Subterranean heritage: exploring the environmental history of lead mining soughs

Strand leader: Georgina Endfield


Our strand of the project focuses on the importance of water and drainage in the lead mining history of the Derbyshire Peak District. To drain the water that accumulated in mine workings, miners bored so-called levels (adits) to sustain operations at deeper levels by diverting water into the nearest natural watercourse. In Derbyshire these artificial underground watercourses were known as ‘soughs’. The heritage of these drainage operations stands as a reminder of our dependence on the ‘services of nature’, our capacity for shaping them, and the intertwined role of these two factors in our ongoing relationships with the environment, and how we understand and memorialize these histories.


Project: Conserving Subterranean Heritage: An Environmental History of the Derbyshire Soughs.  (Carry van Lieshout)


The Magpie Mine Sough (a drainage tunnel) discharges water into the River Wye. Started in 1873, this 2km tunnel drains the Magpie Mine near the village of Sheldon, Derbyshire. Source: Wikimedia Commons


This project 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.  Soughs were constructed between the late 17th and late 19th centuries to expel water from mine shafts of the Peak District lead mining area into nearby rivers, thus permanently lowering water levels and displacing large quantities of water. While the soughs allowed the lead miners to access ore deeper below the natural groundwater level, the displaced water could be used at the ‘tail end’ of the sough as a source of water supply or water power. As such, the soughs formed a physical and cultural connection between major local industries, populations and land owners. The project combines archival investigation and interviews with contemporary stakeholders to comprehend the physical and cultural contexts in which the soughs were constructed and used, and aims to help tackle the challenges to the conservation of this unusual and neglected aspect of Britain’s underground industrial and natural heritage.

A view of Peakshole Sough which was constructed to drain Wall End mine in the late 1700s. Source: Photo by: Ashley Dace

A view of Peakshole Sough which was constructed to drain Wall End mine in the late 1700s. Source: Photo by: Ashley Dace

The soughs were constructed at a time when water was both a major hindrance to mining endeavour and yet was the primary energy source for industrial expansion, so that historical disputes surrounding sough drainage were common. While conflicts between mines and mills may be a thing of the past, soughs continue to provoke water management concerns. Natural degeneration but also management actions have altered their drainage, meaning that water levels change as well. Their location in the Peak District means that many soughs drain to rivers or wetlands that have SSSI or other conservation status, in some cases leading to conflicts of natural versus industrial heritage. In other places soughs are an essential part of the water supply.

The research focuses on the changing relationships between this built heritage and the past and present cultures it affected and continues to shape. In particular, we will gain a deeper appreciation of the role of soughs in historical and contemporary water resource conflicts, while evaluating their impacts on the cultural and natural landscapes of Britain’s first national park (Peak District) and the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, the project investigates layered and fluid notions of ownership over subterranean land and water.

The focus of this project strand will be several case studies of sough-related conflicts, ranging from the late 17th century to today and juxtaposing different sets of stakeholders. The project will collaborate with the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Peak District National Park Authority, as well as with local historical mining interest grounds such as the Mining Museum and the Peak District Mining Historical Society.