The Rise of Coal

The Rise of Coal

Coal provides a vital strand in any history of County Durham economically, socially and politically. The Durham coalfield has been exploited on a commercial basis longer than any other in the country, with its early seaborne exports, albeit under the tag of ‘Newcastle coal’, playing a key supportive role in the growth of London. In more recent times, the history of the county is the history of coal-mining, with the extraction, movement and utilisation of the mineral significantly determining the population and employment patterns and settlement types.

The earliest beginnings of coal exploitation are obscure, although evidence of workings on the south bank of the Tyne during the Roman period is suggested. The Boldon Book of 1 183 refers to ‘coalsmiths’ at Bishopwearmouth and Sedgefield and ‘colliers’ at Escomb. Less than a century later there are references to profits from the prince bishop’s coal-mines and workings at Gateshead and Whickham, by which time ‘Newcastle coal’ was already being shipped to London. Extraction in the vicinity of the Tyne and, later, Wear was facilitated by the incised river courses, which exposed the top seams to permit surface workings or shallow adits into the valley sides. The first area worked was that between the tributaries Team and Derwent, with wheelbarrow or pack‑horse being used to transport the coal to wharves (‘staiths’) on the Tyne.

From the second half of the 16th century output expanded as wood became less plentiful and the country slowly began to turn towards a coal-burning economy. At the same time the Reformation brought a boost when the Crown took over the Church’s mines, which had been worked on a restrictive basis, and leased them out. Particularly important was the 99-year so-called ‘Grand Lease’ of the Gateshead and Whickham mines to Newcastle merchants. The power of the Newcastle burgesses and the monopoly of the Tyne, however, were soon broken when exploitation began in the vicinity of the tidal Wear below Chester-le-Street.

A transport revolution was now under way. Horse-drawn wagons (‘chaldrons’), running on wooden planks or wagon-ways, appeared in the mid- 17th century. An efficient haulage system was imperative as the scale of operation and distance from waterside staiths increased. Flanged and then cast-iron wheels were introduced, while at Tanfield in 1727 the barrier of a ravine was overcome by what is now acknowledged as the first railway bridge in the world.

Coal wagon-ways on the staiths on the lower Wear, 1788
Coal wagon-ways on the staiths on the lower Wear, 1788

The network of horse wagon-ways just prior to the next technological advance is given in Gibson’s map of 1 787. About this time some three-dozen pits were linked to the navigable reaches of either the lower Tyne or Wear. The longest was the nine-mile line from Pontop Pike to staiths on the Tyne at Dunston, but most were under half this length since land carriage was still costly. Length and gradient were dependent on the strength of one horse. It is possible to gauge the manner of transport and scale of operation from Plate 26, where the horse, having provided the motive power on the flat, can be seen following the coal chaidron on the down incline, with hand-brake being applied by the rider, to the staith and waiting keel. Each chaidron carried 53 cwt; a keel had a capacity of 20 tons. On the Wear the flat-bottomed keels daily sailed on the ebb tide to Sunderland for transfer of cargo to sea­going colliers; the return journey upriver was by pole-work and manual haulage. On the Tyne high level staiths with coal ‘drops’ were intro­duced by the mid- 18th century, thereby allowing the loading onto keels or even colliers, independent of the tide. The first coal drops on the Wear were not erected until 1812.

At the beginning of the 19th century the shipment of County Durham coal from the two rivers was approaching 2,000,000 tons. Termed ‘sea-coal’, its output and trade greatly overshadowed the importance of the county’s ‘land-sale’ mines, even though the latter were scattered over the whole exposed part of the coalfield and had been worked since equally early times. The crippling cost of land transport and lack of strong market, however, restricted the scale of working, so that by 1800, for instance, many of the mines were still being operated seasonally or on demand. Over half of the workings employed fewer than 10 men; in contrast, nearly all the sea coal-mines employed over one hundred. It was the experience gained in the working and haulage of sea coal that provided a basis during the 19th century for the spread of deep mining and the growth of railways.

The change from horse-drawn to steam-powered locomotion was a staggered process. The first advance was the advent of the stationary steam haulage engine to pull wagons up inclines. This may be seen as a logical development from their initial use for vertical shaft winding. The first one was in use at Birtley, near Chester-le-Street, in 1805. There then followed the moving or travelling steam engine, as it was termed. George Stephenson, engineer to the Killingworth pit in southern North­umberland, completed his first locomotive in 1814 to haul wagons along the colliery railway of Lord Ravensworth. In 1822 he was engaged by the Hetton Colliery to construct a railway to the port of Sunderland eight miles away. The varied terrain, however, contained sections which were too demanding for his locomotives, so a hybrid railway emerged, with stationary engines and self-acting inclines on the steeper gradients and travelling locomotives on the level stretches.

The longest and most spectacular hybrid construction was the Stan­hope and Tyne Railway, designed to carry lead, lime and coal from Weardale past the Consett area to South Shields. When completed in 1834, the route incorporated nine stationary engines, five self-acting inclines and had horse-drawn sections in addition to steam locomotives on the level stretches.

George Stephenson’s most famous project, the Stockton and Darling­ton Railway of 1825, was also a hybrid transport system. The line began at Witton Park Colliery with haulage by two stationary winding engines, and it was only from the foot of the Brusselton incline (West Auckland) through Darlington to Stockton Quay that wagons were pulled by a steam locomotive. The story is one of the romances of industrial history, with the overall vision and drive of Edward Pease and several other fellow Quakers triumphing over the lack of support and scepticism from colliery owners and Stockton merchants, even though the latter had long sought a solution for the land-locked coalfield of south-west Durham. Various wagon-ways had been considered, even a canal, in an effort to move coal to the navigable lower Tees, so that the county’s third river might join in the sea coal trade to south-east England. The parliamentary bill was finally given royal assent in 1821, and on 27 September 1825 the world’s first public railway was opened. Hundreds of spectators lined the route to watch the iron horse Locomotion Number 1, with George Stephenson and his brothers James and Ralph on the footplate, haul a train of 38 wagons of coal, merchandise and passengers. A superior passenger coach, called The Experiment, carried the satisfied proprietors and committee of the company. Speeds of up to 12 m.p.h. were attained on its four-hour trip to Stockton. In passing, it may be recorded that Stephenson also designed most of the bridges for the line, including the world’s first iron rail bridge, over the Gaunless at West Auckland. For the crossing of the Skerne in Darlington, however, he engaged an eminent architect, Ignatius Bonomi, then road and bridge surveyor to the County. The bridge, still extant, is shown in John Dobbin’s painting of the opening of the railway. The price of coal in Darlington dropped immediately from 18 to 12 shillings a ton, and eventually to 8s. 6d. The Stockton and Darlington Railway confirmed that the monopoly of sea coal was broken. Commercial mining now spread rapidly across the formerly land-locked parts of the county in conjunction with the growth of railways, so that these other areas also, in effect, became producers of sea coal. In less than a decade over 30 collieries were using the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Such was the congestion of vessels on the Tees that the line had already been extended downriver to Port Darlington (Middlesbrough) on the south bank. On the opposite bank Port Clarence was the new terminus for the Clarence Railway, built in 1833. Further new docks were opened along the coast at Seaham Harbour (1831), Hartlepool (1835), Sunderland (1837) and West Hartlepool (1847) as a succession of west-to-east lines brought coal for export.

Early railways serving the coal industry, 1850
Early railways serving the coal industry, 1850

The number of outlets reflects the size of pent-up demand, although each in turn represents the strategy of particular entrepreneurs as they sought to challenge or break an existing port tax or carriage monopoly. Mineral and mineral line were thus interdependent – and both were the basis for a distinctive industrial growth as the century progressed. In the words of Timothy Eden, ‘coal begat locomotion and locomotion begat more coal and more coal begat more industries’.