The exact age of Esgair Mwyn (occasionally Esgair Mŵn) mine is unknown, but local placenames suggest that the area has long been known for its rich deposits of ore. Certainly, the fact that the mine had apparently been abandoned for 'centuries' by the time it was re-discovered in 1746 suggests a mediæval, if not earlier origin.
The mine's 'discoverer' at this time was Lewis Morris, deputy steward for the Crown Manors of Cardiganshire. After some initial trials, Morris and his men located a vein of solid ore some 7" thick just a few feet from the surface which he allowed three local miners to work for twelve months provided that they paid the Crown 10s for every ton extracted. Morris himself joined the venture in the Autumn of 1751 and a total of 1,000 tons of ore was won from the rock that year.
After the twelve-month bargain expired, Morris worked the mine himself for a further nine months with a considerable success which did not go unnoticed by his rivals: on 23rd February, 1753 a small army of tenants and miners from the Grogwynion mine led by John Ball from the Company of Mine Adventurers and infamous local magistrate Herbert Lloyd of Peterwell marched on Esgair Mwyn demanding that Morris and his workmen surrender the mine, which they believed to be their property. Lloyd held a cocked pistol to Morris' head, forcing him to reliquish the property and had him arrested. Ball took over the mine and carried away £3,000 worth of ore and Morris was sent by Lloyd to Cardigan Gaol.
The forcible takeover of the mine caused outrage in London, and orders were given for Morris' immediate release. Herbert Lloyd and the other magistrates who had had Morris imprisoned were struck out of commission and a detachment of the Royal Scots Greys was sent to guard the mine. A subsequent court case found that the land had always been, and should remain, crown property. Despite the theft of ore and the violent actions of the mob, no-one was prosecuted.
In 1756, the mine was let to Lord Clive (better known as Clive of India) at a rate of 50% on all profits (later reduced as the mine was making a large loss). The returns were meagre until 1766 when an adit reached the old workings and drained away a large accumulation of floodwater.
By 1788 the mine was run by John Probert, who oversaw a decline in productivity brought about by the exhaustion of the easily accessible deposits, some £150,000 of lead ore having been removed since 1751.
Working continued only sporadically until 1850, when the Esgair Mwyn Mining Co. took posession of the property from the Crown. The company extended the existing Penmynydd engine shaft to 75 fathoms under adit, draining more of the old workings and installed a new dressing mill in 1852. Around 1878 a new shaft (Penmor) was sunk to the west of the main complex and an inclined plane was built to link it to the dressing floors further up the hill. By this time the mine also comprised an extensive system of aqueducts and tramways as well as a smithy and engine house.
Unfortunately for the company, the mine did not reward these investments with significant profit. In the 1890s, lead prices slumped dramatically and the mine, like many others in the region, was forced to close.
The plant was acquired by Thomas Ward of Sheffield with the intention of dismantling it for scrap, but he was persuaded instead to resume working the Penmor ore body which at 104 fathoms under adit was found to be particularly productive. Below this two lower levels were accessible by winzes (underground shafts excavated downwards) so that the total depth amounted to about 165 fathoms, being the deepest workings in Cardiganshire. Despite having no direct route from lode to surface, meaning that raising ore took three-quarters of an hour, Ward's operations proved surprisingly profitable until another dip in lead prices led to closure in 1927.
Esgair Mwyn stood abandoned for twenty years before, in 1947, the prospect of lead and previously unworked zinc ores discarded on the spoil tips prompted the Elineth Mining Company Ltd. of Newent, Gloucestershire to begin processing mine waste at the site. The company erected a new plant at the site comprising a rod-mill, shaking tables and flotation tanks to separate the ore together with new offices and workshops and a tramway from the tips to the top of the mill. Remarkably, the venture lasted until 1994, long after the last lead mines had closed in North Wales, when a broken rod mill and concerns over water pollution made working unviable.
The first word which comes to mind to describe Esgair-mwyn is 'bleak' - acres of cold grey, poisonous mine waste smother the hillside. Its toxicity and exposure to the wind and rain ensure nothing but tufts of scraggy grass will grow there.
Here and there, sticking out of the eroded spoil heaps can be found personal items such as
a leather strap with greening copper rivets or the corroded handle of an old fashioned tea-kettle. All else has gone, buried in the spoil or
dissolved by the acidic water
that drains from the mines.
At a height of almost 400m (1312') above sea level, the ridge enjoys its own distinct climate quite different to that of the valley below. In the long winter, rain can come at more or less any moment and the wind howls and roars around the crests of the hills in summer, the mine takes on a flavour of the American West, sun-bleached and desolate.
It is easy to forget that uncounted generations of miners had to endure these conditions daily, with the added hazards of rockfall and lead poisoning, which led many to an early grave even after the metal's dangers were understood: a humbling thought.
Davies, D. (1977) 'Welsh Place Names and Their Meanings' Self-published.
Claughton, P, and Freeman, F. (2005) 'BBC Mid Wales History - Ceredigion's Mining Heritage' retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/mid/sites/history/pages/ceredigionmines.shtml on 25/11/06 Cardiff; BBC Wales.
Willies, L. (1999) 'Lead and Leadmining' Princes Risborough; Shire.
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Morris, A. (n/d) 'History of Esgair Mwyn for Morris / Dowdeswell Family History' retrieved from: http://www.penbanc.net/history/esgair/hist.html on 22/12/13
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Ordnance Survey Explorer Sheet 187, Southampton, HMSO