Brief History of Coal Mining in Yorkshire

Early Use of Coal

Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on earth and the South Yorkshire Coal Field (situation predominantly in the south and west of the county) is the largest in England. There is plenty of archaeological evidence that coal was used as a source of fuel as far back at the Bronze Age. Cinders have been found in the remains of Roman Villas, showing that the Romans in Britain burned coal before 400 AD.

Excavation has revealed coal stores at many forts along Hadrian’s Wall as well as the remains of a smelting industry at forts such as Longovicium nearby…

…After the Romans left Britain, in AD 410, there are few records of coal being used in the country until the end of the 12th century. One that does occur is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 852 when a rent including 12 loads of coal is mentioned.


However, the Domesday Book, which recorded everything of commercial value in the Kingdom, doesn’t mention coal at all. The author therefore assumes that the gathering of coal was seen, at that time, in the same way as cutting peat, that it was available to all for domestic use but was not considered, by the King’s agents, to be a valuable commercial commodity.

By the 13th Century, plenty of coal was being gathered from deposits on or near the surface of the ground and ship loads of coal were transported to London from the north east coast. It was called “sea coal” because it was gathered from visible deposits along the shoreline.

In West Yorkshire, the Wakefield Court Rolls show early records of Ossett people mining for coal without the required licence from the Lord of the Manor and, in 1332, three Ossett men were each fined 6 pence for not filling in pits in the “New Park”. In 1339 all the inhabitants of Ossett were required to back fill all coal pits in the township that were worked out. A John Sonman paid the Lord of the Manor 12 pence for a licence to dig a mine in Gawthorpe for coal to be used for iron smelting.

These are some of our earliest West Yorkshire records of coal mining on a small industrial scale. Those early pits would possibly have been bell pits.

Early Mining – Bell Pits

England and Wales Coal Fields [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Bell pits were a type of small mine in use from the Bronze age, through the Middle Ages and a few continued in use until the early 20th Century. These were used to extend access to deposits below the surface. Bell pits were circular depressions in the ground, which opened out underground from a small shaft at the surface. Once the seam was reached from the shaft, the coal was dug out to form a bell shape in cross section. A row of such pits could be dug to follow the seam line. Bell pits tended to flood because there was no drainage and they could collapse inwards too, giving them a limited lifespan and, because they were relatively shallow, they couldn’t take advantage of deeper coal deposits.

An extension of bell pits was a technique called room and pillar (or pillar and stall) in which ‘rooms’ of coal were extracted and pillars of coal were left in place to support the roofs. However, like bell pits, they were not able to extract all the coal available in deeper seams.

Bill Rowley / A collapsed bell pit [Creative Commons License]

Drift Mines

As easily accessible coal outcroppings became more scarce, new ways were devised to access the coal.  Around the 14th Century, coal workings began to be created on high ground, with adits, which are horizontal or nearly horizontal entrances to an underground mine. Adits are created in the side of a hill or mountain, and are used to access a coal seam that is located inside the mountain but above the valley floor. They also enable the mine to be ventilated and drained of water. The coal can be extracted relatively safely in what is called “drift mining”, without the need to cut a deep vertical shaft. The extracted coal can be removed from the mine using horses or ponies to pull wagons along tramlines. The longest system of adits in England, in Cornwall, was 40 miles long and used to access and drain tin and copper mines. Now this system was used for coal.

From the 14th Century, many coal mines opened in Yorkshire, especially around Barnsley, Rotherham and Sheffield. Coalfields had been laid down here between 290 and 354 million years ago and there were potentially many more coal seams throughout Yorkshire.

The shallow drift mines often became exhausted within years, requiring mines with vertical shafts to be sunk deeper into the ground. The challenge posed by vertical shafts was to prevent flooding. Solutions devised to remove water included a bucket and chain device, operated by men at the surface; horses or windmills might alternatively power pumps. However, the depth of the shaft was still restricted to about 100 metres.

Early Coal Mining in West Yorkshire

In the 13th Century, monks were mining coal in West Yorkshire on land owned by the Monasteries. In the 14th and 15th Centuries, the monks issued mining leases to local gentry. With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, courtiers and royal officials, lawyers, merchants, and existing members of the country’s gentry, were able to obtain land that had previously belonged to the monks. A rental valuation was made and the land was then sold at twenty years’ rental value. It wouldn’t be long before the landowners began to see the possibility of the coal underneath their feet making their fortunes…and it did.

In Almondbury parish, in 1636, there are records of John Kaye digging coal at Rowley, to use at Woodsome Hall at Fenay Bridge. There were several mines in the Honley, Emley and Flockton areas by 1698 and after that there was a rapid growth in coal mining in Kirklees.

Industrial Change

In 1700, the annual output of coal was just under 3 million tons. It was the age of steam that was to vastly increase mining output with the invention, in 1712, of the “Newcomen Atmospheric Engine” that could work a reciprocating lift pump. Steam entered a cylinder and raised a piston; a jet of water cooled the cylinder, and the steam condensed, causing the piston to fall and water to be pumped up from the mine. Use of this engine would enable deeper shafts to be dug and the Newcomen Engine, as it became known, quickly gained popularity. The only Newcomen-style engine still in its original location is the Elsecar Heritage Centre, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

Later, James Watt’s improved engine of 1763 doubled fuel efficiency and then coal production expanded rapidly as shafts became much deeper.

Yorkshire was well endowed with rivers, which had always been important for the transportation of commodities such as iron, cloth and stone and foodstuffs like grain, wine and fish. Many river improvements were carried out in the 18th century with the building of a canal system and much of the river traffic shifted to the south and west of Yorkshire at the expense of rivers further north. Transportation of the coal was made easier by the building of these canals. In Kirklees, the Huddersfield Broad Canal opened in 1776 and construction began on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal in 1794.

By 1787, Lord Dartmouth had three mines at Honley and Brockholes, one at Flockton and another at Briestwhistle, which was a prime site, as it had a thick seam of coal up to 3 feet deep.

Coal was now needed to supply steam engines at newly built textile mills in the area and the size and number of mill engines grew rapidly from the early 1800s. Some owners of textile mills began to sink their own mines and build railway lines to supply their works with coal to fuel the increasingly hungry mill engines. Small mines were even opened by publicans and farmers.

By 1806, a railway was carrying coal from William Bradley’s drift mine to a canal wharfe in Huddersfield from where it was distributed by canal. He was not alone in this as, by the beginning of the 19th Century, just about every landowner in the area was reaping the rewards of sinking his own mines or selling mining leases on his land.

Deep shaft mining in the west and south of Yorkshire expanded rapidly, both feeding and being driven by the development of mechanised mills and the railway system.

Coal Hewer working in mid 19th Century

Children and Women

In the first half of the 19th Century, it was not uncommon for whole families of men, women and children to be employed in the mines, often working naked in the oppressive conditions. Increasingly questions were being asked about the conditions of work for very young children. A Commission of Inquiry, reported to Parliament in 1840…

…That instances occur in which children are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age, sometimes at five, and between five and six; not unfrequently (sic) between six and seven, and often from seven to eight; while from eight to nine is the ordinary age at which employment in these mines commences.

…That a very large proportion of the persons employed in carrying on the work of these mines is under thirteen years of age; and a still larger proportion between thirteen and eighteen.

…That in several districts female children begin to work in these mines at the same early ages as the males.

1854 in “The White Slaves of England” by J Cobden

Children, who were woken from sleep around 2 in the morning, were down the mine by 3am and worked a shift of 12-16 hours underground, as hurriers (dragging carts of coal, called corves, along tram rails) or thrusters (pushing the corves from behind). These children, boys and girls, might work in a parent’s team…that made some sense, as the hurriers were paid by their collier, so why not keep it in the family? Other children worked as trappers, opening and closing ventilation doors along the route.

Child Coal Hurrier and Thrusters moving a corf along rails.

It was a tough life made even tougher by the abuse that children suffered at the hands of some of the older workers…they would be beaten with a leather belt or a fist if their work was unsatisfactory, if they dawdled or fell asleep.

In many coal mines, some passages were so small that even the youngest children could not move along them without crawling on their hands and feet, while dragging a loaded corf (coal-cart) behind them. The cost of making access to the seams high enough for men to work comfortably was prohibitively high, so the mines would become unprofitable…argued the owners. Women and children were paid much less than men, of course, and the colliery owners also argued that they couldn’t afford to run the collieries without this cheaper labour.

Accidents were common. Children could be crushed by a corf or killed in a roof fall and their lack of safety conscientiousness could expose them to dangers of all kinds, like losing their footing and falling down a shaft. In 1839, three siblings, two boys and a girl, were killed at Flockton when the rope that was lowering them down the shaft in a corf, broke and caused them to fall 240 feet to the base of the shaft.

Women’s work continued well into pregnancy in many cases, that’s if the strain of the work didn’t cause miscarriage.

In 1842, an Act of Parliament eventually outlawed girls and women from working underground at all [and outlawed boys from working underground under the age of ten]. A mining Sub-Commissioner, J. C. Symons, reported:

Girls regularly perform all the various offices of trapping, hurrying [Yorkshire terms for drawing the loaded coal corves], filling, riddling, tipping, and occasionally getting, just as they are performed by boys. One of the most disgusting sights I have ever seen was that of young females, dressed like boys in trousers, crawling on all fours, with belts round their waists and chains passing between their legs, at day pits at Hunshelf Bank, and in many small pits near Holmfirth and New Mills: it exists also in several other places. I visited the Hunshelf Colliery on the 18th of January: it is a day pit; that is, there is no shaft or descent; the gate or entrance is at the side of a bank, and nearly horizontal. The gate was not more than a yard high, and in some places not above 2 feet.

When I arrived at the board or workings of the pit I found at one of the sideboards down a narrow passage a girl of fourteen years of age in boy’s clothes, picking down the coal with the regular pick used by the men. She was half sitting half lying at her work, and said she found it tired her very much, and “of course she didn’t like it.” The place where she was at work was not 2 feet high. Further on were men lying on their sides and getting. No less than six girls out of eighteen men and children are employed in this pit.

Whilst I was in the pit the Rev Mr Bruce, of Wadsley, and the Rev Mr Nelson, of Rotherham, who accompanied me, and remained outside, saw another girl of ten years of age, also dressed in boy’s clothes, who was employed in hurrying, and these gentlemen saw her at work. She was a nice-looking little child, but of course as black as a tinker, and with a little necklace round her throat.

In two other pits in the Huddersfield Union I have seen the same sight. In one near New Mills, the chain, passing high up between the legs of two of these girls, had worn large holes in their trousers; and any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work – no brothel can beat it.

On descending Messrs Hopwood’s pit at Barnsley, I found assembled round a fire a group of men, boys, and girls, some of whom were of the age of puberty; the girls as well as the boys stark naked down to the waist, their hair bound up with a tight cap, and trousers supported by their hips. (At Silkstone and at Flockton they work in their shifts and trousers.) Their sex was recognizable only by their breasts, and some little difficulty occasionally arose in pointing out to me which were girls and which were boys, and which caused a good deal of laughing and joking. In the Flockton and Thornhill pits the system is even more indecent: for though the girls are clothed, at least three-fourths of the men for whom they “hurry” work stark naked, or with a flannel waistcoat only, and in this state they assist one another to fill the corves 18 or 20 times a day: I have seen this done myself frequently.

When it is remembered that these girls hurry chiefly for men who are not their parents; that they go from 15 to 20 times a day into a dark chamber (the bank face), which is often 50 yards apart from any one, to a man working naked, or next to naked, it is not to be supposed but that, where opportunity thus prevails, sexual vices are of common occurrence. Add to this the free intercourse, and the rendezvous at the shaft or bullstake, where the corves are brought, and consider the language to which the young ear is habituated, the absence of religious instruction, and the early age at which contamination begins, and you will have before you, in the coal-pits where females are employed, the picture of a nursery for juvenile vice which you will go far and we above ground to equal.

Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, 1842, Vol XVI, pp. 24, 196
Women mine workers. Employment of females underground was forbidden by law in 1842, but women and girls continued to work both above ground and underground in some collieries for some years. Women were once again recruited for mine work during World War 1.

Young boys continued to work in the mines until the minimum age for a mineworker was raised to 12 years in 1872.

An exceptional story has come to light, of a miner called Harry Moorhouse, who began working at a mine in New Mill, near Holmfirth, in 1855, at the age of 6yrs. He was still working at the mine when it ceased business in 1890, after when he continued to work coal there from a “day hole” until 1931, when he retired soon after his 83rd birthday.

Working Conditions

As mine workings became deeper, serious safety problems emerged. In addition to the risk of flooding, the deep coal seams trapped highly inflammable methane gas, known as “fire-damp” and many miners were killed by gas explosions ignited by the naked flames of the candles that the miners carried or wore on their heads underground.

After an explosion in 1812 at Gateshead (Tyne and Wear), killing 92 miners, Humphrey Davy designed a miner’s lamp which would not cause explosions. It consists of a wick lamp with the flame enclosed inside a mesh screen. Although the lamp did indeed prevent many explosions and became widely adopted, it was a mixed blessing, as many miners were killed by inhaling the poisonous gas instead. The existence of the safety lamp also gave colliery owners the excuse they needed to bore deeper and deeper into the earth, leading to many more deaths and injuries, including those from shafts collapsing and from poor ventilation.

The mineral fuel which constitutes so great a source of our national wealth is not extracted from the earth without a fearful sacrifice of life; either cut off suddenly, or slowly, but as surely, destroyed by inhaling the poisonous gases of the mines. Scarcely a week passes without fatal explosions, of which little notice is taken beyond the immediate scenes of the calamities; nor is it till some thirty or forty human beings have been killed at one flash that public attention is aroused whilst the thousands who are sent to premature graves by the daily operating effects of the insidious atmospheric poison are altogether un-minded. The ‘safety-lamp,’ which in its day was hailed as an important boon conferred by science on the miner, has in practice proved a fatal gift. It has enabled the proprietors of mines to obtain coal in workings that were too ‘fiery’ to be approached with unprotected flame, and the miner is compelled to breathe an atmosphere which the wire-gauze of his lamp alone prevents from exploding.

The Spectator Magazine; Nov 3rd 1849; p1041

The atmosphere deep underground was not only toxic from the existence of gases, but also the fine particles of coal that were constantly being breathed in causing what was known as “Black lung disease”, now known as “pneumoconiosis”. In 1813, Dr. George Pearson said that even miners aged 20 had some signs of mottled discolouration of the lungs and by 65 years old the miners’ lungs were uniformly black.

Many miners suffered premature ill health and died from the effects of working in the mines. From bronchitis and emphysema to heart failure and lung cancer, from being poisoned or blown up by the invisible firedamp to being crushed in a rock-fall, this was employment that provided few happy endings.

With regard to the general physical health of miners,

After they are turned forty-five or fifty, they walk home from their work almost like cripples; stiffly stalking along, often leaning on sticks, bearing the visible evidences in their frame and gait of overstrained muscles and over-taxed strength. Where the lowness of the gates induces a very bent posture, I have observed an inward curvature of the spine; and chicken-breasted children are very common among those who work in low, thin coal-mines…

…In Yorkshire, the collier of fifty is usually an aged man; he looks overstrained and stiffened by labour. But whilst both the child and the adult miner (at first) appear to enjoy excellent health, and to be remarkably free from disease, it nevertheless appears that their labour, at least that of the adult miner, is, in its general result, and in the extent to which it is pursued, of a character more severe than the constitution is properly able to bear. It is rare that a collier is able to follow his calling beyond the age of from forty to fifty, and then, unless he be fortunate enough to obtain some easier occupation, he sinks into a state of helpless dependence.

From the book “The White Slaves of England” by J Cobden 1853

Coal Mines in Kirklees in the 1880s

The coal-rich area known as the South Yorkshire Coalfield stretches from Halifax in the north west, to the north of Bradford and Leeds in the north east, Huddersfield and Sheffield in the west, and Doncaster in the east. The coal found in the South Yorkshire Coalfield is a bituminous coal used to produce production of coal gas and coke and the Barnsley seam was one of the most important, being almost 3 metres thick. By the 1880s there were hundreds of collieries in Yorkshire including the following 81 mines just in the area that is now called Kirklees…

Dewsbury (21)

  • Babes in the Wood, Dewsbury
  • Bank Top, Dewsbury
  • Chickenley Heath, Dewsbury
  • Chickenley Wood, Dewsbury
  • Chidswell, Dewsbury
  • Combs Thornhill, Dewsbury
  • Dewsbury Moor, Dewsbury
  • Fallhouse, Whitley
  • Hostingley, Thornhill, Dewsbury
  • Howroyd, Briestfield, Thornhill
  • Ings, Thornhill, Dewsbury
  • Ladywood, Dewsbury
  • Occupation, Dewsbury
  • Park Farm, Heckmondwyke, Dewsbury
  • Ravens Lodge, Dewsbury
  • Ridings, Dewsbury
  • Roach, Dewsbury
  • Saville, Dewsbury
  • Shaw Cross, Dewsbury
  • Upper Crossly, Dewsbury
  • Whitley Wood, Dewsbury

Batley & Birstall (5)

  • Batley
  • Brier Hall Birstall
  • Cross Bank Batley
  • Soothill, Batley
  • Southill Wood, Batley

Mirfield (7)

  • Calder Mirfield
  • Dark Lane Mirfield
  • Gregory Spring Mirfield
  • Hopton
  • Know, Hopton near Mirfield
  • Ledgard Bridge, Mirfield
  • Mirfield

Huddersfield (38)

  • Box Ings, Huddersfield
  • Bradley, Huddersfield
  • Brockholes, Huddersfield
  • California, Shelley, Huddersfield
  • Clayton Common, Nortonthorpe, Huddersfield
  • Cowmes, Norton, Huddersfield
  • Duke Wood, Clayton West, Huddersfield
  • Fieldhouse, Huddersfield
  • Germain Main, Huddersfield
  • Greenhouse, Huddersfield
  • Grimescar, Huddersfield
  • Helm, Huddersfield
  • High Park, Bradley, Huddersfield
  • High Wood (sinking)
  • Hollinhouse, Huddersfield
  • Hollinhouse, Huddersfield
  • Kirkheaton, Huddersfield
  • Lane End, Huddersfield
  • Linfit, Huddersfield
  • Lockwood Common, Huddersfield
  • Lower Cumberworth, Huddersfield
  • Lower Holmhouse, Huddersfield
  • Moor Lane, Highburton, Huddersfield
  • New ground, Huddersfield
  • Oxlee, Hepworth, Huddersfield
  • Ozzinge, Shelly, Huddersfield
  • Pease Hill, Huddersfield
  • Pulling Hill, Huddersfield
  • Rowley, Huddersfield
  • Schrogg, Huddersfield
  • Sinking Wood, Huddersfield
  • Snowgatehead, Huddersfield
  • Thorncliffe Spring, Huddersfield
  • Thorncliffe Green, Huddersfield
  • Thurstonland, Huddersfield
  • Toppits, Clayton, West, Huddersfield
  • Whitely, Kirkheaton, Huddersfield
  • Wilson Main, Huddersfield

Holmfirth & Denby Dale (10)

  • Bartiside, Hepworth, near Holmfirth
  • Clay Works, Holmfirth
  • Gatehead, Holmfirth
  • Hollin House, New Mills, Holmfirth
  • Hepworth, Holmfirth
  • Knab (sinking), Holmfirth
  • Knowles, Holmfirth
  • Meal Hill, Holmfirth
  • Wood, Holmfirth
  • Denby Dale (sinking)

For Kirklees mines at other dates, see the Northern Mine Research Society.

The End of Old King Coal

The British coal mining industry was removed from private ownership and nationalised in 1947. For almost 40 years, the National Coal Board closed inefficient and depleted pits and combined other workings. By the early 1980s, cheaper coal imports and the Government’s reluctance to subsidise the industry threatened the miners’ jobs and led to clashes between Government and the workers’ Union.

When the Government announced on 6th March 1984 that it would close 20 pits short term and it was discovered that another 70 pits were threatened, the miners at Cortonwood Colliery, near Rotherham, downed tools and walked out on strike. The Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called a strike across the whole of Yorkshire and Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM, decided to call for a nationwide strike in support. But Scargill never balloted NUM members for a strike and the miners were split. Workers from the Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, South Derbyshire and North Wales coalfields defied the strike and continued to work.

Scargill called for a mass picket outside the coking plant at Orgreave coke works near Rotherham, aimed at disrupting the supply of coke from the plant. On 18th June 1984, thousands of pickets met huge lines of police, brought in from all around the country. In an early example of “kettling”, the police pushed the crowds into a confined area, cutting off their means of escape. Eventually, violent clashes broke out between the picketing miners and the police. Then, dozens of mounted officers, armed with long truncheons, charged up the field, followed by “snatch squad officers” in riot gear, carrying short shields and truncheons.

Many were injured, some seriously, in what was later called “a brutal example of legalised state violence”, though news reports at the time referred to it as “an act of self-defence by police who had come under attack from thousands of picketers”. Even today, opinion is split and some say that the police “were upholding the law in the face of intimidation from thousands of strikers”, while others call for a Hillsborough-style inquiry.

Altogether 55 miners were arrested and all of them were charged with “riot”, an offence which, at that time, carried a potential life sentence. A further 40 men were arrested and charged with “unlawful assembly”. Eventually, the cases collapsed in court and no-one on either side was punished.

For the next year, the striking miners suffered poverty and hardship as their union branches ran out of money to support them. Additionally, the Government had stock-piled coal, preventing the need for the frequent power cuts that striking miners had brought about a decade earlier. Eventually, now close to being destitute, the miners were forced to abandon their strike action and return to work.

Five years later, South Yorkshire Police agreed to pay a total of nearly £500,000 to 39 of the miners, without admitting that they had done anything wrong.

Most never forgave the Thatcher administration for the battle of Orgreave.

The mining industry was entering its final decline. The Coal Industry Act of 1987 converted the National Coal Board into the British Coal Corporation.

With the passing of the Coal Industry Act 1994, the administrative functions were transferred to a new authority, the Coal Authority. All economic assets were re-privatised.

Over the next few years, the collieries continued to close and deep shaft mining no longer exists in Yorkshire following the closure of the last pit at Kellingley, near Ferrybridge, in 2015. Kellingley Colliery had become the deepest coal mine in the South Yorkshire Coal Field, with two main shafts each reaching a depth of almost 800 metres. [The all-time record depth was 1,259 metres, at the Arley Seam of the Parsonage Colliery, Leigh, Greater Manchester].

Kellingley had extracted coal at up to 900 tonnes an hour. Mining had become much more productive but also much safer and just 17 people were listed on the memorial to those who died during the operation of the mine…450 miners were made redundant. It was the end of an era.