John Little was born in 1773, the fourth child of Edward and Sarah Little. Edward was a farmer and the family moved from farm to farm around Alston Moor. The first child, Tamar, was born at Ashgill above Garrigill in 1764, the year of Edward’s marriage to Sarah, and the next four children, George, Mary, John and Sarah, were born at Skydes between 1767 and 1776. The family then moved to Park Fell overlooking Alston some time between 1777, the year of daughter Mary’s death, and 1779, the year their daughter Sarah died. Their last child, Thomas, was born at Park in 1780 and he too died in early childhood in 1785. The family finally moved to Flatt, near Garrigill, where Edward died in 1803 at the age of seventy-five and where Sarah died in1812.
The older sons, George and John, became lead miners. John married Sarah Walton in 1795 and they continued to live at Flatt where their first son, William, was born in 1796. The young family then moved across the river to Dryburn where their next son, George, was born in 1798. In 1800, at the birth of their third son, John, John was a farmer, but by 1803 he was a mine agent when their daughter, Mary, was born. At the beginning of 1805, at daughter Jane’s birth, he was still an agent living once again at Flatt. Then came the discovery of the Cross Fell lead vein.
The circumstances of the discovery of the Cross Fell Vein were told by John’s eldest son, William, to his own son, another John, who wrote that, “this information was given by William Little many years Agent at Cross Fell when in a very weak state of Health in the Month of December 1851 to John Little”.
The fragile, original pieces of paper are in the archives of the Alston Moor Historical Society and an extract reads as follows:
“The principal vein at East Cross Fell is the Old Vein, locally known by the term East Cross Fell was discovered in 1805 by Mr. John Little on his return from Appleby Fair, his horse having, in coming down an Old Brooken Way, removed a portion from the Surface of the vein, and which exposed some ore to the view, which being observed by Mr. Little, who lost no time in Securing a Lease of Sir Michael Flemming of Prydall Hall near Ambleside, formed a Company and commenced mining operations immediately which were Attended with great Success, first by raising ore at the Surface in the Great Limestone by taking up a tail race and also by Shafts at Short distances from each other, a great quantity of ore was raised in the way, After which a level was commenced at random of Plate-bed under the Tuft and driven westward in Vein, working it in Great Limestone and Top Sills, as they proceeded westward and from which a great deal of ore was raised at low price. They also Sank in Vein from random of Level into the quarry Hazel and four fathom Limestone in Several places all of which were productive of Ore until the Vein divided into Strings, and then ceased carrying being rendered too weak by the division. This Vein produced a considerable quantity of Ore in Gt. Limestone and top sills, the latter being very productive, the Ore being rich in Lead but poor in Silver - so poor as not to bear the Expense of refining.”
It’s strange how often lead veins were discovered in this way, by happy ‘accident’ – no one ever went prospecting on someone else’s land you understand. John Little also explored the vicinity for other veins. One he found was ‘Lang Kate Lock’. The information was also passed on to his grandson, John:
“A Level was commenced here on top of Gt. Limestone and driven South West for the purpose of exploring the Ground North of the Old Vein and by which four Veins were Cut all productive of Ore, particular the first One which carried to the Grass Roots from Random at Level, they were also tried in Gt. Limestone but failed, it being in a broken confused state and the Veins filled with a kind of Clay and Sand, no Ore of any consequence. No further trials were made in the Strata below Level. These veins were wrought East till they were cut off by the Cross Vein and west to the Fall of the Hill. … Quality of Bowse good and wrought as low as 6s per Byng produced at times 15 Bings of ore per shift.”
That John Little had made a valuable discovery was acknowledged by Westgarth Forster in his book, ‘A Treatise on a Section of the Strata, etc.’, of 1809. He wrote, “The next valuable lead mine is that at Cross Fell. This noble vein, which was discovered only a few years ago, carried lead ore close up to the moss, in the coal sills. It was first discovered to be rich near the surface”.
William Wallace, whose book about Alston Moor was published in 1890, wrote, “In the Hill Liberty (at Tynehead), Crossfell was the most productive mine”, and, “Crossfell smelt mill was probably built about the same time (as Tynehead Mill) to smelt lead ore raised from Little’s Crossfell mine, in the Manor of Kirkland and Skirwith”.
In the 1883 edition of Forster’s book, Rev. W. Nall noted, “For a short time Cross Fell mine yielded nearly 5,000 bings of lead ore per annum, the average price, per bing, being £5.10s. There are other veins in this neighbourhood which have raised considerable quantities of lead ore”.
With his new found wealth John Little moved quickly up in the world to live at Raise House in Alston, where the rest of his children, Edward, Diana, Sarah, Elizabeth and Thomas were born. But, as so often with families of that time, births were mixed with deaths. Two of John’s daughters died, Mary at the age of seventeen and Sarah aged ten. At his son Edward’s birth, in 1807, John described his status as a ‘yeoman’, a freeholder of land, and the wealth produced by the Crossfell Mine brought out the philanthropic side of his character. He is credited by MacBride Mackenzie, in his booklet ‘Quaint Alston’, published in 1923, with spending much of his fortune for the benefit of the town of Alston. MacBride claims that John Little paved the streets of Alston, he gave oil lamps for the streets, he was instrumental in bringing piped water to the town in 1808 and he brought the first printing press to the town. Unfortunately nothing else is known about these enterprises, except that on the list of financial donors for the water supply John Little is second only to the Greenwich Hospital, which was the Lord of the Manor.
Sadly, John Little did not live very long to enjoy his wealth and acclaim, he died on 6th June 1821 at Raise House at the age of only forty-seven.
The lead veins of Cross Fell mine were rich only near the surface and they were soon exhausted. As early as 1833 Thomas Sopwith, in his book about the lead mining districts, wrote a good deal about Hudgill Mine but made no mention of John Little and the Crossfell mine. This could be an indication that its glory days were finished and the memory had been erased by the impact of Hudgill.