The Isle of Man’s most distinctive industrial structure is the decorative but entirely practical Great Laxey Wheel, which is properly named Lady Isabella after the wife of the Lieutenant Governor, the Hon Charles Hope, at the time of its construction, 1850-54.
On an island entirely devoid of coal, the spectacular 72½-foot diameter backshot wheel was the economical solution to the need to drain the Laxey mines to a depth of 1,200 feet.
The wheel is driven by the waters of the Glen Mooar river led by gravity from an upstream cistern to the top of the tower behind the wheel.
In turn it drives a crank connected to a rod-system, carried on a 200-yard viaduct of 34 arches to power the pumping gear.
Because of its prominence in the valley, it was given an elaborate architectural treatment, with a vertiginous spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform above the supply aqueduct.
The Great Laxey Mining Company became hugely profitable. Peak production was achieved in 1875 – 2,400 tons of lead, 107,420 ounces of silver (worth over £90,000) and 11,753 tons of zinc-blende. In 1876 £4 shares yielded a 50% dividend.
From then on production declined, until flooding bankrupted the company in 1901, and attempts to revive the mine finally gave out in 1929.
The Lady Isabella, on the other hand, has been a consistent success as a tourist attraction. In 1877 16,445 visitors climbed to the top of the Wheel. The miners’ wives did good business providing ham-and-egg teas for visitors, so that Dumbell’s Terrace became and remains known as Ham and Egg Row.
Admission charges (£200 in 1887) were donated to the Miners’ Poor Relief Fund until 1897, when they were diverted to the Mining Company’s own increasingly depleted funds.
The Lady Isabella continued to operate as a private tourist attraction until 1965, when it was sold to the Manx Government. After a thorough restoration it reopened in 1967, and the derelict mining remains of Glen Mooar were investigated and conserved to form the Mines Trail which opened in 1986.
There is a vivid if haphazardly shot video of the Wheel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNLc5r3R8sc, and tourist information about visiting is at http://www.manxnationalheritage.im/plan-your-visit/groups/laxey-wheel-group-travel.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.