Isle of Man
Some history of the Great Laxey Mine
scale mining for lead began in Laxey in the 1780s. Lead was
increasingly needed for water pipes and roofing, and new shafts were
opened and the mines extended further and deeper into the ground. There
were always problems with water in the mines and there were several
small waterwheels in the valley used to pump out water. in 1836, there
was a massive thunderstorm that flooded the mine workings and drowned
five men. It took six months to pump out the water and reopen the mine.
George William Dumbell who was a major shareholder and chairman of the Great Laxey Mining Company called a directors’ meeting to find a solution to the flooding problem. The answer was a huge and powerful waterwheel. This could be used to drive a set of pumps in the mine shafts that would bring up water and prevent flooding of the lower levels of the mine.
Dumbell wanted the wheel to be a symbol to everyone in the village and the island of the importance of the mine, which was by then employing 600 men. It was painted in bright red, black and white and was clearly seen all over the valley.
Thousands of people turned out for the formal opening of the wheel in 1854. It was named after the wife of the then Lieutenant General, Charles Hope. At 72’6” diameter it is still the largest working waterwheel in the world.
A series of lades was built to collect water from the surrounding hillsides and was collected in a cistern. An underground pipe took the water to the base of the wheel tower. As the cistern was higher than the top of the wheel, water was pushed to the top by gravity.
The ore was carried by tramway to the washing floors lower down the valley.
As output increased, the mine took delivery of two small steam engines, Ant and Bee, that could pull six or seven full trucks of ore. The ore was crushed and washed before being sent by boat to the UK for smelting. There is no coal on the island and it would have been too expensive to import it.
A compressor house was built in 1880 which allowed compressed air to be used in the mines for drilling. A water powered machine referred to as a ‘man engine’ was built in the Welsh shaft. Before then men had to climb up and down a series of wooden ladders at the beginning and end of their shift. Platforms enabled miners to step on and off at the different levels and this reduced the time taken to reach the workings or surface by half.
The 1880s were a difficult time for the mine with increasing unrest with miners complaining that their wage was not enough. Markets were being flooded by cheap foreign imports of lead and share prices were falling. The mine struggled on to the start of the First World War. Although lead was in great demand, links to the rest of the UK were erratic and it was difficult to find vessels to ship out the ore. Many miners had joined up. In 1917, the miners went on strike for better pay. By April all work at the mine had stopped and the British Government stepped in to fund an increase for the miners.
The workforce returned at the end of the war, but the mine had closed again by 1920, causing mass unemployment. In 1922, the company was bought by a local business man in an effort to keep the village alive. He spent three months pumping water out of the mine and told the workers their future and the success of the mine was in their hands. The day to day running of the mine was left in the hands of his son who was a qualified mining engineer.
In 1922 a fire destroyed the crushing mill and badly damaged the washing floors. The mine closed for four months in 1926 during a severe drought. Further bad luck followed in 1928 when torrential rainstorms washed away two bridges in the valley and flooded the mine. Surveys in 1930 indicated the ore deposits were exhausted and, by 1932, the mine was abandoned and entrances sealed.
In 1937, a local builder took out a 15 year lease on the Lady Isabella Wheel to save it from demolition. He bought it in 1937 and sold it to the Manx Government in 1965.
The Wheel has been restored to its Victorian splendour. The washing floors are now owned by Laxey Commissioners and the area has been cleared and landscaped to form Laxey Gardens. A small waterwheel which had worked at the Snaefell mine further up the valley has been restored and erected in a wheel pit in the washing floor. Part of the original Laxey Mines Railway which carried ore from the mines to the washing floors has been reopened with two replica steam locos. The area in Glen Mooar from the Lady Isabella to the Compression House has been bought and is now part of an industrial trail in the care of Manx National Heritage.
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