Hebden Township Historical Data

John Wilkinson: 19th August 1879

This extract comes from the diary of John Wilkinson. Wilkinson was a pioneer of long distance walking, and he maintained a witty and informative diary of his travels. In June 1879, whilst enjoying a walking holiday in the Dales from Pateley Bridge to Sedbergh with his cousin Richard, a chance meeting in a Hebden public house led to an invitation to visit Hebden Horse Level.

Excavation of Hebden Horse Level began after the Hebden Moor Mining Company's lead mines further up Hebden Gill became barren after all the accessible ore had been extracted, with the rich veins descending below the drainage level. To revive their fortunes, an ambitious plan was conceived - to dig a level from the centre of the village in a north-easterly direction for some 2.39 kilometres, to intercept the veins where they could be exploited for an additional 90 m in depth. By the time of Wilkinson's visit the project had been going for six years (it was eventually abandoned in 1888), and his account of the visit gives a contemporary insight into how the level was dug.

John Henry Wilkinson (1852-1926) came from Horsforth. His profession was insurance, but he was also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the Thoresby Society in Leeds, a member of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, a member of the Leeds Choral Union, and the author of the much cited Leeds Dialect Glossary and Lore which was privately published in 1924.

This extract from his diary has been kindly made available by his grandson, David Allen, via David Joy. You can find out more about Hebden Horse Level, with photographs, on our sister site.

There is a book available, "John Henry's Journeys" by Alan Plowright which is seemingly a transcript of Wilkinson's diary, but much of the text in the Hebden description originates from Wikipedia under the pretence of being part of the diary, and the visit to the Horse Level has been completely omitted. One can only assume that the rest of the book suffers from the same lack of intellectual integrity.

Photograph of cover of the entrance to Hebden Horse Level
The entrance to Hebden Horse Level from around the time of Wilkinson's visit

A mile or so further on brought us into Hebden, a little town of no particular importance, where we partook of luncheon. The Jolly Miners was the pub that we honoured with our presence and the lugubrious girl who waited upon us evidently had a keen eye for business, for she charged us sixteen pence for two bottles of ginger ale and a very small loaf of bread with an infinitesimal piece of butter. She must have had a shrewd notion that they wouldn't lose much when they lost our custom and consequently determined to take as much out of us as possible.

Whilst discussing the aforesaid viands we began chatting with an intelligent young lead miner on the subject of our pedestrian excursion. He had been a good average "rolling stone" and had "gathered" very little "moss" according to his own account. As my companion happened to mention his still unquenched desire to explore the recesses of a lead mine, our new friend kindly offered to guide us, if we were disposed, up a level shaft which they were driving into the hillside to tap the mines. We accepted his offer (I wish we hadn't), and our friend explained everything as we went along with as much volubility as I ever heard even in a woman.

To summarize his remarks, I may say that the Company working the mines on the hills above Hebden had met with a dreadful influx of water. The ordinary methods of pumping had been resorted to without success, although a tremendous amount of steam power had been used in working the pumps; an idea may be formed of the amount of water turned out when it is said that they had six pumps at work - two with pipes of 12 inches in diameter, 1 of ten inches, 1 of eight inches, and two of seven throwing out a ceaseless stream of water. A level shaft was commenced which although entailing an enormous amount of time and expense would soon drain the mine, as the mouth of the shaft although above the bed of the river, was below the lowest level of the mine.

Two great motive powers are used in working this shaft - air and water. A water wheel 36 feet in diameter works an air compressor, and the compressed air is carried by tubes to the top of the shaft where it operates like steam in working a drill to bore the rock. Dynamite is used to split the rock and the debris is sent to the mouth of the shaft in small wagons.

There is a similar shaft to this in Grassington which was commenced in 1796 and on account of want of scientific aid was not completed until 1830; this cost £30,000, so an idea may be formed of the magnitude and importance of such an undertaking

Our friend offered to lend us miners' suits for the journey up the drift which he said was very dirty; we, however, preferred to use our mackintoshes which were just the things we wanted to stave off the dirt and water. Just before we started, the other workman who was going with our friend, opened a box and took out a few articles about 4 inches long and an inch in diameter which, as he informed us as he put them in his pocket, were dynamite cartridges, and in answer to my enquiry he smiled and said they were not at all dangerous if only handled with a little care: they will not "go off" by fire, but require a severe blow to make them explode.

The dynamite is placed in the hole bored by the drill; next to the cartridge is placed a percussion cap with about 18 inches of fuse. The hole is then filled up with earth and the fuse lighted. It burns perhaps 5 minutes (giving the men ample time to get out of the reach of the shock) and then ignites the percussion cap which striking the dynamite causes the latter to "play Hamlet" with the rocks. The tunneling in this shaft had been carried on day and night for 5 years and only 600 fathoms (1200 yards) had been cut out. The shaft is about 7 feet by 6, and only two men can work at once; they are relieved every eight hours, and so the work is carried on day and night.

We had a wretched walk, having to balance as best we could on tram lines which had been laid to run the wagons on, for all the rest of the path was ankle deep in water all the way, and there was no possibility of seeing our way on account of the sickly lights of the candles which we carried in our hands.

The strata through which the shaft penetrates are limestone, calcareous grit, and stone-plate; the latter is a kind of shale which in parts is very soft and very loose, and in others is hard as, and very much like, slate sometimes forming a perfectly flat roof. In one part, the shale is so loose that for a distance of 30 or 40 yards both sides and roof had to be propped. The enormous weight of loose earth was beginning to tell on the hard wood. The roof which originally was seven feet high, had shrunk to 5 feet 6 inches, the side props having bent like bows. Our friend told us that that they had noticed this gradual change, but they were quite powerless to prevent it, and sooner or later it would all have to be come down and be cleaned out, entailing a further delay of perhaps a month.

We were only too glad when we again saw the open air and we soon made our way back to the "Jolly Miners" where we had a good wash.


  1. The Jolly Miners was a pub located adjacent to what is now Bridge House. It was originally called The Clarendon, but was renamed The Jolly Miners in about 1875. (Back)
  2. This was probably Elizabeth Rodgers, the 23 year old wife of John Rodgers who was the landlord of the Jolly Miners at the time. (Back)
  3. This may well have been William Rowe, who would have been about 26 years old at the time. In the 1881 census, Rowe was the only working miner who came from outside the village, and the fact that he didn't appear in the 1871 census backs up the "rolling stone" comment. See here for further details about William Rowe. (Back)
  4. These are the mines of Bolton Gill, located further up Hebden Gill. (Back)
  5. Compressed air drills were used to speed up the digging. These were originally patented by Joseph Fowle in the United States in 1851, and were at least five times faster than drilling by hand. (Back)
  6. This is a reference to the Duke's Level the entrance of which is actually in the parish of Hebden further up Hebden Gill. It was driven to drain the mines on Grassington Moor. (Back)
  7. Dynamite was patented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel, which together with the use of compressed air drills, indicates that the latest technology was being employed. (Back)
  8. 600 fathoms indicates that the level had reached a little beyond the Copper Gill Airshaft. As there is no mention of this in the account, it is likely that the shaft had yet to be sunk. (Back)