History

The Dukesfield lead smelting mill was in operation from around 1666 until 1835. Located between the lead veins of the high Pennine hills and the markets and wharves of Newcastle it was central to the lead mining, smelting and trading business owned by generations of the Blackett and Beaumont families. Lead was a dull, grey, malleable, waterproof but highly versatile metal, used in roofing, plumbing, and shot, and refined for glassmaking, paint, and silver. Our project, and this historical summary, are focused on Dukesfield Mill and on the business it formed part of. However, because Dukesfield was probably the largest such mill in the region for a century or more, there is wider relevance for the North Pennines industry as a whole.

(c) National Trust, Wallington; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation Sir William Blackett, 1621-80, reproduced by kind permission of Sir Hugh Blackett

Dukesfield mill was the first to be established by William Blackett, already a successful Newcastle merchant by the time he turned to lead mining around 1660. The regional lead industry as a whole appears to have grown enormously in the last decades of the 17th century, with Blackett – and his equally capable son Sir William II from 1680 – in the vanguard. By 1700 William II was mining throughout Allendale and in Weardale, and by then Dukesfield had probably been joined by his other two mills at Rookhope and Allenheads. An enduring pattern of ore carriage by packhorse from mines to the mills, and of pieces of lead by packhorse and two wheeled carts onwards to the navigable reaches of the Tyne at Blaydon was in place by the 1670s. So too were the key elements of a management structure needed to co-ordinate logistics and operations over 40 miles of difficult country, and sell the end product: a chief agent or steward, normally based in Newcastle, and subagents in charge of the mines and the mills.

The industry went into depression around 1710, and the less capable Sir William III, son of William II was heavily in debt by the time of his death in 1728. However, careful and steady stewardship under the long proprietorship of Sir Walter Blackett and his managers Joseph and Henry Richmond eventually restored the business to a position of strength by the 1760s, despite market upturns and downturns. Under Sir Thomas Blackett from 1777 and his chief steward John Erasmus Blackett the business grew steadily, production from Dukesfield rising from around 1,000 tons of lead per year until the 1760s, to over 3,000 by the late 1780s. A silver refinery was added at Dukesfield to the long standing one at Blaydon in 1765 and it is possible that the iconic arches date from around the same time. By the time Thomas Blackett’s daughter, Diana Beaumont, and her husband Colonel Thomas Beaumont, inherited in 1792, an average day would have seen hundreds of horses each summer’s day bringing in ore and fuel and carrying away lead.
PFR - Dukesfield by Moonlight _ reduced Illustrative reconstruction of Dukesfield Smelt Mill c.1800, copyright Peter Ryder, 2014

Under the Beaumonts, Dukesfield reached its peak of activity during a boom in the Napoleonic War years. The Allen Mill below Catton was taken on in 1795 to add more smelting and silver refining capacity, and full advantage was taken of turnpike roadbuilding to improve transport links. The opening of roads in Allendale in the 1820s left Dukesfield relatively isolated and when further smelting capacity became available at Blagill Mill, Langley in 1835 – and the railway opened between Hexham and Blaydon – the mill was closed.

Links will soon be available on this page enabling you to delve deeper into the history of key aspects of the Blacketts’ lead business. A vast amount of original material is available in fully searchable form in ‘Dukesfield Documents’, where you will also find short biographies of many of the people involved and a bibliography. The two ‘Allen Mill Expansion’ file links below contain a well illustrated summary by Alan Blackburn of the development of the mill from the 18th century and the addition of the long flues which are such a striking feature of the landscape of Allendale to this day.
Allen Mill Expansion B
7.5 MB
Allen mill Expansion A
7.6 MB
Interactive Map
The Dukesfield Smelters and Carriers Project aimed to celebrate and discover the heritage of the Dukesfield Arches & lead carriers' routes between Blaydon and the lead mines of Allendale and Weardale. A two year community project, it was led by the Friends of the North Pennines in partnership with Hexhamshire and Slaley Parish Councils and the active support of Allendale Estates. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the generous support of other sponsors. Friends of the North Pennines: Charity No:1137467