Iron ore workings and coal extraction

In medieval times an extensive iron ore and coal field lay beneath Seacroft and the southern half of Roundhay. After the Norman Conquest the pioneers in iron production were the monks of Kirkstall, who followed the example of their French brothers and organised the mining and smelting of metals on a large scale.20 This was a lucrative business which brought rich rewards to the monks.

In 1160 William de Somerville, one of the de Lacy's tenants, granted them the right to operate iron bloomeries at Seacroft and Roundhay on condition that the abbey provided iron for his ploughs.21 This important grant was made a mere eight years after the monks had established themselves at Kirkstall.

Two essential elements were required for the production of iron - iron ore and charcoal.

charcoal burning

The monks knew the location of the ore and the 'round hay' and woodlands of Seacroft provided raw material for the charcoal burners.

Iron making involved an army of skilled craftsmen including miners, charcoal burners, smiths and other ancilliary staff. The nature of the grant allowed these workers into restricted areas of the hunting park - a privilege not extended to the ordinary tenants.22

Charcoal Burning

The ore was dug using bell-pits, whose diameters increased as they became deeper. The point at which the excavation became dangerous, due to potential collapse, determined when it would be abandoned. Further pits were then dug, following the seam.

In his grant, William allowed miners to dig bell-pits but insisted that these hazardous holes were backfilled once the ore had been extracted. The ore was then washed to remove clay and other surface debris, before being crushed into smaller pieces. This process was performed by hand or water powered stamps. Tradition has it that women and even children undertook this work. The ore was then roasted to remove sulphur and water.

Meanwhile the charcoal burners had been busy cutting and collecting wood, which they chopped into short logs. These were piled systematically into heaps in the form of a 'flattened beehive', about the height of a man, which were then covered over with freshly cut turves to exclude air from the wood being carbonised. A small hole was left in the crown of the dome to permit the emission of fumes.
Once complete a fire was started within and the wood was allowed to burn slowly until the product was charcoal.

At the furnace site workers built a hearth of sandstone and surrounded it with low circular walls of the same rough rock. Cleaned ore was placed at one side; the charcoal at the other. When the charcoal had been lit, air was blown in to produce the hot gas which passed into the ore to release the metallic iron.

Air was added via a tube attached to foot or water powered bellows. Charcoal was continually added until the 'ore-blower' sensed that the 'blow' was complete. Temperatures of 1000 - 1200 degrees celsius could be achieved.

This process produced a mass of slag together with pieces of iron intermingled with cinders. After it had cooled and become relatively brittle, it was smashed using large hammers. This separated the small pieces of spongy iron from the cinders.

Where the workings were extensive, as in Roundhay, this led to sizeable mounds of waste slag and in the south eastern corner of the park a long, slender tongue of land abutting Wyke Beck, became known as'CynderHills'.23

Cynder Hills

The small lumps of iron were transferred to the finery where they were reheated and struck on the anvil to create an ingot, at the same time squeezing out any remaining slag. This process produced pure iron. Since this quality was attained by hammering, it became known as 'wrought' iron.


The metal was finally taken to a forge, where the blacksmith reheated the iron before hammering or chiseling it into a variety of shapes, including horse shoes, waggon tyres, metal tools and cooking utensils.


For over a century the monks of Kirkstall exploited the natural resources here. None of the operators would have been monks but the Cistercians used the iron product solely to generate cash. Despite such income, successive abbots proved to be too pious -poor financial managers who allowed the abbey to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. In 1276 the situation was compounded by a devastating outbreak of disease among their sheep. Their plight was desperate and debts amounted to £5248.24 In 1280 Abbot Gilbert de Cotles was forced to resign and the following year the monks applied for permission to disperse. Instead Hugh de Grimston, a local man, was appointed abbot. He valiantly tried to stave off bankruptcy and brokered a complex financial agreement with the de Lacy family. Hugh was allowed to draw money from the family's account in return for certain lands, including Roundhay. Monkish iron making ceased but by the end of Hugh's term of office the debt had been reduced to a mere £160, nevertheless, the loss of Roundhay and Seacroft was a bitter blow.25

It was the de Lacy family who now controlled the mineral rights. Just like the Cistercians, the new owners soon began to exploit the iron ore fields. The first known record of a smelting furnace at Roundhay is found in accounts of 1295-6, when the 'issue' for seven weeks work amounted to £3 3s 0d.26 1322 proved to be a particularly busy year for the miners and iron workers who spent an exhausting twenty two weeks producing iron.

At Roundhay Forge the smiths laboured for nineteen weeks, hammering the metal into a myriad of different shapes. They almost certainly provided the ironwork for the waterwheels and machinery at Leeds corn mill. The income from the forge alone was £8 18s 4d - an enormous sum of money! It seems likely that they employed water driven bellows to speed up production.27

Medieval iron production involved a whole range of a dirty, smoky, destructive processes that marred vast swathes of land in the southern half of the hunting park - destroying tree cover, leaving ugly mounds of waste as well as frightening the wildlife. Land owners were reluctant to agree to such destruction. The lord had to constantly balance the financial benefits gained by allowing iron production to take place, against the impact on the deer park. The detrimental effect on the lord's estate is reflected in the Reeve's Accounts for 1491-2 when the farmer was given an allowance of 13s 4d 'because the grass there is destroyed and occupied by the working of an iron mine this year'.28 However, as tree cover was removed, a critical factor became the supply of wood to make charcoal. This is made very clear in the Rental for 1424-5 which states 'there is there a certain iron mine which is worth nothing yearly unless there has been a sale of dry underwood, and if there has the mine is worth 12d weekly and the dead wood for burning weekly 19s.29 However the supplies of ironstone were also becoming exhausted and by the sixteenth century production had ceased completely.

Iron ore was not the only natural resource extracted from beneath the ground of Roundhay. Marl pits were dug for manure, clay extracted for pottery production and the rich band of coal was constantly exploited by medieval miners. So deep did the workings become that water driven pumps had to be used to extract the water.30 Like the iron workings, these activities scarred the landscape. Even the beautiful beck that ran through the park was altered. In 1577 Elizabeth I granted Christopher Mather permission to dam Wyke Beck at fillers Close, a small clearing just inside the park. He constructed a leat from there to his new watermill at Seacroft and regularly brought his carts and drays into the park to service the dam and his water courses.31 By 1628 the supplies of coal were exhausted and the survey noted that the tenure of the 'mines of coal in Roundhay and Roundhay Grange late in the tenure of John Carpenter' had been worth 6s 8d but are now 'out of use'.32

water course from Ellers Close to Foundry Mill


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20. Verna, Les Mines et les forges des Cisterciens (France,1995).
21. W.Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, V (1846) pp.535-6.
22. R.A.Mott, Kirkstall Forge and Monkish Iron-making, Thoresby Soc., Vol. 53 (Leeds, 1972) p.157.
23. Stephen Moorhouse, Medieval Iron Production (Bolton Percy, 1980) and WYAS DB/M242.
24. E.K.Clark, ed., The Foundation of Kirkstall Abbey, Thoresby Soc. lV (Leeds, 1895) pp 204-205.
25. Barnes p.43-44.
26. Public Record Office - Ministers' Accounts for 1295-6 - Bundle 1, No.1.
27. F.S.Colman, A History of the Parish ofBarwick-in-Elmet, Thoresby Soc., XVll (Leeds, 1908) p.263.
28. Morkill p.25. (p.235)
29. W.T.Lancaster, Fifteenth Century Rentals of Barwick and Scholes, Thoresby Soc., XXVlll (Leeds, 1928) pp.239-40.
30. Information supplied by Stephen Moorhouse.
31. Morkill pp.29-30. (pp.239-240)
32. WYAS Acc.1874: Copy of the 1628 Corporation of London Survey.