Pupils from Upper Wharfedale School have been investigating Hebden Gill’s industrial heritage in their annual archaeological ‘Big Dig’. Victoria Benn went along to investigate.

Hebden Gill offers one of the most picturesque walks in the Yorkshire Dales. Travelling northwards out of Hebden village up Town Hill, you pass the impressive waterfall, Scale Force. Next, a steep climb up the hill and you reach the small hamlet of Hole Bottom, which is the gateway to Hebden Gill. The Gill itself is a steep sided mini ravine, flanked to the right by dramatic outcrops of rock, home to a multitude of cascading waterfalls, and to the left by the beck, which frolics and burbles southwards over and around huge grit-stone boulders.

However, if time could be wound back 150 years, it wouldn’t be ramblers and runners enjoying this inspirational scene; it would be miners, ore dressers and smelters walking the two or so miles to work. Then, after a 12 hour shift, they would walk the two miles back home. Hebden Gill at this time, rather than being the beautiful idyll we perceive it as today, would have been full of working mine shafts, powered by churning water wheels, with spoil heaps dotted around.

The sky would have been littered with aerial ropeways transmitting power, and perhaps worst of all, would have been the presence of a Smelt Mill. The job of the Smelt Mill was to smelt the raw lead ore down to produce lead ingots.

Furnace temperatures of around 700c were required to do this, and poisonous gases created as a by-product would have been released into the atmosphere through a large chimney.

In the 1850s Hebden Gill was part of, and archetypal of the Industrial Revolution which was transforming Britain.

The ‘Big Dig’ is a unique concept that the school has developed to enable its Summer School pupils to learn about local history in a fun and practical way. Always popular, this is the fourth dig the school has organised, though the first one on this site.

“We have been very lucky to run the dig here at Hole Bottom Farm. This whole area is just heaving with evidence of man’s past activities,” revealed John Mitton, head of humanities at Upper Wharfedale School. “The Joy and the Hoole family, who have owned this hamlet for generations, have been tremendously generous loaning us a holiday cottage for the week. And David Joy, who is a well respected local historian, provided a full tour of the Hebden lead mining operation for the pupils.”

Over the course of the week twenty local children aged 10 to 16 worked alongside professional archaeologists from Community Archaeology and Bordley Township Project, with the aim of uncovering some of the secrets from Hebden Gill’s industrial past. Much is known and documented about the industrial workings of the Gill. However, much is still unclear. Most of the buildings associated with the industry were destroyed when the mines closed, so the objectives of the team has been to find artefacts and evidence to augment earlier research into the mines’ activities, and the lives of its workers. With these objectives in mind the group decided to investigate two sites around the farm; these being the sites of what were believed to have been a smelter’s cottage, and mine storage buildings.

Working as junior archaeologists, the team initially scanned all the areas to be investigated with a Magnetometer and metal detectors to reveal a picture of what might be lying beneath the surface.

Following this, ‘trenches’ were marked out to determine the exact place for their excavations. ‘Excavations’ in the archaeological sense means uncovering, cleaning, identifying and recording findings. Lead seams traverse much of the land across the Dales, indeed Grassington and Yarnbury lead mines were in production in the 1500s. By the early 1800s though, they were starting to produce significantly less, and so prospecting for lead began on Hebden Moor. Mining started in earnest on Hebden Moor in 1854, and from this time until 1862 the Hebden Moor Mining Company extracted just short of 2000 tons of ore, totalling over £1 million worth of sales in today’s money. It was a short lived boom, however, as after 1862 extraction fell off dramatically as Bolton Gill, the main mine shaft, had seemingly run out of ore.

The company persevered with further prospecting at different sites, and with exploration at deeper levels within Bolton Gill. Unfortunately all their endeavours were fruitless, and so reluctantly in 1888, the Hebden Moor Mining Company went into liquidation. When the company closed, the smelt mill, aerial ropeway and other buildings were demolished, allowing Hebden Gill to begin its regeneration into the breathtaking countryside that we know and love today.

By the end of their week, the group had uncovered the foundations of the smelters’s cottage. The full shape of the building was revealed, as well as all the interior walls. From within the walls several pieces of pottery were discovered as well as a Victorian coin.

A piece of prehistoric flint was also found on the site confirming early habitation by man. “Artefacts like these enable us to better understand the lives of people from a past which has no living memories, and no photos to document it; they are absolutely invaluable,” enthused Kev Cale, director of Community Archaeology. “It’s been a great week and the team have worked incredibly hard, showing respect for each other, and great dedication to their work as junior archaeologists.” It is planned that the school’s archaeology club will continue to work on the site, and in due course an official "excavation report" will be published outlining all their findings.

For that brief moment when the sod was rolled back the industrial past of Hebden Gill was transported back to the present. More magical still, in an era of pollution and neglect, is this team of local youngsters passionate about local history, proactively preserving the industrial heritage of our Dales.