Snailbeach was the biggest lead mine in Shropshire and it is reputed to have yielded the greatest volume of lead per acre of any mine in Europe. Underground mining ceased here in 1955 but it is reputed to date from Roman times and the surface buildings are the most complete set in the district and probably the country. Although the miners mainly extracted lead ore (galena), smaller quantities of Barite, Calcite, Fluorspar, Silver and Zinc were also obtained.
The mine is believed to be one of the mines in the area worked by the Romans, and in fact one of the Roman lead ingots was found at Snailbeach in 1796, measuring 22 in x 7 in and weighing 193 lb., having "IMP HADRIANI AVG" on the top. The ingot has the equivalent of 2oz 6dwt of silver per ton. According to reports from the middle of the 19th century the Roman workings were still clearly visible at Snailbeach and the miners referred to the upper level as the Roman Level.
After the Romans left the area the mine lay abandoned, as did most mines in the area, for hundreds of years. Snailbeach mine may have been worked in the 12th or 13th century, but there is no real suggestion of mining in the Snailbeach area until 1552 when John Clifton held a mine in Hogstow Forest. Some Derbyshire miners took leases in 1676 and 1686 - whether they were successful is not known. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1761, the mine was leased by Thomas Powys, for five years. In 1766 there were a series of shafts along the vein, indicating systematic working. In the same year a new partnership took the mine and worked it until 1772. Between 1768 and 1772 the mine yielded 505 tons of lead ore.
In 1782 Thomas Lovett of Chirk in Denbighshire took a 21 year lease. The following year he signed a Deed of Partnership with seven others, to form the Snailbeach Company. In 1784 he leased land along the road between Pontesford and Pontesbury, and sank shafts to start a colliery, mainly to provide coal for the boilers of Snailbeach Mine. The colliery continued in production until 1859, and produced 27,622 tons of coal. He also built a smelt mill in Pontesford to process the lead ore, which continued in use from 1784 until a new smelt mill was opened nearer to the mine in 1862. At the man site, the company sank George's Shaft (which eventually reached a depth of 750ft) and the depths of all subsequent underground workings are measured in yards below this shaft collar, eg the 40 Yard Level is 120ft below this point. Winding would have been by a horse gin, using two ropes so one kibble would be at the bottom of the shaft while the other was at the top.
A 1,200 yard long drainage tunnel (called an adit) was driven from the Hope Valley and this intersected the workings at the 112 yard level, thereby draining the mine to that depth. By this time the mine was 180 yards deep. The workings 'below adit' had to be kept dry by pumping the water up to the adit to flow out. Initially the pumps were powered by a 31 feet diameter waterwheel at the entrance to the adit. The motion was converted into a horizontal direction by using rocker beams, with flat rods running all the way up the level to the shaft. Here, a further rocker beam converted the motion to a vertical direction and this operated pumps, which raised water to the drainage level. It discharged 5,000 gallons of water per hour into the stream. By 1793, a Bolton & Watt pumping engine was installed to take over from the waterwheel, pumping water up George's Shaft.
Lordshill Engine Shaft (eventually 1,300ft deep) was sunk in the early 1800s and the pumping flat rods were extended to work in this shaft. An engine was sited at the surface here to wind ore in the shaft with flat rope. Black Tom Shaft was sunk in the 1820s and was 120ft deep, ore being wound up with a horse gin. Day Level was driven to meet Lordshill Shaft in 1848, so that ore could be trammed straight out of the shaft to the crusher house. In 1827 two reports were prepared : one on the mine and one on the smelt works. The report by Captain Francis gives some insight into the conditions of the mine at the time. The ore dressing was generally very good, but the initial ore breaking was still by hand using hammers. Francis recommended a "machine worked by horses" that would cost "about £150". By 1827 a new lower adit was being driven, from Minsterley, to drain the mine to a greater depth. According to the report it was 850 fathoms long and still 1,800 fathoms from the mine. Captain Francis called it the "Calamine Hill Level", although the hill is called the Callow Hill. Captain Francis recommended that work on the adit should be stopped because it would be cheaper to erect a new steam pumping engine than to finish the adit. However, assuming that this is the Callow Hill adit, it was still being driven in the 1870s, although it never did reach the mine. It was probably continued because new lead veins were found in the process, and the ore mined. This often happened when driving adits and was an added bonus.
Captain Francis estimated that the "property at the mine and at the smelting house appears to be worth from £15000 to £20000". He also commented on the low lead price at the time, and indicated that profits would increase with higher lead prices. The report on the smelt works by George Henry also sheds light on the conditions there. The fumes from the smelting escaped up a chimney and included a reasonable amount of lead. Henry recommended that a new flue and chimney be installed, this would enable the lead to condense on the walls of the flue to be collected later. Of this he said, "the mass of deposit will amply repay the erection," and also have the great benefit of "doing away with the bad effects of the smoke, and will be a much desirable thing to the neighbourhood."
Snailbeach Mine continued to be worked downwards and by the early 1850's the workings were over 300 yards deep. The late 1840's and 1850's were the most productive period for the mine, producing over 3000 tons of ore and up to 2700 tons of lead per year. In 1857 a new agent, Stephen Eddy, was employed, along with his son James Ray Eddy. They completely refitted the mine. They installed a new steam engine on Engine Shaft to pump the mine, which was completed in 1858, and re-modelled the dressing floors. Eventually the waterwheel could not cope with the pumping at depth and a 60" pumping engine was installed at Lordshill Shaft in 1858. Visits were made to lead mines in mid-Wales, to study dressing floors, and diagrams were made of the machines used. These studies obviously helped in the improvements at Snailbeach.
The following is an extract from engineers note book :-
Arrived at Aberystwyth on Thursday June 17th 1858
Went to Cwmystwyth on Friday with Mr James
Went to Fron Goch on Saturday with Mr James
Went to Fron Goch on Monday and shown buddle
Went to Fron Goch on Tuesday in appalling rain
And afternoon same day lunch at Level Fawr
On Wednesday went to Goginan and stayed overnight and took coach on Thursday for home."
Cwmystwyth, Fron Goch, Level Fawr and Goginan are all lead mines.
Eddy reduced the work force by 170 and stopped work in the bottom levels. However, by 1862 miners were extracting ore from the 342 yard level and preparing the 372 yard level. He introduced an eight hour shift instead of the six hour shift worked at other mines in the area; because of this the miners went on strike for two weeks - resuming work when shown that their wages were higher than at other mines - being paid more for the longer shift. Chapel Shaft was sunk by the adjacent landowner in the 1860s to open up the eastern end of the mine but the expected continuation of the lead veins was not found as it was in Stiperstones Quartzite. By the end of 1861 the shaft was down to the 112 yard level and in 1862 an engine house was built to serve the shaft. A second hand steam winch off a ship, referred to as the "marine engine", was used. The shaft reached the 342 yard level at its deepest but never proved a success. .
Stephen Eddy died in 1861 and his son took over. He resigned in 1870 being replaced by Henry Dennis. Over the next few years £10,000 pounds was spent on the mine site. In 1863 the old smelt works were abandoned and replaced by a new works nearer the mine. It was connected to the mine by a tramway for the ore. A flue for the fumes ran from the smelt works up the hill to a chimney still standing above Engine Shaft. The condensed lead fumes were recovered from the flue at regular intervals, and estimates of the amount of lead in the flue were always included in the four monthly estimates of stock. For example, 35 tons of lead was estimated to be in the flues in May 1872.
A horizontal steam winder was installed on George's Shaft in 1872 and eight new jigging machines and four buddles were erected in a large shed. The Snailbeach District Railway to Minsterley was built in 1877, to take smelted lead (and later lead ore) to customers. The horse gin on Black Tom Shaft was replaced in the 1880s by a small steam engine, seated on top of its boiler. The crushing engine was reconstructed and, in 1881, a new compressor house and chimney was built, providing power to rock drills and winches underground.
In later years the miners travelled down from the 342 yard level in a skip wound by an air winch powered from the compressor on surface. However, lead prices fell sharply at this time and in 1884 the company made its first loss. The company went into liquidation - the equipment valued at only £2,785. A new company was immediately formed and work continued on a smaller scale. In 1884 the mine was 492 yards deep. In 1896 Lord Bath waived his royalty for three years to enable the company to deepen the mine. By July 1900 the 552 yard level was being driven east and west, prior to extracting the lead ore. This was the lowest level reached at Snailbeach. The smelting mill was closed in 1895. Output fell to only 200 tons in 1905, rising to 1000 tons in 1910. Snailbeach had not been as affected as its neighbours by the turn of the century slump in lead prices as it had particularly rich reserves. However, in the early 20th century the price dropped so low that even here no profit could be made. The Lordshill engine stopped pumping in January 1919 and the mine flooded to adit level.
In 1900 a Halvans Company had been formed to work the waste tips and take barite from the upper levels using Black Tom Shaft. An engine house was situated near the path up from the car park, to power machinery for processing the spoil heaps (Halvans companies were so named from a Cornish term for waste material). The Halvans Company worked the mine through the First World War - the miners receiving a "war bonus" of three shillings per day worked. The Halvans Company carried on processing the tips until the 1930s and an engine house was built on the tips to operate the machinery.
In the 1930s, the mine was acquired by Joe Roberts trading as the Snailbeach Barite Company, who mined barite from the shallow workings above water level. During the Second World War the miners had to have special permission from the Ministry of Labour and National Service to continue working in the mines instead of being called up to fight in the Forces. Mining was obviously a very important occupation, supplying vital raw materials. The Snailbeach Barite Company stopped working underground in 1955.
Since 1955 only some reworking of the spoil heaps for spar, to use as pebble dash on buildings, has occurred. Barite from here was sent to the Windscale nuclear reactor accident to smother fuel cells. Roberts carried on working the tips until the 1970s. Although some ore is said to have been left standing in the mine, the statement "Snailbeach will never be worked again" may well be correct! The old miners were very thorough in their working and rarely left much ore for later generations. Once a mine has been allowed to flood and the machinery removed the cost of reopening the mine increases dramatically and the prospect usually becomes too expensive. Any large amounts of lead remaining in the area are likely to be below the Ritton Castle area. Unfortunately miners would probably have to dig at least 1000 feet down before they reach the top of the lead deposits, if they could find them. This is too deep and too expensive so lead mining in Shropshire is unlikely to become a major industry ever again.
The Shropshire County Council, using government grants, did extensive work in the early 1990s to make some of the shallow workings safe for the villagers. At the same time, they acquired many of the surface buildings and preserved these. The Shropshire Mines Trust now manages the site for the Council.
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