The remains of the Silver Mines are located in Little Sark. Continue past La Sablonnerie Hotel and follow the road until you see a track to the right. You will see the chimneys from the mining era sticking up. The corner of the engine house shown in this image has since collapsed during a rough winter.
When Queen Elizabeth I granted Helier de Carteret the right to settle Sark in 1565, she conferred on him the “Droit du Seigneur” which includes the rights to minerals and mining.
Since Roman times there has always been the knowledge that many different minerals could be found on Sark. This is due to the ice age which left Sark with rich mineral deposits exposed on the surface which would have attracted people in the Bronze Age, and possibly as far back as the Neolithic.
In 1833 a visiting mining engineer, John Hunt, found traces of copper at Creux a Pot. The following year the Seigneur at that time, Pierre Le Pelley was persuaded to grant a 21 year concession to mine Sark and Brecqhou. The newly-formed Sark and Guernsey Mining Company was floated with 200 £5.00 shares – Hunt bought 30 shares, Le Pelley took up ten shares.
During the spring of 1835 the first tin mineworkers (accompanied by their women and children) arrived, brought from Cornwall by John Hunt. A few were quartered in Little Sark in the row of six cottages, known today as the ‘Barracks’, a 19th century Cornish term for accommodation on a mine site.
The 1837 records show that many cottages were being built at that time to house the influx of workers and their families. The 1841 census showed 31 dwellings and 172 people on Little Sark, with a few Cornish mineworkers and most of the Sarkese who worked on the mine living on the main part of Sark.
It is estimated that the mine employed at least 75 people.
In 1836 a man, out shooting rabbits for his supper, picked up a lump of silver-lead ore when he went to retrieve his shot rabbit near Pot Bay.
This was thought to signify a good site for mining, so accordingly the Cornish mineworkers and 70 or 80 Sarkese started work at Le Pot mine.
Le Pot mine was not viable so it was abandoned and another venture was started at Port es Saies. The men had to be lowered by rope down the cliff face to the Port es Saies mine which proved to be a very wet mine and, since there were no finances available to provide an engine big enough to keep it clear of water, it too was abandoned.
Mining was then concentrated on Port Gorey. Captain John Prince, an experienced man, was placed in charge. A 240 horsepower steam pumping-engine with a 60 inch cylinder was imported and installed, requiring a 5 ft wall to support its beam; later an 18 horsepower steam horizontal engine was added for clearing out the lower levels of ore and waste rock. Incidentally the engine that would have been required to keep the Port es Saies mine clear of water would have needed an 80 inch cylinder, needing an 8 ft thick supporting wall for its beam.
Four shafts were sunk at Port Gorey – Le Pelley’s (close to the path leading to Sark Hope’s shaft), the engine shaft aka Vivian’s shaft, after consultant Capt. Nicholas Vivian (just south of the engine house ruins), Prince’s (just south of the road to the Barracks) and Sark’s Hope (due south near the cliff edge) – going as deep as 180 meters, 120 meters below water level.
A narrow gauge railway, operated by a manual winch, and a jetty were built in order to load up the ships that were to take the silver that was going to make Sark, and its Seigneur, rich.
A rich seam of silver was struck (then worth £600 a ton) but it was very narrow. A silver tea and coffee service, reputedly made from the Sark silver, was put on public display in the Sark and Guernsey Mining Company’s head office in Commercial Arcade, St Peter Port, Guernsey in order to keep the interest of the shareholders high.
Then in 1839 Pierre Le Pelley was drowned at sea off the Bec du Nez in the north during a terrible storm. This was witnessed by his good friend Rev Cachemaille, who was so traumatised that he never set foot off Sark again.
His brother Ernest took over the Fief of Sark as Seigneur, inheriting Pierre’s shareholdings in the silver mine and making further investments in it.
The period of 1840 – 41 was a period of prosperity for the mines, and some of the money generated was used to build a new school for educating girls (now the Visitor Centre). This started as an idea that Pierre Le Pelley had discussed with his friend Cashemaille before his death, and the school was completed by his brother Ernest Le Pelley.
The four shafts led to eight galleries, including one that extended 300 feet under the sea (the ceiling was so thin that during storms the miners could hear boulders being rolled around above their heads). The ore raised contained very little silver, veins that started well dwindled away, and there was the ever-present need for more money as new pumps were required to prevent flooding.
By using the Fief of Sark as security with Royal Assent Ernest Le Pelley was able to raise a further £4000 from prosperous Guernseyman, Jean Allaire (who had reputedly obtaining his wealth as a privateer during the Napoleonic Wars). In an effort to increase productivity Le Pelley introduced piece work – but the vein of silver was running out.
Finally, in 1845 (so the story goes), a gallery ceiling collapsed and seawater flooded in, drowning ten mineworkers. To add to the disaster the flooded gallery was the only one that was profitable.
Legend has it that on the same day a ship loaded with Sark silver was wrecked off the coast of Guernsey by a young captain who diverted from his original route to see his young wife, who had just given birth. Everything, crew and uninsured cargo (then worth between £10,000 and £12,000) was lost, although no records exist of such a wreck.
The huge debts, the flooded gallery and finally the loss of the silver ore saw the finish of the ill-fated enterprise.
Le Pelley and many of the shareholders were ruined, more than £30,000 had been spent, most of the miners went back to Cornwall, and by 1847 the mine workings were abandoned. All that remains today are two ventilation chimneys, the foundations of the Engine House, and the Assay Office. Prince’s Shaft is now filled with waste, and the other shafts have collapsed.
Two years later Ernest Le Pelley died aged forty-seven. His son, Peter Carey Le Pelley, aged 19 and away in the Indian Ocean, was unable to buy back the Fief of Sark at the agreed price of £6,000.
In 1852 Marie Collings, widow of Thomas Guerin Collings and daughter of Jean Allaire (the Guernseyman who had lent Le Pelley £4000), foreclosed on the Fief with the Crown’s permission, ending 120 years of Le Pelley leadership
After debts of £4670 13s 4d had been deducted Marie Collings become Dame of Sark for less than £1,400.
Written by the late Penny Prevel.
The whole site of the silver mines is privately owned, and it is dangerous to explore it. Occasionally a few people who have signed disclaimers may be engaged in industrial archaeology on the site. All other persons must keep strictly to the paths at all times.
For further information there are several books: The Fief of Sark by Ewen and De Carteret, and Sark, the Last Stronghold of Feudalism by Victor Coysh (both now out of print).
Sark by Ken Hawkes, Walks on Little Sark by Eric Boddye, and The Rocks of Sark by Wes Gibbons are available from shops in the Avenue, Sark.