Mining on Cannock Chase

When we sat down in St Mary's Centre for our monthly meeting on November 22nd 2001, there must have been a fair number of members and guests who would claim to have little knowledge of the subject to be presented by our speaker Mr. Roger Francis - "Mining on Cannock Chase".

He began by giving us a rapid account of the history of coal mining in the area beginning in the late 13th century. The Romans had certainly used coal as a fuel for heating their buildings and preparing food. In 1306 a proclamation is recorded prohibiting the use of coal in the brewing industry and in lime kilns. When this was ignored fines were instigated; which led to the closure of some enterprises. Smokeless zones are therefore, not new! Wood became the fuel for heating purposes. In the 16th century there was a huge demand for timber for construction work, as well as for smelting and heating, leading to vast areas of forest being consumed. Coal then had a resurgence, chimneys arrived, coke was produced and demand for coal rose rapidly. In the 17th century there were objections to the use of coal for cooking. In the 19th century steam engines were developed and railway mania increased consumption to the point where questions were asked about the future supply of coal; would there be sufficient sources? Where would it come from? It came from streams, cliff edges and, initially, the top earth in small open cast sites before deep mines were opened.

We were then shown slides covering virtually every aspect of coal production, distribution, use and all the attendant problems associated with too little air, too much water or gas, danger of fire, collapse of walls or overhead rocks and soil. Great bravery was often demanded of the mineworkers as they dug, shored up, drained, ventilated and illuminated suitable working space at varying depths below the ground - sometimes crawling along with no safety clothing or headgear to protect them as they worked. We had the technicalities of the windlass, the use of horses, the design of mineshafts, the development of engines for hauling men and materials up from and down the mine and the implications of the Companies Act related to Limited Liability - all carefully explained to us in pictures.

Electricity finally brought more efficient lighting not only to the pits but also to St Anne's Church, which was endowed by the colliery and to the nearby home of the colliery manager! By 1912 the Cannock Chase Colliery was regarded as a model pit, complete with its own workshops and brickworks - necessary because of the relative isolation of the pit sites and consequent need for self-sufficiency. Even the winding engines were polished - and treated like ladies.

There were many human touches - 'snap bags' containing underground workers' lunches were hung up along the rocky walls, traditional miners' lamps were in use, pit ponies - well cared for - were spotted and on one occasion when a pony took flight, a collier didn't step into restrain it, saying he was a Bevin Boy, not a cowboy! Women were shown working on conveyor belts, sorting out unwanted rocks from good coal on its way to the surface. After a depression in 1914 and a need to economize by 1918, conditions after World War II were updated and modern buildings and machinery were installed. Where once women and children hauled tubs of coal along, twin tracks were devised built of angled iron, stone slabs and liquid lead so that horse drawn trucks and later steam locos could transport the coal. Canal transport was used, and barges were a common sight during the 1950s and 1960s. The Chasewater Light Railway provided a series of locomotives named "Alfred Paget" between 1856 and 1960 to pull coal wagons along.

Certainly there was an excellent safety record in the Chase workings; with just one serious fire resulting in a number of deaths recorded. The families concerned with mining activity on Cannock Chase were John Robinson McClean, a civil engineer; Richard Croft Chawner of Wall and Henry William Paget, who became the Earl of Anglesey. The principle mines covered by the speaker were Beudesert, Tyle Cop, Chasetown, Chasewater, Lyttleton, Heath Hayes, Lea Hall and Bleak House - an open cast site and the last one in operation. For those who new so little, much has been revealed and we are grateful to the speaker.

Brenda Towlson
November 2001