Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Lead poisoning in Northern Yorkshire

In Journey Home, John Hillaby describes how during a walk through North Yorkshire he “saw the gaunt shoulders of moors slashed open and poisoned by mining operations, leaving only mounds of spoil and the ruins of abandoned building. The scene is one of desolation, the outcome of the lust for lead, most of it in the 16th and 17th centuries . . .”

Yorkshire Blue line

Lead sulphide at the gingival margin

associated with lead poisoning


Fortunes were made by the few and lost by many, and there always loomed the specter of bellan, the local name for lead poisoning. The symptoms were elusive: muscular weakness about the feet and the wrists, which could be the fatigue of a man who had worked underground from dawn to dusk. At least, they hoped it was; but gradually they found they were unable to lift their pots of beer without pain. From the knees downwards they were afflicted with curiously persistent pins and needles. At night, in the light of tallow candle, they saw the reflection of that ominous blue line around their gums. They knew the acute gut-ache, that condition known as painters’ colic. They were in the grip of bellan. In some areas hens could not be kept because the grits they picked up contained fragments of lead, and the streams that poured out of the deep workings were covered over with slabs of limestone to prevent stock from drinking poisoned water.


  1. Hillaby, John. Journey Home, A Walk about England. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983.



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