Pens and guns – About Borrowdale graphite mine

Nearherewayaway tunnel3

The Borrowdale mine I explored in last week’s post deserves a proper introduction: this Lake District mine is the only graphite mine in England. 

Although graphite has many wonderful names like plumbago, black-cawke, and wad, I prefer calling it graphite to keep it clear and simple. You probably recognise graphite as that shiny-grey, soft material that leaves marks on paper. Essentially it is carbon.

Lumps of shimmering grey substance can be found on the walls in the mine even today. I expected it to be semi-solid but it was more like shining – and staining – mud. 

What was it used for?

The graphite mined from Borrowdale was used for many things including medicine and cannonball manufacturing. However, the main use for the graphite was in pencil making. In fact, UK’s first pencil factory was opened in Keswick, not too far from the mine. Now the pencil factories have been replaced by a pencil museum. I was never too keen to visit the museum, but having been to the mines, I am suddenly much more interested. 

Nearherewayaway graphite mine 2

Thieves and guards

Mining in the Borrowdale Graphite Mine started in the late 16th century. Historic England claims that “nowhere in the world have such large quantities of graphite of the purity of that mined at Borrowdale ever been found”. This was remarkable. But it was also troublesome.

As the market for graphite grew, the price of the mineral increased significantly – according to Historic England the price went from 18 pounds to 3920 pounds per ton in 150 years. To maintain a high price, the mine was at times worked only in short periods. Works well when you are a monopoly supplier.

Unfortunately, the high price attracted thieves. Some used furtive methods using secret passages to the mine, others resulted in armed attacks. This grew into a huge problem and extensive precautions were taken to protect the valuable graphite. Armed guards patrolled the site and searched every single miner when they left the mine. Even the Parliament got involved: in 1752 it passed an Act which made unlawful entry into, as well as stealing from, a graphite mine a crime. 

nearherewayaway sourmilk gill 1.JPG

Disused and abandoned

Despite having flourished in the 17th and 18th century the demand for graphite started to fade and the mine closed in the late 19th century. Now the disused mine  hides beneath the hillside. Armed robberies and trickeries are just a memory and the mine is visited only by occasional tourist group and some local mine explorers.


Keswick Ministries. From a pencil factory to a conference venue. Keswick Ministries. Viewed 28 July 2020.

Historic England, 2001. Borrowdale graphite mines and associated grinding mill, 660m north west of Seathwaite.Historic England. Viewed 28 July 2020.

National Trust. Graphite (Wad) Mine on Seathwaite Farm, Borrowdale. National Trust. Viewed 28 July 2020.

Old Cumbria Gazetteer, 2016. Borrowdale Graphite Mine (black lead mine, Seathwaite, Grey Knotts). Guides to the Lakes. Viewed 28 July 2020.

Anon. Borrowdale Wad Mines. Engineering Timelines. Viewed 28 July 2020.

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