Coal Mining and Railways in the North East

Mining, industry and railways in the North East

An introduction to coal mining, railway development and industrial history in North East England from early times to the nineteenth century and a little beyond.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a museum © David Simpson

Medieval Mining

The collieries that once dominated many parts of North East England have now gone and the pit heaps have been reclaimed and naturalised into the landscape but there is no doubting the important influence that coal mining has had upon shaping the modern character of North East England (see also North East geology).

It seems probable that the North East is the oldest intensive coal mining district in the country and evidence suggests that the Romans burned and excavated coal in the region. But it was not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that it became more widespread with demand spurred on by expanding towns and an increasing population.

Sea wall, Old Hartlepool
Sea wall, Old Hartlepool © David Simpson

Among those to profit from the increased demand were the Bishops of Durham but it was the merchants of Newcastle who stood to gain the most. This was primarily because Newcastle was a seaport, but also because the shallowest, most accessible coal seams lay so close to the Tyne.

There were other ports in the region, away from the Tyne, notably at Hartlepool and Stockton, but they lay outside the coalfield. The one main exception was Sunderland, but the neighbouring coal seams lay very deep underground.

Coal is mentioned in the records of County Durham as early as the twelfth century when the Boldon Book (1183) mentions a coal miner at Escomb. It states that the coal miner provided coal for the iron-work of the ploughs at nearby Coundon. The book also records that the smiths of Sedgefield and Bishopwearmouth were making use of local coal.

View from Cockfield Fell.
Cockfield Fell in County Durham has numerous traces of medieval mining © David Simpson

As early as the mid 1300s, mines were recorded at Cockfield, Coundon, HettLanchester and Ferryhill, along with others further east at Lumley and Rainton. The Lumley mine was owned by the monks of Finchale Priory near Durham and consisted of a drift mine, with recesses for candles to light the mine. However the most important and busiest early coal mines of the region were along the banks of the Tyne where seams were shallow and easily mined.

Hett Village near Spennymoor
Hett Village near Spennymoor © David Simpson

Sea Coal

Strangely, all coal was often referred to in the medieval period as ‘sea coal, even if found miles inland. For example, in 1298 there is a record of ‘sea coal’ mined at Hett, near Spennymoor, even though Hett is more than 10 miles from the coast.

The term ‘sea-coals may have been used because coal arrived at other ports such as London by sea – more often than not as a shipment from Newcastle. Another more likely explanation is that sea-coal was originally found in a washed-up form on the beaches of the North East and other parts of the country.

Along the Durham coast, coal lay deep underground but in Northumberland, where the coal measures outcropped along the coast, coastal erosion would have caused much coal to be washed ashore naturally.

The ‘sea-coal’ now washed ashore today and occasionally collected on the Durham and south Northumberland coast may be a waste remnant from coastal colliery activity in more recent times. In the earliest times coal washed ashore was the most familiar kind, so when it was later found inland it was still given the name ‘sea coal’.

However, the Victoria County History of Durham (1907) suggests that by as early as 1313, the original meaning of ‘sea-coal’ was forgotten and that it had come to mean ‘sea-borne coal’.

In later times there was an important distinction to be made from the low profit ‘land-sale’ coal mines, where coal was only transported over land for short distances and the more profitable and usually larger sea-sale mines. Coal from land-sale mines might be impractical to ship by sea due to distance from the navigable rivers and sea ports but it might also be of a lower quality and economic value compared to the ‘sea-coal’ from the lucrative sea-sale mines. Some land-sale mines might have been owned by monks and monasteries in medieval times or later by local farmers, providing an additional income to the usual agricultural produce.

Greatham © David Simpson

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. Later, South Shields became the most important salt making centre in the region from around 1448 but Sunderland and the Blyth area were also of importance. Salt making involved heating huge quantities of sea-water brine in large salt pans using coal.

Muggleswick scenery
Muggleswick scenery © David Simpson

Iron and coal

Associated with coal mining was iron mining, an important medieval industryrecorded 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 medieval 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 to acquire charcoal for his iron bloomeries.

Quayside Warehouse Newcastle
Former warehouses dating to the 1500s, Newcastle © David Simpson 2015

Newcastle Coal

In the late thirteenth century Newcastle was regarded as the leading English port for exporting leather. It benefited from a plentiful supply of local local livestock in the Northumberland countryside, which of course provided the leather hides.

Unfortunately it was around this time that the border wars began to ravage this very countryside and damaged the town’s trade but for Newcastle, coal was closer at hand. The exposed coal outcrops along the banks of the River Tyne, were of particular importance as the river provided a means of transportation.

Whickham lies half way between the valleys of the Derwent and Team © David Simpson

The Tyne quickly developed into the major river for exporting coal to London. By the thirteenth century coal mining was well-established along the Tyne, most notably at Whickham and at nearby Winlaton, where the mine was owned by Lord De Nevill, a Baron of the bishopric.

In 1291, 80 quarters of coal were sent to Corfe Castle in Dorset from Newcastle and coal was being shipped to London from here at least as early as 1305. The Crown was one major customer of Newcastle coal and there is a record of the purchase of 576 chaldrons of coal from the Winlaton mine by King Henry III, in the thirteenth century, for his castle at Windsor.

Although Newcastle’s defensive walls were falling into decay, they were enough to protect the town’s coal trade from Scottish raids. By 1334 Newcastle was the fourth wealthiest town in England after London, Bristol and York and the eleventh largest in 1372 with 2,637 tax payers.

Recorded coal mines supplying coal to Newcastle in medieval times existed at Elswick, WinlatonHeworth 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.

Tyneside coal and the monastic ports

Durham’s Prince Bishops had owned rights to the mining of both coal and lead within their realm, but from 1303 the bishop granted lesser landowners the right to mine. The monks of Durham Cathedral priory exploited coal from at least the fourteenth century and in the 1350s they owned or leased mines at Lumley, Rainton and Ferryhill.

It is the Durham monks who are recorded as the first in the region to mine coal beneath the level of free drainage. This took place at Moorhouse near Rainton, to the north east of Durham City, where the monks, based at Finchale, provided a water pump for the mine.

Finchale Priory © David Simpson

North of the Tyne, there was also heavy monastic involvement in the exploitation of coal where North Shields was established as a port by Prior Germanus of Tynemouth Priory in 1225. North Shields was allowed to trade peacefully as a port until 1267 when Newcastle merchants attacked the inhabitants and seized a ship.

Newcastle saw this rival port as a threat and by 1292 had enlisted the support of King Edward I. The king ordered the dismantling of the North Shields jetties. His support can be easily explained, since part of Newcastle’s rich revenue belonged to him, whilst the North Shields revenue belonged entirely to the Priors.

View of Tynemouth Priory and Castle from Cullercoats.
View of Tynemouth Priory and Castle from Cullercoats © David Simpson

In 1303 the king banned markets, fairs and the unloading and loading of ships by the Tynemouth monks. The king also banned similar activity at South Shields by the Durham monks, although in the previous century Newcastle’s merchants had successfully discouraged Durham from establishing major port facilities there. Port facilities were reintroduced at North Shields in 1390 with Royal permission, but trading in coal and other commodities remained illegal.

By 1429 there were 14 fish quays and 200 houses at North Shields. The fishermen of the port ventured as far as Iceland in boats and cobles. Coal trading was not restored to North Shields until 1446 when Tynemouth Priory was given permission to ship coal without reference to Newcastle. But the ban was reintroduced once again in 1530 and once more restricted coal export to Newcastle.

Newcastle dominates : ‘Coals to Newcastle’

In 1452 trades included the Keelmen who ferried the coal to collier ships in the centre of the Tyne. The phrase ‘Coals to Newcastle’ describing a pointless pursuit or undertaking for which there was no demand was first recorded in 1538. Newcastle was the most important port in the region and this was demonstrated by the establishment of the Society of Masters and Mariners of Newcastle at Trinity House in 1492.

Trinity House Newcastle
Trinity House, Broad Chare © David Simpson 2015

The jurisdiction of this society covered every single port and creek from Whitby to Holy Island. Shipping and shipbuilding were also important at Newcastle and the town was building ships from at least 1296, the year in which a galley was completed for King Edward’s fleet.

Such was this town’s early importance, that it would even begin to rival London in its wealth, as Timothy Eden’s History of Durham notes:

“the burgesses of Newcastle waxed fat and proud, believing themselves to be citizens not only of the richest town in the North but soon of the richest in England. They laughed and snapped their fingers at London herself. ‘Our staiths their mortgaged streets will soon divide’ “

By 1547 Newcastle’s population was around 10,000 and a group of powerful merchants called the ‘Hostmen’ had taken control of the mines and coal export. By 1615, 200 ships carried coal to London and another 200 supplied coal to other parts of the country. Newcastle had a virtual monopoly on exporting coal with considerable control over rival ports like Sunderland.

Sunderland Harbour
Sunderland harbour about 1823

Sunderland Coal

Newcastle lost its control over rival North Eastern ports after the Civil War of the 1640s. During this period, Newcastle took a firm Royalist stance and banned the export of coal to London whilst at Sunderland, where there was some significant Parliamentarian support, coal continued to be exported.

With Parliament’s victory, Sunderland’s future was assured, as was the future of rival Tyneside ports. However, it is likely that such a monopoly would have been crushed by the Parliamentarians regardless of Sunderland’s stance.

Sunderland was described in 1559 as a little-used port. It was a late developer in exporting coal but was soon second to Newcastle. By 1609 Sunderland exported 14,700 tons of coal a year and the Newcastle merchants had felt threatened enough to petition the king and order a levy. By the mid 1600s, Sunderland was certainly a major rival to Newcastle.

The Sunderland coal was mined upstream from the town in areas of Wearside such as Fatfield, Chartershaugh and Harraton in the area between Chester-le-Street and Hylton where coal seams were relatively accessible. In the immediate area of Sunderland itself, coal lay much deeper beneath the magnesian limestone escarpment and was yet to be discovered there, let alone exploited.

North of the Tyne, Seaton Sluice was developed as a port by the Delaval family from 1628 and nearby Blyth was a port of the 1600s which developed further in 1722.

Seaton Sluice © David Simpson

Salt, glass, iron and steel

Salt was made at Sunderland from at least 1511 and a mine opened at nearby Offerton in 1589 to supply coal for heating brine. South Shields was the region’s most important salt town, where the industry caused terrible pollution. North and South Shields had around 200 salt pans in 1767 consuming 1,000 tons of coal a year, creating horrendous fumes.

In 1798 John Losh leased a supply of brine from Walker colliery which led to the development of the Tyneside chemical industry – Losh Brothers would eventually manufacture half the soda in England.

Robert Mansel opened a Tyneside glassworks at Byker (1619) and at Ouseburn (1623). The Sunderland Company of Glassmakers set up at Southwick in 1698 and a glassworks was established by Thomas Delaval near Seaton Sluice in 1763.

Derwentcote Steel Furnace
Derwentcote steel furnace near Hamsterley Mill dates from the 1720s © David Simpson

Iron and steel making was another important industry associated with coal. Mr Ambrose Crowley opened a nail-making works at Sunderland in 1682, moving to Winlaton in 1691 and William Hawks established an ironworks on the Gateshead riverside in 1647 for ship anchors and chains.

A simple ironworks existed near Stockton High Street from 1765 and the region’s first blast furnace was at Lemington on Tyne in 1797. A more unusual metal industry came to Shotley Bridge in 1687 when Lutheran sword makers from Solingen in Germany sought refuge from persecution.

Old Hartlepool
Old Hartlepool © David Simpson

Tyne and Wear coal and railways

Coal mining activity had continued to increase in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with mining concentrated around Tyneside and the Washington area of Wearside. Around 7,000 pitmen worked in the region in 1787, growing to 10,000 by 1810.

Coal mines were opening in the Wearside area at Newbottle (1774), Lumley (1776), Washington F Pit (1777), and Penshaw (1791).

Newcastle Keelmen
Newcastle Keelmen

Keelmen, several of whom seem to have had Scottish origins ferried coal on keel boats to collier ships on the Tyne. They formed a distinct community in the Sandgate area of Newcastle and demonstrated against poor wages in the 1650s and 1670s. In the late eighteenth century, coal staithes enabled coal to be loaded directly from rail wagons onto ships. This threatened the keelmens’ livelihood and the Newcastle and Sunderland keelmen often resorted to vandalising the staithes. Ultimately, though, the staithes brought an end to their trade.

Nineteenth century view of Hetton Colliery by Thomas Hair

Coal mining would spread to the Hetton area of east Durham after 1800, where the distinct geology of this magnesian limestone district meant that the coal was much deeper.

Due to the complexities of mining at these depths, the east Durham mines were perhaps less numerous and less clustered together than those to the west but there were extensive networks of mines underground that would ultimately stretch far out under the sea and they were large and profitable mines that employed many people. A prime example was the ‘Pemberton Main’,  Monkwearmouth Colliery in Sunderland.

Although mining in south western Durham had a long history dating to medieval times at places like Escomb, Cockfield and Coundon near Bishop Auckland it was not a major industrial enterprise here  until after 1825. This was partly because south west Durham was further away from the ports of Tyne and Wear where the coal trade was facilitated by an ever increasing and lengthening network of colliery wagonways that had expanded outward from the earliest sea-sale mines on the banks of the Tyne .

The new railways were largely funded by a cartel of wealthy coal-owning families called the ‘Grand Allies’ who included the Brandlings of Gosforth, Liddells of Ravensworth and the Bowes family.

Another prominent coal owner of the later eighteenth century was William Russell, a Sunderland banker who bought Brancepeth Castle in 1796. Russell had made his fortune through his investment in Wallsend Colliery and his son Matthew, became the nation’s wealthiest commoner.

Excavated remains of Wallsend Colliery
Excavated remains of Wallsend Colliery’s B Pit near Segedunum Roman fort © David Simpson

The seventeenth century Colliery railways came to be called ‘Newcastle Roads’ and enabled the coal mines to be opened slightly further away from the rivers Tyne and Wear, but they were still largely concentrated in North Durham. The railroads were suited to the hilly terrain of Tyne and Wear countryside, where the building of canals would have been impossible.

Chaldron wagon at Causey arch.
Chaldron wagon at Causey arch © David Simpson

The ‘Newcastle Roads’ were built first of wood and later of iron. They were the first railways in the world and operated by horse-drawn wagons called Chaldrons that were filled with coal. Some examples of Chaldron wagons can be seen at Beamish Museum in County Durham.

The first recorded railway ‘The Whickham Grand Lease Way’ of 1620 ran from Whickham to Dunston on Tyne via Lobley Hill, but other railways almost certainly existed in the area before this time. A railway existed near Blyth from at least 1693 whilst another early railway is known to have supplied coal staithes on the Wear near Washington in this era.

Causey Arch
Causey Arch © David Simpson

From a slightly later period, the Tanfield railway in north west Durham dates from 1725 and now claims to be the oldest existing railway in the world. It was originally eight miles long and terminated at Dunston on the Tyne. Only a short stretch remains, as a museum with a small collection of carriages, wagons and in-steam colliery locomotives. Nearby, we also find the historic stone bridge known as Causey Arch which crosses the Causey Burn Dene. Historically part of the Tanfield Railway it dates from 1727 and is the world’s oldest surviving railway bridge.

Map showing some of the early colliery wagonways in North East England
Map showing some of the early colliery wagonways in North East England © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2022

Coal roads to steam railways

With the birth of the Newcastle Roads, the North East of England can easily claim to be the cradle of railways, but coal mining in the region also drove on the development of steam locomotives and the great railway age of steam. The greatest railway pioneers William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth, Edward Pease and George and Robert Stephenson, were all from the North East and all actively involved with the railway developments of the region’s coal mining industry.

Locomotion Number One
Locomotion Number One replica at Shildon’s railway museum © David Simpson

The earliest steam engines used in the coalfield of North East England were of course not locomotives but were colliery winding engines, used in the process of bringing coal from the seams to the surface. Later, it was realised that such engines could be used to haul coal along the railway lines themselves. The first steam engines to be used on the railways, were still nevertheless stationary ones, situated upon inclines where they could haul coal wagons across hillsides, using strong wire ropes. A visitor to the region at the time described the work of the wire cables;

“Here and there you saw careering over the plain, long trains of coal wagons, without horses or attendants or any apparent cause of motion but their own mad agency. They seemed, indeed, rather driven or dragged by unseen demons.”

The first steam powered incline in the region was at Washington Moor near Birtley to the north of Chester-le-Street. Today the Birtley area is the site of the Bowes Railway, the only surviving standard gauge rope-hauled railway in the world.

Plaque commemorating the famous locomotive works Newcastle
Plaque commemorating the Stephenson locomotive works near Forth Street, Newcastle © David Simpson

Locomotives or ‘steam engines on wheels’, were of course the natural progression from the stationary engines in the colliery areas. In 1822 Hetton colliery was one of the first to use locomotives. At that time the Hetton Colliery railway, was the largest in the world and was partly operated using stationary engines and partly by locomotives.

Hetton colliery railway and its locomotives were the creation of George Stephenson (1781-1848) and one of his locomotives that worked at the colliery, is now preserved at Beamish Museum. Stephenson’s locomotives and railway at Hetton Colliery served as models for the ‘Stockton and Darlington’, the world’s first public railway, which is yet another feature of County Durham’s rich railway heritage. It is interesting to note that the gauge Stephenson chose for his railways (4’8 1/2”) is now the standard gauge for railways throughout the world.

The River Wear at Sunderland
The River Wear at Sunderland © David Simpson

The River Tees and growth of rival coal ports

Newcastle dominated the region’s coal exporting trade for centuries and other ports on the Wear, Tees and elsewhere on the Tyne only started to compete in a big way from the seventeenth century.

The ports of the Tees and Whitby area  for example, lay outside the coalfield, but were able to benefit from the coal trade. Whitby was the home to much shipping and a certain James Cook (later Captain Cook) worked on Whitby colliers shipping coal from the Tyne and Wear to London in 1746. Stockton shipped coal from at least 1622 and by 1795 had easily eclipsed Hartlepool and Yarm as a port.

The flat terrain of the Tees vale prompted suggestions that a coal canal might benefit the trade so possible courses for canals were surveyed by Robert Whitworth in 1767 and Ralph Todd in 1796.

The town hall and bank, Stockton
The town hall in Stockton dates from 1712 © David Simpson

Neither canal was built and by 1810 the idea of building a railway was suggested instead. It was this that led to the Stockton and Darlington Railway of 1825. One important aspect of the Stockton and Darlington Railway was that it resulted in the opening of Middlesbrough Dock on May 12 1842 specifically for the shipment of coal and had actually brought about the birth of the town of Middlesbrough in 1830. However, in the long term iron became the lifeblood of this particular town.

Plan of Tyne Dock
Plan of Tyne Dock

Railways helped in the development of ports throughout the region. With the ever-growing network of colliery railroads, coal could be brought from all parts of the region’s coalfield to expanding ports on the Tyne, Wear, Tees and the Northumberland and Durham coast.

Dunston Staithes
Dunston Staithes and Tyne river basin  © 2015 David Simpson

New docks opened at Sunderland from 1837 to 1868 and in the 1850s docks like the NER Tyne Dock at Jarrow (1859) were opening on the Tyne. Also linked with the railway network were the massive coal staithes at Dunston on Tyne, built by the NER from 1890 to 1893 and still in existence today. On the Durham coast, Seaham Harbour was developed as a coal port from 1831

Hartlepool coal

In the early 1830s Hartlepool was transformed from a fishing community with a silted harbour to a major coal port. Coal was supplied by Christopher Tenant’s new Stockton and Hartlepool Railway. The railway was taken over by Stockton solicitor Ralph Ward Jackson in 1839 and his Victoria Dock of 1841 was soon shipping more coal than any northern port.

In the 1840s Hartlepool railways carried more coal than any other in the North East with 27 per cent of all coal shipped from the region passing along its tracks. Ralph Ward Jackson was frustrated by restrictions on business at Hartlepool’s Victoria Dock and obtained an act in 1844 for the formation of Hartlepool West Harbour Dock Company.

This dock was the first stage in the growth of West Hartlepool. By 1862 the two Hartlepools shipped merchandise to the value of more than three times as much as that of all North-East ports put together, beating Newcastle, North and South Shields, Sunderland, Stockton and Middlesbrough. Hartlepool was the fourth busiest port in the country behind Liverpool, London and Hull and overtook Hull for a time in the 1890s. By 1881, Old Hartlepool’s population was 12,361 and newly born West Hartlepool had a population of 28,000

Trade Unionism

During the period 1800-1900 coal mining rapidly expanded in the region and over 200 pits were sunk in County Durham alone. The coal ports of Tyne, Wear and Tees were developing into major urban regions and there were many new industries demanding coal. Mines got deeper and deeper and safety increasingly became an issue with many miners losing their lives in horrific colliery disasters. Businessmen made their fortune from the region’s mines and were often unscrupulous or uncompromising over pay and conditions.

Coal owners usually owned the miners’ homes and often evicted those who protested. The notorious ‘candymen’, or down and outs from dockside areas often helped with eviction. Many coal owners like the unpopular Marquess of Londonderry were aristocrats. Boys were of course employed in the mines and the Marquess was once said A boy of twelve should be learning his trade not wasting his time reading and writing.

Thomas Hepburn
Thomas Hepburn

With an ever-increasing workforce Coal miners were able to form into unions in order to fight for better pay and conditions. In 1830 the region’s Coal Miners established a union under the guidance of Thomas Hepburn (whose grave may be seen at Heworth church near Gateshead) and the following year they negotiated a 10 per cent increase in wages and a reduction in working hours for boys.

A mass meeting of Northumberland and Durham miners was held on Newcastle Town Moor that year and the following year the miners went on strike. It was a clear demonstration that coal owners would not have so much power to do as they pleased.

In the 1840s the miners organised themselves on a national basis in the Miners Association of Great Britain and Ireland, but its headquarters were based at Newcastle from 1843. In 1848 successive depression in the coal industry weakened the union but it recovered in the later part of the century.

The Durham Miners’ Union was formed on November 20, 1869 after a meeting of mine leaders at the Market Hotel in Durham’s Market Place. Their first annual Gala was held in Durham City’s Wharton Park on August 12 1871 but moved to the city’s racecourse in 1873. Enormous crowds attended these galas and on July 3 1875 the LNER Railway Company withdrew all trains from Bishop Auckland, Lanchester and Newcastle to Durham. It claimed its railways could not cope with the huge quantity of passengers travelling to the gala, but the real reason may have been political.

Miners’ safety lamps showing the inventions of Humphy Davy and George Stephenson

Mining disasters and safety

Medieval mines were usually drift mines or shallow bell pits. The bell pits were dug down from the surface and then out 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 ‘colliers’ burrowed too far outwards. This may be what caused deaths in coal mines at Whickham and Thrislington in 1329, although even in the earliest times, the danger of gas explosion or flooding was high.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery

From 1580 the deeper mines around Tyneside used horse driven engines or ‘gin-gans’ to pump out water. Standing ‘Fire Engines’ of the type developed by Newcommen in 1712 appeared in the region around 1715 at Byker, Washington Fell and Oxclose Collieries. Scotsman James Watt made improvements to this kind of engine in 1769.

Engines could also be used for the purposes of raising coal and in 1753 Michael Menzies of Chartershaugh Colliery near Washington invented one such machine, called a ‘Menzie’ . As mines got deeper, safety became a problem and in 1662 a petition was handed to parliament by 2,000 pitmen regarding mine ventilation, since colliery gas was claiming many victims.

Records for the seventeenth century are scant but in the eighteenth century mine deaths included 69 at Fatfield near Washington in 1708, 80 at Bensham near Gateshead in 1710, 39 at Fatfield in 1767, 24 at Chartershaugh (1778) and 30 at Harraton in (1794) . Pit ponies used underground from 1750 were often victims. Roof safety was also a problem and pillars supporting roofs were first recorded in the region at Chartershaugh Colliery in 1738.

Felling Memorial Heworth
Plaque and one side of 1812 Felling memorial at Heworth churchyard © David Simpson

There were around 30 major colliery disasters in Durham and Northumberland in the period 1800-1899 claiming the lives of more than 1,500 men and boys. Gas explosions were the major danger, although some incidents were caused by collapsing mines. The six worst disasters of the period in terms of numbers killed were;- 204 killed at Hartley near Blyth in 1862, 164 at Seaham in 1880 (plus 181 pit ponies), 102 at Wallsend in 1835, 95 at Haswell in 1844, 92 at Felling in 1812, 76 at Burradon in 1860 and 74 at Trimdon Grange in 1882.

Colliery disasters highlighted the need for improvements in safety and as mines got deeper safety became more of an issue. The major danger was from gas explosions caused by naked flames on miner’s lamps. In 1815 Humphry Davy and George Stephenson developed the Miners’ Safety lamp. This reduced the danger of explosion and enabled coal owners to explore ever-deeper mines.

Hester Pit memorial Earsdon
Memorial to Hartey Colliery disaster Earsdon churchyard near Whitley Bay © David Simpson

The cage, for the movement of miners underground was introduced to collieries for safety reasons in 1834 and in 1862 an act of Parliament made it compulsory for every colliery to have two shafts for the purposes of safety. For further safety John Dalglish, General Manager of Earl Vane’s Durham collieries in 1867 organised a system of voluntary inspection of pits by his workmen. This system was made compulsory by an Act of parliament in 1887.

Coal mining disasters in North East England
Coal mining disasters in North East England © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2022

Major North East colliery disasters 1708-1951

  • 1708 – 69 deaths at Fatfield
  • 1710 – 70 deaths at Bensham
  • 1727 – 60 deaths at Lumley Park
  • 1767 – 39 deaths at Fatfield
  • 1778 – 24 deaths at Chartershaugh
  • 1794 – 30 deaths at Harraton
  • 1799 – 39 deaths at Lumley
  • 1805 – 35 deaths at Hebburn
  • 1805 – 38 deaths at Oxclose
  • 1812 – 92 deaths at Felling (May 25)
  • 1812- 24 deaths at Oxclose
  • 1813 – 32 deaths at Fatfield
  • 1815 – 57 deaths at Newbottle
  • 1815 – 38 deaths at Harraton
  • 1815 – 70 deaths at Heaton
  • 1817 – 27 deaths at West Rainton
  • 1819 – 35 deaths at Sheriff Hill
  • 1821 – 52 deaths at Wallsend
  • 1823 – 59 deaths at Rainton (November 3)
  • 1826 – 34 deaths at Jarrow
  • 1833 – 47 deaths at Springfield
  • 1835 – 102 deaths at Wallsend (June 18th )
  • 1841 – 32 deaths at Willington
  • 1844 – 95 deaths at Haswell (September 28th)
  • 1845 – 39 deaths at Jarrow
  • 1849 – 31 deaths at Hebburn
  • 1855 – 28 deaths at Elemore (December 2)
  • 1860 – 76 deaths at Burradon
  • 1862 – 204 deaths at Hartley
  • 1866 – 24 deaths at Pelton
  • 1880 – 164 deaths at Seaham (Sept 8)
  • 1882 – 74 deaths at Trimdon Grange (Feb 16)
  • 1882 – 35 deaths at Tudhoe (April 18)
  • 1886 – 28 deaths at Elemore (December 1)
  • 1896 – 20 deaths at Brancepeth (April 13)
  • 1899 – 6 deaths at Brandon (August 15)
  • 1906 – 24 deaths at Wingate (Oct 14)
  • 1908 – 14 deaths at Washington Glebe (Feb 20)
  • 1909 – 168 deaths at West Stanley (February 16)
  • 1942 – 13 deaths at Murton (June 26)
  • 1947 – 21 deaths at Louisa Colliery (August 22)
  • 1951 – 81 deaths at Easington (May 29)

Collier’s Rant

Records of mine disasters go back to Medieval times with reference to gas explosions in the North East mines as early as 1621. In earliest times, the miners associated danger in the pit with a great deal of suspicion often attributing it to the work of the devil (known as ‘Auld Nick’). Hew was believed to lurk at the bottom of every pit. An old North Eastern miner’s song ‘The Collier’s Rant ‘ with origins lost in time, confirms the superstition;

As me an’ me marra were gannin’ te’ wark,
We met wi’ the De’il it was i’ the dark,
Aw up wi’ me pick it being i’ the neet,
Aw chopped off his horns, likewise his club-feet.

Foller the horses, Johnny me laddie,
Foller them through me canny lad, oh !
Foller the horses, Johnny me laddie,
Oh lad lye away me canny lad oh !

As me an’ me marra were puttin’ the tram,
The light it went oot, an’ me marra went wrang,
Ye wad ha’e laughed had ye seen the gam,
T he Dei’l tyeuk me marra an’ aw gat the tram.

Foller the horses, Johnny me laddie,
Foller them through me canny lad, oh !
Foller the horses, Johnny me laddie,

Oh lad lye away me canny lad oh !

Deep coastal pits

East Durham Coal lay deep below the Magnesian Limestone escarpment which dominates the east of the county. Coal was first proved to exist here by the sinking of a pit at Haswell in 1811 but the first great deep pit in the region was sunk at Hetton in 1821. Sunk to a depth of over 1000ft, it became one of the most productive pits in the region as well as a focus for some of Stephenson’s important locomotive developments.

Monkwearmouth Colliery followed shortly afterwards and was shipping coal from 1835 with a seam 1,590 feet below the surface. Harton near South Shields became the deepest Tyne pit in 1841 (1,290 feet). Monkwearmouth, 1700 ft in 1846 was the deepest coal mine in the country. It would be these deeper coastal pits that would be the last to survive the colliery closures of the late twentieth century.

Gateway at Easington Colliery
Gateway near the colliery site at Easington Colliery © David Simpson

Rise and fall of coal mining 1800 to 1990

Coal mining continued to grow throughout the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. The nineteenth century development of coal mining in Durham, brought about a tremendous increase in the population of the North East, as many previously rural villages, grew into small colliery towns almost overnight.

This was particularly the case in County Durham, where villages seemed to spring up from virtually nowhere at all. In 1787 there were around 7000 colliers employed in the coal mines of North East England and by 1810 this number had only increased to 10,000. Just over a hundred years later, in 1919, there were 223,000 coal miners working in the region and 154,000 of these were in the county of Durham. It reached a peak in County Durham in 1923 when 170,000 miners were employed in the industry.

One obvious question is where did all this labour come from? They of course came from all parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, though in the main they originated from the local region, from existing areas of the Northumberland and Durham coalfield, but also from the dales and rural areas of Northumberland and Durham. Many of course originated from the larger towns of the region and even non-mining towns like Darlington would have made a major contribution to the increasing coal workforce. Coal mining employment in County Durham would eventually reach a a peak in 1923, when 170,000 miners were employed.

The two world wars helped to boost the need for coal in industry, but in the later half of the twentieth century colliery closures began to increase. One major event in the history of the mines was the nationalisation of the industry in 1947, when the coal mines, previously under the management of private concerns were brought under the control of the government. By the time of Nationalization, the number of miners in County Durham, had fallen to 108,000 and there were 127 collieries.

Woodhorn Museum
Woodhorn Colliery Museum near Ashington © David Simpson

Nationalization was not enough to save many pits from closure as many mines were worked of their coal or sometimes controversially declared ‘uneconomic’.

North East colliery locations in 1947.
North East colliery locations in 1947. Not including outlying collieries in North Tynedale, South Tynedale and north Northumberland © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2021

In the two decades from 1950-1970 around a hundred North East coal mines were closed often with shattering consequences for small mining communities which relied on coal mining for work.

North East colliery closures in the 1960s
North East colliery closures in the 1970s © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2021

The closures continued throughout the eighties and nineties, despite vehement protests from the miners and their unions and the tumultuous miners’ strike of 1984 which attempted to resist the closure of some of the largest remaining mines in the region and the associated destruction of the mining communities.

North East colliery closures in the 1970s
North East colliery closures in the 1970s © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2021
North East colliery closures in the 1980s
North East colliery closures in the 1980s © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2021

In 1994 the closure of the Wearmouth Colliery in Sunderland saw the end of the last remaining colliery in the Durham coalfield. It site is today marked by Sunderland football club’s Stadium of Light. 

North East colliery closures in the 1990s
North East colliery closures in the 1990s © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2021

The last remaining colliery in the region was Ellington in Northumberland which finally closed in 2005 bringing an end to deep mining in the region and drawing a close on centuries of history, although open cast mining is still carried out.

Site of Lynemouth Colliery.
Site of Lynemouth Colliery which closed in 1994 © David Simpson

Despite the fact that there are no collieries in the region today, many towns and villages still betray their nineteenth century mining origins. One feature associated with the colliery areas that has now disappeared – that many will be glad to see the back of – are the pit waste heaps that once scarred the often attractive rural countryside of the region.

These have now been removed or landscaped out of recognition, the exception is of course the recreated pit heap, in the colliery area of Beamish Museum, near Stanley in County Durham

Of course the collieries may have gone, but the former mining areas still retain their own individuality and identity and there is still often a strong community spirit associated with colliery districts although perhaps not to the same extent as in the days of mining. Even the place-names of towns and villages in these areas seem to have an individuality all of their own. Thus we have Tantobie, Quaking Houses, Perkinsville, Stony Heap, Toronto, Philadelphia, Quebec, Deaf Hill, Pity Me and No Place. Back to top of page

For a list of colliery closures see the sections on the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s in the twentieth century section of this website.

North East collieries map
North East collieries map A2 POSTER PRINT by Tangled Worm

Lead Mining

Killhope Wheel lead mining museum, Weardale © David Simpson

Most important lead field in the world

The North East region was almost as famous for the mining of lead as it was for its coal. Although the Romans had mined lead in the upland dales, it wasn’t until 1750 that it became vital to the local economy.

For the next century the North Pennine field, comprising TeesdaleWeardaleSouth Tynedale and the Derwent valley, was the most important lead producing area in the country. Lead mining was also carried out in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale in neighbouring North Yorkshire.

The Blacketts, a Tyneside coal-owning family, leased land in Weardale from the Bishop of Durham in the late 1680s and developed mines like Burtree Pasture in Weardale, Coalcleugh in the West Allen, and the Allenheads Mine. Later, the company owned smelting mills at places like Dirt Pot and Rookhope.

The London Lead Company extensively mined in the Derwent Valley, Weardale and Teesdale in the eighteenth century and built houses, schools and libraries for its workers. It was the first company to introduce the five day week. From 1880 Middleton in Teesdale was its northern headquarters. The company folded in 1905.

Growing towns and the industrial revolution had stimulated the demand for lead for use in roofing, piping, casting, building materials, lead shot, paint-bases and glazing. Lead works began to open on Tyneside with Newcastle the main point of export from the Durham dales, though Stockton was often used for Swaledale lead.

Memorial fountain of the London Lead Company, Middleton-in-Teesdale
Memorial fountain of the London Lead Company, Middleton-in-Teesdale © David Simpson

The earliest methods of extracting lead were simple bell pits or by Hushing, an open cast technique, which involved damming streams and then releasing the water to remove vast quantities of peat and soil from suspected layers of lead. By the late eighteenth century the preferred method was to dig stone-lined shafts called Levels into the hillsides along a vein. The lead was hauled from the mines along wooden rails (later iron) by horses. The lead ore was stripped of its waste products outside the mines, often by boys, and then washed and crushed before transportation to a smelting mill where the lead would be produced in the form of ingots along with any silver.

In the mid nineteenth century Rookhope Chimney was a smelting mill with a two mile long horizontal tunnel which eventually led to a vertical chimney. The chimney directed fumes away from the workers and also allowed the formation of lead and silver deposits which were scraped off and collected by lead workers. Today the chimney is one of the most noted landmarks in Weardale.

Remains of Rookhope Chimney, Weardale
Remains of Rookhope Chimney, Weardale © David Simpson

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century hydraulic machinery was extensively used in mines. Weardale’s Killhope Mine (opened 1860) saw the introduction of a 30ft diameter wheel in 1878 by Blackett’s. It hauled tubs of ore to the crushing mill while other wheels worked the crushing machines, jiggers, buddles and separators. The mine is now a lead mining museum.

By the 1850s, Britain’s best lead ore had been removed and there was cheap competition from the United States, Germany and Spain. Many Northern miners began to seek work abroad, notably in the United States. Some mines continued until the 1930s; others reopened during World War One but lead mining had virtually died out by the start of the twentieth century.

Old mine shaft at Allenheads
Old mine shaft at Allenheads © David Simpson.

In addition to lead, products like Witherites, Barytes and Flurospar which were once discarded as a waste product of lead mining have acquired commercial uses in the twentieth century and waste tips have been quarried for the minerals in the dales. Silver mining had been another important industry in the region’s dales. Allenheads, between Stanhope and Alston, was once home to the largest silver mine in the world. It closed in 1896.



Chemicals and Glass


Collieries of North East England. Poster Print map (A2 only)




North East England History and Culture