The Lady Isabella, or Great Laxey Wheel, is one of the most important sites on the Isle of Man recalling the Island's long history of lead mining. Looming out of the Laxey valley, this massive piece of boldly-painted Victorian engineering still presents a marvellous sight.
At the end of the 18th century, several small-scale mining operations to work the ore were underway in this area. With operations expanding, a waterwheel was introduced in 1828 to pump out the mines as they filled with the water draining from the slopes of Snaefell. A second, larger wheel was introduced a decade later but even with both wheels pumping, the volume of water could not be cleared quick enough to allow the miners to work at the depth required to meet the growing demand for lead.
In 1849 Robert Casement was asked to design a wheel that could cope with raising water at a rate of 250 gallons per minute from a depth of 1200 feet (364m). Not only did he create a piece of innovative machinery on a scale never before seen, but he also used his architectural skills to combine practicality with a typically Victorian sense of ostentation. Using locally quarried slate, huge quantities of timber and cast iron, the Laxey Wheel was ingeniously put together over a period of four years. Made from 48 wooden spokes set within a six foot wide cast iron rim, the Wheel measured some 72ft (22m) across and had a circumference of 228ft (69m). The finishing touch was a casting of the Manx emblem placed on the upper section of the wheel case. It was undoubtedly the world's largest wheel at that date.
On 24th September 1854 this splendid achievement was christened at an official ceremony, witnessed by Governor Hope and some 4,000 islanders. Named in honour of the Governor's wife, the 'Lady Isabella' began her working life of some 75 years. Lead mining prospered at Laxey until the 1880s but production gradually decreased after this and, unable to invest in the new machinery required to bring back production levels, the The Great Laxey Minining Company eventually went into voluntary liquidation in 1901. Over the next 30 years, a few attempts were made to continue working the mine but by 1930 the mine was closed and stripped of anything of value. Fortunately, the Great Laxey Wheel remained untouched, and was purchased by a local man in 1937. After repairs, the Wheel was maintained as a visitor attraction by Mr Edwin Kneale until 1965. Unable to afford the rising costs of restoration, he sold the Laxey Wheel to the Manx Government and in 1967 it was completely overhauled. The original pine spokes were replaced, all 168 buckets were renewed, and the top viewing platform was rebuilt.
Today it remains both an awesome spectacle, and a working testament to the great engineering skills of Robert Casement. Forming the centrepiece of the Great Laxey Mine complex, the Laxey Wheel is the starting point from which visitors can follow the Mines Trail and gain an understanding of how this vast piece of machinery played its part in the mining industry.