Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Staffordshire Coal Mines by Helen Harwood

It is no coincidence that the industrial towns in Staffordshire lie on or close to the counties coal fields, notwithstanding the 1974 Local authority reorganisation which saw large areas of South Staffordshire become part of the West Midlands authority.

Foxfield Colliery. (Staffordshire Coal Mines, Amberley Publishing)

Prior to the eighteenth century the majority of people worked in agriculture while the making of pottery – coal excavated from surface seams fired the kilns – and iron smelting was carried out on a local hand produced basis. For example, in the sixteenth-century coal from the South Staffs coalfield was used to fire small scale iron forges. However, the large quantities of sulphur produced by coal led to the pig iron being brittle. Lord Paget of Beaudesert built probably the first blast furnace in the Midlands circa 1560 on his Cannock Chase estate fuelled by charcoal, resulting on pressure on the surrounding woodland to meet demand.

It was Abraham Darby in nearby Shropshire who, in the early eighteenth century created the process of using coke from coal to manufacture iron. The demand for coal grew rapidly as coke reduced the cost of pig and wrought iron so allowing larger blast furnaces to be built.

Following on from drift mines dug into hillsides vertical “bell pits” reaching some thirty- to- forty -feet down gave access to deeper coal reserves. A narrow shaft about 4ft-6in in diameter led into the seam where miners dug the coal from both sides creating a bell-shape. Meanwhile, sometime earlier in 1698 Thomas Savery developed the first successful steam powered one-horsepower engine. It was used in some mines and branded “The Miner’s Friend”. One was installed in Broad Water colliery, Wednesbury in 1706, but it proved unsuccessful and the mine flooded. However, the majority of pits still relied on waterwheels, windmills and horsepower to keep them relatively dry. Later, in 1712 Newcomes steam engine pumped out water from mine shafts allowing them to be dug deeper. Following on, in the 1770’s James Watt’s engine cut fuel costs enabling mines to become larger and more profitable.

The Conduit Colliery at Norton Cains. (Staffordshire Coal Mines, Amberley Publishing)

As the demand for coal grew so did the need to transport it efficiently and the eighteenth century saw the development of Staffordshire’s canal system. The Trent and Mersey – opened 1777 –financed largely by Josiah Wedgwood to move raw materials and finished ware safely followed the valley traversing the North Staffs coalfield. Standing in the way though, was Harecastle Hill near Kidsgrove, however the excavations of Harecastle Tunnel led to the discovery of more coal seams. The introduction of canal transport with the ability to move large quantities of coal lowered the price and demand grew rapidly. In 1836 the Trent and Mersey canal carried 184,500 tons of goods away from the Potteries. Many mine owners like Viscount Dudley Ward financed the building of canals to link with industry, while cutting branch canals to join collieries directly with the network. The Cauldon Canal linked the Cheadle coalfield while the Staffordshire and Worcester and the Dudley canal had links to the local collieries.

In order to transport the coal from the pithead tramways were laid to the canal wharf with the wagons pulled by horses. Then in 1806 two horse-railways or tramroads were proposed to link the collieries and ironworks around Newcastle-Under-Lyme joining together about a mile south-west of Audley before meeting the Chester canal at Nantwich. The plans never materialised, however in the 1860’s a steam railway built as a branch of the Newcastle to Audley line served the collieries in Apedale. Meanwhile, in 1849 the main Walsall to Lichfield line of the South Staffordshire Railway opened running close to Hammerwich and Uxbridge collieries with a company line linking the Cannock Chase Colliery’s pits to the main line making it more economical to transport coal by rail.

By the end of the nineteenth century coal mining was growing rapidly to feed the Industrial Revolution. The use of coal doubled between 1800 and 1900 and to be against coal was to be against progress and employment.

Helen Harwood's new book Staffordshire Coal Mines is available for purchase now.