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Cumbria Mining boom like the Klondike


Cleator Moor was a windy stretch of moorland until the 1780s when it was realised that rich deposits of haematite or iron ore lay not far below the surface. The following century saw something akin to a Klondike rush as the iron ore was exploited in ever growing quantities. So great was the influx of workers from Ireland, via the Irish trade port of Whitehaven, that even to this day the area has a high proportion of Roman Catholics and the nickname of Little Ireland. As the ironmasters of the Industrial Revolution demanded the high quality ore the area, after 1850 became criss-crossed by railway lines ..all now disused and turned into cycleways for the leisured classes.

One of the earliest iron ore workings in the area was at Langhorn on the limestone escarpment above Egremont. This was worked by monks in the 12th century and in the 17th century.

In 1753 the Crowgarth mine started with capital raised by Whitehaven merchants in the Virginian tobacco trade. The owner of a large bacon curing business in the area, Jonas Lindow then speculated on the iron ore deposits, his family became wealthy as the iron trade boomed. At this stage the ore was shipped to Scotland and South Wales furnaces from the port of Whitehaven. The mines grew and grew as more ore was discovered. In 1870 the Crowgarth mines were raising 42,000 tonnes. The town developed its rows of terraced houses for the growing population of miners. The sheets of ore were followed by the miners and digging got closer and closer to the surface. Eventually homes started cracking up from subsidence and miners underground could hear the town clock chime as they worked underground. As an added bonus the Montreal mine even had coal and iron coming up the same pit shaft. The deposits of limestone in the area meant that the building of iron works followed.
Cleator Moor ironworks See the illustration of Cleator Moor’s iron works with its furnaces. The picture was dated 1934 as the works stood idle awaiting demolition. Output at Montreal rose to 265,678 tons by 1677. There were even plans for a new ironworks at Whitehaven, but this plan was dropped after Lord Lonsdale refused to give his support. The iron ore deposits were chased south into Dalzell’s Moor Row district where mines such as Montreal 8,10 and 11 pits used the influx of Cornish tin miners to carry out the work. Crossfield, Jacktrees and Todholes mines were other highly profitable pits that shared in the booming industry. But deposits were thinning and after a last minute surge in demand for the First World War the iron mining industry was set on a relentless decline through the 1920s and 30s. The only remaining iron mining operation in West Cumbria is that at Florence Mine, Egremont.
An excellent illustrated book on this fascinating area is The Red Hills, by Dave Kelly, published Red Earth, Ulverston ISBN 0 9512946 7 9.
Cleator Moor also suffered from a sectarian divide arising from the influx of Irish workers..matters reached a low point in the so called Murphy riots. The notorious anti-Catholic William Murphy was attacked by 300 Cleator Moor iron-ore miners at Whitehaven in 1871 At the time of the Irish Potatoe Famine Jobs were plentiful and all of the West Cumbrian towns such as Whitehaven and Workington as well as large villages like Cleator Moor developed sizeable Irish populations with the mix of Catholics and Protestants providing potential for sectarian quarrels.Murphy, a notorious anti-Catholic came to Whitehaven in April 1871 the Magistrates decided to allow him to speak in the Oddfellows Hall only for him to be attacked by 300 well-drilled iron-ore miners from Cleator Moor. The police, caught unawares and hopelessly outnumbered, could do little for him and before a rescue could be effected Murphy was horribly beaten. It was some weeks before he recovered sufficiently to face his attackers in court. As consequence five men were given 12 months with hard labour and two got three months. Murphy came back to the town in December, despite the entreaties of the local magistrates, but events passed off relatively smoothly. In March 1872 died, Birmingham surgeons claimed, because of the lingering effects of the savage assault dished out by those Cleator Moor miners. The Press was horrified that a man could die for his views and there followed an Orange revival in Cumbria. Until recently Orange parades were a regular feature in Whitehaven and Workington.


Recommended book on the Lakeland mines is Beneath the Lakeland Fells by Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society. Published by Red Earth Publications in 1992. This book may well be out of print but is worth its weight in gold dust.

Coal Mining in West Cumbria

Details of another fascinating mining story in Borrowdale

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