NEIMME: papers

County Durham Industries - Coal Mining.

From : Comprehensive Guide to the County of Durham, by J. R. Boyle, F. S. A.

Historical Notices. - Coal was known to the Roman colonists in Britain.  Small quantities of unburnt coal, as well as of cinders, have been found in several of the Roman stations in the north of England.  But for many centuries after the departure from our coasts of  the imperial legions coal was not regularly worked for fuel.  An allusion in Bishop Pudsey’s Boldon Buke (A.D. 1183) to “a certain collier” (carbonarius) at Escomb, who was obliged to find coals  refers only to a charcoal-burner and to charcoal.  In the same survey there are allusions to the coal which the smiths of Wearmouth and Sedgefield found for their work, but these may perhaps be explained in the same way.  Coal was shipped from the Tyne in the latter half of the thirteenth century.  But it is not until we reach the early years of the following century that we meet with any reference to the coal industry of the county of Durham.  In 1302 certain matters were in dispute between Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, and the inhabitants of the Palatinate, whereon the people petitioned the king.  One of their complaints was that whereas it was lawful for every freeman “to take mine of coal found in his own land,” the bishop’s bailiffs were in the habit of preventing their  doing this.  In the following year an agreement was made between the bishop and the commonalty by which the right of the latter to take coal was granted.  A roll of the revenues of the see of Durham for the twenty-fifth year of Bek’s episcopate [1307-8] mentions a receipt of 12s. 6d. from the coal-mines of Chester ward.  Bishop Kellaw, in 1314, appointed a keeper of all his forests, chases, parks, woods, and coal-mines within his liberty of Durham.  In 1313 we find the monks who occupied the cell of Jarrow purchasing coal for their own use.  In one case they buy eighteen chaldrons, and in another nine chaldrons, the latter purchase, with all expenses and other costs, amounting to 7s. 4d.  By a dateless charter, which probably belongs to the early years of the fourteenth century, Henry, son of Peter de Lumley, grants to Gilbert de Lumley all his mine and his part of the sea coals in the land of Great Lumley.  In 1327-8 John de Denham died seized of half the vill of Coxhoe, with coal-mines there, which he held of the bishop at a yearly rental of 40s.  In a roll of the bailiff of the manor of Auckland for the year 1337-8, amongst other payments is one of 2s. for twenty-four quarters of sea coals purchased for use in a lime kiln.   In the deed constituting the vicarage of Merrington, in 1343, a moiety of the tithe of certain coal-mines is mentioned amongst oher items of revenue.  The Priory of Finchale possessed a coal-mine at Lumley, and in the account roll of the house for the year 1348-9, occurs a receipt of 19s. 5d. “for coals sold this year from our mine of Lumley.”  In the bailiff’s account of the manor of Coundon for the year 1349-50, we meet with a payment of 5s. 6d. for expenses incurred in the new winning of “a mine of sea coals in the land of Coundon, with cords, buckets, and windlasses bought and made for the same work.”  Various other interesting references to coal occur about the same period.  For instance, an inventory of the chattels, etc., of the cell of Monkwearmouth, for the year 1337, mentions “6 chaldrons of sea coals.”  In the account rolls of the sister house of Jarrow there are several payments for wood and coal for fuel, as in 1351, when a sum of 27s. 4d. was spent on 1500 faggots and 21 chaldrons of coal.  At the same period the fuel used at Finchale Priory consisted of ling, coals, and thorns, for which articles 17s. 7d. was spent in the year 1346-7.  In the account of the manor of Coundon already mentioned a purchase of coal is said to have been made for the express purpose of “saving straw.”  In 1354 Thomas de Fery leased to the Prior of Durham, for thirty years, all his coals and seams of coal in the north part of the vill of Ferryhill, with license to dig in any place whatever.  In this lease mention is made of drifts for the purpose of carrying off water.  A curious document connected with the early coal trade in the county is a lease granted by Bishop Hatfield, in 1356, to Sir Thomas Gray, Knight, and Sir John Pulhore, parson of Whickham, of five coal-mines within the land of Whickham, for a period of twelve years, at an annual rent of 500 marks (£333, 13s. 4d.).  If the rent should be in arrear at any time for forty days, the amount was to be doubled during all such time of arrear.  The bishop undertook that no new mines should be opened out on the water of Tyne, or elsewhere in those parts, “except those of the said bishop at Gateshead which are now being worked, and the coals of which shall not be carried or sold to the ships” which the lessees might employ.  The mines were to be worked by five barrowemen, by the oversight and oath of the chief forester and of the oiewers(veiours).  Not more than one keel of coals (probably about 20 tons) was to be taken from each mine per day.  All defaults and trespasses on the part of the workmen were to be referred to the chief forester.  If it should happen that the work of the mines should be suspended by reason of war or the incursion of the nation’s enemies, a proportionate reduction was to be made from the rent.  By a lease made eight years later, the same bishop granted to John Plummer, burgess of Newcastle, and Walter de Hesilden, burgess of Gateshead, a mine of coals within the land of Gateshead, to be won and worked by them, for a term of twenty-four years, at an annual rent of £5.  The bishop grates the lessees sufficient timber from his park for the construction of their pits and their water-gate, and to make their staiths in a convenient place on the water of Tyne.  They are to have right of road from the pit to the staiths.  For long before this period, and for long afterwards too, the tradesmen and craftsmen on the south side of the Tyne were grievously injured in their avocations by the people of Newcastle, who claimed a monopoly over every source of profit on both sides of the river.  The lessees of the Gateshead coal-mines were subjected to the same sort of interference.  In consequence of this the king, in 1367, issued a writ, in which it is stated that Plummer and Hesilden, in leading sea coals from the bishopric of Durham across the water of Tyne to the town of Newcastle and other places in the neighbourhood, have suffered manifold hindrance and disturbance, through certain of the said town of Newcastle who have coals there to sell.  The king takes Plummer and Hesilden into his protection, and commands all to whom the writ was addressed to maintain, protect, and defend these persons, not allowing any injury, hurt, loss, violence, hindrance, or grievance to be brought upon them in the pursuit of their mining and mercantile operations.  At the same period coal was being worked at Winlaton.  The pipe rolls contain a curious record of a large purchase of coal made there in 1366-7 by the Sheriff of Northumberland for the works then being carried out at Windsor Castle.  The coals were conveyed in keels and boats from Winlaton to Newcastle, the keels being manned by five men each and the boats by four.  A keel carried 20 chaldrons and a boat 16.  At Newcastle ships were freighted to carry the coals to London.  The quantity purchased was 576 chaldrons “by the long hundred” (that is, the hundred of 120), at 1s. 5d. the chaldron at Winlaton.  The cost of labour and transit brought up the total expense to £165, 5s. 2d.


It is not necessary to extend these notices of early coal mining in the county.  At the period we have now reached the operations were of the simplest possible character.  No attempt had yet been made to reach the deeper seams of coal.  The mines were freed from water by adits only.  The machinery employed in raising the coal from the pit did not go beyond the simplest form of the common winch, or, as it is locally termed, the “Jack roll.”  The want of roads prevented the use of wheeled carriages, and the produce of the mine was taken on the backs of pack-horses.  Until a period well within living memory little collieries in the remote parts of the northern counties continued to be worked by the methods just described.


It will be found from many of the notices which follow, and which are arranged in such chronological sequence as is practicable, that the county of Durham has played a very important and almost invariably initial part in the various improvements which from time to time have been introduced into the practice of coal mining.  The earliest known references to the shipment of coal at Sunderland occurs in 1395 in the rolls of Whitby Abbey, from which we learn that in that year 13s. 4d. was paid to William Rede, of Sunderland, for four chaldrons of coals.  Before the close of the following century efforts were being made to sink the pits below the level of an adit open to the day, and to raise the water by machinery.  In the account rolls of the Priory of Finchale for the year 1486-7 occurs a payment of £9, 15s. 6d., expended at one of the monks’ collieries on the Wear, “in the new ordinance of the pompe,” together with the purchase of horses to work it, and other incidental costs.  Almost exactly at the same time the miners at Whickham introduced a similar improvement into their workings.  In the roll of the bishop’s stock-keeper for the year 1492-3, a payment is recorded for “two great iron chains for the ordinance of the mine at Whickham, for drawing coals and water out of the coal pit there, by my lord’s command.”  The earliest attempt to use coal for the purpose of smelting seems to have been made by Cardinal Wolsey, when Bishop of Durham.  In the year 1528 he projected a scheme for applying coal from his mines on the Tyne to smelt lead from his mines in Weardale, and caused a large house and furnace to be built for the purpose near Gateshead ; but his downfall and death occurred soon after, and the enterprise was abandoned.   In 1622 Stockton is first mentioned as a coal-shipping port, ten chaldrons of coal having been exported.  In the latter part of the seventeenth century chain pumps driven by water wheels were employed to drain many collieries in the north, amongst which were the Ravensworth and Lumley collieries.  As early as 1672 some of these collieries had attained the depth of forty fathoms.  The water, however, was raised in several stages.  Thus at Ravensworth, the water engines of which were considered the most remarkable in the North of England, the total depth was divided into three stages.  The water was raised each stage by means of a separate engine and pit.  Three water wheels were employed, all driven by the same stream ; one being placed on high pillars, the second on the surface of the ground, and the third beneath the surface.  At Lumley Colliery, at the same period, there were two of these engines, one of three storeys, and the other of two, which together served to drain all the mines within a radius of two or three miles.  At this time also, waggon-ways were in use at Ravensworth.  In 1676 Lord Guildford came into the north as one of the judges of assizes, and, as we are told by his biographer, “was curious to visit the coal-mines in Lumley Park, which are the greatest in the north, and produce the best coal, and, being exported at Sunderland, distinguished as of that place.”  A few passages from the biographer’s notes of the visit will be read with interest.  “Coal lies under the stone, and they are twelve months in digging a pit.  Damps or foul air kill insensibly ; sinking another pit that the air may not stagnate is an infallible remedy.  They are most affected in very hot weather.  An infallible trial is by a dog, and the candle shows it.  They seem to be heavy, sulphurous airs, not fit for breath, and I have heard some say that they would sometimes lie in the midst of the shaft and the bottom be clear.  The flame of a fire will not kindle them so soon as the snuff, but they have been kindled by the striking fire with a tool.  The blast is mighty violent, but men have been saved by lying flat on their bellies.  When they are by the side of a hill, they drain by a level carried a mile under ground, and cut through rock to the value of £5000 or £6000 ; where there is no rock it is supported with timber…. Another thing that is remarkable is that their way-leaves, for when men have pieces of ground between the colliery and the river they sell leave to lead coals over their ground, and so dear that the owner of a rood of ground will expect £20 per annum for this leave.  The manner of the carriage is by laying rails of timber from the colliery down to the river, exactly straight and parallel, and the bulky carts are made with four rowlets fitting these rails, whereby the carriage is so easy that one horse will draw down four or five chaldrons of coals, and is an immense benefit to coal merchants.”   Before the introduction of these timber railways large numbers of carts and wins were employed in conveying coal from the pit to the staiths, and in 1690 no fewer than six hundred wains were used in leading coal from Whickham Colliery to the river.  At this period coal was raised  to the surface by means of the “cog and rung” gin.  This primitive engine was in reality a windlass worked by horses.  The drum of the windlass was furnished with a pinion arrangement, and was revolved by teeth fixed in a horizontal wheel.  This wheel had a vertical axle to which a long lever was attached.  The horses were harnessed to the lever, and travelled round the mouth of the pit.  The “cog and rung” gin was superseded by the “whim” gin, of which the ropes passed over pulleys fixed over the pit mouth, and were wound round a large drum which revolved horizontally some distance away.  The gin continued in use at small collieries till a recent period.  As late as 1837 a landsale colliery was in operation at Brandon, at which the coals were drawn by a gin, in which a bull was harnessed instead of a horse.  About the same time a similar colliery was in existence at Witton-le-Wear, where the coals were drawn by an ass, and were banked out and sold by an old woman.


About the end of the seventeenth century, in consequence of the increased depth and extent of the workings, explosions became more frequent than formerly.  Perhaps the first recorded disaster of this kind is alluded to in the following entry in the register of burials at St. Mary’s, Gateshead :-


            1691. Oct. 14. Richard Barkas, burnd in a pit.


Possibly, however, the following entries in the same register refer to similar calamities :-


            1648. Sep. 27. George Rutter, slaine in a pit.

            1692. Feb. 21. Michael Laurin, slaine in a pit.

Hodgson, the historian of Northumberland, is our only authority for the statement that in the year 1700 an explosion occurred in the colliery at Cramer Dykes, Gateshead, which had been worked from 1441, in which over a hundred persons were killed.  Another explosion occurred in Gateshead five years later, in a pit which was being worked in a part of the Town Fields known as Stony Flat.  The proprietor of the colliery was one Joseph Jackson, from whom the present Jackson Street derives its name.  Both he and his daughter were killed.  The parish register of Gateshead records the names of thirty-one persons lost their lives on this occasion.  The list is headed by the following words :-


These were slain in a coal pit in the Stony Flatt which did fire.


The corpses seem to have been interred as they were recovered, and the entries of the burials extend from the 4th to the 13th of October.  On the first of these dates the register distinguishes six persons, who were “blown up the pit.”  They include Joseph Jackson [the owner], Abigail daughter to Joseph Jackson, James Hastings, overman, Michael walker, his servant.”  The earliest explosion of which we have any circumstantial narrative occurred near Chester-le-Street in the year 1708.  The following account of the calamity is given in a communication to the Royal Society.  “On Wednesday, the 18th day of August last, at Fatfield, in the parish of Chester-le-Street, about three of the clock in the morning, by the sudden eruption of a violent fire, which discharged itself at the mouth of three pits, with as great a noise as the firing of a cannon, or the loudest claps of thunder, threescore and nine persons were destroyed in an instant.  Three of them, viz., two men and a woman, were blown quite up from the bottom of the shaft, fifty-seven fathoms deep, into the air, at a considerable distance from the mouth of the pit…. The engine, by which the coals are drawn up, and is of a great weight, was removed and cast aside by the force of the blast, and what is more wonderful, the fish which were in the rivulet, that runs twenty yards under the level, and at as great a distance from one of the pits, were in great numbers taken up dead, floating upon the water, by several of the inhabitants.  [The writer proceeds to describe the dangers of coal mining, which he ascribes to the presence of  stithand sulphur in the workings.  He then continues :] Now to prevent both these inconveniences, as the only remedy known here, the viewer of the works takes the best care he can to preserve a free communication of air through all the works, and as the air goes down one pit it should ascend another ; but it happened in this colliery that there was a pit which stood in an eddy, where the air had not always a free passage, and which in hot and sultry weather was  very much subject to sulphur ; and it being then the middle of August, and some danger apprehended from the closeness and heat of the season, the men were with the greatest care and caution withdrawn from their work in the pit and turned into another ; but an overman, some days after this change, and upon some notion of his own,  being induced, as is supposed, by a fresh, cool, frosty breeze of wind which blew that unlucky morning, and which always clears the works of all sulphur, had gone too near this pit, and had met the sulphur just as it was purging and dispersing itself ; upon which the sulphur immediately took fire by his candle, and so he proved the occasion of the loss of himself and so many men, and of the greatest fire that ever was known in these parts.”


The practice of coal mining in the early part of the eighteenth century is very amply explained in a curious little book, printed in 1708, and entitled, The Compleat Collier ; or, The whole Art of Sinking, Getting, and Working Coal-Mines, &c., as is now used in the Northern Parts, especially about Sunderland and New-Castle.  The book is in the form of a dialogue, first, between a coal-owner and a master-sinker, and second, between the same owner and a viewer.  The sinker advocates the preliminary operation of boring, which he says cane be effected at a cost of 15s. or 20s. per fathom, whilst actual sinking may cost 50s. or £3 per fathom.  The sinkers’ wages are stated at 12d. or 14d. per day.  Only experienced sinkers should be employed, for “if he [the sinker] be altogether unacquainted with this sort of sinking labour, he may lose his life by styth, which is a sort of bad, foul air or fume, exhaling out of some minerals, or partings of stone, and here an ignorant man is cheated of his life insensibly ; as also he, by his ignorance, may be burnt to death by a surfeit, which is another sort of bad air, but of a fiery nature like lightning, which blasts and tears all before it, if it takes hold of the candle…. If £1000 or more be spent in carrying down a pit or shaft almost to the coal expected, and then by an ignorant man should be blasted by a strong blast or surfuit, so that it may, as has been known, tear up your timber-work and shatter the gins, and shake the stone-work or frame-work, so as to let in feeders of water, besides the destruction of the persons in the shaft this would be a dismal accident with a witness, as well as loss of all the labour and costs by ignorance.”  One of the great difficulties encountered in sinking a shaft is stated to be the well-known one of feeders of water, so that “it is very rarely found that a pit of 40, 50, or 60 fathoms is sunk without going through several sorts of feeders.”   “Indeed,” the author proceeds, “were it not for water, a colliery in these parts might be termed a golden mine to purpose, for dry collieries would save several thousands per annum, which is expended in drawing water hereabouts.”  The method of damming back the feeders by planking is recommended, and when the surface against which the planks are fixed is rough, “sheepskins with the wool on, the wool next to the rough metal,” are to be employed.  Similar methods were to be used to keep the quicksands out of the shaft, and though the writer had heard of iron frames that had been used for this purpose at Harraton, he concludes that “they must be dear.”  The water is to be drawn from the shafts in tubs or buckets.  Whilst the process of sinking is going forward this is to be done with the “jack-rowl, or by men’s winding up the rowlor otherwise ; if the pit be sunk more than 30 fathoms, then we use the horse engine -[i.e., the gin] – which engine, being wrought with one or two horses at a time, as the water requires, serves also, after we have coaled the pit, to draw up the wrought coals.”  “In some places we draw water by water, with water-wheels or long axle-trees, but there is not that conveniency of water everywhere ; and as for windmills, or gins to go by wind, ‘tis sure the wind blows not to purpose at all times.”  The writer has heard it “noised abroad” that “there is this and that invention found out to draw out all great old wastes or drowned collieries, of what depth soever ;” whereupon he declares that he “dare assure such artists may have such encouragement as would keep them their coach and six,” for “there are several good collieries which lie unwrought and drowned for want of such noble engines or methods as are talked of or pretended to.”  He has also heard of an “invention of drawing water by fire,” but he thinks that “in these collieries here away, there are not many dare venture of it, because Nature doth generally afford us too much sulphurous matter, to bring more fire within these our deep bowels of the earth.”  This master-sinker, who in one place quotes Virgil, in a final speech says to the owner, “I must take my leave of this subject of sinking, after you have been pleased to give your sinkers, because it is customary, the labourers, whom I have employed for you, a piece or guinea, to drink the good success of the colliery, which is called their coaling money.”  The dialogue is taken up by the viewer, who recommends the owner “to buy in a stock of able, strong horses” to draw his coals “to bank.”  Eight horses, to form four shifts of “two at a time,” will be required, besides “a spare shift, or two horses more ready, lest a horse or two tyfle, or be out of order by a fall.”  The horses will cost £6 or £7 a piece.  He estimates that from a pit 60 fathoms deep 21 scores of corves may be wrought and drawn per day.  Two other horses, costing £3 or £4 each, are to be brought, “to draw the corves as they come out of the pit on [to] a sledge on both sides of the pit.  A man, called the corver, is to be employed to make the “corves, or baskets, to put the coals in.”  “He must have a good quantity of good hazel rods provided for that purpose, with young plants, or sippleings, as we here call them, of oak, ash, or aller [elder], of about three inches thick, or better, for the corf-bow : we buy the rods by bunch, each bunch containing about a hundred rods, at about sixpence per bunch, and the bows, being better than two yards long, for half-a-crown or three shillings per dozen, or thereabouts.”   As the corves are “subject to clash and beat against the shaft sides,” they will need daily repair.  The master is recommended to agree with his “hewers of coal or miners,” to pay them “by the score of corves, by chance for 10d. or 12d. for each score, according to the tenderness or hardness of the coal, or according to what the mine will afford, and not by the day or shift work.”  The reason urged for this arrangement is that “it is common to give about 12d. or 14d. for each shift, when perhaps you will not have above 13 or 15 corves a man per shift : so that it is clearly best to agree by the score, and then ‘Good hand, good hire,’ as we say.”  The labours of the “barrow-men or coal-putters” are also described.  “These persons take the hewed coals from the hewers as they work them, or as fast as they can, and filling the corves with these wrought coals, put or pull away the full corves of coals upon a sledge of wood, and so halled all along the barrow-way to the pit-shaft by two or three persons, one before and the other behind the corfe, where they hook it by the corfe-bow to the cable, which, with the horses, is drawn up to the top, or to day, as it is in their phrase, where the bank’s-man, or he that guides the sledge-horse, has an empty sledge to set the loaden corfe on, as he takes it out of the hook on the pit-rope, and then immediately hooking on an empty corfe, he leads his sledge-horse away with the loaden corfe to what place of the pit-heap he pleases.”  If the day’s work does not reach the stipulated amount “that abatement is taken notice of by the bank’s-man, and is made good another time, or else at the general pay.”  The banksman takes “strict notice” of the filling of the corves; “otherwise both the hewers and barrow-men will confederate under-ground, and if the coals be hewed or wrought pretty round and large coals, they will be sometimes so roguish as to set those coals so hollow at the corfe bottom, and cover them with small coals at the top, and make it look like a full corfe,” when in reality it is not more than half full.  When such an attempt at fraud is discovered the banksman “do not empty that false corfe, but setting it by as it is, when shaken in, lets (sic) it stand on the coal-heap till the offender comes to bank,” when he is “reprimanded publickly.”  The penalty for such an offence is “to give another full corfe,” or “at the general pay” to forfeit 6d.  The banksman who “takes care of the quantities wrought, and of the bad filling of the corves,” is called the Over-man of the Tree, and receives 16d. a day as wages, the second banksman, or sledder, receiving only 14d.  “The wages of the barrow-men is usually about 20d. or 22d. a day for each tram; that is to say for putting so many loaden corves as are carried on one sledge, or tram, in one day to the pit shaft.  At the first beginning of coal work in a new pit it is usual to begin with six trams, which put and hook to the cable three score and ten corves a piece every day, which makes up 21 scores a day ; and then about every thirtieth day or so afterwards they have a barrow-man or tram added, still at the same wages.”  This goes on till perhaps sixteen trams are employed, “which brings it so, from 70 corves put, to about 26 corves a tram ; so that, the more and further a pit is wrought, the dearer she lies in the charge of barrow-men, or putting.”  When the floor of a mine is not level, but a “hitch or dipping of the thillor bottom” exists, “these barrow-men will rise their wages 2d. a day for each tram.”  The system of working a pit in headways and boards is next described.  When a mine has been worked for a distance of 160 or 200 yards from the bottom of the shaft in every direction, “then it is time to have another shaft at that distance sunk for another new pit, which if happily done by the daily care, prudence, and orders of the viewer, and his drift [from the old] to the new pit carried on exactly so as to hit the new shaft and supply it with air , then has he evinced both his care and parts.”  The viewer’s wages are 15s or 20s per week, and those of the under-viewer 8s. per week.  The writer had, for the period in which he lived, an advanced knowledge off the whole subject of mine-ventilation.  Care, he says, must be taken so that the current of air “be not too much dispersed, or too much liberty given, for want of stoppings, to spread itself from the particular workings we are in hand with,” for, he adds, “the brisker it ranges in the works, the sweeter and safer it is for the miners.”  The viewer brings the dialogue to a close by reminding the owner “of the custom of these miners, that as soon as the coal pits are coaled, and the coal work begun, these miners, &c., expect something to drink, which is sometimes five or ten guineas or more, according to the generosity of the owner.


The employment of the steam-engine for draining mines was introduced into the North early in the eighteenth century.  The first was erected at Oxclose, near Washington, and the second at Norwood, near Ravensworth.  Both these engines were built before 1714.  The first attempt made in the northern coal-field to produce artificial ventilation in the mines by means of fire-lamps or furnaces was made at Fatfield Colliery, near Chester-le-Street, in the year 1732.  In 1753 an arrangement was introduced at Chatershaugh Colliery, on the Wear, by which coal was indirectly raised from a pit by a steam-engine.  The basket of coal was really raised by the descent of a large tub filled with water, and the steam-engine was employed in re-pumping the water to the surface.  By this means a basket containing 5½ cwts was drawn from a depth of 52 fathoms in two minutes.  In the middle of the century various methods were used to produce artificial ventilation, the ordinary means being that used at Fatfield, mentioned above.  Sometimes, however, the furnace was placed on the suface, at the bottom of a tall chimney which communicated with the upcast shaft.  This arrangement was applied in the North of England, for the first time at North Biddick Colliery, in the year 1756.  Till about the middle of the last century no means of lighting the mine was in use  except the very dangerous one of naked candles.  The steel mill, the essential feature of which was a steel disc, rapidly revolving in contact with a piece of flint, and so emitting a continuous series of sparks, was invented about the time just named by Carlisle Spedding, the manager of the Whitehaven Collieries.  It was first used in this district at Fatfield Colliery, in 1763, where also, and about the same time, the system of ventilation known as “coursing the air” was first introduced.  This steel mill was afterwards found to be anything but a safe instrument, and several explosions were traced to its use.  It held the field, however, until the invention of Davy’s safety-lamp.  The steam engine, for a long period after its first invention, was chiefly used to draw water from the mines.  About the year 1778, however, low-pressure engines, of very rude construction, were erected at Chopwell Colliery and at Stella, for the purpose of pumping water from large resevoirs, specially constructed for the purpose, to a cistern raised on pillars at a height of about fifty feet from the ground.  The water thus raised was made to turn a large double water-wheel, the motion of which could be reversed by raising or lowering a lever.  The wheel was provided with drum, ropes, and brake, and by its means both men and coals were drawn from the pit.  The two engines just named were the last employed in the North of England.  One of them was abandoned in 1800, and another in 1808.  Trevithick and Vivian’s locomotive was patented in 1802, and speculation soon became rife as to the possibilities to which the invention might lead.  As early as 1805 an engine, on Trevithick’s principle, was built at Gateshead, for Mr. Blackett, the proprietor of Wylam Colliery, but it never left the works.  After being exhibited to a number of gentlemen, on a temporary railway laid down in the foundry yard, it was taken off its wheels and converted into a stationary engine.  Greater success, at this period, attended the employment of stationary engines to haul with ropes.  An engine placed on the summit of an incline served the double purpose of hauling up and lowering down the loaded and empty trains of waggons.  The first to employ fixed engines in this way was a Mr. Curr, who, in 1805, applied one to draw the waggons from the valley at Birtley to the high grounds at Black Fell.  The first coal railway on which locomotives were used to any considerable extent was the one which belonged to Hetton Colliery.  This important colliery, situated near Hetton-le-Hole, was begun to be opened out in 1819.  It required the construction of a line of railway to convey the coal from the mine to the shipping place on the Wear, a distance of about eight miles.  George Stephenson was appointed consulting engineer, and his son, Robert, resident engineer on the new line.  The railway was commenced in 1819 and completed in 1822.  It was constructed in accordance with Stephenson’s ideas, and laid with a form of cast-iron rail which had been designed and patented by himself and Mr. Losh.  As the country to be traversed precluded the construction of a level railway, it was necessary to employ various forms of hauling power.  The machinery employed to work it consisted of “five of Mr. George Stephenson’s patent travelling engines, two sixty horse-power reciprocating engines, and five self-acting inclined planes.”  The arrangement was, however, only a very partial success.  Three of the locomotives, after a few years trial were abandoned, and fixed engines substituted, and in 1827 it was a matter of consideration whether the two remaining locomotives should not also be taken off the line.


The first attempt to provide the miner with a better and safer light than that afforded by the steel mill was made by Dr. Clanny, a medical gentleman, who resided at Sunderland.  His first amp was constructed about the end of the year 1811.  Its essential principle was that of insulating the light, so as to prevent it communicating explosion to the surrounding atmosphere.  It was a small lamp of strong glass, and closed at the bottom, with the exception of a small hole to admit a tube from the bellows, which he used for throwing in the necessary quantity of air to support the combustion of the candle.  He found that in this way the light could be safely insulated ; but he was told that his lamp would never answer as it was certain to get broken in the mine.  In the beginning of 1813 he succeeded in constructing a strong form of lamp, which was perfectly insulated by the ingenious arrangement of passing the air from the bellows into the lamp through a stratum of water below, while a similar stratum above allowed the products of combustion to escape safely at the top.  The lamp was, however, an inconvenient instrument, and did not to any extent come into practical use.  The train of events which led shortly afterwards to the invention of the Davy lamp is of the greatest interest.  On the 25th of May, 1812, an explosion occurred in Felling Colliery, by which ninety-two men and boys lost their lives.  The Rev. John Hodgson, then perpetual curate of Jarrow and Heworth, in whose parish the catastrophe had happened, contrary to the feelings of the colliery owners (Messrs. Brandling, Henderson, & Grace), wrote several notices of the accident, which appeared in the Newcastle Courant, and also published in a pamphlet an account of the whole event.  This came under the eye of a Mr. J. J. Wilkinson, a member of an old Durham family, but then practising as a barrister, and residing in the Temple.  During the long vacation of 1813 Mr. Wilkinson came into the North, and entered upon a series of enquiries, which resulted in the publication by him of “Proposals for the establishment of a Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Coal Mines.”  These proposals came into the hands of Bishop Barrington, who wrote to Dr. Gray, then rector of Bishopwearmouth, giving him carte blanche to aid in the formation of such a society.  A meeting was in consequence held at Sunderland on the 1st of October 1813, when the society was instituted and a committee was appointed to carry out its objects.  One of the first things done by the society was to seek Sir Humphrey Davy’s advice and assistance.  Mr. Wilkinson called on the great chemist, but found he was absent in Paris.  He then addressed a letter to him, but not having paid the foreign postage, it was returned to the secretary of the society.  In the meantime the Felling explosion was rapidly followed by a series of similar disasters ; and at the close of the summer of 1815 the Sunderland society again resolved to apply to Sir Humphrey Davy.  Dr. Gray, the chairman of the committee, wrote to Sir Humphrey, who was then in Scotland.  On his return he visited Newcastle, on the 23rd or 24th August 1815, and on the evening of his arrival was waited upon by Mr. Hodgson.  Together they visited Mr. Buddle at his house at Wallsend, and later on the same day went to Hebburn Hall, where they dined and spent the night.  The following morning Sir Humphrey went to Sunderland and called on Dr. Clanny, but did not succeed in seeing him till the next day.  After leaving the north Sir Humphrey wrote to Mr. Hodgson requesting to have a quantity of fire-damp sent to him.  In letters addressed by him to Mr. Hodgson, and dated the 15th, 19th, and 30th October 1815, he announces the progress of his investigations.  Before the end of the year the now well-known Davy lamp was completed.  It was first used at Hebburn Colliery in the month of January 1816.  A few months later Sir Humphrey again visited the north and saw his invention in actual use in some of the most fiery mines.   

The ancient method of bringing up the coal in corves continued in use till well into the present century.  The first real attempt to improve upon the old system was made by Mr. T. Y. Hall, a native of Greenside, near Ryton.  He first substituted iron tubs for corves, to steady which in their ascent and descent he caused the compartments of the shaft in which they travelled to be cleaded round with timber.  This arrangement he introduced at South Hetton Colliery in 1833.  He afterwards however, improved upon the iron tubs by the introduction of cages, in which coal-carriages were brought up the shaft.  The final step of  his improvements was taken in 1835, when he had left South Hetton and had undertaken the management of collieries in the vicinity of Ryton.  Here, at the Glebe Pit, Woodside, he employed iron guide-rods in place of wooden cleadings.  His inventions were rapidly adopted at other collieries.


In the south and eastern parts of the county of Durham the coal measures are overlapped by the magnesian limestone.  For a long time no attempt was made to search for or to work coal beneath this later formation.  Although in the latter part of last century coal had been worked at Ferryhill beneath the limestone, the seam was of inferior quality, and it had become the fixed opinion of mining engineers in the north that the coal deteriorated when it passed under the limestone – a belief which was embodied in the dictum “No coal under the Magnesian Limestone.”   Dr. William Smith, who has been styled “The Father of English Geology,” was the first person who attempted to set this belief aside.  Smith accidentally met Colonel Braddyll in London, and in consequence was engaged by that gentleman to prepare surveys of certain estates belonging to him in Lancashire, Cumberland, and Durham.  The latter included the village of Haswell, and comprised 700 acres of poor land, situated on the magnesian limestone, and regarded as of little value by Colonel Braddyll’s agents.  The proprietors of adjoining estates held the same opinion.  Smith, however, saw that the limestone was an unconformable cover to the coal measures ; and having traced the course of these, and estimated the thickness of the limestone, he inferred that the best seams of coal would be found at an attainable depth at Haswell.  No steps, however, were taken at that time to reach the coal beneath the Haswell estates, but within a few years shafts were carried down through the limestone elsewhere , and the correctness of Smith’s inductions was completely verified.  Smith’s accuracy is all the more remarkable when we learn that before an enquiry into the coal trade by a parliamentary committee, in 1830, Professors Sedgewick, Conybeare, and Buckland expressed considerable doubt of the existence of any great body of good coal underneath the magnesian limestone of East Durham.  When, however, the attempt was at length made to reach the coal beneath the limestone more formidable difficulties than had been anticipated were accounted.  The earliest of these sinkings was that of the famous Monkwearmouth pit.  Mr. Galloway gives the following account of the work :- “Sinking was commenced in May 1826, and notwithstanding great difficulty and discouragement, the works were pushed forward in a spirited and determined manner.  The progress, however, was slow, and it was not till August 1831 that the first unequivocal stratum of the coal formation was reached.  This consisted of a seam of coal 1½ inches in thickness, found at the depth of 344 feet from the surface.  The thickness of the covering of limestone was 325 feet, and the stratum of sand at the breach between the Permian formation and the coal measures was five feet thick.  At the bottom of the limestone the feeders of water amounted to 3000 gallons per minute, but this was soon dammed back by a casing of cast-iron tubbing which was carried from the little seam of coal above mentioned to within 78 feet from the surface.  For a considerable distance into the coal measures the undertaking appeared very uncompromising, as a greater distance of barren strata was pierced than had ever been encountered previously.  A new feeder of water was met with at 1000 feet, requiring fresh pumps and a fresh outlay of money.  In the eyes of most men the prospect of the enterprising adventurers seemed dark indeed ; by many of the coal-owners the project was denounced as hopeless, but the Messrs. Pemberton boldly persevered, sinking deeper and deeper, until, in February 1834, their pluck was rewarded by the shaft reaching a seam of coal of considerable thickness and value at the depth of 267 fathoms from the surface.  This seam was found to be identical with the Bensham seam of the Tyne, or Maudlin seam of the Wear, and the shaft was afterwards carried down further to the still more valuable Hutton seam, which was sunk to in April 1846, at a depth of 287 fathoms, or 1720 feet from the surface.  The winning of this colliery is stated to have cost about £100,000.”  The winning of the Murton colliery, by the South Hetton Coal Company, was attended with still greater difficulties, and proved one of the most difficult and costly winnings ever effected.  We again quote Mr. Galloway.  “In the beginning of 1838, two pits, each fourteen feet in diameter, were begun and carried forward simultaneously, at a spot where it had been ascertained by boring that the limestone was seventy-six fathoms thick, and the sand below from five to six fathoms.  The feeders of water encountered in piercing the limestone were successively tubbed off, so that immediately previous to the bed of sand being reached the shafts were free from water.  On the 26th of June 1839, when one of the shafts approached the top of the quicksand, the sand feeders burst upwards through four feet of strong limestone which intervened ; and before the pumps could be heaved up they were all choked, and ten feet of sand deposited in the bottom of the pit.  It having been found that the engine power at this shaft was unable to make any impression upon the water, several large bore-holes were made through the bottom of the other shaft, then close upon the sand, in order that the united engine power of both pits might be applied.  By this means water was drawn at the rate of 4678 gallons per minute, but no sensible impression was made on the feeders, so that the further progress of the sinking was effectually prevented.  Nothing daunted by the extraordinary difficulties which had presented themselves, the indomitable adventurers determined to redouble their efforts.  A third shaft, sixteen feet in diameter (being larger than any hitherto sunk), was commenced, and fitted with an unprecedented force of engine power – two pumping engines, and two winding engines, adapted also to pump, being erected upon it.  The new pit was pushed forward with all expedition, and in six months was completed to the depth of 73 fathoms.  The total engine power now available at the three shafts consisted of three pumping engines and six winding engines ; working twenty-seven columns of pumps ; and supplied with steam from thirty-nine boilers.  When all preparations had been made, the sinking of all three shafts through the sand was commenced simultaneously.  The engines drew 10,000 gallons of water per minute.  The scouring action of the sand and water on the buckets and working barrels greatly impeded the work, the buckets being frequently worn out  at the end of two or three hours.  For some time the cost of leather required for buckets amounted to £11 5s. per hour, three tanyards being kept in operation to supply it.  At length, however, the energy of the adventurers was rewarded by all the shafts being successfully carried through the sand, and the whole of the water being effectually stopped back by cast-iron tubbing.  The two original pits were then continued downwards, and on the 15th of April 1843 the Hutton seam was reached at the depth of 248 fathoms.  The cost of this sinking is stated to have been from £250,000 to £300,000, of which £30,000 was due to the expense in piercing the quicksand.  The large shaft, however, afterwards proved invaluable for the purposes of ventilation.”  A great improvement in the method of sinking shafts through watery strata was invented by Messrs. Kind and Chaudron.  The system consists in boring out the shaft from the surface, until the watery strata have been pierced, and a suitable foundation obtained on which to place the cast-iron tubbing.  The tubbing, composed of rings the full size of the shaft, is then lowered into position, and by means of an ingenious stuffing-box arrangement at the bottom, packed with moss, a water-tight joint is formed as soon as it rests on the bed prepared for it.  The water contained in the shaft is then removed, and sinking in the dry measures is then carried on in the usual manner.  At Whitburn a shaft was sunk in this way.  The difficulties were more formidable those encountered at Murton.  “The influx of water into the shafts amounted to nearly 12,000 gallons per minute, and the attempt to sink by ordinary methods was abandoned as impracticable.  The Kind-Chaudron system was then brought into play, and with such success, that when the first pit was completed through the watery strata, the water which found its way into it only amounted to a little over one gallon per minute.”


The greatest improvement in the working of coal mines in recent years has been effected in the increased extent and more efficient character of the ventilation.  Sixty years ago a circulation of 5000 to 7000 cubic feet of air per minute through a mine was considered a great achievement.  It was the collieries in the Wear district – where splitting the air current was introduced about 1820 – that a commencement was made to employ vastly greater volumes of air than had been thought of before.  In 1835, at Pensher Colliery, the volume of air sweeping through the mine amounted to 51,900 cubic feet per minute, whilst at Hetton the current reached 96,300 cubic feet per minute.  At the present time at South Hetton and Murton the circulation of air is not less than from 380,000 to 440,000 cubic feet per minute.  In connection with this subject it is worth while to mention that the first colliery in the north at which the fan system of ventilation was introduced in place of the furnace system was that of Tursdale, Durham, about the year 1860.


Life in the Pit.  – There is no branch of industry carried on with more system and regularity than coal mining.  Officials and men have each their distinct duty, clear and unmistakable.  The persons engaged in a colliery are subdivided into a greater number of classes than might perhaps be supposed ; and, generally speaking, the technical designations of these classes are more significant than is usually observable in other industrial occupations ; but some of them sound strangely to the ears of the initiated.  They are distinguished into the two great groups of “underground” and “aboveground” establishments.  The former are engaged in the pit, the latter in conducting the open-air arrangements.


The heweris the actual coal-digger.  Whether the seam be so thin that he can hardly creep into it on hands and knees, or whether it be thick enough for him to stand upright, he is the responsible workman who loosens the coal from the bed.  The hewers are divided into “fore-shift” and “back-shift” men.  The former usually work from four in the morning till ten, and the latter from ten till four.  Each man works one week in the fore-shift and one week in the back-shift, alternately.  Every man in the fore-shift marks “3” on his door.  This is the sign for the “caller” to wake him at that hour.  When roused by that important functionary he gets up and dresses in his pit clothes, which consist of a loose jacket, vest, and knee breeches, all made of thick white flannel ; long stockings, strong shoes, and a close fitting, thick leather cap.  He then takes a piece of bread and water, or a cup of coffee, but never a full meal.  Many prefer to go to work fasting.  With a tin bottle full of cold water or tea, a piece of bread, which is called his bait, his Davy lamp, and “baccy-box,” he says good-bye to his wife and sets off to work.  Placing himself in the cage he is lowered to the bottom of the shaft, where he lights his lamp and proceeds “in by,” to a place appointed to meet the deputy.  This official examines each man’s lamp, and, if found safe, returns it locked to the owner.  Each man then finding out from the deputy that his place is right, proceeds onwards to his cavel, [1] his picks in one hand, and his lamp in the other.  He travels thus a distance varying from 100 to 600 yards.  Sometimes the roof under which he has to pass is not more than three feet high.  To progress in this space the feet are kept wide apart, the body is bent at right angles with the hips, the head is held well down, and the face is turned forward.  Arrived at his place he undresses and begins by hewing out about fifteen inches of the lower part of the coal.  He thus undermines it and the process is called kirving.  The same is done up the sides.  This is called nicking.  The coal thus hewn is called small coal, ant that remaining between the kirve and the nicks is called the judor top, which is either displaced by driving in wedges, or is blasted down with gunpowder.  It then becomes the roundy.  The hewer fills his tubs, and continues thus alternately, hewing and filling.  Meanwhile, the caller having roused the putters, drivers, and off-handed men, “hangs on” – that is, starts work, at six o’clock.


The putters used to be divided into trams, headsmen, foals, and half-marrows.  These were all boys or youths.  Their employment consisted in pushing or dragging the coal from the workings to the passages in which horses could be employed.  Formerly the coal was conveyed by the putter in corves or tubs.  Now small waggons called trams are generally employed.  When a boy dragged or put a load by himself he also was designated a tram.  When two boys of unequal age and strength assisted each other, the elder was called a headsman and the younger a foal.  The former usually received two-thirds of the amount earned jointly by the two.  When two boys of about equal age and strength aided each other they were called half-marrows, and their earnings were equally divided.  The introduction of metal plates and waggons in place of corves, however, has almost done away with joint labours of this kind.  Formerly the labour of the putter was of the most arduous description.  Wilson describes it as having been “the most distressing slavery.”  “It was,” he says, “generally performed by boys, in nine cases out of ten too weak for the purpose, if even the materials had been better than they were over which the trams then passed.  What must it have been when a beech-board was a god-send?   And, more frequently, they had to drag their load over a fir-deal or the bare thill[the natural floor of the mine], the former too often split from constant wear, and the latter too soft to bear the load passing over it.  Now the whole way is laid with metal plates, even up to the face of the workings, so that a man or lad may run the tram before him both out and in, the plates being so formed as to keep the tram in a right direction.”  It was customary at one time to employ girls and young women as putters.  This disgraceful and demoralising practice, which continued in Scotland and some parts of England until it was prohibited by law in 1843, was abandoned in the county of Durham about the year 1790.  Even before that date the custom was more prevalent in the Wear collieries than in those of the Tyne.  


The rolley-way is a road or path sufficiently high for a horse to walk along it with the rolley, and is kept in repair by the rolley-wayman.  The driver has charge of the horse.  The onsettertransfers the tubs to the cage in which they are raised to bank, where the coal is weighed, screened, and opened.


Besides the varieties of pitmen already named, who are immediately instrumental in bringing the coal to the pit mouth, there are others whose labours are subsidiary.  These include the furnacemen, who attend to the ventilating furnace ; the horsekeeper, who attends to the horses in the pit ; the lamp-keeper, who has charge of the Davies ; the wasteman, who traversed the deserted workings, clearing away stones and rubbish which may have fallen, and attending to obstructions in the air-ways ; the shifter, or wasteman’s assistant ; the switch-keepers, who attend the switches or passing-places on the underground railways ; the way-cleaners, who cleanse the rails of the mine from time to time, removing obstructions of coal-dust, etc.; and the wood and water leaders, who carry props to parts of the mine where they are needed, and remove water from the horse-ways and other places.  There is one last class of underground labourers who must be specially mentioned.  They are the trappers.  They are the youngest boys employed in the mine.  They are stationed at traps or doors in various parts of the pit, which they have to open when trams of coal pass through and immediately to close again, as a means of directing the current of air for ventilation to follow certain prescribed channels.  It was formerly the practice to send boys of not more than six years to work in the mine as trappers.  They remained in the pit for eighteen hours every day, and received fivepence a day each as wages.  He was in solitude and total darkness the whole time he was in the mine, except when a tram was passing.  He went to his labour at two o’clock in the morning, so that during the greater part of the year it was literally true that he did not see daylight from one Sunday until the Saturday following.


There are, of course, superintending officers of the mine, who are responsible, to a certain extent, for the due performance of all the work.  Amongst these the viewer is supreme, and the under-viewer sees that his orders are carried into effect.  The duties of the overmanconsists in visiting the workings every morning, receiving the reports from the deputies, making observations on the air currents, and general management of the underground work.  To his office is sent an account of all the work done in the pit, and on the Wednesday before the “pay” he “reckons” with the men – i.e., he compares the account received of their work with that kept by themselves.  The back-overman superintends the management of the pit from the time the overman leaves until four o’clock in the evening, when the pit is said to “loose” or stop work.  The deputies go to work two hours before the hewers.  Each deputy, during the absence of the back-overman, is responsible for the management of the district of the pit over which he is appointed.  Their work also includes that of supporting the roof with props or wood, removing props from old workings, changing the air currents when necessary, and clearing away any sudden eruptions of gas or fall of stone that might impede the work of the hewer, or in delegating these duties to others.


The above list, formidable sit is, by no means includes all those engaged at a colliery.  There are besides the “above-ground” men, who include banksmen, brakesmen, waiters, trimmers, staith-men, screen-trappers, and many others.  Then there is the caller, a person appointed to rouse the men in the morning.  On his first round he wakes the deputies, whose doors, for his guidance are marked “D”.  On his second round he calls up the fore-shift men, and on his third round he rouses the putters and the rest of the pitmen.  Frequently the caller is a genuine eccentric.  One of these officials, coming to the door of one of his pit-mates, was heard to shout, in a very loud voice, “Robin Winship ! a-hoi ! I’ the neam o’ God rise, and come to your wark.”


Descent into a Coal Mine. – The reader who wishes to descend a coal mine and examine the workings must first of all apply to the viewer or under-viewer of the colliery he proposes to visit.


Few persons, even of those resident in the coal district, are possessed of sufficient nerve to descend a pit.  A feeling of danger, combined with the inconvenient and disagreeable nature of the journey, generally deter all but the most inquisitive.  Without ocular proof, however, it is difficult adequately to conceive either the wonders or the terrors of the scene.  Though the eye soon becomes accustomed to the dim lights used in the pits, yet the sense of utter darkness, in all but their immediate vicinity, is ever present.  Long, dreary, and apparently interminable passages branch off in every direction.  The floor is generally wet.  The roof consists of stone, not unfrequently marked with fossils buried there for countless ages.  Everything serves to impress the visitor with an idea of the immense depth to which he has been carried down from the cheerful surface of the earth.  The walls of the various alleys, called boards and headings, are full of coal; and the whole prospect, partially displayed, as it is by dim twinkling lights, which appear like preternatural meteors, is dreary in the extreme.  The sound of the rushing or dripping of water, the clanking of chains, the rattling of “trams,” and the occasional report of gunpowder, enhance the strangeness of the stranger’s experience, if they do not awake a feeling akin to terror.  The activity, the bustle, nay, the boisterous mirth frequently exhibited by the “begrimed and black” beings who flit in every direction amidst the gloom, form a strange contrast to the awful sensations of the casual visitor.




Based on articles by Dr. Wilson of Alnwick (Tyneside Naturalists’ Transactions), by Mr. William Dodd (Land We Live In), and from the works of Mr. Matthias Dunn and Mr. Robert L. Galloway.



[1] The coal is some parts of the pit is softer and more easily worked than in others, and to prevent quarrelling and partiality the coal to be hewed is divided into lots.  The hewers draw lots once a quarter.  This is called caveling, and the place or lot assigned to each man is his cavel.