Lake District pottery

in Water

Since medieval times, the Lake District had its turners producing cups, platters and dishes from birch and sycamore. This rural craft became a famous largescale industry with the rise of the Lancashire cotton industry in the late eighteenth century. Steam-powered cotton spinning mills required millions of wooden reels and bobbins. Between the 1790s and 1860 over 60 bobbin mills were established in the Lake District, mainly in the High Furness area, but as far afield as Caldbeck, Keswick, Eskdale and Howtown. A few were purposebuilt mills, but the majority were adapted from other uses, in particular redundant iron furnaces, woollen mills and corn mills.

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The mills used mainly birch and sycamore, although beech produced smooth centres for large reels and ash, being an elastic wood, was ideally suited for making tool handles and oars. Bobbins were turned on cast iron lathes made locally by Fell at Troutbeck Bridge near Windermere or Braith¬waite at Crook. Bobbin making was a labour-intensive industry and the working conditions continued unchanged well into the mid twen¬tieth century. Staveley near Kendal became the centre of the bobbin turning industry and today the Staveley Woodturning Company still produces turned tool handles.

The decline of the Lancashire cotton industry, the introduction of massproduced plastic bobbins and reels in the twentieth century, ultimately led to the eclipse of this well known Lakeland industry. Only Stott Park Bobbin Mill, to the north of Newby Bridge, dating from 1835 and working until 1971 is now open in the summer months as an excellent industrial museum.

Finally, in order to draw together all the various aspects of the indust¬rial landscapes with a common thread, it is worthwhile to examine water as a vital provider of power. Rivers, streams, tarns and lakes help to give the Lake District its distinctive character. When other areas abandoned water power in favour of steam power, the Lake District continued to rely on it well into the twentieth century. Within the fells, Lake District mining industry was dependent on water power for lifting the are out of the mines, for driving the crushers and for powering the pumps. Within remote areas some of the largest waterwheels in England were to be found in the mid nineteenth century.

To ensure a regular supply of water, elaborate water courses were engineered, running down the valley sides or crossing from one valley to another, a good lesson in water conservation. Fine examples are visible in the upper part of the Coniston Coppermines Valley dating from the 1830s to the 1850s. Within the mining areas the sur¬viving relics show a high degree of skill and ingenuity, from the massive stone dams holding back vast quantities of water, to the masonry-lined mill races and the neatly built, functional wheel-pits. At altitudes well over 1,000ft (300m), one can but marvel at the quality and precision of the massive slate block walls, still surviving long after other buildings and structures have disappeared.

In the more lowland areas no complete waterwheels survive at the old iron working sites, although the bloomsmithies, furnaces and forges were so dependent on water power for operating bellows and hammers. As with the mining sites, the iron industry required a slow axle speed and a constant supply of water for many weeks once a fur¬nace began in blast. Evidence of 'hammer' ponds and mill races can be traced, but within the wooded valleys the vegetation growth makes identification difficult. At the Duddon Furnace the water was channelled through the woods from the River Duddon for over 112 mile, to turn a low breast 27ft (8.5m) diameter wheel. During excavations in 1983 the remains of a wheel were found, preserved in the thick black mud. It dated from the 1820s and was made of pinewood with iron strappings, bolts and connecting plates. During the archaeological dig it was apparent that there had been at least three different sized wheels operating between 1738 and 1867.

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This article was published on 2010/10/08