Dacre was a grange of the Cistercian Abbey of Fountains and original documents from the abbey confirm that they were smelting iron here. In particular there is one document of 1309 recording an agreement between John de Mowbray (the Lord of the Manor) and the Abbot of Fountains in which it is stated “The Abbot and convent .... agree that they will only have in the said Chase their forge at Dacre and one other forge with the necessary buildings with two hearths transferrable from place to place for making their iron where most convenient”.
The original document is brief and in Latin and it assumes knowledge of then current practice that we do not have today so some aspects of its meaning are not entirely clear, however, it does tell us a great deal about the situation at Dacre especially the fact that there was an established iron smelting operation here.
The term Chase refers to a wide area of Nidderdale that was managed for the hunting of deer and other animals, rather like a Royal Forest but in this case it was for the benefit of the Lord of the Manor and, as stated previously, iron mining and smelting were detrimental to the hunt.
To forge is to shape metal by hammering and while strictly interpreted the term should apply only to the manufacture of iron goods by hammering it does seem to have been used as an alternative term for the bloomery. This probably results from the fact that bloomery iron eventually appeared as a result of the final hammering, being unrecognisable as a metal until that point.
The “Forge at Dacre” is probably the whole complex that by that time was well established and would have included all that was necessary for the smelting of iron and possibly the manufacture of some finished goods. It would have included a number of bloomery furnaces and one or more water powered hammers and evidence exists today of these facilities together with signs of old pits and adits that could have been the source of the ore.
The reference to “One other forge … for making their iron where most convenient” in the Mowbray document suggests that monastic workers were busy elsewhere in the Chase of Nidderdale and needed a supply of iron in support of their activities, for the manufacture of tools, perhaps, or for the production of horse shoes.
“One other forge … with two hearths” has been the subject of a number of theories over the years and The Pateley Bridge Local History Group in “A History of Nidderdale” suggest that it is a reference to two separate furnaces, one for smelting the metal and another to reheat it for the subsequent hammering. However, work by the Nidderdale Iron project group has provided another possibility, even the probability that it referred to a furnace with a closed smelting hearth and an integrated open hearth for ore roasting. If the Lord of the Manor wished to limit the damage to the environment of the Chase of Nidderdale this particular arrangement appears to be ideal by preventing the creation of a separate ore roasting site.
Dacre Pasture is the name given to the old common land that surrounded the village and it is here that much of the monastic iron smelting is likely to have been located. In confirmation of this possibility there are the remains of a number of small furnaces scattered across the unimproved parts of the Pasture.
There is also mention in a book by Harry Speight, a local historian of 100 year ago, of the removal of large numbers of furnaces when agricultural improvements were taking place on Dacre Pasture in the 19th century. These furnaces are in fact described by Speight as lead smelting furnaces but to date no confirmation of this has been received and the balance of available evidence suggests that the target was iron, at least on the south side of Dacre Pasture.
Another feature that is typical of Cistercian industrial sites is an extensive water management system which, with its various tributaries and branches extends for four miles or more. This includes stone lined culverts and ponds and while there is little visible evidence to date of the mills that they powered it is inconceivable that such a monumental task was undertaken simply to dump water in river that belonged to someone else. The culverts on Dacre Pasture were the equivalent of a modern electrical power supply and they were designed for the efficient use of a resource that, in summer at least could be in very short supply.
Good quality iron ore is not evident on the ground in Dacre Pasture but there are indications of adits and pits that could have been the sources of much of the iron. Most of these are difficult to recognise even when close to them because they were relatively small scale operations when they were in use and 5 or 6 centuries of inactivity have allowed nature to hide their most obvious features.
Some pits are very obvious from public roads and are marked on a number of maps as old coal pits and this is likely to be the case. Most of them appear to date from the 18th or 19th century when there was a demand for this fuel and when it is known that the local seams were being exploited. The pits are betrayed by the large doughnut shaped spoil heaps that surround the shafts. It is possible that these modern coal shafts have overlaid and destroyed earlier workings for because both iron and coal often occur in close proximity.
One other possible source of iron ore is bog iron and it is likely that at least the first iron smelters in Dacre were able to make use of a ready supply that had accumulated on or near the surface. There is no evidence of any quantity of this material today but the conditions are there with boggy ground and iron red springs.
After the suppression of the monasteries, much of the land around Dacre eventually came into the hands of the Ingilby family, famous for their ownership of Ripley but also holding Padside Hall for some considerable time. This is two or three miles from Dacre upstream on the Darley Beck.
When the Ingilbys took control of the old monastic lands in the late 16th century the iron industry in Nidderdale was in decline but it does appear that they continued to operate the existing facilities for there is documentary evidence of a Smelt House on Ingilby land at the foot of Dacre Pasture and it is unlikely that such a facility would have been developed from a standing start at that time. It is much more likely that they simply continued operating an old monastic smelt house for as long as it was economically viable.
(From "Nidderdale Iron - A Forgotten Industry", Howber Ltd, 2005)