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Medieval Coal and Industry : Newcastle and the North East 1100AD - 1500AD

Coal had been mined in the Northe East region since ancient times but became more widespread in the 13th and 14th centuries. Among those to profit from coal were the Bishops of Durham and merchants of Newcastle. As a sea port, Newcastle could benefit from the trade because shallow coal seams lay close to the Tyne. Ports like Hartlepool and Stockton lay outside the coalfield and Sunderland coal lay deep underground. Nevertheless, Newcastle merchants still had to contend with the development of rival Tyneside ports.

MINING MONKS AND BISHOPS

The earliest reference to Durham coal is Bishop Hugh Pudsey's the Boldon Book of 1183 which records a coal miner at Escomb. Coal was often called 'Sea Coal' in Medieval Durham because it was washed up on local beaches, but inland 'Sea Coal' was mined at Hett near Spennymo or in 1298. The Prince Bishops owned rights to mining coal and lead in Durham but in 1303 the Bishop gave lesser landowners the right to mine their land. Durham monks exploited coal from at least the 14th Century and in the 1350s owned or leased mines at Lumley, Rainton and Ferryhill. The first record of coal mining beneath the level of free drainage in Durham was at Moorhouse near Rainton where monks of Finchale provided a water pump for a mine

MEDIEVAL COAL MINES

Medieval mines were usually shallow bell pits, dug downwards from the surface and then outwards into the coal seam in the shape of a bell. Coal and miners were hoisted up and down in the manner of a bucket in a well. Mine roofs only collapsed if the 'col liers' burrowed too far outwards which is presumably what caused deaths in coal mines at Whickham and Thrislington in 1329.

NEWCASTLE COAL TRADES

In 1286 Newcastle was the leading English port for exporting leather from local livestock. The border wars that ravaged the countryside destroyed this trade, but coal was beginning to dominate. In 1291, 80 quarters of coal were sent to Corfe Castle in Do rset from Newcastle and coal was shipped to London from at least 1305. Newcastle's walls were falling into decay but still protected the town from the Scots and enabled trade to continue. Newcastle was the fourth wealthiest town in England by 1334 after London, Bristol and York and the 11th largest in 1372 with 2,637 tax payers.

COALS TO NEWCASTLE

Recorded coal mines supplying coal to Newcastle existed at Elswick, Winlaton, Heworth and the Town Moor. By 1378 Newcastle shipped 15,000 tons of coal per year and exported coal to many parts of Europe as well as importing iron ore from Sweden. In 1452 t rades included the keelmen who ferried the coal to collier ships in the centre of the Tyne. The phrase "coals to Newcastle", meaning an unnecessary pursuit, was first recorded in 1538.

CREEKS AND PORTS OF NEWCASTLE

Newcastle was the most important Medieval port in the region as demonstrated by the establishment of the Society of Masters and Mariners of Newcastle at Trinity House in 1492. The Society's jurisdiction covered every single port and creek from Whitby to Holy Island. Shipping and shipbuilding were important at Newcastle and the town was building ships from at least 1296 when a galley was completed for King Edward's fleet.

GATESHEAD DISPUTES

Gateshead belonged to the Bishops of Durham but was often claimed by the Newcastle merchants as their own. In 1334 King Edward banned Newcastle's mayor and bailiffs from mooring ships here and in 1344 the Bishop of Durham prosecuted Newcastle merchants f or wrecking his quays at Gateshead and Whickham. Disputes over the Tyne Bridge were another problem. In 1415 the Bishop obtained a suit from the King's Court recovering his third of the bridge taken from him by the Newcastle mayor. The problem was that t he Bishops did not always maintain their side of the bridge and this was damaging Newcastle's trade. Newcastle would not succeed in annexing Gateshead until the 16th Century.

NORTH AND SOUTH SHIELDS - MONKS VERSUS MERCHANTS

Germanus of Tynemouth Priory created North Shields port in 1225. It traded peacefully until 1267 when Newcastle merchants attacked the inhabitants and seized a ship. Newcastle saw the port as a threat and in 1292 gained support from Edward I, who ordered the dismantling of the North Shields jetties. The king objected because part of Newcastle's revenue belonged to him while the North Shields revenue belonged entirely to the Priors. In 1303 Edward III banned markets, fairs and the unloading and loading o f ships by the Tynemouth Priors. In 1258 the Newcastle merchants persuaded the Priors of Durham not to develop port facilities at South Shields and in 1303 Edward III banned loading and unloading of ships here by the Durham Priors.

NORTH SHIELDS FISHING AND COAL

North Shields fishing port facilities were banned in 1303 and re-established in 1390 but trading in coal and other commodities remained illegal. By 1429 there were 14 fish quays and 200 houses at North Shields where fishermen ventured as far as Iceland i n boats and cobles. Coal trading was restored to North Shields in 1446 and Tynemouth Priory could ship coal without reference to Newcastle, but it was banned in 1530 and once again restricted to Newcastle.

SUNDERLAND COAL

Sunderland, more usually known in Medieval times as Wearmouth, received a charter from Bishop Pudsey in 1179 giving its merchants the same rights as Newcastle's, but Sunderland never really developed as a Medieval port. This was due to the difficulties of developing a port in the Wear gorge and the fact t hat the Wearside coal was deep and inaccessible. Nevertheless Sunderland was shipping cargoes of coal to Whitby Abbey in 1396 and ships were built here from 1346 by Thomas Menvill of Hendon.

IRON AND COAL

Associated with coal mining was iron mining, an important Medieval trade recorded at Muggleswick in Durham in 1298. Most iron was made by heating iron ore in simple blast furnaces called bloomeries using charcoal made from the wood of the extensive Medie val forests. Coal was not normally used because its sulphur content caused the iron to be brittle. In 1306 a petition was handed to Parliament against the Bishop of Durham for his destruction of Weardale forests for charcoal for iron bloomeries.

SALT AND COAL

In 1290 Robert de Brus, granted permission to John Rumundebi to make salt at Hart near Hartlepool and in the following century large quantities of salt were traded at nearby Cowpen and Greatham. South Shields became the most important salt making centre in the region from around 1448. Salt making involved heating huge quantities of sea-water brine in large salt pans using coal.

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