A Contemporary Account of the Level

In June 1879, John Henry Wilkinson was enjoying a walking holiday in the Dales during which he maintained a diary. A chance meeting in a Hebden public house led to an invitation to visit Hebden Level. John Wilkinson came from Horsforth, and was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and this entry in the diary gives a contemporary insight into how the level was dug. These extracts have been kindly made available by his grandson, David Allen, through David Joy.

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 customer 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 in what is now Bridge House. It was originally called The Clarendon, renamed The Jolly Miners about 1875, and closed in 1881, a couple of years after John Wilkinson's visit. (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. 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)
  6. 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)