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The Wharfedale Family History Group held its bi-annual family history day at Addingham Memorial Hall on Saturday 7th May. Our morning speaker was Norman Simpson whose talk was on the subject of Lead Mining in the Dales. It is hard to imagine today the scenic Yorkshire Dales as a place of intense mining activity but lead mining was once a serious business here particularly in the areas known as the Craven and Stockdale faults. Miners worked irregular vertical seams of naturally occurring lead usually alongside other occupations such as farming and textiles. Lead was mined in the Dales as far back as Roman times and the monks of Fountains Abbey mined for lead on Greenhow Hill in the Middle Ages. Evidence of hushing (water scouring of the hillside) can still be seen today in places such as Arkengarthdale. Small railways were constructed to move the lead out of the mines and packhorses were used to bring it down from the hills. Bouse teams sorted the lead ore from the dead rock in circular basins which can still be seen around Grassington as can the circular indented remains of bell pits used to extract lead.

German engineering was introduced in Tudor times to improve techniques for extracting the lead and mid-18th century the Duke of Devonshire revitalised the industry by draining the hillsides and improving the road network. The lead ore was dressed repeatedly to separate the lead which was then smelted into ingots. Poisonous fumes were directed along long flues to chimneys such as the one that can still be seen today at Yarnbury. Unfortunately many other lead mining structures were used for target practice during the 1st and 2nd world wars. Lead mining in the Dales ended in the early 20th century due to overseas competition and contributed to a dramatic decline in local population (6000 plus in Swaledale in 1851 had dwindled to around 2000 by 1951).

Following lunch our afternoon speaker was Gary Brannan whose talk was on the subject of wills at the Borthwick. The Borthwick Institute is located in York University Library and provides a huge family history resource as the repository of wills from 17th century to mid-19th century. Prior to the civil administration of wills in 1858, responsibility for wills and the granting of probate or administration lay with the Church. Various ecclesiastical courts carried out this function but generally wills were proved in York for the north of England and in Canterbury for the south. Prior to the Reformation many wills were written in Latin and included bequests for the deceased’s soul. Wills mainly adhere to a standard format listing different bequests as items. They often contain a wealth of information for family historians as they name family members, explain family relationships and provide addresses and occupations. Where an inventory of possessions survives this can help build a fascinating picture of an ancestor’s life.

No appointment is necessary to visit the Borthwick to consult their index of wills and copies can easily be requested. Original documents can also be viewed by appointment.