This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

The Oldest Industry

Mining and quarrying have been a major social and economic force throughout history. 

The use of stone tools is as old as humanity, if not older. During later prehistory, the use of other mineral resources (e.g. clay and metals) for tools, weapons and ornaments developed. These increasingly supplemented, and in some circumstances superseded, the use of stone and organic materials such as wood and bone. The use of stone as a durable building material also became more common.

The writings of several classical authors indicate that the control of mineral wealth may have been a significant motive for the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43.

For tin, lead and silver, production was at its greatest during the medieval and post-medieval periods. It is in these periods that some of England’s most spectacular extractive landscapes have their origins.

The Development of Britain's manufacturing industry

The exploitation of mineral resources and allied technological innovation were fundamental to the early development of Britain’s manufacturing industry during the Industrial Revolution. This transformation significantly influenced the developing relationship between town and country.

Mining and quarrying were carried out either in the countryside or on the urban fringes. The most lucrative markets developed in the nation’s towns and cities. The widespread use of stone, brick and other materials for building made a major contribution to the character and local distinctiveness of the historic environment we enjoy today.

Minerals also played an important role in expanding overseas trade. During the 18th century, lead vied with iron for second place after wood as England’s major export.

The iron, steel and coal industries reached their zenith during the 19th and early 20th centuries. At its peak in 1913, the coal industry employed one in ten of the working population.

The ebb and flow of the extractive industries has always been closely linked with market forces and the balance between imports and exports. These considerations continue to influence our relationship with other countries, within an increasingly globalised and competitive market.

Prosperous lead mine and smelt mill, Bewerley, North Yorkshire
Prosperous lead mine and smelt mill, Bewerley, North Yorkshire © Jon Humble, Historic England

The legacy of past mining and quarrying

Past mining and quarrying activity has created a widespread and in some areas a fundamental social, economic and environmental legacy.  Its physical remains therefore form a significant part of today's historic environment.

Every generation has placed its own values on this legacy with attitudes changing radically over time and continuing to change. What were initially perceived as derelict structures and land may eventually become highly valued as historic remains.

In recent years our understanding of historic mining and quarrying sites, landscapes and their associated infrastructure has developed rapidly. This is linked to a growing interest in the archaeology of industry. The contribution of voluntary-sector special-interest groups has been an important factor in this development.

Frequently these groups have emerged from community associations with the mining and quarrying industries. Developing over many generations the industry has become imbued with a strong sense of local identity and heritage.

There is also a long history of productive collaboration between industry and archaeologists, which is explored further in our web page on the impacts of minerals extraction. Most of our knowledge of the early human occupation of Britain has come from finds made in quarries extracting aggregates.

Was this page helpful?