A Mining World

A Mining World

Throughout the 19th century the Durham coalfield was the country’s leading producer. Within the county a mining world evolved as some 500 pits were sunk and activity spread across the whole field, exploiting both the shallow seams in the west and ‘the deeply concealed measures of the east. Several factors combined to make this activity possible. One was the spread of the rail network, as we have seen. Another was the increasing ability to excavate, drain and ventilate deeper workings, skills learned from sea coal-mines. The Newcomen engine and, later, the Watts steam engine were both applied early to extract water where Stephenson’s flooding threatened. Ventilation was improved by the sinking of double safety lamp shafts; the same free flow of air lessened the chance of the build-up of pockets of gas, while the invention of the safety lamp in 1815 further encouraged deeper exploitation. While many existing collieries were therefore rejuvenated by being able to tap deeper seams, for the first time it became technically feasible to sink shafts through the Magnesian Limestone, which conceals the eastern half of the field with a capping 800 ft. in thickness. The opening ofHetton colliery in 1822 in this section of the coalfield on the East Durham plateau therefore marked the beginning of a new era. Before this sinking the condition or, indeed, the existence of coal at this depth had been a matter of specu­lation. When in 1846 Monkwearmouth colliery was sunk to a depth of 13700 ft. – the deepest in the country, if not the world, at the time – owners were prepared to spend four or five years on shaft sinking. Such length of operation was an indication of the increasing demand for coal – for the iron and, later, steel industry, shipbuilding and engineering, for gas lighting, for the railways themselves, which were consumers as well as transporters, and for export overseas as the traditional London market was lost to inland coalfields nearer the capital. The Durham coalfield proved uniquely able to supply a variety of coals for these different markets – coking, steam, gas, household. The deposits were exploited accordingly.

Two summary statistics of output and employment indicate the dra­matic expansion. At the beginning of the 19th century the county was producing no more than 2,000,000 tons; in 1913, its peak year, output reached 41 ,500,000 tons. Over the same period the number of miners rose from fewer than 10,000 to 165,000. The significance of the latter statistic is put into context when compared with employment in agricul­ture. In 1800 farming was the leading occupation, employing perhaps 10 times more people than mining; by 1913 the roles were reversed, with miners now many times more numerous than agricultural workers. The result was the creation of dozens of new colliery or pit villages, a new feature in the Durham countryside. ‘The characteristic appearance of no district in the world is more strikingly marked’ was how the text accompanying Hair’s Sketches of the Coal Mines in Northumberland and Durham (1844) began. The speed of landscape change is what impressed another early reporter, a Sub-Commissioner to the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children (1841): ‘Within the last ten or twelve years an entirely new population has been produced. Where formerly there was not a single hut or a shepherd, the lofty steam-engine chimneys of a colliery now send their volumes of smoke into the sky, and in the vicinity is a town called, as ‘if by enchantment, into immediate existence’.

Both the sinking of colliery and erecting of colliery village were often a unified operation. Entrepreneurs, whether titled county gentry, Quaker businessmen or outside industrialists, often had little choice if they wished to establish at speed an industrial enterprise employing several hundred men in a rural setting. The fact that Durham was a county of relatively high agricultural wages further emphasised the need for the inducement of colliery housing. The response was remarkable. By 1913 nearly 49,000 tied colliery houses had been erected. The occupants, over 260,000, Made up more than one-fifth of the total county population. Two-fifths of all miners were in ‘free’ tied housing, another tenth were in ‘free’ rented accommodation, but since this exclusive male operation was peculiarly dependent on being ‘serviced’ by womenfolk in a family operation, it is the proportions for married workers which give a more meaningful sociological picture. Over two-thirds of married miners enjoyed ‘free’ housing, and nearly another fifth were in ‘free’ rented accommodation. Such proportions were unique among British coalfields.

A temporary encampment of shaft sinkers and builders was the first indication that a colliery enterprise was under way. The end product was the pit and its pioneer settlement. The former, alongside the railway, consisted of  complex of shafts, engine house and winding gear, screens (to  sort the coal) and perhaps coke ovens, blacksmiths’ and carpenters’ shops. The colliery cottages or, later, houses, were erected in straight rows, many perhaps built of brick made on site of brick-clay extracted from the colliery shaft, and with the unmade streets perhaps named after members of the owners’ families or fellow directors who had subscribed to the share company. The first row was occupied by the shaft sinkers – until their work was done and the elite core moved on to the next operation. If the enterprise was of some size, then a superior row was designed for colliery officials, with a separate, detached villa for the manager.

In the early pit villages there were no facilities, so that society above ground was as raw as the life beneath could be brutal. Such pioneering conditions, the subject of novels by Harold Heslop, were memorably summarised by Sidney Webb: ‘There were no Co-operative Societies; no Miners’ Hall; no workmen’s clubs; no schools; no religious or philanthropic institutes or missions; hardly any Friendly Societies; no insurance and no savings banks; no music, no organised recreation of any sort; nothing but (from 1830 onwards) an absolutely unrestricted number of beer-shops’. Carters or hawkers supplied the bulk of pro­visions, and continued to play an important role after the first shops had appeared. In time home-meetings were transferred to Nonconformist chapels. The established church often followed, but it was not until towards the end of the century that both a working men’s club and a row of bungalows for ‘aged miners’ were built. The latter, funded by the recently-formed Durham Miners’ Union from voluntary contributions of workmen, coal owners and individuals, were a needed adjunct, since colliery tied housing had to be vacated when employment ended – for whatever reason.

Pit villages were peopled by those drawn in locally and from neigh­bouring counties, from the lead-working dales to the west and from other mining areas such as Wales and Cornwall, besides a contingent from Ireland. In the early collieries miners were hired or bonded on a year-to-year basis, a practice similar to that used in agriculture. For a small sum of bounty money a worker was tied for the year, although this did not guarantee continuous employment. In fact, owners might close the pit for brief periods in an attempt to influence the market price of their product. Even in good times the bond gave owners the right to fine workers for a wide range of ‘offences’. Together with ‘tied’ housing, the mine-owners thus had absolute domination. The bond was not finally abolished until 1872 following the efforts of the Durham Miners’ Association, formed in 1869 and successor to three earlier short-lived unions, the earliest in 1825. A year before the bond was abolished, an annual event was instituted which became a clear expression of unity -the Durham Miners Gala The county town was the venue for the big meeting’, where for one day a year the members of every colliery lodge assembled to combine carnival with rousing speeches from their leaders Back in the villages, status and position were rigidly demarcated in the Miners’ Hall, Durham battle to win coal.

The pit officials consisted of manager and under-manager, with over-men and their deputies to supervise operations underground. Below ground there were different categories of ‘miners’ based on age and experience – and strength. The most usual sequence for a lad was to pass from trapping (operating doors to regulate air ventilation and to allow tubs to pass through), putting (manoeuvring empty tubs to the face and bringing out full ones to form sets at the landing, either by hand or, as the century progressed, by pony – if headroom permitted), to hewing and filling. The hewers, the coal winners, were paid on piecework, in relation to the market price of the product and with allowance for the particular geological condition. In order to overcome inequality in working conditions, and thus in rewards, cavils or ballots were drawn for each seam every quarter. By, such cavilling each team of marras (three pairs, one for each of the three shifts) was allocated a particular flat or district, with its own particular rate, for the following 13 weeks. All the time each tub was scrutinised for its stone content. If it exceeded four per cent, the whole was ‘laid out’, that is the company took the coal and the hewer received nothing. For the actual work the pitman was provided with an oil lamp and a shovel, but nothing else – no protective clothing, no helmet, not even his prime tool – the pick.

The actual working conditions were confined, hot, arduous – and dangerous. Quite apart from the possible cumulative effect of coal dust and flickering oil lamp on lung and eye, serious injuries were almost commonplace, while in many pits fatalities could average one a year. It was the major accidents, however, that highlighted for the non-mining world the danger of work underground – Felling 1812 (92 killed), Newbottle 1815 (51), Haswell 1844 (95), Burradon 1860 (76), Seaham 1880 (164), Trimdon 1882 (74), Stanley 1909 (168). It was after the first of these listed disasters that a Society for the Preventing of Accidents in Coalmines was founded in Sunderland. Sir Humphry Davy was approached, and the result was the invention of the miner’s safety lamp. (By  coincidence, George Stephenson was producing a similar lamp simultaneously.) It is ironic to consider that the invention may not have reduced the number of deaths in mines, since owners were encouraged to exploit deeper seams or re-open others closed because of the danger of explosion.

The exploitation of coal transformed large areas of the county’s landscape during the 19th century. The activity gave rise to numerous pit villages where nothing had existed before, more than doubling the number of villages in the county. It also transformed the character of many existing villages or small market towns, and was also the most important factor in the growth of the county’s largest towns, such as Sunderland and Gateshead. In short, coal exploitation, trans-shipment or utilisation was the basis for industrial growth and population concentration during the century when County Durham was in the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.