Rare ‘time capsule’ cobalt mine abandoned over 200 years ago discovered in Cheshire

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Archaeologist Jamie Lund and caving club leader Ed Coghlan explore mines below Alderley Edge. Photo credit: National Trust / Paul Harris

New discovery at Alderley Edge in Cheshire offers a glimpse into a mine in production during the Napoleonic Wars, with personal objects, equipment and inscriptions the workers left behind.

A cobalt mine, abandoned in the early 19th century, has been discovered at Alderley Edge in Cheshire revealing a ‘time capsule’ of personal objects and equipment the workers left behind.

There has been mining activity at Alderley Edge since pre-historic times. Now owned by the National Trust the mines have been leased since the 1970s to the Derbyshire Caving Club, whose members maintain access and search for areas of mining that have been closed for centuries.

The latest mine to be discovered is believed to have been abandoned around 1810, and it is  rare to find one in such pristine condition. Leather shoes, clay pipes, a metal button from a jacket, along with inscriptions written in candle soot, and mine machinery, were among the objects that were found.

A miner’s shoe

Also uncovered was a clay bowl that had been buried in a wall, a practice that may have been followed by superstitious miners as an offering of thanks for a good vein of mineral. Other discoveries include clearly defined fingerprints in clay used to hold candles, and the imprint of corduroy from a worker’s clothing where he leaned against a wall.

Jamie Lund, National Trust archaeologist said: “This discovery is helping us understand a less well-known chapter in the story of mining at Alderley Edge”

Ed Coghlan from Derbyshire Caving Club said: “To find a mine in pristine condition, together with such personal objects and inscriptions, is rare.”

“It is a compelling window into the past and to the last day when the mine workers stopped their activities,” said Ed.

Discoveries in the mine include this windlass, with its rope still wrapped tightly around it. A windlass is a piece of equipment used to shift large weights or quantities of raw materials. This is the first time such a piece has been uncovered at Alderley Edge.

Cobalt was used widely especially for the blue colouring in pottery and glass. However cobalt mining was short lived in England because imports from the Continent were more plentiful. These had stalled during the Napoleonic Wars between 1803-1815 leading to the search for sources closer to home. 

At this time, the land at Alderley Edge was owned by Sir John Thomas Stanley. He anticipated a lucrative cobalt market, so in 1808 he leased out the rights to the extraction of cobalt ore in a network of his mines, but these were abandoned in 1817 when imports resumed.

Derbyshire Caving Club first made the discovery of the mine in autumn 2021 and has been researching it since. However access was not easy down a long mine shaft and a complex network of tunnels. 

The National Trust has worked with a specialist team to use state of the art technology to create an immersive fly through of the cobalt mine which is now being shared online to give everyone a chance to see inside virtually.

Ed Coghlan of the Derbyshire Caving Club explained: “In the time the Club has been active here, we have explored a number of disused historic mines and made some significant discoveries. But many mines have been filled in with rubble over the years or with sand washed into them by heavy rainfalls or they have been accessible in some form since they were abandoned, so anything of interest had been removed.

“To find a mine in pristine condition, together with such personal objects and inscriptions, is rare. It is a compelling window into the past and to the last day when the mine workers stopped their activities.”

Ed continued: “One of the objects which we had not unearthed in this area before, was the windlass. This was an important piece of mining equipment which we would have expected the workers to have taken with them for use at another mine. It does suggest they were told without much warning to collect their tools and move on, which is not surprising once the cobalt was exhausted, since each day there was a day paying wages.

“We are also intrigued by the initials ‘WS’ with the date ’20th Aug 1810’ that we found written in candle soot in part of the mine, Who was he and what is the significance of the date? We found other more basic initials and numbers in what we believe were the ‘cribs’ or rest areas, as if someone had been learning and practicing their writing. But the ‘WS’ is stylishly written, with quite a flourish. Our research so far has not identified who this could be, Was it just an individual wanting to say, ‘I was here’, or from a visit by a mine manager or estate owner, or could it have been to indicate the last day this mine was in use?”

Who was ‘W.S.’?

Jamie Lund, National Trust archaeologist said: “This discovery is helping us understand a less well-known chapter in the story of mining at Alderley Edge, which has been explored and exploited for 4000 years.

“We are passionate about giving people the chance to explore our industrial heritage and the Caving Club conducts tours of some of the more accessible mines that have been discovered at Alderley Edge. But sometimes locations with impractical access mean we need to find other ways to bring the place to life for visitors. Virtual access is a great way anyone can navigate their way around the mine from the comfort of their armchair and imagine themselves in the boots of the men who worked there. 

“The objects found in the mine have been photographed and catalogued and left where they were found, to remain in the underground conditions which have preserved them. It leaves the mine as a time capsule, protecting a place that was once a hive of activity for future generations to explore and enjoy.”

The immersive fly throughs were funded with support from the Robert Kiln Fund. The work was carried out by Christians Survey & Inspection Solutions and can be viewed now.



Explore the mine discovery in an immersive 3D experience  

Take a look underground at Alderley Edge in this state of the art immersive fly-through. See the newly-discovered mine up close, thanks to cutting edge 3D scanning technology. Click here

Photo credits: National Trust

 

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