Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

The Company of Quakers

Gazetter entry

High up on the moors above the small Pennine town of Alston lies an area of open moorland bleak, windswept and inhospitable at the best of times, where even today the Pennine Way keeps to the valleys. Travelling through this area at the end of the 17th Century two Quaker women were so concerned by the conditions of the lead miners and their families that they sponsored the involvement of the Quakers in lead mining with the formation of the 'Quaker Company' - or so the story goes - though there is nothing in the records of the London Lead company that developed the mines in this area to bear out this legend. The company was set up by a number of Quakers in 1692 with mining interests in Derbyshire, Lancashire, North Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as the North Pennines, mining coal and silver as well as lead and at one time (1705-37) supplying so much silver to the Royal Mint that coins were known as the Quaker coinage. From the mid-1750s onwards the company sold off its mines in other parts of the country, concentrating on its operations on Alston Moor in the North Pennines.

Entrance to Haggs Level, Nentsberry Mine. (Beamish Museum)

Faced with the problems of expanding mining operations in an area where there were no services or accommodation - except for a few remote farms - the company set about designing and building an entire new village called Nent Head, about 5 miles south east of Alston at a height of 1450ft above sea level. As most of the miners lodged at small farms and cottages scattered around the Moor the village was at first small, with a few solidly built houses, for smelters and mine officials, attached to the mine buildings. Nearby a small estate, Cherry Tree Hill, was bought from the Alston Brewery Company and a house was built for the company agent. Considerable effort was put into enlarging and improving many of the local farms, making room for the lodging of miners as well as farm hands, and providing for the care of the miners' children in both day and Sunday schools. However by I820 it was apparent thst these arrangements were inadequate. With an estimated 4000 people in the area dependent on the company for their livelihood a more extensive and co-ordinated plan was needed if all the Company’s workforce were to be housed comfortably. In I825 a new and larger village was planned, with thirty-five cottages, clock tower, market hall, school and chapel set in a large acreage of fields, gardens and plantations. The old inn of the village, the Miners' Arms, was purchased and on several occasions its rent was reduced as its trade was diminishing, "the miners preferring books to drink".

Some of the Company's mining leases lay between Nent Head and the South Tyne valley, and from an early date the Company took an interest in the hamlet of Garrigill. Experimenting with smallholdings, they built cottages with up to six acres of land attached, and further rights to fifty-acres of pasture. Improvements were made to pasture land by draining and liming, with many experiments on the high level moors up to 2,000 feet above sea level. In an attempt to utilise and improve some of the high level moorland over 650 acres were planted with Scots pine and larch, A nursery was established for young trees, and by I840 all the timber needed for the mines was being cut in their own woods. In Westmorland, at Dufton and Hilton, a similar pattern was followed - land was purchased, old cottages pulled down and new ones built in their place.

At Middleton-in-Teesdale the second largest estate of the Company was purchased and built in I815. The situation at Middleton was different from Nent Head. Middleton-in-Teesdale was an old established village and the 'new town' built by the Company was never more than a suburb of the old village. The Company, however, followed its by now customary procedure providing first cottages and gardens, then baths, Company schools, chapels, and all the social amenities that the old village did not possess. After I880 Middleton became the head office of the Company and the residence of the agent and general manager. A contemporary writer described the part of Middleton built by the Company: 'Masterman Place or as it is sometimes called, New-Middleton, was erected in 1833 by the London Lead Company from the chaste and appropriate design of Mr. Bonomi, and under the direction of Robert Stagg. It consists of several uniform rows of neat and convenient cottages, situated in a spacious garden, a portion of which was appropriated to each dwelling. The increasing population of Middleton had considerably enhanced the rents of dwelling houses there, and it was to diminish this burden that the Company built Masterman Place, in which, as vacancies occur, they place their most deserving workmen, thus combining general utility with the reward of personal merit. The first occupiers took possession of their new abodes in May 1824, accompanied by bands of music, etc’.

Coronation procession Nenthead 1902

Throughout the 19th Century the Company continued to improve the facilities in the villages. In 1833 what was in fact the first free public library in the country was built at Nent Head. Back in 1800 the Company had begun to give regular grants for the purchase of books to loan to the men, and also to subscribe to several small libraries based in the Company's offices. In I820, libraries were established at first in the schools, then later in purpose built reading rooms at Garrigill, Stanhope, Dufton, Hilton, Lunehead, Egglestone, Harewood, Lune Forest, and Tyne Head. By I850 the Company were subscribing to sixteen libraries throughout the area.

In I843 land was donated in Nent Head for a Church of England and a house built for the vicar, a post office was built in I848, a proper water supply laid on in I850, baths and a public wash house provided in I865, and about the same time the old 1750-60 cottages rebuilt. In Garrigill they provided for a Girls' School, two chapels and a Parsonage, provided the curate's salary , and presented a harmonium to the church. The Company was interested in encouraging the miners to supplement their incomes by growing food as an insurance against hard times. Every cottage that they built was provided with a garden adjoining. At an early date Horticultural Societies were formed at Nent Head, and Middleton. Later, similar societies were founded at Garrigill, Dufton and Hilton. Prizes were offered each year by the Company for the two best-cultivated gardens on each estate. At the annual shows everyone from manager down to the horse boys showed some fruit, flowers or vegetables. Demand for land in addition to the cottage gardens increased and under instructions from the Company the agents purchased small plots of ground from half an acre to three acres and let them out to the miners in allotments. Due to the remote location in times of food shortages grain would be purchased by the company and delivered to the villages to keep the price down. This arrangement worked fine until the famine conditions of the 1840s when although wages had been repeatedly advanced to meet the higher cost of food, etc., there was still widespread suffering. The Company urged the miners to form their own Corn Associations. Financed by the advance of a month's wages the miners, through their own committee, purchased corn in bulk at Newcastle market, and with the co-operation of the Company's excellent system of carriers were able to transport it to Nent Head or Garrigill at minimum cost. The mill at Tynebottom was handed over to the corn association and everyone was able to get corn ground there at cost. The Corn Associations were in effect pioneer Co-operative Societies. The company agents reported that the effect of the Associations was to create a closer bond between the men and the Company, and also gave the men a sense of responsibility in running their own concern.

Credit traders preyed on the miners and their families. They would advance goods at ruinous prices on credit to be cleared by the next month's wages. This way many of the families lived constantly in debt. To counteract this and in an attempt to drive the moneylenders out of the villages the company helped finance Ready Money Shops. These were shops built by the Company, and leased to a shopkeeper who was held by a bond not to allow any goods to leave the shop except for cash payment. Provided with ample warehousing and supplied via the Companies transport system the shops were able to carry large stocks, and keep prices stable. With the success of the Ready Money Shops the credit traders practically disappeared. As a result of the Company's polices the people in all their mining localities were well housed, and were fully provided with social and educational amenities. Time after time the agents reported that the miners were content at a time when rioting and striking in other parts of the same mining field were common and they ascribe this in part to the care the Company shows for the wellbeing of their workmen.

The Company realised that maximum benefit would be gained, and antagonism avoided, if the whole population of the district had access to Company facilities and from the beginning the Ready Money Shop and the Corn Association, and also the schools, were open to all residents of the area. This policy was fully justified, and was responsible for the tremendous respect in which the "Quaker Company " was held in the district by farmers and miners, alike, even years after the Company left the area.

Middleton Hall: Company Headquaters built 1819 (Beamish Museum)

From 1895 onwards the Company slowly scaled down its whole mining enterprise, partly due to the age of the main members of the board, or court, but mainly due to the rapidly shrinking lead market at the time. The Company finally wound up in 1905 - selling the mines to the Vieille Montagne Company who worked them for zinc up until the second world war.

'They were far in advance of the age not only in provision of day schools for all the children of the district, but in their recognition of the value and necessity for recreations of divers types-bands, cricket clubs, libraries, lectures, gardens, allotments, etc. etc., and the inevitable provision of work times that would enable miners to enjoy all these recreational facilities. There is a very modern flavour about their " welfare " work. They were seriously concerned for the health of their workpeople and their families, and besides providing medical staff and workman's fund, etc., realized that health must be based on good housing, good and adequate water supply, sanitation, and the provision of baths and wash houses.' Arthur Raistrick.

The complete story of the Quaker Company is told in :
Two centuries of Industrial Welfare: The London (Quaker) Lead Company. 1692 - 1905
By Arthur Raistrick. Kelsall & Davis 1988


Nenthead Links:

Nenthead Mines Heritage Centre

North Pennines Heritage Trust

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