From Coal to Fireplace

The Society's meeting on Tuesday 19th November was advertised as a joint meeting with the Royal Geographic Society, so the audience was larger than usual. Our guest on this occasion was Lesley Flint from the Museum of Cannock Chase at Hednesford.

Lesley told us that the first mines for Coal in the area were simple 'Bell Pits' in the south of the district - the Black Country - where the coal seams are close to the surface. Coal Mining on Cannock Chase began in the 1860s, when the technology needed to ventilate deeper mines became more generally available. At its peak there were 22 pits in the district, working from at least 33 shafts as most mines needed separate shafts to draw air out of the mine 'the upcast shaft' and to allow fresh air in 'the downcast shaft'.

As the mines were developed a network of Light Railways was built to link the mines to the main lines of the South Staffordshire and Midland Railways at Brownhills, Cannock and Hednesford. Most have long ago disappeared but the Chasewater Railway survives today as a living fragment of one of these colliery branches.

After Nationalisation in 1948 the new National Coal Board invested in several of the Staffordshire pits, even opening a new mine in 1951 at Lea Hall, Rugeley, adjacent to the power station that would burn most of its coal. But by 1983 only two pits, Littleton and Lea Hall, were left and Littleton closed ten years later with the loss of 600 jobs. Meanwhile, as in other parts of the county, some of the shallower coal seams in the district were now being mined using opencast methods - for example by RJB mining at Bleak House.

Transport for both men and materials into the mine was usually a double-deck cage which could be lowered down the shaft; but miners still had to walk up to two miles in some of the older mines to reach the workface. However, because the Cannock coalfield was developed relatively late in the 19th century, no women or children were ever employed underground in the local pits.

Haulage of coal and materials underground was at first manual but later many ponies were used and these were always treated well by the miners. On 'Wakes Week' when the miners had a holiday the ponies were also brought to the surface for a welcome break from their haulage duties.

For most of the 20th century coal mines still used wooden pit-props to support the roof and many parts of Britain were almost denuded of trees during the first world war when labour for traditional forestry was scarce. As a consequence the Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 and continues to harvest timber from tress planted on Cannock Chase today. Lesley told us that the traditional wooden pit-prop would 'creak' when under pressure, perhaps giving advance warning of impending collapse; not so their steel replacements which could only bend silently under pressure.

In later years mechanisation was applied first to coal cutting - Lesley showed us a photograph of an Anderton Shearer - and then to fully automatic coal cutting with hydraulic pit-props and long conveyors to move the coal away from the working face. However this 'long-wall' method of working often resulted in more widespread subsidence at the surface which could still appear many years after mining had ceased.

Lesley showed us photographs of 'hand-holing' and 'drilling a shothole, noting that training for shot-firing and other key skills was provided by Cannock Chase Technical College.

The meeting concluded with a lively discussion from which it was clear than several members of the audience had ventured underground, as visitors, into at least one of the NCB's working coal mines - unlike the youngsters of today who can only, at best, visit one of the few mining museums dedicated to this once great industry.

In summing up our Chairman said that it was good to know that we had a museum nearby where the industrial history of the district was still displayed.

Peter Cousins
November 2012