The Treacle Mines of England

Recently I wrote a post on the history and invention of golden syrup and black treacle in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to the mass production and refining of sugar cane in the West Indies, the only way to get hold of treacle was to mine ‘natural molasses’ in treacle mines. As far as I know treacle is the only mined foodstuff though I could be wrong there (I often am).

Natural treacle is very viscous

Treacle mines are rare and appear in just five regions of England: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Kent, the West Country, with the most significant mine being in Wymsey, Cumbria. Having a treacle mine in your town was a huge benefit to the inhabitants. The folk living in these areas were particularly healthy, especially the miners themselves. It was noted by William Cobbet in 1816 when visiting the Cumbrian village:

This place I found to be a fair and healthy place, the women and children well fed and happy. Most menfolk were at work upon the Land but that evening in the excellent Crown and Thorns Inn I was surpassingly surprised to see many men brown of hue. On enquiry I determined that these were miners of Treacle and what a jolly crew they turned out to be. That night I repaired to my bed thanking our maker that there was at least one happy parish in the land.

Black unrefined treacle forms from fossilised beds of sugar cane rather like oil or peat and has a tendancy to seep and rise to the surface of the ground. This run-off is useless, but what makes the regions mentioned above unique is that the treacle is surrounded by a layer of non-porous rock that keeps it contained.

Treacle mining goes back to pre-Roman times, in fact there was a healthy trade between England and Rome via Roman-occupied Gaul. In fact it was the main reason why the Romans wanted to conquer the unbearably cold and harsh British Isles. Why else would they want to take over an island that was inhabitable to them?  A floor mosaic from AD 77 was unearthed depicting treacle mining and refining.

Demand was so high, that any new sites had to be kept secret. The site of the mine in Pudsey (my home town, nestled between Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire) is so closely-guarded that only a very few individuals know the location and those that are told have to have been born and bred within the boundaries of Pudsey.  The site of the famous abbey at Kirkstall was chosen by the monks that built it because it was thought a tributary ran from the Pudsey mines through Kirkstall. Unfortunately it seems they were wrong – no treacle had ever been found there.

Pudsey Parish Church

There has been no significant treacle mining in Britain since the nineteenth century because industry had made sugar and its by-products cheap and accessible. However, it was on its last-legs already; most of the mines were completely dry and no new sites were found. The last working mine eventually closed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. There are no plans to excavate any of mines and it is a shame; it would be great if we could draw attention to this almost forgotten part of our food history.

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25 Comments

Filed under Britain, food, General, history

25 responses to “The Treacle Mines of England

  1. Is this a joke? More details please! Do they occur elsewhere in the world? Oh, never mind, I see the date 🙂

  2. Haha – I’m told by my British in-law that this has been a joke in the UK for a century – I fell for it 🙂

  3. Kathryn Marsh

    In fact, those who are “in the know” about local treacle mines are all too happy to encourage the belief that the existence of treacle mines is a joke, and when this technique to put searchers off the trail fails they fall back on the “seams are exhausted” line. In fact the mine to which our host was referring – the one in Pudsey which he refers to here – was reopened during the second World War to help ameliorate the sugar shortage under the management of my uncle, Charles Clift.
    I assume, since you make this error Neil, that despite living so near yours is not one of the traditional mining families. Neither is mine, but my grandfather, who was successively a railway porter based in East Ardsley and a guard based in Wakefield, actually worked on the trains serving the mine. I’ve mentioned the 5am rhubarb train from Mirfield before – the treacle train ran from Pudsey at 2am in order to preserve secrecy. In fact the mine only shut with the end of sugar rationing in 1952 at which time my uncle, who originally trained as an engineer with Taylors in Leeds, a company I worked for myself in the late 1960s, became head of rehabilitative engineering training for the Ministry of Works at Egham Common in Surrey.
    Uncle Charlie always swore that there were substantial untapped seams and that the mines had been mothballed in such a way that they could be reopened at any future time of national need. He was close lipped about the state of other mines, having signed the Official Secrets Act, but I can reveal that he disclosed to my brother and myself the location of the Pudsey Mine.

    • Thanks for correcting those points. I found it very difficult to find information on the Pudsey mine what with me not being party to any of the witheld information – all my Mum’s side of the family are from outside the town so we missed out there. There’s lots of information about the Cumbrian one though…

  4. Alice in Wonderland
    Lewis Carol
    Chapter Seven : A Mad Tea-Party

    ‘Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; ‘and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well . . .’
    ‘What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
    ‘They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
    ‘They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; ‘they’d have been ill.’
    ‘So they were,’ said the Dormouse; ‘VERY ill.’
    Alice tried to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary ways of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much, so she went on: ‘But why did they live at the bottom of a well?’
    ‘Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
    ‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’
    ‘You mean you can’t take LESS,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.’
    ‘Nobody asked YOUR opinion,’ said Alice.
    ‘Who’s making personal remarks now?’ the Hatter asked triumphantly.
    Alice did not quite know what to say to this: so she helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter, and then turned to the Dormouse, and repeated her question. ‘Why did they live at the bottom of a well?’
    The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, ‘It was a treacle-well.’
    ‘There’s no such thing!’ Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went ‘Sh! sh!’ and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, ’If you can’t be civil, you’d better finish the story for yourself.’

    It will ever remain fiction I’m afraid . . .

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  6. tam

    my father said there was a treacle mine at durdar near carlisle cumbria

  7. pelerin

    You forgot to mention the Polegate treacle mines in Sussex. I first heard of them in 1960 and there is now a pub there called The Treacle Mine so they are still well known there.

    • Thanks Pelerin!

      I thought that there were no treacle mines round those parts. I wonder why I didn’t come across them in my research.

      Anyways, thanks for the new info!

  8. TnCake

    We also have treacle mines here in Suffolk, indeed Wissett treacle fair was held a number of times to celebrate the Wissett treacle mines and a recent discovery of mineworkings in Blaxhall.

  9. Anngela Saville

    I was born and bred in Pudsey I was lead to understand the treacle mine in Pudsey was a post office where you could take your own container and fill it with treacle

  10. Pete

    You missed the Binsey treacle mine by Oxford…used to visit in my youth!

    • Hi Pete – I didn’t think there were any treacle mines in Southern England, but glad to find out from you that there are. I wish there were a geological map of them, like you see for other natural resources…

  11. Michael Hutton

    No mention of the treacle mines at Crick in Northamptonshire?
    These mines produce the finest quality treacle in the country and was so important to the populace of London that the government had the motorway M1 built so that trucks could take the treacle down to London.
    Don’t believe me? Read this from Wikipedia –
    “The first section of the motorway opened between Junction 5 (Watford) and Junction 18 (Crick/Rugby) on 2 November 1959 together with the motorway’s two spurs, the M10 (from Junction 7 to south of St Albans originally connecting to the A1) and the M45 (from Junction 17 to the A45 and Coventry).”

    • Many thanks for the info, Michael.

      I obviously need to reassess the number of mines across the country. I should be making some kind of geological map of treacle deposits…

  12. My parents went to Nanpantan, Leicestershire, treacle mines as the Sunday school annual outing. I was took there as a child to play in the wooded area with tiny rivulets running between the grass. Neither parent will tell me the exact location and I want my own children and granddaughter to have the tradition of playing in the treacle mines as I did.
    Many thanks for any help
    Nikki

    • Hi Nikki

      Treacle mines seem to be dotted around all of England! I have no idea where your local ones are, but hopefully someone reading the blog can hep you

      Thanks for the comment

  13. mick tighe

    I’m married to this Yorkshire woman from Pudsey who started all this link.
    Long have I suspected something. Upon our visiting her mother would smuggle a small shoe box size package into her shopping bag. We would then live on treacle tart for the next three weeks.
    On another visit when my wife and mothering law went into town shopping my father-in-law took me up to the attic where I was showed all manor of paperwork, Deeds to the house and insurance policies. I was briefly shown some shares in the Dewsbury treacle mine but told I would learn more about that nearer the time.

    • Hah brilliant, you’re mother-in-law’s a legend. It’s amazing how many people have a local treacle mine. Especially in the nrth of England. I obviously need to add an addendum to my original post!

  14. Brian

    Surprised no-one yet has mentioned Chobham Common in Surrey. See the entry on treacle mines in Wikipedia.

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