Tag Archives: Industrial Revolution

Podcast: Environmental history of a hydrological landscape: the soughs of Derbyshire

Under the Peak District of Derbyshire is an subterranean network of drainage tunnels, the so-called soughs that were used to drain the lead mines of the region.

Up till the 16th century most lead mining In the Peak District done on the surface and miners followed horizontal seams. By then the surface seams were exhausted and miners had to sink shafts to reach rich underground seams. By the 17th century most mines were down to the water table. To prevent the mines from filling up with water drains or ‘soughs’ were cut through the hills to a neighboring valley. The construction of soughs changed the hydrological landscape of the Peak District, both below ground and above. In some cases the soughs not only drained mineshafts but also the small rivers above, which as a result were dry most of the year. The construction of soughs also reduced the flow of watercourses powering the mills of the early Industrial Revolution. This led to legal conflicts between sough builders and others who relied on the availability of water. Petitions were submitted to the courts and many of these court cases rumbled on for decades.

During the 20th century the soughs were largely forgotten but recently the soughs have been rediscovered for their industrial heritage on the one hand, and their detrimental effect on the hydrology of the landscape, pitting heritage values versus ecological restoration, creating a new battle ground of interests.

This edition of the Exploring Environmental History podcast examines the environmental history of the Derbyshire Soughs with Carry van Lieshout, a historical geographer at the University of Nottingham. She works on a research project that investigates the environmental and cultural history of the Derbyshire soughs in order to inform understandings of this largely forgotten cultural landscape and to develop management and conservation strategies for underground heritage.

Further reading

From Lead to Tail: an Environmental History of the Derbyshire Soughs. Poster presented by Carry van Lieshout at the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal, July 2014.

Peter Coates, Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?), The Power and the Water blog, 5 Nov. 2014.

D. Ford and Rieuwerts, J., Lead miners’ soughs in Derbyshire, Geology Today, 23 (2007): 57–62. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2451.2007.00604.x


Music credits

Like Music (cdk Mix, 2013 & 2014)” by cdk, available from ccMixter

Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:

Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?)

By Peter Coates

In Alaska, environmentalists are currently fighting a proposed coal mine in the watershed of the Chuitna River, 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. This strip mine will not only destroy salmon spawning grounds. It will literally remove 11 miles of the Chuitna’s Middle Creek tributary by mining through and therefore dewatering it. If the project goes ahead, there will be no mystery about why Middle Creek disappeared.

In the former lead mining areas of Derbyshire’s Peak District, there’s a disappearing river too. But there’s also a sense of mystery about its strange behaviour. One of the Key Stage 2 activities that the Lathkill Education Service attached to the Lathkill Dale National Nature Reserve runs for local schools is ‘why the river disappears – solve the mystery of the disappearing River Lathkill through this investigation of the geology and wildlife of the area’ [1] (‘kill’, incidentally, means ‘creek’, ‘stream’ or ‘channel’ in old Middle Dutch, and was a name attached in the seventeenth century to creeks and streams across what became the northeastern United States – as in Kill Van Kull, Bronx Kill and Schuylkill River). Natural England, which manages the Lathkill Dale reserve – one of five reserves that make up the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve – also refers to the Lathkill’s ‘vanishing act’. As Natural England proceeds to explain, the upper river’s disappearance is part of the legacy of the two lead mines (established in 1740 and 1797 respectively) that operated in Lathkill Dale until the mid-nineteenth century: ‘the soughs are responsible for causing the river to dry out today’ [2]. ‘Where has the river gone? is also the question posed on the interpretative board that Natural England has erected at the bottom of the ladder that leads to the mine shaft under Bateman’s House (an engine house converted into a dwelling for the mine agent and his family, though empty since the 1840s).

signage Bateman’s House

‘Where has the river gone?, interpretative signage, Bateman’s House (photo: Peter Coates)

Who (or what) has been messing about with the Lathkill? Our project team meeting in Derbyshire in early October provided the opportunity to find out. Our schedule included a field trip to Lathkill Dale, one of the key sites for Carry’s and Georgina’s study of the area’s soughs – underground channels forged to drain water from the area’s lead mines. Our walk began down in the dale at a point where our guide, John Barnatt, an archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority, could stand with his back to the (at the time) water-less Lathkill River, whose peculiar annual lifecycle we now began to piece together.

Field trip

John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park Authority, with his colleague, Sarah Whitelaw (in red), and members of the project team, including (to Sarah’s immediate right) sough investigators Georgina Endfield and Carry van Lieshout (Photo: Peter Coates)

The Lathkill River is not exactly unique, though. It’s normal for streams running through limestone strata riddled with a network of natural caves to flow underground in summer or periods of drought when water levels are low. But this seasonal tendency is accentuated by the construction of soughs that lowered the water table and created a network of diversionary channels that can capture river water.

For some, the river’s seasonal disappearance is a problem to be resolved. (This interest group includes anglers: the Lathkill brown trout is a renowned quarry that merits inclusion in James Prosek’s definitive compendium, Trout of the World [2003], in which Prosek quotes the comment [1653] of a friend of Izaak Walton, James Cotton, that the Lathkill ‘breeds the reddest and the best Trouts in England’ [3].) Because of what Natural England refers to on its Bateman’s House signage as the ‘dramatic’ impact on the river and its wildlife, the managing agency is ‘currently exploring means of sealing the riverbed’ so that the water does not drain off into Magpie Sough. Whether this waterproofing remedy will be sufficient in itself to restore a perennial flow to the Lathkill is now increasingly debated, however. Since some of the river’s water travels through Magpie Sough, plans now focus on the establishment of some sort of blockage in the sough in addition to sealing the riverbed – and this blocking proposal is a major source of controversy (many thanks, Carry, for bringing this latest development to my attention).


A (fluvio-centric) view from under the bridge across to Bateman’s House (Photo: Peter Coates).

But has the river really disappeared? And what do those who want to ‘improve’ the sometimes dry river want to restore? A living river? An attractive recreational resource for anglers? Rather than dwell on the seasonal absence of water or the fortunes of fish (during dry spells, trout can be trapped by receding water levels and this entails relocation), we might want to think about attaching a new story to the Lathkill, a story that diverts attention to the seasonal presence of a riverbed carpeted lush vegetation, for example. For me – as an outsider visiting for the first time and someone who has no stake in the debate – the problem is not so much the seasonal disappearance of the river’s water, but our generic expectations of what a river should be. After all, though the Lathkill’s liquid content may vanish on a regular basis, its form and overall function remain the same. This replacement narrative tailored to this particular body of water might begin by reclassifying the Lathkill as an intermittent stream. This would elevate it to the respectable international company of a distinctive type of watercourse that includes the arroyo seco ([seasonally] dry stream) of southwestern North America. This would also underscore its status as a different river rather than a lesser one (compared, that is, to a ‘proper’ river). And if the privilege of re-naming the intermittent stream that flows through Lathkill Dale were mine, I would not hesitate to call it the Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill.

It is a shame that the cause of preservation is often reduced to a clash between the attributes of cultural heritage and those of natural heritage, with the respective interests of History and Nature being advanced by ‘the archaeologists’ and ‘the historians’ and the one hand and ‘the ecologists’ on the other. Environmental historians, it seems to me, are well positioned to reconcile these two often warring positions.

Lathkill River

The Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill, aka Lathkill River (Photo: Peter Coagtes).

linear pasture

The Lathkill, even when drained of its liquid content, is anything but dry. On the damp day of our visit, I got soaked from my boots to above my knees walking down its lush linear pasture (Photo: Peter Coates


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves

[2] Natural England, Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve (2010), p. 3.

[3] James Prosek, ‘Trout of the World’, Field and Stream, October 2003, p. 77.


Reflections on the ground and the grid: framing infrastructure and connectivity

By Paul Warde

In a collection of autobiographical interviews, Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney refers at one moment to ‘no longer being part of the ground, but part of the grid’. He was thinking about the changes in farming since his childhood, brought up as the eldest son of a cattle trader and smallholder in County Derry. It’s one of those comments that we can instinctively understand, and we know Heaney as perhaps the pre-eminent poet of the ground: of the bog bodies, the ‘narrow ground’ of Irish sectarianism, of his farming childhood.

And yet… what is the difference being evoked here: between ‘the grid’ and ‘the ground’? Heaney did not grow up on some kind of subsistence holding. His father may have largely plied the fairs and farms of Derry, but the cattle he traded were destined for British markets and he also sometimes took the ferry across the North Channel. Many of the objects and machines that Heaney writes about do not belong to some ur-world of ancient farming practice, but came with mechanization and are the output of late nineteenth and twentieth century factories. Having once worked at the Ulster Folk Museum I am familiar with this stuff myself, having a particular fondness for the planes made by Alexander Mathieson & Son at their Saracen Works in Glasgow until 1966 (my grandfather had a set of their tools for his cabinetmaking). It’s hard to imagine that my grandchildren will view anything I get from Screwfix today in the same light. The tools of two or three generations ago were factory-made, smelted and wrought in a coal-fired world that wrecked people’s lungs, dissolved our buildings, choked plantlife and acidified watercourses. And yet, retrospectively, they seem to belong to a somehow more human world, as things that still extended our capacities rather than supplanted us. And in that, them having a poetics is entirely justified. Is there a poetics of the mobile phone or the microwave? Or is this a blinkered view of past technology, and connections lost – the conceit of every generation confronted with the shock of the new?

So what’s the difference between the ground and the grid? In some ways, it seems to me that project The power and the water turns around this distinction: examining both the reasons why we recognise it, but also its complications. Our connections with the basic utilities for life – and by extension nature itself – have been repeatedly re-wrought since the Industrial Revolution. How, and with what consequences? When did this process begin, is it continuous or episodic, and how are certain ‘expected connections’ hard-wired into us during this process? The difference between a world of ground and grid can’t just lie in new connections with outside markets, or the use of technological aids or external power sources; steam power has been around for three centuries, for example. Commerce, on a greater or lesser scale, for much longer. For Heaney there was certainly, I think, an issue of the value of weightiness, living on the land but also where tools and machines were things that could be propelled by hand or that the hand can know. Even when fired by coal we feel their work partakes of our life. And indeed isn’t coal, which you have to shovel into an engine or a boiler, still open-handed ground in all its mineral certainty? All qualities that the grid, the tablet and mobile phone don’t have, even if somewhere down the wires is a power station immolating a million tons of coal dust. Heaney’s poetic objects are freighted: their mass can breach time, whether back to an ancient Danish bog, or the yard – the haggard – of an off-the-grid farm in the 1940s. In Heaney, even souls have body: an extraordinary lightness, and yet still belong to that material world that weighs into us. In contrast, the grid is somehow completely intangible. A nothing.

Of course, what sustains modern grids and infrastructure is far from intangible: it has a massive ecological footprint, it involves enormous quantities of concrete and minerals. And yet, in everyday life, in the life we take in hand, it’s not there. You can certainly feel the power when you stand next to an enormous transformer field, or the connector at Hinkley B nuclear plant that conveys the electricity from the power station’s dynamos out to the grid: the largest plug you will ever see. But how many people have ever seen these things? Of course, we can ask the same of a river. It is not hard, standing at a river’s mouth, to think of the soft stream in the hills which becomes the mighty Tyne. But how many people think of this when they turn on a tap or run the washing machine? Did industrialisation and deindustrialisation respectively bring people closer to, or distance them from their rivers – in the case of the Tyne a flow whose notions of greatness we attach to it are surely connected with the mining and heavy industry that stood along it? These questions can, perhaps, be answered as matters of fact and knowledge: what do you think are the sources of the water and power you use? But they are also part of our imaginative infrastructure, or put another way, a kind of structure of insight that everyday life drills into us.

These questions put me in mind of Melanie Challenger’s 2013 book On Extinction, in which she begins looking out her window over heathland in Cornwall, and pondering the death of the tin mining industry. A book you might expect to be about species – and that takes us from Cornwall to Antarctica to northern Canada and back to good old Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire – is as much an inner journey, understanding extinction as being about what we choose to remember. We all and everything will be extinct; in that sense, extinction is completely unremarkable; it’s just death. So to think about extinction is a choice of words, a way of talking about the past and relating to it in the present. This seems interesting to me as a way of thinking about the changes that encompass our industrial heritage: the soughs of Derbyshire and the lost shipyards of the Tyne – to the environmental impact of industrialisation, and what rewilding might mean in the future. Are there distinct or common ways of grappling with extinction that are, so to speak, connected to our habitual connections and associated expectations?

In 1979 the art historian Rosalind Krauss wrote an essay on grids in modernist painting, describing an aesthetic that was ‘flattened, geometricized, ordered… antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. For Krauss, the modernist grid mimicked the logic of modernist society, producing a valueless, purely functional and exchangeable (or interchangeable) space. This argument puts me in mind of Robert Sacks’ book on Human territoriality, and J.C.Scott’s famous Seeing like a state. Scott essentially reverses Krauss’s thinking to argue that modernist infrastructure was in many ways an aesthetic choice imposed on the world, rather than the aesthetics being a response to mass production and industrial society. But all these treatises have something in common: they associate modernity, the grid, with the abolition of place. Modernity brings about a state of connections that are so complete and effortless their effects are to disconnect, leaving people with an unsavoury sense of dependence on forces that you cannot influence (you cannot even pray to them, or give libations and sacrifices). In fact, a state of being that may be enabling, yet disempowering.

Of course connections to grids – electrical, water and other – were often and still are seen as hugely welcome, markers of civilization – that word still certainly being used in interwar Britain – and opportunity: Here the grid has both ‘a vigorous free spirit and a propensity to control’ in the words of another art historian, Hannah Higgins. So it could be that rather than imposing some order on history, we will find ourselves writing the history of paradoxes.

Ground is what we feel beneath our feet: it steadies us, is as irreducible as nature (irreducibility being the very definition of nature according to Kant). Grid in contrast is at once rigid and boundless, entirely abstract. But such antimonies aren’t necessarily between hand and network, natural and artificial, or say, face-to-face relations and impersonality. At least, maybe the history that moves us from a world that seems more grounded to one that appears, Matrix-like, to emanate from the logic of the grid itself, is not so much a descriptive history of ‘material flows’ and their consequences, but a history of how we have imagined the (literally) unsettling experience of changes to our environments. Confronted with actual locations these oppositions – ground/grid, personal/impersonal, real/abstract – become ways to describe aspects of the experience, not a way we can absolutely categorise places. Indeed ‘The environment’ for me is a way of describing that very awkwardness; a word that describes everything outside yet connects it, in an act of solipsism, to ourselves; a way of talking about nature that makes it ‘of us’, and that connects it to abstraction. But it’s not something that we generally feel. Can you feel the environment in your bones, or wherever you do the feeling thing? As we currently think about the concept, I doubt it. The age of ‘environment’ is not age of connection, but more of a sensibility that we have got ahead of ourselves; something that demands policy, although for uncertain ends. It is, perhaps, the perfect idiom for what some of us now call the Anthropocene, time strung between the ground and the grid.

Co-production of knowledge: shaping the research framework of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site

By Carry van Lieshout and Georgina Endfield

The Silk Mill Museum

The Silk Mill Museum. Source: Wikipedia


The Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site stretches along the river Derwent in Derbyshire, and incorporates the early industrial mills of this area. These include the Silk Mill in Derby, were John Lombe introduced water-powered silk spinning, as well as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, considered the birthplace of the factory system that allowed water-powered continuous production. Arkwright’s technology as well as his model of worker’s settlements were copied along the course of the river and beyond, as the mechanisation of cotton production spread out over the world. Because of the central role many of these mills played in the Industrial Revolution, a 15 mile stretch of the Derwent Valley was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. The site is managed by the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, which also produces books and educational material about the mills and the valley’s wider significance.

The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership is currently planning its new research framework, funded by English Heritage, and has organised 4 workshops to develop research objectives on a series of broad themes. The author’s of this blog post, Georgina and Carry attended the first one of these workshops on March 17. While preliminary meetings had identified a range of topics or questions that have either received little attention or could benefit from more analysis, these topics needed to be brought together into narratives in order to form a coherent research strategy. This strategy will essentially be a synthesis of current views of research priorities and will be useful for future projects or funding applications. While most of the broad themes were not specifically sough related, our input is allowing us to shape their research strategy by contributing cutting edge views from the field of environmental history and by offering power and water as potential narratives to study this area.

The workshop was held at the Silk Mill in Derby. This mill had originally been constructed by George Sorocold and became the first mill in England to use water power to mass-produce silk. The Silk Mill is currently being reinvented as a venue for co-production, creativity and knowledge exchange, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, and its combination of large open spaces, river views and interesting nooks and crannies make it an inspiring venue for a meeting.  Fuelled by regular biscuit breaks and a lunch trip to a very pleasant local deli, we participated in a broad ranging set of discussions with our focus group.

Flip chart

Our focus group at work. Photo: Carry van Lieshout

The group was a mix of academics from a variety of universities and disciplines, local historians, representatives of diverse museums, conservation societies and researchers from the other mills. We split into groups to tackle the 3 themes of the day: Changing Interpretations of the Derwent Valley, Industry and Trade before the Factory System, and the Enlightenment. The format was that each group would come up with 3 Research Objectives for each theme, each of which would combine several of the research topics. The projected outcome at the end of the series of workshops will be a Research Agenda and Strategy for the Derwent Valley Mills Heritage Site in book and web form. An earlier example of such a research strategy document for East Midlands Heritage, which this process was based on, has been successful in identifying viable projects and guiding funding applications. The wealth of untapped resources and narratives that could be studied in the context of the Derwent makes us hopeful that this series of workshop will do the same!