Azurite on Limonite, Deep Ecton Pipe vein (Buxton Museum).
Buxton Museum has a small collection of minerals from Ecton Copper Mine, including the three specimens shown here.
A recent tour of Ecton Hill and Copper Mine run by National Trust volunteers gave a fascinating insight into where the Museum minerals came from. The mine itself is owned by the Ecton Mine Educational Trust, an independent charitable body. The National Trust have acquired the Engine House.
First we investigated the mine features on the surface and discovered some of the history of the mine. In the afternoon we explored the mine itself and its geology.
A bit of social history …
Copper has been mined where it outcrops on the hill at Ecton since the Bronze Age over 3,500 years ago. Ecton is one of only two known Bronze Age copper mines in England. In the early 1700s the Duke of Devonshire leased the mine out, but as it became obvious it was a rich resource, took back control and developed the mine. It became one of the richest in the world, employing 400 workers during peak production from 1765 to 1789. It is also huge – the mine is as deep as the Empire State building is high! The heyday of the mine was very short. The copper resources were finite and in June 1790 the Times reported the mine had failed and workers had been laid off. It never got back to its former production levels although work carried on for another 100 years. Copper from Ecton was used to protect the bottom of wooden naval vessels from the ravages of worms, and also for the first trans-atlantic telegraph cable.
The stone wall at the back of the dressing floor was built much later, in the 1880s, and formed the back wall of a dressing shed.
From 1825 a number of companies succeeded each other in leasing the mine from the Duke. The Powder House (for the storage of gunpowder) was built relatively late, in 1884, by Ecton Co. Ltd (formed 1883, folded 1889), but it is likely there was a previous building for the same purpose. It was set away from other buildings for safety and was purposely built with strong walls and a weak roof to direct any blast upward.
In the first early days of the mine, we were told, though it really is hard to believe, that water was removed by a series of rags on ropes which were fed round on pulleys and wrung out. A vertical shaft, the Main Pipe, was excavated from the hilltop and Deep Ecton level was driven in horizontally to meet it. By 1750 the mine was down to the water table. Vertical shafts were taken off Deep Ecton level and ore was brought up and out of Deep Ecton in tubs.
In 1760 a single shaft was sunk the entire depth of the mine from the Engine House. The shaft allowed air to flow through the mine from Deep Ecton. Pulleys to bring ore out up the Shaft were worked by horses turning a drum in the Gin circle. The circular wall for the winding drum can be seen next to the Engine House.
In 1788 the horses were replaced by a Boulton and Watt double acting steam engine (though the horse mechanism was kept as a back up). Boulton and Watt were the first company to make an engine which would turn something round, rather than up and down, so this was cutting edge stuff. It was the oldest steam-powered mine winding engine house in the world. Horses could move 30 tons per shift, but the engine could move 40 tons.
Gradually the seam became narrower as the miners dug further down and by the late 1790s, it was obvious it was running out. Efforts were made to improve efficiency in extracting the declining resources and in 1804 a new level, Salts level, was driven to bring the ore out at the dressing floor, instead of bringing it up from the outlet of the Deep Ecton level. In 1850 pumping was stopped and the mine finished in 1891.
And then a bit of geology …
Donning hard hats and lamps, we made our way into the hill.
Our guide Pete Webb explained how the surrounding limestone was formed by the deposition of skeletal remains of marine organisms at the bottom of the sea which covered the area around 350 million years ago. At this time Derbyshire was actually very near the equator but has drifted slowly northwards to where we are now.
The seabed layer could be seen in the bedding plane at the side of the tunnel, with a layer of grey clay above it caused by volcanic ash. These layers are known as wayboards. Miners would gather mounds of the clay and use it to sit their candles in.
Over millennia, the rock was fractured by large scale movement and volcanic activity. Water bearing dissolved minerals entered the fractures where the minerals crystallised out to form veins of mineral material. It’s estimated this mineralisation took place about 290 million years ago.
White calcite veins in the rock were a sign that there might be a copper vein and the miners would open up side passages to investigate.
To get the ore out, explosive black powder was placed in drill holes. The transition from hand-hewn triangular cross-section holes to cylindrical ones could be seen through the mine. The triangular ones were created by two men taking turns to strike the chisel which was turned between strokes by a third man. Progress was only 5 ft a week, By the 1860s compressed air was being used to drill cylindrical holes. This was generated by a steam engine in the tunnel fed with firewood. It really is hard to imagine what the working conditions were like.
Iron rails rested on stone sleepers along the sides of the tunnel. It is thought they were arranged like this rather than across the tunnel so that ponies pulling ore along the rails could walk down the middle of the tunnel.
Before we left the tunnel, there was time for one last amazing piece of geology – a rock at the side of the tunnel showing slickenside, where two sides of a rock fault slid across each other. The slickenside created on the other side of the fault could be seen a little further down the tunnel. The image of Apes Tor, Ecton, below really brings home the forces involved in folding these rocks into such convoluted shapes, which led to the rich mineral deposits being created.