Tuesday, 15 January 2013

History of Coal Mining in the East Midlands

A look around the “local history” section of Nottingham Central Library resulted in finding a gem of a book entitled “Mining in the East Midlands 1500-1947” by A R Griffin (pub : Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1971).

A great read, the book describes how the coal industry has developed up to the point of nationalisation in 1947.

Records show that the Trent valley collieries produced some 12 thousand tons of coal in the mid-16th century, which rose to around 40thousand tons by the early 17th century, when some 150-300 men were working in the mines. And by the early 18th century output had reached around 125thousand tons, with some 500-1000men working in the mines. Between the 16th to 18th cent the most important colliery owners were Willoughbys from Wollaton.

During the 18th century management of collieries moved from being from the “big butty” system where one “butty” was placed in charge of the whole mine - to a “little butty” system where a butty (or pair of butties) would manage 8-10men who worked a part of the coal face. During this time safety legislation became stricter and mines became more complicated.

A measure of how long the working hours were can be gauged from the fact that, in 1841, boys working at Lord Middletons pits worked from 7am to 8.30pm and that this was a short working day compared to most other pits where, for example, six year old Samuel Davis left home at 4am to get to Brinsley pit and did not return home until 9pm, describing himself as “quite knocked up” by that point.

Many miners were paid at least partly in “truck” ( tokens that could only be redeemed at company stores or pubs). The District Mines Inspector noted in 1851 a probably explanations for this was that “Butties are often directly or indirectly connected with taverns or shops, where the miners earnings are spent in the purchase of bad and dear ale and provisions”.

Unsurprisingly, the truck system was a major source of grievance for miners of the period. However, legislation and bad publicity resulted in the system virtually disappearing by the 1860’s.

The Methodist revival of the mid 19th century improved the standards of the mining communities. Methodists drank lightly, did not gamble and kept their houses clean and tidy. Money that would have been spent on beer or gambling was instead used to buy soap, curtains and so on.

St Mary's Church - possibly the site of the first Sunday School in the UK (1751)

In terms of education, there was a general move towards children attending Sunday schools in the early 19th century. The and, after the Coal Mines Act of 1842 made it illegal for a child under 10 to be employed underground, so many children then went to school. Thus a survey of 676 adults in the Butterley area showed that some 216 could not read. This number reduced further after the 1872 Mines Act which made part time school attendance compulsory for pit boys.

Griffin points out that trade unions tend to flourish when trade is good, as the wish to make a profit whilst conditions are good encouraged employers to reach an agreement. This in turn results in more members joining the union, bringing with them resources in terms of subscriptions.

In contrast, when economic times are hard, unions are generally unable to resist the wagecuts and redundancies imposed by mine owners, union membership decreases and union funds are depleted by payments to members during lockouts etc. The first Miners Union in the East Midlands was the local branch of the Miners Association, which formed in 1841 and reached the East Midlands in 1844. Few of the mine owners would tolerate organisation amongst the men and a meeting of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire pit owners resolved to refuse employment to union members - and a clause forbidding workers from joining a union was a feature of a many dispute agreements thereafter.

One aspect of 19th century mining that seems incredible now is that there was no agreement on what actually constituted a “ton” of coal. It could range from 25cwt to 28cwt at many pits, whilst some miners argued that it should be 20-21cwt. The arguments were only really solved when the Coal Mines Act of 1872 standardised a ton as being 2240lbs or 20cwt.

Another aspect that may be a surprise to some is that coal mines are far from static, long lived enterprises. Many coal mines closed during the 19th century, either due to being uneconomic or due to becoming unworkable after extended stoppages due to a poor market, strike action or lockouts.

Pit technology underwent a transformation during the mid 19th century, with the introduction of furnace or fan ventilation, guided cage lifts, decent roadways and underground haulages.

One problem that the Nottinghamshire coalfields had historically faced was that they could only supply local markets, the poor roads made it impossible to compete with shipborne Newcastle coal in the lucrative London market. This all changed with the arrival in the late 1840’s of the railways. The railways provoked much of the transformation in the Nottinghamshire coal mining industry from a large number of small pits to a smaller number of relatively large collieries.

The increase in output can be seen in the chart below. Note the dips in production during strikes in 1893, 1921 and 1926.

Coal output and Manning in the Coal Industry

Unfortunately, these increases in efficiency did not match those being seen on the continent (although NSB wonders whether that might have something to do with the fact that Ruhr coals was often surface mined).

Productivity of a number of countries

The new larger collieries, often some distance from population centres, resulted in dedicated housing being built for the miners. Welbeck Colliery built some 877 houses between 1912 and 1926, while New Ollerton colliery built around 800 houses for it’s miners in the 1920’s. These latter houses were recorded as being of a very high quality being in small detached groups, each with a front lawn and rear garden and supplied with hot water and electricity.

One important development was the Welfare Levy of 1d per ton that was imposed by the 1920 Mining Industry Act. The funds were administered by the various Miners Welfare Committees, each of which had equal representation from colliery owners and workers, and were used to fund construction of pit head baths, canteens, medical centres, welfare institutes, sports grounds, swimming baths, scholarships and so on.

The 1930s saw the introduction of the Coal Mines National Industrial Board, which set up what was effectively a national cartel. This had a number of adverse effects, not least of which was that it discouraged investment that would result in higher output - as this output could not be sold.

Save Clipstone Colliery Headstocks
The Clipstone Colliery, , produced coal from 1927 until 1993, and then again from 1994 to 2003. The imposing headstocks were amongst the tallest in Europe when built during upgrades in the 1950s and were given Grade II listed status by English Heritage in 2000 as being ‘special architectural or historic interest’.

The site is currently owned by Welbeck Estate, who would like to demolish the headstocks - although others are campaigning for the site to become an adventure park including a mile long zip line! (see also www.clipstoneheadstocks.co.uk)

Clipstone Colliery

There is an e-petition to save the headstocks. BFTF has signed it, and hopes you will too.

A history of Clipstone colliery here and some images of the colliery here and here.

Headstocks look like some kind of alien engineering
has been placed in the middle of the village

Related Posts
This is one of a three part series of posts on Nottinghams Coal Mining History:
Coal Mining in Nottingham
Mining Memories
History of Coal Mining in the East Midlands
Image Sources:
St Marys Church

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