Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places - Industry, Trade & Commerce

Historic England

Industry, trade and commerce has shaped England's villages, towns, cities and landscapes for hundreds of years. This gallery of images from the Historic England Archive illustrates the nation's historic coal mining industry as it appeared at the end of the 20th century. 

Towards the end of the 20th century, the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) undertook a survey of the structures, people and settlements associated with the nation's coal industry. At its peak in 1913 there were around 2,600 working pits in Great Britain, employing a workforce of around 1,100,000 people. It produced 287,000,000 tons of coal for domestic and foreign consumption. From that point the industry declined and by 1992 the number of pits had reduced to 50, employing 43,800 people. This exhibit features a small selection of the photographs taken by RCHME photographers at a time when the industry was dealing with a recent and rapid contraction, and when many of its buildings had become redundant and faced an uncertain future.  

The Colliery

Hopewell Mine, West Dean, Gloucestershire

Drift mines were once common where coal outcropped on valley sides. The Forest of Dean is one of the few places where this kind of mining survives.

Coal has been mined in the Forest of Dean since the Middle Ages. It is worked by Free Miners, whose rights were enshrined in an Act of Parliament in 1838.

When the coal mining industry was nationalised in 1947 provision was made for mines considered uneconomic to be mined by private concerns. In 1992 there were around 138 private mines in Great Britain.

Hopewell drift mine opened in 1976, working the Coleford High Delph seam, which produces coal of high calorific value. When the RCHME recorded the mine in 1993 the mine was worked by a partnership of four Free Miners.

The Colliery

Wearmouth Colliery, Sunderland

By the 17th century, collieries in the counties of Durham and Northumberland dominated coal production in England. By the beginning of the next century, around forty per cent of England's coal came from pits in the north east.

In the 19th century large reserves of coal were discovered deep beneath layers of limestone. Wearmouth Colliery was one of the first pits driven through the limestone. In 1846 a seam was discovered at a depth of 1,720 ft, which made Wearmouth Colliery the deepest in the country at that time.

Located on the north bank of the River Wear, the pit had its own riverside staithes for loading coal directly onto seagoing colliers.

After coal production ceased in 1993, the site was soon cleared and was redeveloped to become the home of the Stadium of Light, Sunderland AFC's new football ground.

The Colliery

Chatterley Whitfield Colliery, Stoke-on-Trent

By the 19th century pits in Staffordshire dominated coal production in the West Midlands, a region that produced twenty-three per cent of all coal mined in England.

Chatterley Whitfield Colliery was the largest pit in Staffordshire. At its peak it employed over 4,000 men. Originally a site of several small pits, these were taken over in 1853 and production expanded as new shafts were sunk.

Coal production at Chatterley Whitfield finally ended in 1977. Two years later a mining museum opened on site, the first of its type in Britain. It remained open until the early 1990s.

The Colliery

Silverwood Colliery, Rotherham

By the end of the 19th century, the pits of Yorkshire and the East Midlands were producing more coal than those of Durham and Northumberland.

In 1889 the Barnsley seam was located and new pits were sunk in South Yorkshire to exploit it at Bentley, Brodsworth, Dinnington, Frickley, Grimethorpe and Silverwood.

Work to sink two shafts at Silverwood Colliery began in 1900 and the Barnsley seam was reached in 1903. With 2,593 men working underground, it had the largest workforce in Yorkshire. It was also believed to be the largest mine in the country working a single seam.

The last shift by miners at Silverwood took place in December 1994.

The Colliery

Parkside Colliery, Newton le Willows, St Helens

Following the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947, investment was spent on reconstructing existing pits. One of the few new pits to be established was Parkside Colliery in the Lancashire coalfield.

Work began on sinking two shafts in 1957 and production began in March 1964. Enormous reinforced concrete winding towers were built over each shaft.

Production peaked in the mid 1970s. Around this time 1,600 people were employed at Parkside and 762,000 tons of coal were produced in a year.

Coal production ceased at in 1992 and Parkside closed the following year.

The Colliery

Stobswood Opencast Site, Widdrington Village, Northumberland

Opencast coal extraction is undertaken where coal seams are close to the surface. It began in England in 1941 as a wartime emergency measure, however, it continued after the war.

In 1947 opencast extraction produced around five per cent of the total amount mined. By 1991-2, it represented eighteen per cent.

The Stobswood Opencast Site was worked by Europe's biggest walking dragline excavator, Ace of Spades. Built at a cost of £15 million, it had a bucket capacity of 1,755 cubic feet.

Extraction at Stobswood ended in 2008.

The Colliery

Seacoalers, Black Beach, Lynemouth, Northumberland

Sea coal eroded from coastal outcrops has been collected from the beaches of England's north-east coast for centuries.

Over time, 'sea coal' has come to mean two separate things: the coal gathered from beaches, and coal transported to market by sea.

In recent times, much of the coal collected from beaches in the north east has been waste discharged from coastal pits. In this photograph seacoalers use horses and carts to collect coal at Black Beach, adjacent to the coal preparation plant at Lynemouth.

The Architecture of the Pit

Pumping engine house, Saltom, Whitehaven, Cumbria

Water presented a major problem to coal mines. Where natural drainage could not be used, mechanical methods had to be employed.

Waterwheel-driven pumps were in use by the 16th century and where using water power was not possible, horse gins were used to raise water as well as coal. In 1712 the first atmospheric steam engine was used to work pumps at a coalmine near Dudley in the West Midlands.

The pumping engine at Saltom near Whitehaven was built to drain the Saltom Colliery. Sinking began in 1729 and included workings that went out under the Irish Sea.

The Architecture of the Pit

Winding engine house, Bestwood Colliery, Bestwood, Nottinghamshire

Buildings housing vertical winding engines were often the most prominent and permanent structures at collieries. As a result, they could be given the kind of architectural treatment not seen elsewhere on site.

The winding engine house at Bestwood Colliery was built around 1874 in the then fashionable Italianate style. The ground floor demonstrates an early use of mass concrete walls, decorated with rustication. The upper floors are built in brick with stucco pilasters.

Mass concrete was also used to support the winding engine, which wound coal from a depth of 660 ft at 3 tons per wind.

The Architecture of the Pit

Lattice steel headgear, Astley Green Colliery, Tyldesley, Wigan

In the second half of the 19th century improvements in the making of iron and steel increased their affordability and availability. By the 1870s iron and steel headgear were increasingly more common at collieries. The use of timber was eventually banned in 1911.

Steel headgear came in two forms: latticework and rolled steel. Latticework had less wind resistance, while rolled steel was easier to maintain.

The latticework headgear at Astley Green Colliery was supplied in 1912, the year the shaft was completed, by Head Wrightson of Thornaby and Stockton.

Astley Green Colliery closed in 1970.

The Architecture of the Pit

Blacksmith's shop and stables, Woodhorn Colliery, Ashington, Northumberland

By the 18th century large pits used horses and wagons to haul coal from the coalface for transportation to the surface. In some pits, horses were stabled underground. It was not until the Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1887 that horses working underground were given legislative protection.

Further legislation, known as the 'Pit Ponies Charter' was introduced in 1911, and stated that daily records had to be kept on all horses working underground. Around this time some 70,000 ponies were working underground in British pits.

Coal mines continued to rely on horses throughout the 20th century and in 1992 twenty-four pit ponies were still working at Ellington Colliery in Northumberland.

The Architecture of the Pit

Generating station, Philadelphia, Houghton le Spring, Sunderland

Towards the end of the 19th century electricity was being used at a number of pits in England. The first was installed at Trafalgar Colliery in the Forest of Dean in 1882. However, by 1913 only around fifty per cent of mines were using electricity for light, signalling and to power machinery.

The generating station at Philadelphia in Houghton le Spring was built around 1906 for the Durham Collieries Power Company. This photograph shows the surviving generating hall.

The building's novelty led to nearby streets being named 'Voltage Terrace' and 'Electric Crescent'.

The Architecture of the Pit

Lamproom, Frickley Colliery, South Elmsall, Wakefield

Despite an electric lamp for use in mines being patented in 1859, it was not until after the First World War that their use became widespread. However, even in 1925, the use of flame lamps outnumbered electric lamps.

Cap lamps eventually superseded hand lamps, and from the 1930s it was common for lamp rooms to be located in pithead baths buildings.

This photograph shows miners in the lamproom at Frickley Colliery, situated in the baths block that was built in 1938 by the Miners' Welfare Fund.

The Architecture of the Pit

Pit-head baths, Elemore Colliery, Hetton, Sunderland

The Mining Industry Act of 1920 established the British Miners' Welfare Fund. The fund generated its income from a levy on every ton of coal mined. It was to provide grants for schemes relating to health, recreation and education.

In 1926 a separate fund was established for the purpose of building pit-head baths. The intention was that every pit would have baths by 1945.

In 1927 members of the Miners' Welfare Committee examined recently-built baths in Belgium, France and Germany. Subsequently, Modern Movement style baths buildings were built at pits in England.

The pit-head baths at Elemore Colliery were built by the Miners' Welfare Fund in 1933. Influenced by Dutch architecture, it made good use of a compact site. It could accommodate 1,670 men, having 62 shower cubicles, locker rooms, and boot cleaning facilities.

Following the colliery's closure in the 1970s, the baths building was later occupied by a printing firm.

The Mining Community

Mural, South Hetton, Sunderland

The village of South Hetton exists because of South Hetton Colliery. The mine was sunk in 1831 and in less than a decade a settlement with a population of around 6,000 had evolved.

South Hetton Colliery closed in 1983. Its 152-year association with the village is recorded in this mural, painted on the end wall of the community's branch library.

The Mining Community

Reform Row, Wath Road, Elsecar, Barnsley

By the early 19th century some philanthropic coalmine owners provided good quality housing for workers. The village of Elsecar, built by Earl Fitzwilliam, was considered by some contemporaries as a model industrial community.

Reform Row, a terrace of twenty-eight houses, dates to 1837. Built in rubble sandstone with Welsh slate roofs, was erected on the Fitzwilliam estate for mine workers.

Elsewhere in Elsecar, a hostel to accommodate twenty-two single men was built in the appearance of a Georgian country house. It contained the village's first bath and hot water geyser.

The Mining Community

New Bolsover Colliery Village, Old Bolsover, Derbyshire

In the second half of the 19th century, the expansion of the coal industry induced coal companies to attract new workers to the coalfields.

In 1891 work began on New Bolsover, a new village for the Bolsover Colliery Company. It was designed by architects Brewill and Bailey as a model village, with houses arranged around a large green. Colliery officials and white-collar staff were provided with semi-detached villas.

A tramway was built between the rows of the miners' houses to transport workers from their homes to the pit. It was also used to transport waste from the pit and workers' houses.

New Bolsover also had a school, institute, co-operative store, churches and an orphanage.

The Mining Community

National Coal Board housing, Townville, Wakefield

When the industry was nationalised, the National Coal Board (NCB) inherited 140,000 colliery houses, over a third of which were classified as being in 'poor' condition.

In 1952 the NCB established the Coal Industry Housing Association, which aimed to build nearly 20,000 new homes. 312 houses were built at Townville in Wakefield. Three different styles were built, all with upper floor bathrooms. They were constructed with reinforced-concrete frames and concrete outer walls. Even the garden picket fences were of reinforced concrete.

Contraction of the coal industry led to the NCB demolishing or selling its housing stock. The housing at Townville was Transferred to the local authority in the 1980s and was later demolished.

The Mining Community

Joicey Aged Miners' Homes, Houghton le Spring, Sunderland

Disabled and retired miners, and the widows of miners could all face eviction from homes owned by the coal companies.

Around the end of the 19th century several organisations were established to build and administer homes for retired miners. The largest of which was the Durham Aged Miners' Homes Association (DAMHA). Funds were obtained by a non-compulsory levy on miners working in the Durham coalfield.

One of the DAMHA developments was the Joicey Aged Miners' Homes, built at Houghton le Spring in 1906. The terrace of twelve dwellings is built in yellow brick with bands of red brick, and Welsh slate roofs. They are named after one of the county's principal mine-owning families.

The Mining Community

Miners' Convalescent Home, Blackpool

The Miners' Welfare Fund preferred to convert existing country houses for use as convalescent homes, rather than providing purpose-built establishments.

By 1927 there were or were soon to be convalescent homes for the miners of several of the country's coalfields. Only the homes at Blackpool and Skegness were purpose-built.

The home at Blackpool was opened in June 1927 by the Prince of Wales. Designed by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope in a Baroque Revival style, it cost £160,000 and provided accommodation for 132 men.

The Mining Community

Church of St Peter, Fryston, Wakefield

The Church of St Peter was built in around 1895 by the Church of England. It was erected to serve the new mining community of New Fryston.

It may have been built by W Harbrow, a London firm that specialised in corrugated-iron buildings. Corrugated iron sheets, which gave strength to thin sheets of wrought iron, were developed in the mid 19th century by John Spencer of the Phoenix Iron Works, West Bromwich. Quick and cheap to build, timber and corrugated-iron buildings became a common site in coalfield communities.

Fryston Colliery closed in 1985 and the community rapidly contracted. The Church of St Peter was demolished in 1992.

Mines Safety

Huskar Pit Disaster Memorial, Silkstone, All Saints Churchyard, Barnsley

On 4 July 1838 a torrential rain storm flooded Huskar Pit. Twenty-six children were drowned, including seven boys under the age of ten and a girl of eight.

Four years later, the Report of the Commission on Conditions in Mines was published, revealing the appalling conditions child workers faced in mines. Consequently, the Mines Regulation Act of 1842 prohibited boys under ten and all females from working underground. An Act of 1860 raised the minimum age from ten to twelve.

Mines Safety

Trimdon Grange Colliery Memorial, Trimdon Cemetery, Trimdon Village, County Durham

Seventy-four men and boys were killed following an explosion at Trimdon Grange Colliery on 16 February 1882. Among the dead were members of a rescue party from the nearby Kelloe Colliery.

The memorial is in sandstone ashlar with granite shafts. Panels include scenes in low relief. The one shown in this photograph depicts a rescuer lifting a dead miner. The plinth description reads ERECTED BY THEIR FELLOW WORKMEN AND FRIENDS AS A TOKEN OF THEIR SINCERE RESPECT.

Around this time there were several accidents at mines in the Durham coalfield, which were the subject of a report by Her Majesty's Inspectors.

Mines Safety

A demonstration in the training gallery of the Central Rescue Station, Aylesham, Kent

Breathing apparatus for rescue work was used as early as the 1880s but was slow to be adopted. By the early 20th century, a number of devices were available and in use.

Regulations ensured that rescue teams were trained in conditions resembling coalmine roadways. Various tasks had to be carried out while wearing breathing equipment, including removing debris and carrying a dummy on a stretcher.

To provide the necessary training, mines rescue stations included purpose-built training galleries. The mines rescue station at Aylesham in Kent was shut down following the closure of Betteshanger Colliery in 1989.


Coal Staithes at Blyth Power Station, East Bedlington, Northumberland

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the fishing port of Blyth became Northumberland's premier coal port. For a brief period in the mid 20th century it shipped more coal than any port in Europe.

The port had several sets of staithes, which allowed coal transported by wagon and rail to be emptied directly into ships. The coal staithes at Blyth power station, known formerly as West Staithes, were built between 1911 and 1923, and were the last of the traditional staithes to be built on the River Blyth.

Ceasing operation in 1989, the original upper two decks were demolished and the whole structure truncated in the mid 1990s.


North Dock, Seaham Harbour, Seaham, County Durham

The harbour at Seaham was built by the Marquis of Londonderry between 1828 and 1831. It was part of a scheme to transport coal from his wife's pits at Rainton by rail and sea.

On 31 July 1831 the first coal was transported along the new Rainton and Seaham Railway and loaded onto the brig Lord Seaham. The event was celebrated with bands, banners and speeches.

A South Dock opened in 1835 but the volume of coal produced led to Londonderry building a railway from Seaham to the new South Dock at the mouth of the River Wear.


Aire and Calder Navigation and Port of Goole, Wakefield and East Yorkshire

In 1820 and Act of Parliament permitted the Air and Calder Navigation to construct a branch canal to the River Ouse, and build a dock at Goole, from where coal could be transferred for shipping by sea. The canal and port opened in 1826.

Competition from rail transport led to the design of compartment boats called 'Tom Puddings' pulled by steam boats. At Goole, hydraulic hoists were built to lift the compartments out of the water and tip their cargoes of coal into seagoing colliers.

The compartment boat trains began work in 1865 and their continued successful use was recorded by the RCHME in this photograph of 1993.


Coal Train, Eggborough Power Station, Low Eggborough, North Yorkshire

At the end of the 20th century, rail was the principal means of transporting coal produced in England, mainly to the nation's power stations.

In 1913 around three per cent of coal produced in Britain was used to generate electric power. This had risen to fourteen per cent in 1947, and in the early 1990s power stations consumed sixty-five per cent of home-produced and imported coal.

At this time, around 1,100,000 tons of coal were delivered by 1,200 coal trains every week.

Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places

England's buildings and places of industry, trade and commerce reflect the economic and day-to-day working activities of past and present communities and workers.

As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, England has a wealth of historic buildings and sites that revolutionised design, construction and manufacturing. From local workshops to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, our industrial and commercial history is all around us.

Historic England's Irreplaceable campaign, sponsored by specialist insurer, Ecclesiastical, aims to highlight the places that have changed England and the world.

Image: Mrs Sheila Truman, Blakeney, Gloucestershire
Mrs Sheila Truman at work in the family's coalyard in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.

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The images and captions for this exhibit have been sourced from the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England publication Images of Industry: Coal by Robin Thornes (second impression 1995).

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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