Item of the Month

The Lead Miners Stow

The veins of lead in the ground around Wirksworth are one of the most important reasons for the existence and significance of the town. Generations of people spent their working lives seeking and extracting the lead ore that lies beneath your feet. Wirksworth Heritage Centre has a collection of the tools used by these miners during their work, many of which are on display in our galleries. One of the largest of these, however is the barrel of a miner’s stow.

The stow is a simple construction made of two vertical pieces of wood supporting a horizontal windlass.This would be constructed on top of a vertical shaft to allow material to be lifted out of the mine. These shafts could be up to 27.5 metres (90 feet) deep leading to a horizontal underground gallery that would often connect to more vertical shafts delving deeper underground.

Wirksworth Heritage Centre’s stow is not a complete example however, comprising only the horizontal windlass or barrel. This thick piece of wood would have to support the weight of material being lifted out of the shaft.  Attached to both sides are Iron supports, hand made by a blacksmith. These strengthen the wood and form the bearing to allow windlass to be rotated. On the right ride is the remains of the handle to allow a person to turn the windlass to lower or raise the basked that would have been attached to the chain. The length reduces the force required to turn the windlass but doing this all day would have been arduous work.

This everyday piece of mining equipment had an important symbolic place in the rules governing lead mining. It marked a miner’s claim to a vein of lead that he had discovered. The erection of a stow gave him the right to mine there as long as the mine remained working. Should the mine be left unworked the stow would be nicked with a knife by a deputy barmaster. Three nicks and the claim to the mine would be voided, and it is from this that the popular saying derives.

The stow also served part of a grizzlier justice system amongst the miners. If someone was caught stealing lead they would first be fined, but for a third offence they would have their hand nailed to a stow, where they would remain until they could free themselves by cutting off their hand…

Lead mine cross-section

A cross-section drawing of the Wirksworth Dream Cave showing a stow in operation, from William Buckland’s Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823). During excavations of this cave miners discover the bones of a fossilised Woolly Rhino, now in the care of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

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