Family History Notebook

Home’s history carved from rich seam of mining industry

Last updated 13:23, Thursday, 08 May 2008

LEAD can be a magnet just like iron, and there is a tiny nugget of proof in the records of Lane House near Newbrough.

In the 1880s it was home to the large Swindle family. As Lane House is typical of a small upland farmstead, you might expect its inhabitants to be farmers, but all the Swindle males over 13 were lead miners.

How they came to be in Newbrough is part of a long story featuring the magnetic effect of lead.

In the time of Henry VIII, a super-efficient method of smelting metal was developed down in Somerset. The 16th century had its entrepreneurs too, and this new technology was soon being exploited in the evolving lead mines of the north.

With the technology were drawn the men who knew how to work it – men like the Swindales, Swindalls or Swindles.

There is some evidence that one branch of the family came from the region around Ullswater, Kirkby Stephen and Brough in Cumberland, where Swindale Beck, Swindale Wood, Swindale Heads, Swindale Grange and Swindale Common can all be found, but another hotbed of Swindles/Swindales was the lead mines of Derbyshire.

By the 18th century the North Pennines had ousted all contenders for the title of top lead producer in England, and the jobs boom attracted skilled miners from all over the country – hence the impressive crop of Swindles in the Allen Valleys.

In the 1850s Newbrough had two thriving lead mines, one situated at Settlingstones, worked by Messrs. Hall, and the other the Stonecroft Lead Mine Company, on the property of Nicholas Todd, Esq.

It’s possible that the Swindles of Lane House had shifted from Allendale to join the 200 men Newbrough’s lead mines employed at their peak.

It was reasonable money, but a hard life. The men were paid either by how much lead ore was actually on the sledge when the overseer called time, or by the square fathom dug, that is, six feet high and six feet forward into the vein.

Robert Swindle was aged 50 when the 1881 Census captured him living at Lane House with his 48-year-old “lead miner’s wife” Hannah. He had two lead mining sons – Thomas was a “barytes miner” so he probably worked at Settlingstones where this newly-important mineral was extracted for use in modern industrial processes to make cement,glass, rubber and foam.

Lane House also sheltered Robert and Hannah’s four daughters – two married, two spinster – and an assortment of grandchildren plus a niece.

The Swindles moved several times – probably job relocations. Robert was born in Carrshield and married Hannah at Ninebanks, which supports the idea that he came from the West Allen lead mining tradition. He lived at Hearty Cleugh west of Carrshield, and at Haydon Bridge, before moving to Newbrough’s Lane House.

One of the Swindle family’s nearest neighbours was Henry Oxley, who farmed 46 acres at Purdham Stone. Could this be a reference to Prudhamstone House? This property just south-east of Lane House was named for another valuable resource from the Newbrough area – Prudham stone.

The stone from the Prudham Quarry was used to build some of the best bits of Newcastle and was exported 300 miles south to London and 100 miles north to Glasgow and Edinburgh, such was its appeal.

The Prudhamstone Quarry gave work to 200 men, and its ruined crane bases and bridges can still be seen, though most of the quarry is now beneath a plantation of trees.

So, at the time Lane House was built, probably at the end of the 18th or early 19th century, the parish of Newbrough was a good place to settle.

It’s known that the village could boast three amazingly long-lived residents at that time – Jane Hogarth lived to 106, Alice Wilson made 111, and Ann Simons kept going to the amazing age of 115.

But had these wonderful old crones lived in Newbrough 150 years earlier, they might not have been so celebrated.

In the 17th century, to be an old woman with a snaggle tooth, hooked chin and flyaway grizzled hair was often enough to get you marked down for a witch.

Old Meg of Newbrough was one of these unfortunate senior citizens, burned at the stake and buried with an iron spike through her charred heart to stop her ghost wandering.

It’s not known whether Meg was found guilty of wishing boils on the butcher’s wife or giving a neighbour’s donkey the staggers. All we know today is that her ashes were buried in the watery dene that now bears her name, and a pink thorn tree is supposed to blossom each spring over her grave. Meggie’s Dene burn runs just to the west of Lane House.

And poor old Meg was far from the only Northumberland witch to encounter a tough stake.

Records show that at least 22 local women – and one man – were executed in this county between 1604 and 1682 for alleged indulgence in the Black Arts.

At Morpeth Sessions in 1673, Ann Armstrong testified against the 12-strong coven of Riding Mill. She said they took on the form of cats, hares and bees when they danced.

And at Newcastle in 1649, the Toon went wicca-mad, importing a Scottish witch-finder called Cuthbert Nicholson and promising him 20 shillings (£135 today) for each witch he revealed.

The Newcastle bellman “Oh Yeah’d” round the city urging people to report suspected witches, and soon 30 women were brought to the Town Hall for a strip search – the expert could tell a witch-mark on sight.

He declared 14 witches and they were duly hung on the Town Moor. Nicholson was then invited to continue his successful purge in Northumberland, where the county fathers offered him £3 per witch (£405 today)!

Fate caught up with witch-finder Nicholson. He was later exposed as a fraud who used a retractable pin which would seem to pierce skin without drawing blood – a sure sign of a witch. He admitted causing the deaths of 220 women and ended on the scaffold himself.

At Newbrough they had long had their own, very old protection against such horrors – despite the hard line taken against Old Meggie. One of Northumberland’s holiest springs – St Mary’s Well, famed in medieval times for its miracle cures – is next to the village church.

And even the witch-named Meggie’s Dene Burn, which runs close to Lane House, has its holy associations. It is fed by a spring sacred for two thousand years to the Celtic water goddess Coventina.

 Lane House, Newbrough, is for sale through Strutt and Parker at Morpeth.