7 February 2019


Ghostly lead miners and underground battles—lead mining in Derbyshire.

T'owd man, carving of a lead miner
One of the most iconic images of Derbyshire is the lead miner. Lead has been mined in the county since Roman times, and probably before. The lead miner is a common character in the folklore of the county—particularly in stories like The Little Red Hairy Man. (see my book of Derbyshire Folk Tales)
 In early times lead, like most other minerals—coal, tin, gold (Once a miner, forty-niner and his daughter Clementine...) was mined by one man who dug his little hole and, if he was lucky, found enough ore to keep himself and his family. In Britain though, from the 1700s on, it became more of a proper industry with mine owners who employed men and much larger mines which eventually used a network of canals and railways to move their product.

For Daniel Defoe’s description of his meeting with a Derbyshire lead miner see my YouTube video for the song 6 Jolly Miners also mentioned below: Pete sings 6 Jolly Miners

High Tor, Matlock

If you have seen the scars of lead mining which still mark the hills all around Derbyshire you’ll have noticed that they follow straight lines. The lead ore was found in seams or rakes which were often invisible on the surface so the miners would dig down in a suitable place and then follow the lead under the ground—without really knowing where they were going! In some places—High Tor in Matlock is a good example—the lead was near the surface so instead of holes they dug out great ‘canyons’. When I first saw them I assumed they were 
natural, an earth slip or fault line, possible caves.

It is not hard to understand that someone could start mining in one place and someone else in another and they’d gradually realise that they were mining the same seam from opposite ends! It would lead to trouble! That is the situation in the song: The Blobber and the Windmill Lease.

The Blobber and the Windmill Lease 

was sent to me, along with several other songs, by a friend who hoped I might sing it. (One of the others was 6 Jolly Miners, mentioned above, which had already been a mainstay of my repertoire for many years and is on The Derby Ram CD Info re The Derby Ram CD

I’ve tidied up the words a tiny bit to make it more singable and put it to that well known tune ‘Come All You Tramps & Hawkers’ which is one of those ‘workhorse’ tunes which have carried many different sets of words over the years. It fits like a glove.

The story: The Blobber is an established mine, the Windmill Lease a newly opened one. Blobber’s owners believe that the Windmill Lease is on their seam and to prove it their Agent (manager? overseer? foreman?) comes up with a clever idea: instead of mining the seam thoroughly they just strip off the top soil so that they can trace its course—and it leads straight to the Windmill Lease, who had to close down. This was an actual, historical event in the Wirksworth area in the 1740s when the song was written. Apparently it was still being sung 130 years later but then disappeared.


A more famous parallel to the situation concerned Magpie Mine which is near Sheldon, in the middle of nowhere really, near Bakewell. Whereas most mining remains are just spoil heaps and lumps and bumps, Magpie Mine is well preserved with the buildings and winding gear still fairly intact. The buildings look exactly like the more famous Cornish tin mines which is not surprising because in its later years it was worked by Cornish miners and one of the newfangled Newcomen steam engines, invented in Cornwall, was installed there to drain out the lower reaches which were below the water table. (There was one at Winster as early as 1717).

(There was a lot of interaction between the miners of Cornwall and Derbyshire. Winston Graham mentions it in Poldark which is meticulously researched; Six Jolly Miners has ‘There’s one of us from Cornwall and two from Derby town….’ and the Castleton May Day garland ceremony shares a tune with the Cornish ‘Floral Dance’ (who pinched it from whom!?)) Link to Castleton May Garland
Magpie Mine was at the junction of several seams and there were three other mines nearby. The fact that they were worked by local men and the Magpie by the Cornish added to the rivalry. At one point the Magpie Mine and the Red Soil Pit bumped into each other below the ground. Both insisted that they were in the right and it was their lead. (How you would solve that problem amicably I can’t imagine!) There were pitched battles and both sides tried to smoke out their rivals by lighting fires under ground. Eventually the Magpie miners lit a fire consisting of a toxic mix of straw, and coal tar ( and possibly sulphur) and in the panic which ensued several Red Soil men were suffocated.

Many of the Magpie miners were arrested and held in Derby Gaol and 18 were finally charged with manslaughter, although most of them were acquitted because they hadn’t deliberately set out to kill anyone. After that, for the rest of the 19th century, the Magpie was dogged by bad luck but struggled on until 1958 although it was producing little lead in the latter years. 
It is believed that the widows of the Red Soil miners put a curse on the Magpie and it was, perhaps still is, believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the three dead men.

On the day I went and took the photos used here it was cold and blowing a gale. Very bleak. I didn’t have my camera, only my phone, and the wind was buffeting so strongly it kept on switching it from camera to help. Or perhaps it was the fingers of those ghostly miners!
Other links you might be interested in:

17 January 2019


Songs we should all know.

When I started going to folk clubs in the late 60s there were certain songs which you could guarantee to hear almost every time—so often that, although they might have been decent songs, they became boring. The Wild Rover became notorious and eventually everyone stopped singing it; Will You Go Lassie Go lingered on much longer, and still does to a certain extent especially as a farewell song at the end of the evening; Step It Out Mary, The Leaving of Liverpool, Fathom the Bowl, Jones’s Ale were all sung to death. I’m sure you can add others.

Those of us looking for more ‘serious’ traditional songs took as our ‘Bible’ the famous Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and it often became a competition to see who could sing their particular choice of song learned from that before someone else did. It is a great collection of songs and I still sing many of them. It’s been redone in the last few years with different versions but I don’t think the ‘new’ ones have the immediacy and attractiveness of many of the others even if they are more ‘authentic’ in many ways.

So the songs from that book and Marrowbones became the core repertoire of several generations of folk club performers. They were the songs you were expected to know—not necessarily well enough to perform them but to be aware of.

(I always have trouble with that… “do you know a song called….?” Yes. Will you sing it? Well I don’t know it well enough to sing it, I just know of it.  We need another word to differentiate know and know.)

A while ago a friend gave me a second hand book as a present. It’s English Folk-Song and Dance by Iolo A. Williams published in 1935 in the English Heritage Series by Longmans. The editors were Viscount Lee of Fareham and Sir John Squire, who also wrote the introduction. Iolo Williams is described as ‘Sometime Honorary Secretary of the Folk-Song Society’. They are hardly what you could call true ‘folk’ or even ‘folkies’!

Williams (1890-1962) was an author, journalist and Liberal Party politician. His books include a couple of volumes of his own poetry and several books about poetry and then some non-fiction books about diverse subjects like flowers, book collecting, English water-colours and the firm of Cadbury. 
From the intro to this book I learn that he did some song collecting particularly in Sussex and Surrey. He describes folk music as being the music of the ‘English peasantry’ (although true peasants haven’t existed in England since the Middle Ages.) He lists these as being ‘agricultural labourers, cowmen, shepherds, woodmen, road menders and other such rural wage earners, but also the class just above these in the social scale, the small farmers and other country tradesmen.’ These are the people he thought were a source of songs but not the ones he was writing his book for, they were obviously much more middle class. He lived in that early 20th century class-ridden world of touched forelocks, bicycling vicars, country Squires etc which we know from Agatha Christie novels and the like.
Folk dance '30s style. Village Green or Oxford College?

Part of the book is dedicated to folk dance and it is very much the kind of dance the EFDSS folk dance clubs did—very polite, very ‘proper’. There is also some Morris largely taken from the ideas of Cecil Sharp.

The one thing which struck me most of all when I read the book was how familiar all the songs he mentions are. And how, if you know them all, you have a pretty thorough grounding in the English folk song tradition. (The missing bit would be the more modern industrial songs which were ignored until the 1960s.)

A selection, picked at random, includes: 

The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea; The Trees They Do Grow High; Scarborough Fair; Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor; The Keeper; Raggle Taggle Gypsies; The Loss of the Ramilles; Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles); Jolly Fellows That Follow the Plough; The Farmer’s Boy; The Seeds of Love; Down in Yon Forest; the 12 Days of Christmas; and many more…

Most of those have been in my repertoire at one time or another, some of them still are,  and I could sing a verse or two of most of them—or mumble through the tune at the very least. I know them in the second sense: know of them, am aware of them. Here are links to my version of two of them:

How many of them are sung very often in our folk clubs/festivals today though? There seems to have been a move away from true traditional songs towards new songs or songs written in a mock traditional form. There’s nothing wrong with that but it should be based on a sound knowledge of the tradition. The fact that open mic nights have taken over from folk clubs for many younger people hasn’t helped. Many people do not know what a folk song is.  A while ago someone asked me about the songs I’d performed at a charity gig—”Did you write them?” she asked. “No, they’re folk songs, they’re traditional” I replied. “Yes, but who wrote them?”

Many years ago—probably in the 1980s—I remember reading an opinion that the reason why so many of the really good pop groups of the day were Scots or Irish as opposed to English (they were talking about U2, the Waterboys and so on) was because they had grown up with a background in their own folk music, had probably even played at sessions in the local pubs, whereas English pop groups only knew English/American pop music and were just rehashing what had come before.
Two of Pete's folk tales books

Williams’ other ‘big thing’, and something which I wholeheartedly agree with him on, is that many ‘local songs’ are actually far more widespread. Many, if not most, songs are found all over the country and calling a particular song ‘a Sussex folk song, or a ‘Derbyshire folk song’ is false. It is just that a version was found and popularised in that county. Songs don’t stop being sung just because you’ve crossed the county boundary. A few songs, probably due to the subject matter, are limited to a region (although not necessarily a county) but many spread over at least a quarter of the country and some are found everywhere—with versions in other countries even.

Labelling a song (or folktale) in this way is a very good marketing tool though, as the early collectors like Sharp found, and the tradition has been continued with The History Press’ series of folk tales books and I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone else!
Other links:

Please feel free to leave a comment.