Early Coal Mining

Early Coal Mining

The coal trade, on which the North-east was to build its industrial and economic prosperity in later centuries, existed on Tyneside as early as the 13th century. Where the coal seams were near the surface, as to the west of Newcastle, the coal could be won by digging simple bell-pits and, after exhausting the coal at the bottom, digging another further on. As early as 1256 jurors were complaining that the road from Corbridge to Newcastle was dangerous ‘per fossas et mineras’, especially at night. In 1315 there were mines at Marden (Cullercoats) and Cowpen, and in 1357 the Newcastle burgesses got a royal licence to dig in ‘le Castelfield’, ‘le Frith’ (the Forth) and the ‘Castelmor’ (the Town Moor).

This early coal was mainly used industrially, to burn lime for building, and to smelt iron. In 1291, 80 quarters of coal from Newcastle were sent to Corfe Castle in Dorset for building work, and in the 13th century Nicholas of Acton granted the Cistercian monks at Sturton Grange on Warkworth Moor the right to get coal (or sea-coal as it was long known) from his wood called Midilwode, for their forge. Although there was a Sea-coal Lane in London as early as 1228, coal was not welcomed as an alternative to wood as a domestic fuel. In 1298 men in London refused to work at night ‘propter putridenem carbonis marine’, because of the stench of sea-coal.

Newcastle built up a thriving trade in coal during the 14th century. The first recorded shipment to London was in 1305, when Thomas Migg took wine from London to Berwick in the Welfare, and returned with coals from Newcastle. By 1377  the port was shipping about 15,000 tons a year, but this did not rise substantially for another 150 years. As well as the English coastal trade this included substantial exports to the Continent, mainly for use in smelting, building, smoking fish, and brewing. The main sales were to France, Flanders, and Zeeland, and in 1380-81 there were 118 foreign sailings of coal ships from Newcastle to 39 different ports, the two main ones being Veere in Zeeland, and Kampen in Holland.

In the 16th century there was a dramatic expansion of coal-mining on Tyneside. The increasing shortage of wood in England for fuel and ship-building, especially in Elizabethan times, and a grudging acceptance of coal as a substitute fuel, led to a rapid growth of demand on the London market. In some circles the dislike died slowly: as late as 1598 John Stowe recorded that the ‘nice dames of London’ would not ‘come into any house or roome where sea-coales were burnt, or willingly eat of the meat that was either smoked or roasted with sea-coal’. The prohibitive cost of land-transport of coal meant the riverside mines of Tyneside, with sea-transport to London, became the main source. The supply of Tyneside coal also increased through what Professor Trevor-Roper called the ‘Capitalist Reformation’. The Church and monasteries had owned many of the coal-bearing lands in Durham and Tyneside, and they had restricted output, but after the Dissolution in the 1530s and increasing royal control of the Church, these lands came into the hands of commercially-minded entrepreneurs, willing to invest capital and take risks for profit. When the Prior of Tynemouth leased out his Elswick mines in 1530, he limited output to 31 tons a day, but when Henry Anderson later leased them from the Crown, there were no such restrictions.

Coal shipments from the Tyne grew rapidly: at the start of Elizabeth’s reign they were 32,951 tons in the year, by the end 162,552. By 1608-9 they were 239,261 tons, rising to 452,625 in 1633-4, and 616,000 tons by the end of Charles II’s reign. Most went to the London market, but some went to meet a growing foreign demand: in 1552 Thomas Barnabe noted the ‘thing that France can lyve no more without than the fysh without water, that is to say, Newcastle coals’. The expression ‘salt to Dysert or colles to Newcastell’ is found in 1583, and another contemporary referred to Tyneside as ‘the Black Indies’.

The bulk of the coal came from 20 to 25 collieries on both sides of the Tyne west of Newcastle. On the north there were pits around Elswick, Benwell, Denton, and Newburn, and around Gateshead and Whickham on the south. Here the coal seams were close to the surface, but an overland haul of three miles could add 60 per cent. to the cost of the coal, and mining had to remain close to the river. The mining expansion was mainly in terms of deeper shafts, most over 15 fathoms deep, and drainage of water from the pits was helped by the new German pumping techniques. The fleets of tall-masted colliers could not sail up the shoally Tyne west of Newcastle, and keels or lighters had to ferry the coal from the staithes to the ships anchored down river as far as North Shields. In 1516 the keelmen were listed amongst the craft guilds of Newcastle, but the guild is not mentioned in later years and the keelmen became an industrial proletariat, largely made up of seasonal workers (since coal was not shipped in the winter months) from Scotland and the Northumbrian dales.

Only Newcastle burgesses or freemen could trade and ship coal on the Tyne, and ‘host’ or act as middle-men for butside merchants and buyers. As well as controlling the keels these ‘Hostmen’ (an informal sub-group of the Merchant Adventurers) also gained control of the mining itself. A 99-year lease, known as the Grand Lease, of the richest coal-lands around Gateshead in the Durham Bishopric, was acquired, through a chain of lessees, by Henry Anderson and William Selby of Newcastle on hehaif of an inner ring of these Hostmen and largely purchased with Newcastle town funds. The Hostmen also acquired leases north of the river and refused to deal with non-Hostmen producers, and this gave them a virtual monopoly of the Tyne coal trade. In practice the trade was controlled by a leading group of under 20 Hostmen, known locally as the ‘Lords of Coal’. There was opposition to this monopoly, both inside the town and from the London buyers, but in 1600 Elizabeth I granted a charter to the Hostmen, recognising their monopoly in return for a tax of is. (5p) on each chaldron of coal shipped, and also granted a new town charter that gave the Hostmen effective control, though in town government they ruled through their membership of Merchant Adventurers’ Company. The same man, William jenison, became both mayor and first Governor of the Hostmen, William Jackson became town clerk and company clerk, and the iO aldermen were all original members of the Hostmen’s company, nine of them Grand Lessees. Of the 28 mayors of Newcastle between 1600 and 1640, only William Warmouth, a merchant, was not a Hostman.

Landowners on Tyneside who tried to by-pass the Hostmen’s monopoly and run their own coal production and marketing were unsuccessful: the Earl of Northumberland tried it with his mines at Newburn, but was soon leasing them again to Hostmen. Nor was it simply industrial muscle on the Hostmen’s part. As pits became deeper, sinking new shafts required more capital, capital that would be lost if the seams were missed (only in about 1615 were boring rods introduced, and experts were few). Coal was only shipped in the summer months, and final payment on the London market might only come a year after the coal was first dug. Building staithes and winter storage was expensive. As Gray said in his Chorographia in 1649, colliery ownership was ‘a great charge, the profit uncertain’. The cartel of the Hostmen had economies of scale on its side, the lone entrepreneur had to take the high risks himself. The only non-Hostman to make a steady income out of coal was Anthony Errington of Denton, who built up enough fortune between 1602 and 1622 to construct his fine hall at Denton.

Outside the main Tyneside mining area there were other small, accessible seams. Coal for very local use was mined near Berwick, Shilbottle, Acomb (Hexham), and along the Northumbrian coast.

In Elizabethan Tynemouth there were small mines in the town-fields, pits five fathoms deep, which took 12 days to sink and cost £2 each, but which produced 38 tons a day. There were also pits at Whitley and Hartley. At Amble in 1590 a rent of £2 was paid for ‘all mynes of coales ther and in Auxley’ (Hauxley), and at Bilton the 1624 map shows two rows of pits. There were collieries at Cowpen and Bedlington, but the ventures were short-lived and the mines frequently abandoned. In 1605 Huntingdon Beaumont, a southern mining adventurer, and Peter Delaval, a London merchant member of the Delaval family, invested some £6,000, a huge sum, but the mines were abandoned in 1614. They had built the first wagonway, a track on which horses could pull the coal-wagons, from Bebside to Blyth for shipment, and later Delaval came back and carried off ‘all the said rayles set upon the land and ground of Bebside for 500 paces in the wagonway’. As Gray commented of Beaumont: ‘within few yeares he consumed all his money, and rode home upon his light horse’. These coastal shipments from Amble, Blyth and Cullercoats amounted in the early 17th century to some 2,000 tons, but this was only about one per cent. of the Tyne trade.

The growth of the coal-trade stimulated some ancillary industries, which used the small coal not worth shipping, coal from the outlying coastal pits, and coal produced by non-Hostmen. The oldest was salt production by the evaporation of sea-water. In 1408 William de Whitchester held ‘a salt-cote’ in Seaton Delaval and in 1564 the traveller, Dr. William Bullein, noted Sir John Delaval’s pans at Seaton Sluice. The salt from these pans was sent from Blyth to Yarmouth for curing herrings. In the 16th and 17th centuries very substantial numbers of saltpans were set up at both North and South Shields. The other, much newer industry was glass-making, for which the use of wood as fuel was banned in 1615. By 1619 Sir Robert Mansell had established a factory by the mouth of the Ouseburn at Byker, run by French Huguenots from Lorraine. By 1740 he had three furnaces and employed 60 people. The plant produced 3,000 cases of glass each year, and the Tyne was the principal source in the country of window glass.