It is not known when coal was first mined commercially in the area, but mines were recorded in Sedgley, in 1272 and on Pensnett Chase in 1291, particularly around Netherton. They were probably shallow workings in the form of open cast mines or bell pits. Coal and iron ore were later mined at Coneygre Field and Greystone Field. The miners became known as ‘Grubbers’.

Dudley is situated on the southern part of the South Staffordshire coalfield, where the middle coal measures are found, which were locally known as the ten yard seam. This forms a gently folded shallow syncline that outcrops in a wide arc from Dudley northwards and actually consists of 12 to 14 closely overlying seams, giving the appearance of a single bed of coal. This is usually less than 400 feet beneath the surface, and in many places can be found on the surface, or just a few feet below the surface. The mineral rights belonged to the Lord of the Manor and anyone wishing to dig for coal had to acquire a copyhold, which was a legal document obtained via the courts. Such surviving documents provide evidence for early mining in the area.

The bell pit method of mining involved digging outwards from a central shaft in many directions, until the roof was in danger of collapsing. The pit was then abandoned and another dug. Sometimes a pair of shafts would be dug about 50 yards apart and joined by an underground passage in order to allow circulation of air. The coal would then be removed from the sides of the connecting passage. This very wasteful technique could be employed because coal was so plentiful and easily obtainable. Later when larger pits were dug, columns of coal were used to support the roof instead of wooden props, and so many tons of coal must have been lost in this way. Most of the mining companies were very small, owning just one or two pits.

A typical bell pit. The shaft is dug down to the layer of coal and the spoil is removed in a bucket that is wound up and down the shaft by a windlass.

When the coal is reached, the sides of the shaft at the bottom are widened as the coal is removed.

This process continues until the shaft is in danger of collapsing.

The pit is then abandoned and a new one dug nearby.

By 1292 iron was smelted in Dudley. It was recorded that two smithies were in operation in the town. Iron would have been smelted using a coke fire, because local coal has too high a sulphur content and would cause the iron to crumble when being worked under the smith’s hammer. The wood from many of the trees on Pensnett Chase was used to produce charcoal for iron smelting. Wood was cut into even lengths called cords and stacked to produce a circular cone. This was covered in earth or clay and lit from below.

Some of the iron was used to produce domestic and farming items and some was used for nails. Nail making was one of Dudley’s first successful and profitable industries. In 1538 when King Henry VIII was extending Hampton Court Palace, nails were ordered from Reynold Warde of Dudley at a price of 11s.4d. per 1,000. The industry greatly benefited from the development of slitting mills, used to produce rods for nail making.

Richard Foley, born in 1580, was a nailer. He travelled to Sweden, where slitting mills were in common use. He learned how the mills were made and set up a mill at The Hyde, in Kinver. The mills prepared iron rods for the nailers, so that all they had to do was to cut the rod to the correct length, point one end, and make the head. This was one of the first examples of mass production, as large quantities of nails could be made simply by unskilled people.

The nailers couldn't afford to buy the rods themselves, they were advanced to them by the mills, to where they returned the completed nails and were paid for them. They were also given standard allowances for waste. A bundle of rods weighed 60 pounds and was 4ft 6" long. The nails were characterised according to the number produced from a given weight of iron. Long thousand (1,200) nails weighing 4 pounds, were known as four penny bundles. Larger nails were called 100 work, and were priced by the hundred. They were more profitable than the smaller ones, as less work was required to produce them, and less waste produced. There were many types of nails including brads, tacks, spriggs, dog-eared frost nails, sheath nails, and sparrables, many of which were first developed in the 16th century.

The Foleys began to make a lot of money trading in nails. Richard Foley was Mayor of Dudley in 1616 and by 1630 had moved to Stourbridge. The Finch family also made a fortune, trading in nails.

Another local industry that developed in the 16th century was scythe making.

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