Recently I wrote a post on the history and invention of golden syrup and black treacle in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to the mass production and refining of sugar cane in the West Indies, the only way to get hold of treacle was to mine ‘natural molasses’ in treacle mines. As far as I know treacle is the only mined foodstuff though I could be wrong there (I often am).
Natural treacle is very viscous
Treacle mines are rare and appear in just five regions of England: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Kent, the West Country, with the most significant mine being in Wymsey, Cumbria. Having a treacle mine in your town was a huge benefit to the inhabitants. The folk living in these areas were particularly healthy, especially the miners themselves. It was noted by William Cobbet in 1816 when visiting the Cumbrian village:
This place I found to be a fair and healthy place, the women and children well fed and happy. Most menfolk were at work upon the Land but that evening in the excellent Crown and Thorns Inn I was surpassingly surprised to see many men brown of hue. On enquiry I determined that these were miners of Treacle and what a jolly crew they turned out to be. That night I repaired to my bed thanking our maker that there was at least one happy parish in the land.
Black unrefined treacle forms from fossilised beds of sugar cane rather like oil or peat and has a tendancy to seep and rise to the surface of the ground. This run-off is useless, but what makes the regions mentioned above unique is that the treacle is surrounded by a layer of non-porous rock that keeps it contained.
Treacle mining goes back to pre-Roman times, in fact there was a healthy trade between England and Rome via Roman-occupied Gaul. In fact it was the main reason why the Romans wanted to conquer the unbearably cold and harsh British Isles. Why else would they want to take over an island that was inhabitable to them? A floor mosaic from AD 77 was unearthed depicting treacle mining and refining.
Demand was so high, that any new sites had to be kept secret. The site of the mine in Pudsey (my home town, nestled between Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire) is so closely-guarded that only a very few individuals know the location and those that are told have to have been born and bred within the boundaries of Pudsey. The site of the famous abbey at Kirkstall was chosen by the monks that built it because it was thought a tributary ran from the Pudsey mines through Kirkstall. Unfortunately it seems they were wrong – no treacle had ever been found there.
Pudsey Parish Church
There has been no significant treacle mining in Britain since the nineteenth century because industry had made sugar and its by-products cheap and accessible. However, it was on its last-legs already; most of the mines were completely dry and no new sites were found. The last working mine eventually closed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. There are no plans to excavate any of mines and it is a shame; it would be great if we could draw attention to this almost forgotten part of our food history.