By Ron Mann, Robert Langley
July 7, 2017 - In this week's Bygones, Roy Mann takes us deep underground with a potted history of coal mining in Nottinghamshire, England.
Historically Nottinghamshire was always a major supplier of coal for industry and home consumption, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century, and there have been many mines to the north and the west of Retford.
At one point there were over 30 mines producing in Nottinghamshire, but the last two remaining pits, at Welbeck and Thoresby, closed for good in 2010 and 2015 repsectively.
In the days of Roman Britain, coal lay on the surface like the tip of an iceberg, with vast coal seams just beneath the earth, so it was relatively easy to acquire the energy source.
At a later stage it was mined from shallow drifts, (tunnels from the surface that could be walked down to get to the coal seam), and short vertical shafts (called bell pits – describing their shape whilst the coal was being removed).
Once the ‘bell’ had been worked out it was abandoned and another one was sunk.
In mediaeval years, colliers discovered that by joining two bell pit shafts together, they could obtain a flow of air sufficient to enable them to work underground for longer periods of time, and from this, the system known as stall and pillar working evolved.
This system allowed for parallel roadways (stalls) to be cut through the coal, and pillars of coal were left unmined to support the roof.
Interestingly, when modern opencast mines are being developed today, the long defunct pillar and stall systems are often exposed to the light of day.
Babbington Colliery at Cinderhill, Nottingham (sunk in 1841) was the first site where serious coal mining on an industrial scale took place in the county.
Nottinghamshire was a relatively new coalfield compared to the other mining areas in Britain, and most of the larger mines were opened and developed after 1900.
Thoresby colliery near Edwinstowe was the first all-electric mine to have fully mechanised coal production, and also the first mine in the country to achieve an annual production of saleable coal to the order of one million tons.
By the late 1980s its output was reaching the enviable figure of two million tonnes!
Calverton Colliery was the very first new mine to be sunk in Britain after the Second World War, production starting in the early 1950s.
Other new mines soon followed, including the sinking of Bevercotes and Cotgrave collieries in the 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s there was a mass migration of miners to Nottinghamshire from other areas in the UK- particularly the North East and Scotland.
To accommodate the northern immigrants, vast housing estates were built by the National Coal Board at places such as Calverton, Clipstone, Cotgrave, Forest Town and Ollerton.
In Ollerton, they were spacious and well constructed. Just five years ago, a prospective purchaser would have been relieved of around £40,000 for the pleasure of becoming a homeowner - the same property would now deprive a buyer of a cool £120,000.
A string of coal fired electricity generating power stations were constructed along the River Trent – stretching from Rugeley in Staffordshire to West Burton in Nottinghamshire – and the Nottinghamshire coalfield was hailed as a major partner in the ‘Powerhouse of Britain’.
Ninety per cent of the coalfield’s output went directly to the power stations, and as a result, Nottinghamshire pioneered the ‘merry-go-round’ system where coal was taken from the pit to the power station in permanently coupled diesel operated trains.
The coal was even unloaded whilst the train slowly made its way in a circle around the huge heaps of coal destined for the power station boilers.
One such system can still be seen operating at Ratcliffe-on-Soar generating station near Nottingham. At its peak, the Nottinghamshire coalfield produced in excess of 25 million tons of coal in a year, and more than half of the county’s pits claimed a place in the industry’s million tons a year league.
Before mines had cages installed, in the mid 1800s to facilitate the haulage of coal to the surface, the coal was raised in heavy-duty baskets.
The colliers clung onto a rope to ascend and descend the shaft.
One of the leading families of consulting mining engineers in Nottinghamshire was the Boot family of Huthwaite. Eleazer Boot founded the firm in 1810, being joined by his son, John, and eventually his grandson J.T.Boot.
The Boots acted for a number of local coal owners and advised on shaft sinking at New Hucknall, Clifton, Teversal and several mines in Leicestershire. A German Firm with an English name, the Northern Union Mining Company, commenced the sinking of Harworth Colliery just before the First World War.
When the war began the German sinkers were interned and the firm’s property confiscated by the state.
I suppose their only conciliation was being kept away from the vagaries of the killing fields. In the early days of mining, the owners sub-let a pit to a pair of men known as ‘butties’, who in turn raised a work force to dig the coal.
The butties had a contract with the owner, whereby he paid them a fixed sum for a fixed task - and the workers were paid by the butties, wages depending on their experience, and the amount of work done.
Miners in the 19th century lived for the most part, in rows of terraced houses.
But, when compared with the standards of the time, they were comfortable and substantial.
At South Normanton following a visit from the child commissioner in 1842, the pre-mining houses were described as hovels. In a mine house, the living room fireplace with its roaring fire (no shortage of coal then!) was at the centre of things.
The black-leaded fire grate, with an oven on one side and a copper for boiling water on the other, was a place for women to work and the men folk to wash, and to doze after a hard day’s work.
Small the houses may have been, but they were cosy, and the countryside was but a short walk away.
As D.H. Lawrence wrote: ‘…it was still old England of the forest and the agricultural past; there were no motor-cars, the mines were, in a sense, an accident in the landscape, and Robin Hood and his merry men were not very far away’.