Coal Mining

Willenhall stands on part of the South Staffordshire coalfield, where the middle coal measures are found, known locally as the ten yard seam. It forms a gently folded shallow syncline that outcrops in a wide arc from Dudley through to Darlaston and Willenhall, and consists of 12 to 14 closely overlying seams, giving the appearance of a single bed of coal. It is usually less than 400 feet below the surface, and in many places can be found just a few feet underground.

The coal measures also extend south westwards towards Bilston and Wolverhampton, and north eastwards towards Bentley. The geology on the northern side towards Wednesfield is quite different. It consists of a dolerite sill, with mudstones, and sandstones to the north.

Coal became an essential raw material for the developing industries in the Black Country, particularly for iron and steel making, and the expanding railway network. As a result many parts of the area were heavily mined, and large numbers of people moved into the town to work in the mines.

There were a number of deep mines, which employed many people, often excavating sizeable caverns underground to fully exploit the 10 yard seem. 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.


A typical bell pit.

Most of the mines were simple bell pits, in which a central shaft was dug down to the coal measures, and widened at the bottom as coal was removed. As much coal as possible was removed until the roof showed signs of collapse, at which time the pit would be abandoned, and a new replacement dug nearby.

As a result, much of the mining land was covered in abandoned bell pits, and in the course of time consisted of a pattern of hollows, separated by small spoil heaps. Each hollow was above an old shaft, which sometimes filled with water, to form a small pool.

Some of the pits, called gin pits, had horse-driven winding gear at the top of the shaft. They were a common sight in the Black Country.

Pits were dug in much of the land that surrounds the town centre. Many were to be found around Moseley, Portobello, Little London, Lane Head, Short Heath, and New Invention. Portobello grew as a result of the brick making industry, but soon turned into a thriving mining community as large numbers of people moved into the area. It became covered with tiny back-to-back houses, surrounding courtyards with shared toilets, and washing facilities. Lane Head and Sandbeds were small hamlets until they were expanded to cater for the thriving mining community.

A map showing the approximate location of some of the mine shafts in the Willenhall area. In reality there would have been many more, because large numbers of small pits were never recorded.
Mining in Willenhall got off to a late start compared with neighbouring towns, because much of the coal was to be found on land belonging to the Deanery and the Prebends. In 1811 the Reverend Edward Legge, Dean of Wolverhampton obtained statutory powers to grant leases for coal mining on church-owned land. Each of the small pits, which dominated the area, was run by just a few men who became known as 'butty colliers', or 'butties'.

Some of the larger collieries were New Priestfield Colliery, off Bilston Lane, owned by William Ward & Son, and linked to New Priestfield Iron Works, and the Birmingham Canal by a tramway. Moseley Hole Colliery, near Moseley Road, was named after the De Mollesey family of Bilston, and run by the Chillington Iron Company. Osier Beds Colliery, near Moseley Road was so named because of the 'osier' willow trees which covered the area, and were used for basket making. Beacon Hill Colliery, which stood near to Beacon Road was owned by J. Brewer of New Invention, and linked to the Wyrley & Essington Canal by a tramway, later used by the nearby Short Heath Colliery.

Others included Bunker’s Hill Colliery, off Bunkers Hill Lane, Merrill’s Hole Colliery, Bull Plack Colliery, and Trentham Colliery, all off Noose Lane, and Willenhall Colliery off Stringes Lane, owned by Fletcher, Solly & Urwick Limited, which owned Willenhall Furnaces.

The following is a list of working coal mines in Willenhall in 1869 from Ancestry.com:

   Colliery        Owner
Albion Harper and Company
Anson Earl of Lichfield
Barr Croft J. Hill and Company
Bomans Harbour H. B. Whitehouse
Boltoney Bay J. Yardley and Company
Bull Pleck Messrs Groucott
Coppice J. Bagnall and Sons
Crescent J. Bagnall and Sons
Crescent Addenbrook and Company
Lane Head W. Mannix and Bate
Lane Head Bridge Joseph Hawkins
Little London Trentham Colliery Company
Moat Field Dodd and Southan
Moseley Hole Chillington Iron Company and Others
Neachells Messrs Croucott
Neachells John Sparrow
Neachells Barbersfield Company
Neachells H. B. Whitehouse
New Neachells P. Williams and Company
New Cross H. B. Whitehouse
Nimmins Dodd and Southan
Noose Lane Bate and Son
Pool Hayes Samuel Fenn and family
Pool Hayes Meadow Chillington Iron Company
Portobello H. Ward
Portobello Bridge Fletcher, Solly and Urwick
New Portobello Bridge Fletcher, Solly and Urwick
New Priestfields William Ward and Son
Robin Hood J. Simpkin
Rose Hill Chillington Iron Company
Rose Hill Brown and Spittle
Sand Beds Fletcher, Solly and Urwick
Somerford Messrs Barker
Tame Mill Johnson and Company
Trentham Isiah Hill and Company
Welsh End Isiah Hill and Company
Willenhall William Ward and Sons
Willenhall John Yardley

In the 1870s things started to go wrong. A depression in the iron trade led to a fall in the price of coal, which in turn led to the closure of many mines. A long strike took place in the coalfield, during which all labour was withdrawn. Pumping engines were not operated, and many mines flooded. In 1870 it was estimated that around 150 million tons of coal, and 20 million tons of iron ore were under water in South Staffordshire.

Godson's map of Willenhall, produced in 1800 shows a pumping engine near to the junction of Bilston Road and Moseley Road. It is described as a Crocket and Stokes engine, which would have been steam driven, and used to pump water from nearby mines.


A typical gin pit. Courtesy of David Evans.

Some mine owners would not use a pumping engine because they were also draining their neighbour’s pit at their own expense. Pumping also altered surface drainage, because the water was run into streams, which percolated back into the mines.

A petition to Parliament led to the South Staffordshire Drainage Act of 1873. Under the terms of the act, a Board of Commissioners was created to raise money to fund pumping operations. A rate of one penny per ton of coal, slack, and fire clay was levied on the mine owners, but initially little progress was made. In 1878 greater powers were granted to the commissioners. During the next 10 years £100,000 was spent on pumping water out of the deeper mines. In 1886 the levy was raised to nine pence per ton of coal, slack and iron ore, three pence per ton of fire clay, with an addition of one penny per ton for surface drainage. Water courses were straightened, and made watertight by puddling the beds with clay. In spite of all the efforts, the drainage problem was never solved, and the Commission was largely ineffective.


A steam-powered winding engine, and a gin pit. Courtesy of David Evans.

In 1896 W. Beattie Scott, H.M. Inspector for the South Staffordshire mining district compiled a report which listed all of the coal mines in operation at the time. The mines in Willenhall were as follows:

             Owner

Colliery Underground
Workers
Surface Workers

    Type of coal

A. Lowbridge, Short Heath Lanehead Bridge 5 3 manufacturing
B. Piggott, Bilston Rd, Willenhall Mabbs Bank 15 5 manufacturing
W. Bickley, Short Heath Pool Hayes 104 26 manufacturing and steam
Samuel Habley, Short Heath Short Heath (part) 3 2  
Head & Co. Short Heath Short Heath (part) 6 3  
Joseph Tipper, Spring Bank Spring Bank 2 1 manufacturing
S. Lester, Stringes Lane Stringes Lane 11 4 manufacturing
G. H. Callear, Willenhall Trentham 7 2  
The following list of Willenhall mines, compiled in 1908, is from Ancestry.com. It only includes four working mines:
          Colliery                        Owner
Sandbeds (not working) T. Nicholls, Fairfield House, Willenhall
Bull Pleck Southan Brothers, Willenhall Road, Moseley Village
Junction Southan Brothers, Willenhall Road, Moseley Village
Neachells (closed in 1907) Southan Brothers, Willenhall Road, Moseley Village
Osier Bed Samuel Spruce and E. Powell, 10 Victoria Place, George Street, Ettingshall
Rose Hill Samuel Weaver, 7 Walsall Road, Willenhall
Within a few years it was all over. The Willenhall mining industry had lasted around 100 years, during which time large numbers of people had moved into the area to work in the mines. By 1910 the industry had become less important. Large amounts of coal were transported daily on the Wyrley & Essington Canal from coalfields around Cannock, and also on the Bentley Canal from coalfields near the BCN.

   
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