Coal and Coal Mining
It has been asserted by some writers that the early Britons worked coal, but there is no satisfactory evidence of this prior to the later days of the Roman occupation when roads had been laid across many of the coal producing districts. Coal cinders have been found in Roman stations in Durham and Northumberland.
It was not until the thirteenth century that we obtain clear proof that coal was systematically raised for fuel. In 1239, King Henry III is said to have granted a charter for this purpose to the townsmen of Newcastle; and so early was the produce of their pits attracted to London that by the beginning of the fourteenth century great complaint arose on the injury caused by the coal smoke to the health of the citizens.
In 1306 on petition to Parliament, King Edward I “by proclamation, prohibited the burning of sea-coale in London and the suburbs to avoid the sulphurous smoke and savour of the firing; and in the same proclamation commanded all persons to make their fires of wood.”
Within twenty years, because of the scarcity of wood, coal was again landed in London.
In 1635 a proclamation of King Charles prohibiting the importation of foreign glass set forth that “Sir Robert Mansell had by his industry and great expense perfected that manufacture by sea coal, or pit coal, whereby not only the woods and timber of the Kingdom are greatly preserved but making of all kinds of glass is established here to the saving of much treasure at home, and the employment of great numbers of our people.”
Up to the end of the seventeenth century, pit coal was employed for little else than household purposes, but it is not possible to obtain statistics of the quantity raised excepting the amounts that were shipped. London and the east and south east as well as some Continental ports, were supplied by Newcastle and Sunderland, which by about 1704 shipped off in the year respectively 178,143 chaldrons (473,080 tons) and 65,760 chaldrons (174,264 tons).
By 1750 the vend from both ports together amounted to 1,193,457 tons.
Meanwhile the beginning of the eighteenth century was marked by the first faltering steps of the infant steam, so soon to develop into the mighty giant, depending for its strength on coal, himself making possible the extraction of fuel amid difficulties until then insurmountable and opening a thousand new methods for its consumption and application. Thus far, coal had been valued for the production of heat only; it was now to enter on a second phase of usefulness; that of the generation of Force.
About the year 1803 there was brought into practical application another grand employment of coal; the production of light. For upwards of a century various experiments had been made on the distillations of coal in order to produce tar and oils; whilst the applications of the invisible gases produced was strangely neglected apart from some attention paid to the moderately lighting properties of fire damp so largely evolved from many Northern Collieries.
Soon after 1792, Murdock, the engineer in charge of Boulton and Watt’s engines, suggested that the gas may be conducted through tubes and employed as an economical substitute for lamps and candles. To light himself on his homeward way over the Cornish Downs he used to carry a bag of gas under his arm, with a lighted jet before him and tradition still tells of him frightening the superstitious miners whom he met in the dark, by a sudden squeeze of his bag which threw out a long flame, taken assuredly for the long fiery tongue of the arch-demon himself.
I will not dwell on the new gas manufacturing process or the amount of coal used in this new industry. By 1830 a new great drain upon our coal mines was found, originating in what appeared to be a more economical use of coal. The application of the ‘Hot Blast’ by Neilson to iron furnaces saved so large a proportion of the coal needed for the smelting of each ton of pig iron that the great majority of the ironworks were forced by competition to adopt the same method in spite of the common belief that the quality of the produce was diminished by the process. The result was an enormous increase of the total quantity of coal used for this purpose and a massive increase in the iron trade.
It is estimated that by the beginning of the nineteenth century 10,000,000 tons of coal were being raised in Great Britain annually. When steam boats and railways were triumphantly proved, the step change commenced. London alone was receiving 5,000,000 tons annually by rail, sea and canal.
At this time the advance in chemistry took once useless and fetid products and distilled them to make sweets, scents and savours. From naptha was obtained the parafine oil and the solid translucent parafine which excelled wax; from its tar was produced saccharine; whilst its aniline produced new colours from mauve to magenta.
It is estimated by 1850 British coal mines were producing 42,000,000 tons of coal; by 1853 Mr T. Hall of Newcastle, after much investigation, set the figure at 53,000,000. Thereafter the Government Mining Records Office produced more reliable records which were astonishing.
In 1854 production was 64,661,401
By this latest year we were exporting 29,496,785 from abroad.
The total production of the Durham and Northumberland Coalfield was as follows;-
Of this output an enormous 29,807,523 tons, the value of which at the pit head was £10,387,905 was raised in Durham alone. This was due in part to the rapid increase in the iron trade in Cleveland and Consett and the huge quantities used for smelting ores.
In 1891 the Home Office recorded 225 mines in Durham with 72,272 workers of which 57,994 were below surface.
Contented security ignorantly assumed that the coal seams were ‘practically inexhaustible’; however the coal seams were, and by the end of the 19th Century, the time for prudent forethought had arrived.
‘We are drawing’ (said Mr Jevons in ‘On the Local Question’) ‘more and more upon a capital which yields no annual interest but once turned to heat, light and force is gone for ever into space’. Throughout the Country seams had exhausted their valuable lode.
In 1846 Mr Greenwell, a Colliery Viewer, calculated that 331 years would see the Durham coalfield exhausted. Remember that at that time only 10,000,000 tons per annum were being raised.
In 1854 when Durham coalfield output had reached 14,000,000 tons, Mr T.Y.Hall, a miner of the Northern Institute of Mining Engineers, had estimated a duration of 365 years but stated this would reduce to 256 years if production ever reached 20,000,000 tons.
By 1891 production had almost trebled and the writing was on the wall.
Surprisingly, of the actual life, character and peculiarities of the pit man, considerable ignorance existed throughout the 18th Century and to some extent the 19th Century. Many amusing anecdotes might be given of the ludicrous mistakes occasioned by the erroneous notions relating to the workings of collieries and of pit life by some of those commentators who were strangers to mining communities; displaying as they did a want of knowledge of the actual state of affairs as to cause both surprise and amusement.
William Corbett in describing the northern coal mines during a tour of 1832 said ‘Here is the most surprising thing in the whole world; thousands of men and thousands of horses continuously living underground; children born there and who it is said seldom see the surface at all, though they live to a considerable age’.
A colliery village usually consisted of houses built in pairs, placed in rows. The space between the fronts of houses was both unpaved and un-drained and the backs of the houses not infrequently had stock dust heaps, dung hills flanked here and there by pit sties and heaps of coals. Invariably the houses had been built by the coal owners or by petty companies who speculated in building and letting them to the proprietors of the colliery at rates normally varying between £3 and £4 per annum. Even these houses had different classes from first class of two ground floor and one loft rooms; second class of one ground floor and one loft room; to third class of one room only. Often the housing was in a dilapidated condition with the loft area barely habitable.
It is said that in the 19th Century, housing was improved considerably, with gardens and outbuildings added, although this was entirely dependant on the individual owner. A Mining Inspectors report in the mid 19th Century stated that you could smell Burnhope before you saw it due to the deplorable condition of the housing and total lack of any drainage systems being installed. However, where improvements were made, the pit man’s pride in his garden was often considerable.
Although the northern pit man had little cause to be proud of his dwelling house, he would take considerable pride in his belongings. A four poster or ‘fower pole’ bedstead was almost an institution and the thicker the posts and more ornate the bed, the greater the measure of the individual pit man’s superiority over his neighbours.
I well remember my Grandparents house, attached to the Colliery at South Medomsley (or High Stables, locally). The entrance kitchen had a belfast sink and a standpipe and for the main was inhabited by huge ‘clippy mat’ frames. But in the living room Grandmother had a considerable and ornate dining table set, always covered and which my family would be invited to sit at only on Sunday afternoon for a special tea of cakes, scones and cheese. Straight afterwards, the covers went back on for another week. As a special treat we sometimes were allowed to stay and play a game of cards, ’dark horse’, at which I was something of an experienced old hand by the time I reached 6 years old.
Created on 08/07/2007 12:41 PM by dmarrs
Updated on 08/07/2007 10:41 PM by rmr