The Widows’ Curse: the murky history of the Magpie Mine

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!

The Cornish Engine House dates from 1869. Adjacent to it a circular chimney, which was built in 1840 to serve an earlier engine but then re-used

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.

The Long Engine House and winding drum

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.

The Agent’s House, and adjoining it the Smithy. On the right is the square chimney. All date from John Taylor’s time in the 1840s.

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.

Spring Sandwort, aka Leadwort

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.

Today the site of Magpie Mine is an atmospheric but confusing and incoherent jumble of 19th century stone buildings, in various states of disrepair, set amidst a vibrant wildflower carpet

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!

* * * * *

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?



  1. The June Journal · September 15, 2021

    Great post๐Ÿ‘I think in the real life, many possible murder cases have remained mysterious due to lack of the enough evidence. Feel sad for the three mining workers. I worked for blood lead testing program for children in my previous job. It is very interesting to hear the stories related to lead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 17, 2021

      Thank you. It’s a fascinating story…I wonder how many other Derbyshire lead miners were murdered by workers in rival mines?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. krikitarts · September 16, 2021

    What a fascinating–and frightening–bit of history; your research really paid off. Love that first photo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 17, 2021

      Thank you! I’ve lived here over 40 years, but came across this grisly story only about a month ago!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Adele Brand · September 19, 2021

    Fascinating, and another reminder that wildlife and human activity are so closely linked. I was in the Peaks a couple of weeks ago and walked across an old lead rake, now supporting calaminarian grassland, i.e. the plant community that develops on metal-rich soil. So many species have found niches amongst old industry and we need to get better at conserving such sites. I have also read that juniper, one of our most threatened trees, has a stronghold in ex-industrial landscapes in Teesdale which provided the historical disturbance + current protection from livestock that it needs to survive.

    As for the miners’ feuds and curses – I guess human nature is what it is, whether it’s above ground or below!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 20, 2021

      I find Nature’s opportunism so encouraging and uplifting. Give it a ghost of a chance and it’s in there, making the most of mankind’s many blunders! I hope the you enjoyed your time in and around the Peak District…had it been around in Jane Austen’s day she would doubtless have labelled it “God’s own National Park” ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  4. tanjabrittonwriter · September 26, 2021

    Thank you for sharing another fascinating tale of your home county, Mr. P. Whenever I visit an abandoned mine, I feel for those who had to work in incredibly challenging if not downright deadly conditions. Like you, I find nature’s resilience and bounce-back potential heartening and I would take the celestial tones of the skylark any time over the noise made by mining equipment.
    All the best,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 27, 2021

      Thank you, Tanja. The courage that miners of previous generations demonstrated in their daily work is humbling, and deserves to be remembered. Our 21st century prosperity is built, in part, upon their bones.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Priti · September 27, 2021

    How Beautifully written such a fascinating story, really sad for the workers, actually it happens sometimes in the mining area! loved to read your story ๐Ÿ˜Š๐ŸŒท

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 27, 2021

      Thank you, Priti. Mining has always been a hard, dangerous life, and the men – and sometimes women too, I think – who work deep underground deserve our respect and admiration..


      • Priti · September 27, 2021

        Yes I know it very well as one of my relative worked as a mining engineer he told me everything.

        Liked by 1 person

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