Heading into the darkness : life as a Victorian miner on Teesside

PUBLISHED: 10:24 12 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:58 20 February 2013

Heading into the darkness : life as a Victorian miner on Teesside

Heading into the darkness : life as a Victorian miner on Teesside

The village of Skinningrove, 15 miles east of Middlesbrough, was once home to the first ironstone mine on Teesside. Today, 160 years on, you can still venture underground and experience life as a Victorian miner...

Today, Skinningrove with itswhitewashed housesand stone church lies quiet again. The gas works have disappeared, the railway sidings are a car park and the mines stables, offices. In the hills farmers have returned to the land.

But Loftus Mine remains and now forms the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, offering visitors the chance to experience life underground in the 1800s.

Loftus is run by volunteers and has none of the trappings of a commercial enterprise: a few laminated black and white photos illustrate the life of Victorian miners; a handful of pamphlets and the odd postcard make up the shop. If you fancy a coffee someone nods to the vending machine in the corner.

But somehow its all rather refreshing and the down-to-earth approach and friendliness of the volunteers adds a certain charm to the place.

A visit to the mine is by guided tour only. Ours began with a potted history, a video (that was just the right length) and a walk through the massive ventilation shaft to the North Drift, one of its main haulage tunnels.

Here a second guide took over, greeting us as miners, and revelling, it seemed, in playing the role of our shift leader. He sat us on benches in a small hut, issued us with Victorian buttys (small tokens with numbers on so shift leaders could keep track of who was underground) and handed us (with less of a flourish) a modern hard hat. We were ready to enter the shaft.

In the1800s miners wore flat caps, a tradition that continued for nearly 80 years until mine owners were forced to become more safety conscious. In the 1930s flat caps were banned: workers were issued with papier mache hats instead!

We followed our guide, one by one, into the arched tunnel. It sloped so imperceptibly that I smashed my head more than once. On our right was a makeshift track, where wagons or tubs of rocks, collected from the rock face and brought by boys and pit ponies, were hauled out of the mine via a simple pulley system.

At the bottom of the tunnel doors opened onto a warren of mine shafts.

The highlight of our tour took us to the rock face. Despite the subtle emergency lighting and a couple of LED candles flickering on rocky ledges, it wasnt difficult to imagine what life must have been like working underground.

Istood, shoulders hunched,in a shored-up tunnel which in Victorian times would have smelt of horse manure, candle wax, urine and sweat.

The woman next to me dug out her gloves; a girl shivered in her thin jacket. But for the 800 men and boys it would have been warm enough.The warmth attracted rats.But rodents were welcome for as long as they were alive miners knew the air was safe to breathe.

Our guide showed us how the men worked in the 1800s: drilling a hole three feet deep (by throwing a spear-like implement at the rock for up to 45 minutes) packing it with explosives and lighting a fuse (the squib) which cost them dear if it failed to ignite: hence the expression adamp squib.

We lit our own squib, ran for cover and waited for the blast. A few seconds later a boom echoed through the drift. We returned to find fallen rocks and smoke apyrotechnics expertwould have been proud of.

Our group, eight adults, entered into the spirit of things, congratulating each other heartily. We were assured that when thewheelbarrows came over the hill(guarded by a local bobby) on payday, wed be duly rewarded for our efforts.

As I left Skinningrove I wondered what my bank manager would think if I trundled my wheelbarrow of shillings towards him, requesting a deposit.

Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, Deepdale, Skinningrove, Saltburn, TS13 4AP, tel: 01287 642877, www.ironstonemuseum.co.uk Open: Apr-Oct, Mon-Sat, 10.30am-3.30pm. Visit by guided tour.


The village of Skinningrove, 15 miles east of Middlesbrough, was once home to the first ironstone mine on Teesside. Today, 160 years on, you can still venture underground and experience life as a Victorian miner. Karen Bowerman donned a hard hat and headed into the darkness.

As I drove towards the tiny coastal village of Skinningrove (15 miles east of Middlesbrough in Northeast England) it was strange to think there was a grid of tunnels, six miles square, running through the hills barely 60 feet below.

The tunnels belonged to Loftus Mine, the first ironstone mine on Teesside, built after the discovery of the so-called Skinningrove seam in the 1850s.

The seam led to Britains iron rush and turned the small, agricultural community which gave it its name, into a thriving mining town - right at the heart of Teessides steel industry.

For the next 100 years the region produced a quarter of Englands iron (around six and a half million tons a year) and was nicknamed Ironopolis.

But by the early 1950s the industry was on the decline with mining companies unable to compete with cheaper and purer imports from Australia and South Africa.


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