Isobel investigates various museum objects made from lead and reveals the county’s connections with the stuff:
Lead: one of many words which can have multiple meanings, e.g. “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink”, you could lead a country or a team, or even lead or persuade somebody into bad ways.
So, let’s have a look at lead as in the chemical element, with the symbol Pb, a soft, heavy metal in a silvery blue – grey colour.
High Rake Lead Mine by Susan Loft. Winner of the Derbyshire Open Landscape Prize 2008. Copyrighted.
Hands up anyone who is already transported back over 40 years to O’Level Chemistry and the joys of learning the Periodic Table in the science room at school! Not only has the technology to look at this table changed beyond recognition in my lifetime, but the number of elements had increased too. We never stop learning, do we?
I have chosen some examples of information about lead with local interest and included some links for further reading.
For a concise summary of lead mining in Derbyshire, I went to derbyshireheritage.co.uk and the search for lead mining opened up an article entitled “A Brief History of Derbyshire Lead Mining.” This covers the formation of lead, different mining practices, pigs of lead, Roman influences and all with local examples.
There are some replica lead ingots (pigs) in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery as well as several other lead exhibits.
There is also lead palstave, found at Brassington. This one is around 3,500 – 3,000 years old. A palstave is a word used to describe an axe, but being a soft metal, it seems a strange material to use to make an axe – not unlike a chocolate teapot! It is thought that lead palstaves were used to create moulds by pushing them into sand or clay to form the shape into which a bronze axe could be cast.
The Moot Hall in Wirksworth was built in its present location in 1814 to enforce lead mining laws. The Barmote Court meets there – and although the meetings are mainly ceremonial today, the court’s jurisdiction still exists and from what I have read it was last used in 2013 in relation to lead mining rights in Castleton. These days, you might expect tea, coffee, decaff, and a few biscuits if you are lucky at a meeting or conference. I understand bread and clay pipes are provided to delegates of the Barmote Courts gatherings!
There is a wonderful article and some photographs if you google “Moot Hall Wirksworth” and follow the wirksworth.org.uk link. There is also a Heritage Centre at Wirksworth.
The clay pipes presented to members of the High Peak Barmote Court, 1959 – 1969 and the medal was smelted from lead ore mined at Mill Close Mine, Darley Dale, 1988 commemorating 700 years of the Barmote Court. These exhibits are in the museum.
There is a pub on Spring Gardens in Buxton called the Milton’s Head. If you look closely to the left hand side of the sign showing the name of the pub, it is quite high up, there is a lead fire seal. This was welded to the wall by the Fire Service to show that taxes or rates had been paid and if there was a fire, the fire service would attend. They were not obliged to attend if there was no seal.
Finally, back into the Time Travel machine to a time just a few stops back from my mid – 1970’s school days and the Periodic Table, to the late 1960’s. I remember my Grandma running the tap before the water could be used because a build up of lead in the body, especially of babies and children, can be harmful. Lead is no longer used in piping but houses built before 1970 can still be found with them.
The Latin word for lead is plumbum (hence the symbol Pb), and this is where the word plumber comes from.
I enjoyed a BBC article, “The Fatal Attraction of Lead” by Lawrence Knight, 11th October 2014 which documents the properties and uses of lead. Wine decanters which not only glistened but also gave a sweet taste to wine – what more could you want? A waterproof roofing material, a plumb line to ensure straight walls, a wonderful white paint (The Girl with a Pearl Earring) – what could go wrong? Well, as you might expect, plenty. The article illustrates the (at the time) undiscovered side effects of lead, first among the wealthy Romans, and then among the working classes during the Industrial Revolution. I hope you enjoy the article too.