was also commonly used for the manufacture of window frames and glazing bars. And, in the days before the risks of lead poisoning had been recognised, this metal was the preferred solution for water storage and piping. Lead mining was therefore big business, and it’s reckoned that between 1750 and 1850 the UK brought more lead ore to the surface than any other nation.
Magpie Mine started up around 1740. Several other lead mines were also working in the same area, and bitter disputes erupted between them over the right to mine particular veins of ore. Shafts belonging to Magpie Mine and the nearby Maypitt Mine intersected in places, tempting miners to light underground fires in order to smoke out their opponents and claim sole ownership of the vein they were working.
Tragedy struck in 1833, when three Maypitt miners were suffocated by fumes from fires lit by workers from Magpie Mine. No fewer than 24 Magpie miners were put on trial for murder, and could have been hanged if found guilty. However, conflicting evidence, inability to prove fore-knowledge or intent amongst those who lit the fire, and a failure to prove who actually started it, meant that all were ultimately acquitted.
The widows of the Maypitt Three were, inevitably, distraught at the verdict. Their response was to place a curse on Magpie Mine and all who worked there. Magpie Mine closed just two years later, and I guess the widows congratulated themselves on a job well done.
However, the opportunity to make a profit proved too tempting for Magpie Mine’s owners to resist. So, in 1839, they brought in famous Cornish mining engineer John Taylor to re-open it. Within months Magpie Mine was back in business.
However, despite Taylor’s undoubted expertise, the mine closed again in 1846. From that time onwards production of lead at the site was sporadic, spells of mining activity being interspersed with periods of closure. It never managed to make a sustained profit again, and locals muttered darkly about the Widows’ Curse when confronted with Magpie Mine’s chequered performance and the series of fatal accidents that befell the unfortunate miners.
Dwindling reserves of ore, combined with the challenges of keeping a shaft over 680 feet (208 metres) deep free from floodwater, ultimately proved to be Magpie Mine’s undoing. When it closed for the last time in 1954 the Maypitt Three could finally rest in peace, but according to legend the Widows’ Curse remains in place to this day.
Today the site is an atmospheric but confusing and incoherent jumble of 19th century stone buildings in various states of disrepair. Magpie Mine is now a peaceful spot, disturbed only by the song of skylarks and an occasional click of a camera shutter. It’s difficult to picture this place as a hive of industrial activity, or to imagine the hardships and suffering of those who once toiled – and died – here. Seemingly still more improbable is the notion that aggrieved widows would have felt driven to place a curse on what is now such a tranquil, isolated and inoffensive corner of my home county.
Although its industrial archaeology and associated human history is fascinating, today Magpie Mine site is also a notable natural habitat. The landscape is managed to prevent it returning to scrubland. Cattle are used to keep invasive species at bay, allowing a rich variety of wildflowers to flourish on the unimproved grassland. Some of the species (including Spring Sandwort, also known as leadwort) found here are particularly well adapted to the local conditions, being able to tolerate high quantities of lead in the soil.
If truth be told I’d rather remember our visit to Magpie Mine for the glory of its wildflower meadow and the song of the skylark, both so rare in today’s intensively farmed countryside, than for the dubious legend of the Widows’ Curse!
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If the story of the Widows’ Curse has caught your imagination you might want to take a look at this video on YouTube, which I came across during research for this post. In a mixture of commentary and verse local poet Simon Unwin tells more about the history and traditions of lead mining in Derbyshire, before launching into the story of the Widows’ Curse. It runs for nearly 40 minutes and so requires some investment in time to see it through to the end. But I enjoyed listening to it, and you might too. So why not give it a try?