A brief guide to primary sources for mining history

First published in the National Association of Mining History Organisations (NAMHO) Mining Heritage Guide (3rd edn., July 2000).


Primary sources are the essential building blocks for all historical research. In our case they comprise the first hand accounts and contemporary records, printed, manuscript, pictorial and oral, which provide detailed information on mining activity up to the present day. Resources are many and varied, and this guide is not a definitive listing. It will give you some indication as to the areas to search for information applicable to your own line of research. Guidance on planning the work is available elsewhere (Martel 1999).

Record repositories, local and national

If a researcher is examining mining in a local context their principal resource will be archives held in the local (county) record office, plus local studies libraries and museums for maps, pictorial and oral material, supplemented by larger repositories like the National Library of Wales (RCHM 1997). Subject lists are generally available and in a few cases detailed schedules of mining papers have been published (Williams 1988). Estate and solicitors papers will provide the bulk of the material. However, not all relevant material will be held locally or in publicly accessible collections. Private estate office holdings can be significant. Local record offices are generally aware of such resources outside their jurisdiction.(1) But it is prudent to search the data in the National Register of Archives held by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, http://www2.hmc.gov.uk/nra/nra2.htm. The latter also publish a regular update (RCHM annually).(2)

At a national level in the UK there are major archival resources available in the Public Record Office (PRO), The British Library, the National Archives of Scotland and the National Libraries in Scotland (Edinburgh) and Wales (Aberystwyth). Holdings in the PRO can now be searched using the Internet http://www.pro.gov.uk/. The catalogue of the British Library Manuscript Department can be searched from their web site at http://molcat.bl.uk/msscat. The PRO also publish a series of guides to their resources. These include Coal Mining Records http://www.pro.gov.uk/leaflets/ri2142.htm and Sources for the History of Mines and Quarries http://www.pro.gov.uk/leaflets/ri2171.htm.(3) Parliamentary papers, including commissions looking into the mining industry, are held in the House of Lords Record Office. Some of these have been reprinted (Irish University Press 1972). National photographic collections include those of Hulton and Picture Post, some now accessible to researchers in higher education via the Internet - defunct link to http://www.helix.dmu.ac.uk/ (Note - the images were available under licence to the HELIX project at De Montfort University. The photographs were licensed from the Hulton Deutsch picture library in London but when the license period for the project came to an end the images were taken offline. Some of the images can be accessed on the Getty Images website in the Hulton Archive section).

Mining companies

Records of mining companies incorporated under the Acts of 1844 and 1855 will provide details of capital, shareholding and, in some cases, lease holdings. Some material in files for companies registered in London (PRO BT41 and BT31) and Edinburgh (National Archives of Scotland) has been selectively removed. Those for companies registered in Truro (PRO BT286) are complete. Unfortunately the files for companies registered in Dublin prior to 1922 were apparently lost in the destruction of the Four Courts at the beginning of the Civil War. However, many Irish companies were registered in London and the files will be found in the PRO as above. Some existing mining companies retain records relating to the parent and susidiaries, e.g. Rio Tinto-Zinc in London. First point of contact for these and many other private commercial archives is the Business Archive Council. Such archives are often open to the public at the discretion of the owners. For companies promoted on the Stock Exchange, the Guildhall Library in London hold material including prospectuses and annual reports (Burt 1992).


Local newspapers, often indexed by library services, can provide useful contemporary detail as do national and specialist journals. The Mining Journal, first published in 1835, particularly illustrates the heyday and decline of British mining enterprise, as does its later rival the Mining World. With only two restricted indexes as yet in print the researcher is faced with a search of limited library holdings (Claughton 1995 and Jeffcock et al. 1989). The British Library Newspaper Library collection in Colindale is the most comprehensive but others are found in major libraries, if only on microfilm.

Coal mining in the UK

For coal mining there is a comprehensive guide to the primary resources available in 1980 (Benson et al. 1980, Part IV). Since then the rapid contraction of the industry has resulted in accumulation of much more material. Some of which is held by specialist repositories like the South Wales Coalfield Collection at the University of Wales, Swansea. There you will find particular emphasis on trade union activity and the social aspects of mining. http://www.swan.ac.uk/swcc/. Relevant material will also be found at the National Coal Mining Museum of England including the contents of the British Coal Library. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) library in Sheffield holds a range of material relating to coal mining accidents, industrial diseases and occupational hazards. They also hold reports of the Royal Commission on Metalliferous Mines 1914.

Primary sources in Ireland

In Ireland there is no local infrastructure for the archiving of manuscript material as in the UK, although repositories will be found in major centres.(4) Important collections are held in Dublin at the National Archives and the National Library. Some of which have been searched for mining data (Nolan 1988). There is a largely uncatalogued collection of mining documents held in the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI), also in Dublin. Business archives, including some mining material, are held in the National Archives. In the north the principal repository is the Public Record Office, Northern Ireland, where major collections, eg. The Earl of Antrim Estate Papers (D/2977), contain relevant material http://proni.nics.gov.uk/records/private/antrim.htm. A considerable amount of material related to Ireland is also held in the Public Record Office, Kew (Prochaska 1986).

Statistical sources

Mineral Statistics, published by the Geological Survey 1845-1881 and the Home Office thereafter, are the principal source for mining production figures (Burt and Waite 1983). Collated statistics for metalliferous and associated minerals have been republished for some English and Welsh counties and those for Ireland are pending (see Burt et al. 1992 for the latest volume); those for Scotland were published in Burt et al. 1981. The printed reports of HM Inspectors of Mines can provide information on accidents and working conditions. Unfortunately few complete series of the reports are available outside the British Library. Birmingham is well served with near complete series in the University and City Reference libraries.(5) Census returns, 1841 onward, are the most accessible resource for mapping the movements of miners, supplemented with information from parish registers. Microfilm copies of both are usually available in local studies libraries. Statistical resources for the coal industry are covered by Benson et al. (1981, 529-73)

Maps and Plans

Early detailed mapping of the British Isles has provided historians with a unique resource. Most researchers are familiar with the published Ordnance Survey (OS) maps at scales of 1:10560 (6in./mile) and 1:2500 (25in./mile). The 1st edition of circa 1860-89 and the 2nd edition of circa 1906-9 are generally available in local libraries and record offices. Original OS field drawings at 2in./mile from the early 1800s are held by the British Library, Dept. of Maps, with copies in many local libraries. Together with the tithe award maps of the 1830/40s and estate maps, these provide a wealth of topographical detail for mines and their infrastructure. This can be supplemented by geological mapping based on early 6in. OS maps. Those maps and field notebooks are held by the British Geological Survey (BGS), Keyworth, its regional offices and, in Ireland, by the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI) Dublin. Aerial photographs, in particular the vertical air photo surveys carried out in the mid 1940s, can also provide unique topographical detail. See NAPLIB 1999 for collections held in the UK. The Welsh Office in Cardiff have a excellent, and easily accessed, collection from 1946 onwards.

Underground plans are a primary historical resource peculiar to mining. In addition to those plans to be found in estate and other deposits, there are a large number archived by statute. The Coal and Metalliferous Mines Regulation Acts of 1872 required that plans of mines, when abandoned, be deposited with the Home Office, later the Ministry of Fuel and Power and now the HSE. Benson et al (1981, Part III) provide a summary of those plans relating to coal mines. Responsibility for these was delegated to the NCB, later British Coal, and now the Coal Authority. Those plans are currently held in their Record Office at Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire.

Abandonment plans for metalliferous and other, non-coal, mines in England and Wales have now been dispersed to local record offices. Scottish abandonment plans are held by the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Edinburgh and those for Ireland are held by the GSI in Dublin. These plans should be treated with caution. Many mines were exempt from the provisions of the Acts, largely on the size of the workforce rather than the size of the mine. Some plans were only acquired by HM Inspectors of Mines with difficulty after abandonment and are incomplete. Others, particularly from the boom in speculative mining companies of the late 1870s, can show projected rather than actual driveage.(6) Other plans will be found amongst local collections. For Welsh mines there is a large holding in the National Library of Wales with a searchable catalogue on the Internet . A large number of mine plans are also in private hands, often with private estate offices.

Primary sources for mining prior to 1750.

The resources identified above are primarily relevant to mining activity from the late 18th century onwards. Before 1750 there are few detailed maps or mine plans and reliable statistical material is limited. Evidence for early mining does however survive in many archival collections and certain areas of activity are relatively well documented. Mining on Crown land or for minerals subject to Crown prerogative, prior to the Mines Royal Acts of 1689 and 1693, is mapped out in the various calendars, lists and indexes of state papers published by the PRO. A useful starting point is the HMSO Sectional List 24, British National Archives, listing all the published volumes. This was last issued in the late 1980s but copies might be found in local libraries. Silver and tin mining are particularly well served with a significant number of documents available in the PRO. Records of the Court of Chancery (PRO C1 et seq.) are particularly useful for early disputes over estates involving mines. The British Library, Department of Manuscripts, holdings include minute books for the Society of Mines Royal (BL Loans 16) and other early material.

Statistical sources are limited before 1750 but useful information can be extracted from various state and private returns. These include the early customs records and port books (PRO E190);(7) coinage returns for the Stannaries (largely in PRO E101); duty ore accounts for Crown estates, including the Duchy of Lancaster's holdings in the Derbyshire lead field (for example PRO DL 28, 29, 37 and 41).


  1. The Northern Mine Research Society maintains a cumulative file on records held outside the locality of the mining activity concerned.
  2. There is as yet only a limited list of accessions on the Internet. The latest available is at http://www.hmc.gov.uk/accessions/1997/97digests/intro.htm.
  3. Researchers will also find it useful to consult the guide to Public Records Outside the Public Record Office http://www.pro.gov.uk/leaflets/ri2142.htm.
  4. For listings on the Internet go to http://www2.hmc.gov.uk/archon/archon.htm or http://www.nationalarchives.ie/.
  5. Original reports of inspections etc. are held at the Inspectorate's Bootle office.
  6. As at Combe Martin (Devon Record Office, Exeter, abandonment plan formerly HSE R155B.)
  7. See List and Index Society Vols. 58, 66 and 80 for port book listings 1701-98; and Hussey et al. 1995 for an analysis of content.


Useful addresses


Peter Claughton / Department of Archaeology
Last modified 2 April 2008