I belong to the mountains, having been born and raised in the Cascades of Washington State. So towering peaks and water-carved caverns are no mystery to me. When I chose to set my November 2011 and February 2012 novels among the fells of the Lake District in England, however, I was surprised to learn the mountains held something far more valuable than the view: graphite.
It turns out that the soft, greasy black mineral, which the residents of the Lake District called wad or plumbago, was used to line the inside of molds for creating cannon and musket balls. The mold had to be relined frequently. As you can imagine, between the various wars and typical shooting habits, England during the Georgian and Regency periods used a lot of lead balls. The wad from the Lake District was of particularly high quality, which also made it perfect for artists’ pencils. Given all this, the prices for wad soared.
Luckily, it was relatively easy to mine. Unlike in other places around the world, where graphite is often in the form of flakes or shales, England’s Lake District boasts a very pure form of graphite that comes in chunks ranging from an ounce or so up to 50 pounds. The most difficult part of wad mining was finding a new vein. Because of the geology of the region, wad deposits lay in short-lived veins or slumps and pockets, and the location was difficult to predict. Once a vein was located, however, basic mining techniques could open it, and the miners merely had to walk up and grab the mineral by the handfuls. Some boasted that they could get as much as a thousand pounds (as in money, not weight) in a half hour.
Just as when anything becomes precious, wad soon required additional protection to ensure it was properly mined and sold. Miners were watched by security guards and overseers who regularly forced them to empty their pockets or even strip down to their skins at the end of a shift to make sure they weren’t carrying away the profits. Guards watched the stocks at the mine and escorted the shipments to the pencil factories or lead works. Still, thieves snuck in at night and sometimes were bold enough to threaten a mine in broad daylight. A whole army of smugglers worked at ferrying the material overland. One of the most famous was a woman called Black Sal, who was allegedly hunted to death with hounds for her transgressions. To put a stop to such theft, in 1752, Parliament made a law that stealing or receiving stolen wad was punishable by whipping and a year’s hard labor or being transported for seven years.
The other danger in mining wad was the fluctuations in the market. Each time one of the mines found a lucrative pocket, the wad was rushed to buyers, and the market quickly flooded. So, mine owners entered into agreements to take turns working their mines and selling their wares to ensure everyone received a chance for a fortune.
Meanwhile, France struggled to get enough of the material for its industrial and military uses. Napoleon ended up commissioning an expert to discover a way to make wad without getting it from England (bit hard to do with a war on). The expert invented a process to water down wad with clay. The approach spread and so severely undercut the need for pure graphite that the mines in the Lake District all shut down before 1900. Spoils from the mining can still be found dotting the landscape.
But the view is still magnificent.
www.reginascott.com, www.nineteenteen.blogspot.com, and www.craftieladiesofromance.blogspot.com.