The sandstone ruin, inscribed ‘Northumberland Lead Works’, is easy to miss, standing in the middle of a garden surrounded by vegetables and plants, in the middle of the Ouseburn Farm
The sandstone ruin is one of many reminders of Ouseburn’s harsh industrial past. It once housed a steam engine that drove the spinning machines of a nineteenth century flax mill. In 1871, the site was taken over by the Northumberland Lead Works, and the engine was used to power heavy grinders that crushed white lead into a fine powder. White lead is a toxic but once common pigment in paint and varnish. A significant number of the workers employed here became ill or died, and the land was contaminated for many years.
For centuries white lead was mixed with oil to create an opaque paint that easily covered over marks and mistakes. Demand and therefore production increased throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Newcastle was a major centre of white lead production in Britain and this site was one of several lead works in the city.
The process of creating white lead was surprisingly primitive. This sheets of white lead were laid between up to twelve layers of earthenware bowls insulated with wood bark. The bowls contained ascetic acid, which evaporated over time and corroded the lead to produce a blue paste This lead paste was then dried in large stoves to create a dry white carbonate that could be ground into a fine powder and packed for distribution.
‘Some of them gets lead-poisoned soon and some of them gets lead-poisoned later, and some, but not many, niver, and tis’ according to the constitooshuns is strong and some is weak’. Charles Dickens, the Unconstitutional Traveller, Ch34.
Lead-poisoning develops through exposure, as blood levels become too high. Factory workers constantly breathed in the deadly dust which drifted in the air like fine snow. Sufferers often developed headaches, anemia, ‘wrist drop’ – a weakness of the muscles , and a tell tale bluish line around their gums.
Victorians were aware of the dangers of lead poisoning , but it was just one of the countless causes of premature death. Women like eighteen year old Lizzie Dawson, unskilled and with family to support, were grateful for work that paid relatively well and included meals. They often worked for short stretches of time and many took little notice of the recommended health and safety measures.
Lizzie died at her home in Lime Street in 1891. The inquest confirmed that she had lead poisoning. The press at the time reported dozens of similar deaths which provoked a popular campaign to address the problem. In 1900, working conditions were improved, the old drying stones were abolished and the lead works were banned from employing women.
The Northumberland Lead Works continued as Elder Walker Paint Works until the 1960s. Today, this site is part of the Ouseburn Farm, an environmental education and training centre.