The Speedwell ‘Miner’s Toast’ Inscriptions

By John Barnatt and David Webb

In 1772 lead miners started driving what was then a ‘state of the art’ underground canal level, from the base of a shaft close to the bottom of Winnats Pass, to mineral veins to the south including Faucet Rake and New Rake beyond;, both intersected by natural caverns of the Speedwell System (Rieuwerts and Ford 1985). They already knew of the existence of natural cave passages as miners had entered them beforehand at both Pilkingtons Cavern and the Boulder Piles (Ford 1992; Nixon and Warriner 1997). Hence the rough direction and depth at which to drive was known, and the resulting passage, or canal, would make extraction of the ore from depth a much easier proposition. This ambitious but ultimately financially unsuccessful project was probably completed in 1782, one year after breaking into the main Speedwell streamway.. At the time of the breakthrough two miners explored the stream way to Main Rising intending to commemorate this momentous achievement. They climbed into the nearby entrance to Cliff Passage and inscribed their initials and the well known ‘A Health to All Mines and Mentainers of Mines’ together with a drawing of a bottle and glass - a second crude drawing of a boat was possibly added later. This is one of the most interesting and historically significant examples of miner’s graffiti in the Peak District.

Given the importance of this inscription, there was concern in the summer of 2004 when it was reported to DCA that it had been overwritten. Thus, it was arranged that the authors (Dave Webb for DCA and John Barnatt for PDMHS) would inspect the inscriptions, assess their present plight, and formulate an appropriate long-term conservation strategy. A recording trip was planned and Paul Deakin kindly offered to photograph all the inscriptions beforehand during a previously planned visit to Speedwell. Thus, we arrived in early September with a pre-prepared transcription which was systematically checked, with additions made of details not clearly visible on the photographs. Two previous transcriptions of the inscriptions have been identified, one published by Trevor Ford in 1991 (but compiled well before this date) and the other made by John Cordingley in 1997 and placed in the BCA Library at Glutton Bridge (and noted in Cordingley 1999). While both recorded many of the names and initials, the records they produced were unfortunately not complete, thus it was impossible to systematically assess what had been added after these dates. Later in the autumn a further checking trip was made to search for inscriptions recorded previously by Trevor Ford but no longer visible.

A full record of the many names and dates in Cliff Passage added over the 223 years from 1781 onwards that have survived up to 2004; has been compiled. Click on the following link:

Table 1 - Inscription Record

Table 2 and 3 - Inscription Record

Improve our knowledge of the inscriptions by letting us know the identity of the many still obscure names ands initials, together with details of trips and events. If you can identify any of the inscriptions, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Upon assessment, two things were immediately clear.  Firstly, the Miner’s Toast inscription had not been overwritten and indeed the other later graffiti immediately around it had been there for many years. Secondly the graffiti as a whole provides a fascinating record, not only of 18th century lead miners but explorations by cavers and others over the last 120 years or so.

While the Cliff Passage inscriptions only contain between 2 and 4 miner’s inscriptions, far fewer than in some other parts of the system (see below), the main one at this location is special because of its character and historical importance. This contrasts with other locations which bear very little later graffiti. Here, the mud-covered surface of Cliff Cavern passage is ideal for inscribing and presumably the presence of the well-known earlier inscription has led to a mass of names and initials being written nearby.

The 2004 survey has identified 119 inscriptions, with 142 individual names and initials (a few of which are by the same individuals). In addition, Trevor Ford recorded a further 9, with 12 people listed; these appear to have been destroyed and two reasons for this are likely. In parts, the lower walls are mud covered where cavers have brushed past or placed careless hands. In addition, John Beck informs us that several years ago, PB Smith attempted to remove some of the more recent additions but abandoned the work due to difficulty of removal. Today, there are 14 clear instances, on both sides of the passage, where inscriptions have been purposefully scratched out; while no longer legible the removal marks are obvious but whether this is the work of PB and/or others is not known.

Many visitors will undoubtedly have regarded the later additions as unfortunate, marring the historic miners inscription; however one man’s graffiti is another’s historical record. In effect, the graffiti here is, by default, a record of much of the caving history of the Speedwell System, but only some of the major developments of recent decades are recorded, other notable achievements have failed to find a place on the “Wall of Fame”

The earliest known caver’s inscription was dated to 1887, when E. E. Synge, an early Cambridge speleologist, inscribed his name to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee; it is particularly unfortunate that this is one of the inscriptions that can no longer be found and it appears to have been destroyed. Two surviving 19th century inscriptions are for 1896, perhaps by ‘WL’, and 1898, when a ‘Mike Hibbert (aged 19 years)’ left his mark.

All the inscriptions that are dated, about 70% of the total, show trends in visits with some decades showing more frequent visits than others. The first peak is between 1896 and 1929, with a break during the 1914-18 War. Members of the Kyndwr Club and later the Derbyshire Pennine Club visited the cave on several occasions and the initials of one of their best known members, James Puttrell, appear three times. In the one instance, dated 1902, his surname is given in full, but another member of the party is presumed to have done the inscribing since his name has been wrongly spelt! Not all inscriptions document visiting cavers; the showcave owners at the time are there (first Joseph Eyre and later Arthur Ollerenshaw), as are various local people, including John Royse who visited Cliff Passage in 1920 and who later wrote ‘Ancient Castleton and Caves’ published in the 1940s. Some of the locals were showcave guides, and together with members of the showcave owner’s families doubtless accompanied or guided club cavers and friends well beyond the normal showcave route. This tradition has continued into recent decades; the Harrison’s became partners in the showcave in about 1940 and various members of the family are recorded between the 1940s and 1980s.

A second set of inscriptions date from between 1943 and 1955, including the Cave Diving Group who recorded dives in Main Rising in 1953 and 1954. The Harrison family were involved in several trips and one of the best known of the visitors at this time was Trevor Ford, who left his initials in 1943 and 1949. In the mid 1940s the first detailed surveying of the system was undertaken.

Inscriptions start again in the 1970s, after Treasury Sump was first dived in 1970. There are only a few, and the flavour of these times was captured by John Cordingley in 1980 who described himself as ‘The Northern Bandit’. The largest number of names appears in 1984 when the Wind Tunnel route was opened, and an inscription by members of TSG commemorate this event. From this date until 1996 there is a steady trickle of additions, including records of significant events, such as the Climbing of Cliff Cavern and exploration of sumps above, as well as the memorable 1995 dive in Main Rising where the depth was pushed to -66m. In the same year the route via JH was opened but this remains uncommemorated, as does the more recent Titan connection. Since 1996 only four dated inscriptions have been added.

All the inscriptions in Cliff Passage are scratched into the thin layer of dry mud coating walls and roof. The fact that they have survived indicates that this passage is rarely if ever subject to violent flooding, but they are nevertheless particularly vulnerable to damage or destruction by cavers, and their future conservation is an issue worthy of serious consideration.

When the report of overwriting was first made it was suggested that we should investigate the possibility of, for example, removing recent inscriptions, covering the miners inscription with perspex or installing a notice asking that no more inscriptions be made. After examining the site the conclusion we came to is that such actions are not necessary The number of new inscriptions added in the last few years has not been great, and physical intrusions such as a notice would be unsightly and inappropriate. The best and most sensitive way of ensuring the survival of the inscriptions seems to us to be to raise awareness amongst the caving community of their interest and importance, hence the recent note in Descent (Barnatt and Webb 2004) and this article. While many cavers are already conversant with good conservation practice, there is a need to spread the word to others that placing careless muddy hands on the various inscriptions, or brushing oversuits against them, could do irreparable harm to this interesting document to the mining and caving history of Speedwell. We also ask that new inscriptions are confined to commemorating significant breakthroughs or other caving events in the system, after all it is now no longer a significant achievement to reach this point of the cave. Cavers can help by spreading the word as to the importance of the inscriptions and good conservation practice here.

There is other miner’s graffiti within the Speedwell System, usually their initials, notably at several places along the canal and the stream passage beyond leading to the Boulder Piles, with concentrations above the Bung Hole and at Halfway House. These are mostly not as vulnerable to accidental damage or destruction, as they are picked or chiselled into rock. Similarly, there are three sets of initials between the Whirlpool and the Boulder Piles, together with many notches for timbers that supported a timber floor above the stream, once a miners walkway, used to transport ore to the Whirlpool where it was loaded into canal barges; a similar but much smaller walkway existed along Whirlpool Passage. However, elsewhere in the system at least one inscription near Far Sump (in clay) has been accidentally destroyed and others above the Boulder Piles, done with candle smoke, are potentially vulnerable.

Other Inscriptions

In the alcove opposite the Main Rising one inscription was noted: ‘GBSE 1925’ – this is probable GBS Errington who also inscribed his name in Cliff Passage in 1925 and 1926. John Cordingley and Trevor Ford have recorded several other inscriptions in the Speedwell system, but these were not inspected in 2004. They include ‘JH’ at the bottom of The Bung Hole ladder and ‘A Ollerenshaw’ (the early 20th century showcave owner) at the base of Block Hall on the north wall. There are also initials at the top of the pitch above the Boulder Piles, including ‘JH’ and ‘IP’, and further smoked examples on the roof. In Far Sump Extension, just upstream of Far Sump, there was an ‘AI’ which has now been destroyed and also a ‘BH’. IA is also found, as noted above, in the main stream passage just downstream from the Boulder Piles, and also in the First Miner’s Workshop in James Hall’s Over Engine Mine. At Halfway House, off the showcave canal, there are several inscriptions, comprising ‘J.T. 1870’, ‘C.T’ (twice), ‘J Royse 1845’, ‘1850’ and ‘1857’, ‘J.W.P’ (James Puttrell), and ‘M.E.’ There are also several inscriptions at the Bottomless Pit and on the Speedwell entrance stairway – these need further assessment to attempt to distinguish between miners inscriptions and those left by showcave guides and visitors.


Many thanks for the Harrison family, the showcave owners, for their cooperation and support in allowing the assessment to take place. Paul Deakin, with the assistance of John Wilmot, kindly photographed all the inscriptions in Cliff Cavern Passage and at the top of The Bung Hole. Dave Arveschoug, John Cordingley, Trevor Ford, Jim Rieuwerts and Wayne Sheldon identified many of the people who have left their mark on the passage. John Beck told us of PB Smith’s previous attempt to clean off recent additions to the graffiti. Roy Paulson gave access to John Cordingley’s archive when it was in the BCRA library at Matlock. Members of the Crewe CPC and PDMHS accompanied the authors underground.

Further Reading

Barnatt, J. and Webb, D. (2004) T’owd Man in Speedwell. Descent 181, p. 23.
Cordingley, J. (1999) Inscriptions in Peak and Speedwell Caverns – A Bit of Historical Research. TSG 17.
Ford, T. D. (1991) Graffiti in Speedwell Mine. In Peak and Speedwell Caverns – Explorations and Science. Cave Science 18(1), pp 39-40.
Ford, T.D. (1992) A hitherto unknown account of a late 18th century visit to Speedwell Mine at Castleton by James Plumptre. Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, 11(6), pp 281-282.
Nixon, D.A. (1997) The connection of James Hall’s Over Engine Mine to Peak and Speedwell Caverns. Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, 13(3), pp 57-67.
Rieuwerts, J.H. and Ford, T.D. (1985) The Mining History of the Speedwell Mine of Oakden Level, Castleton, Derbyshire. Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, 9(3), pp 129-170.

News Flash

Victoria Aven Safety Notice - 26/09/2022

It had been reported to the Peak Cavern keyholders that there is a damaged section of rope in Victoria Aven - this whole area has now been completely re-rigged and the very large boulder assessed and can now again be included in the list of possible trips within the system.

However, there are still loose rocks of varying sizes which could easily be displaced and could cause serious damage/harm so please exercise extreme caution!