Horse Whimsey

The remains of a horse whimsey underground at a lead mine near Frosterley, 2015. Copyright Eric Draper.

Mine Plan

Cross-section of the lead mine showing the whimsy, from the original plans of 1818. Reproduced by permission of the Durham Records Office Image D/Bo/B352.

Horse Whimsey Sketch

Horse whim formerly used for drawing coals and water. (After Lancon) from 'Underground Life or Mines and Miners' by l. Simonin Chapman and Hall, 193, Paccadilly, London, 1869

Sounding Board Original Location: Frosterley, Weardale
Current Location: Frosterley, Weardale
Theme: Industrial
Period: Post Medieval
Date: 1818

What is it?
The remains of a horse whimsey or whim gin installed underground at a lead mine near Frosterley in the early 1800’s. The whimsy was a horizontal drum on a large vertical spindle. The drum carried a continuous double ended rope with each end attached to a basket. The horse walked round in a circle rotating the drum and as one basket loaded with spoil or lead ore was raised from the levels below the other empty basket descended. After each lift the horse was re-positioned and then walked in the other direction to repeat the cycle.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
Horse whimseys were common in mining operations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A description of lead mining at Allenheads in 1825 describes Haugh Level as having seven whimseys of which one was underground. There are other examples of the sites of horse whimseys underground at Nenthead.

In the Durham County Record Office Archives there is a collection of local documents of the Countess of Coventry whose family had acquired parcels of land in the Wolsingham South Moor Enclosure of 1776. In this collection is an 1818 plan and cross section of a lead mine near Frosterly which, from 1796, had been leased by the London Lead Company. The plans clearly identify the whimsey adjacent to a vertical shaft up which lead ore and spoil would be raised before being taken along the wagon lane to the adit entrance. The whimsey was relatively small compared to those situated on the surface and was used to raise loads from a depth of about 25 metres. The photograph of the remains taken in 2015 show that the vertical spindle is still extant and the remains of the circular wooden gearing can be seen in the background.

Why is it important?
Of the many horse whimseys used in the North Pennines, most were above ground and little evidence of them exists today. The remains at Frosterley, combined with the original plans of the mine, provide insight into the operation of an early technology which replaced simple jack-rollers as mines became deeper.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Coyle, Geoff 2010, The Riches beneath our Feet: How mining shaped Britain. ISBN9780199551293
  • Mackenzie, Eneas 1825, An Historical, topographical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland

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