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Borrowdale Wad Mines
Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Cumbria
associated engineer
date  early 1600s onwards
era  Tudor  |  category  Mining/Quarrying  |  reference  NY232124
Above Seathwaite in the Borrowdale Fells are the remains of a famous Lake District industry. The ground has been extensively disturbed and reshaped by the old graphite mines in operation here until 1891.
Graphite — or plumbago or black lead — became a valuable commodity, and the graphite in Borrowdale is of extremely high quality. This pure form of graphite was known as wad. Its presence was behind the development of the pencil manufacturing industry in the Lake District, for graphite was used in 'lead' pencils.
It's unclear when the first deposits were found, though the monks at Furness are thought to have known of it, and it is known that the market for it began to open up in the late 16th century. The first diggings were just holes in the ground — 'wad holes'. In the early 1600s, mining proper was carried out by German miners based at Keswick. These included the Hochstetter family, who used German mining techniques such as tunnels with coffin-shaped profiles.
Pure graphite is a mineral that needs little processing — washing and sorting is about all. That, coupled with the way the deposits are located in clumps (often found by following the veins of quartz) meant that large quantities could be mined and taken to market quickly once located. This led to gluts in the market, and dramatic rises and falls in prices. Eventually, the site was provided with armed guards in an effort to control theft and protect the market.
Besides pencil manufacturing, wad was used to line the moulds for cannon balls and musket balls. Thus it figured in the 'arms race' of the 17th century between England, Holland and France. However, after the 1750s, other casting methods were used, and graphite's use in pencils took over as the main end product.
Water was removed from the main lower mine shaft in 1800, heralding a new phase in mining. Three years later, a huge deposit was found and sold to the local Keswick pencil factories then just getting in their stride. However, by the mid 1830s, the pencil industry was using composites and the demand for pure graphite started to fade. The last of the mines closed in 1891. The local pencil industry now relied on imported graphite.
Research: PD and AJD

Borrowdale Wad Mines