Until the late 18th century Hathersage was a small agricultural village with cottage industries making brass buttons and wire, but in 1750 a Henry Cocker started the Atlas Works, a mill for making wire. By the early 19th century there were several such mills in operation and activities had spread to the manufacture of needles and pins, for which Hathersage became famous.

A paper mill was also in operation near North Lees, making wrapping paper for the pins and needles produced. Though water power was used initially for the mills, this was superseded by steam in the mid 19th century and the result was that the village was usually enveloped in a pall of smoke. Conditions for the workers were bad too. To make their points the needles had to be ground on a rotating gritstone wheel, a process which gave off fragments of dust and steel. Occasionally millstones would shatter while grinding, injuring the grinder. The lungs of the grinders gradually filled up with dust and their average life expectancy was 30 years. This prompted the interest of a Royal Commission in 1867 which led to one of the first Factory Acts, laying down working hours, requiring machinery to be protected and making it illegal for children to be employed on some types of work.

Wire and needle making moved to Sheffield at the end of the 19th century and the last mill here closed in 1902, but several of the mills are still standing – Dale Mill lies along the road to Ringinglow, Darvell’s mill is at the top of the main street, and down near the stream at the bottom of the village are Atlas Works and Barnfield Works.

North Lees Hall
Charlotte Bronte visited Hathersage in 1845 and used it as the ‘Norton’ of the story ‘Jane Eyre’ – taking the heroine’s surname from the local family. She also used North Lees Hall, an Elizabethan manor house 2km north of Hathersage as the house where Mrs Rochester jumped from the roof to her death. North Lees is one seven halls built by Robert Eyre of Highlow (there were many local Robert Eyres) for his seven sons and is one of the finest Elizabethan buildings in the region – a tall square tower with a long wing adjoining.