Mining in the Black Country

by Mick Pearson

The term "The Black Country" was first used during the nineteenth century (first written reference in 1868 as the title of the book "The Black Country and its Green Borderland" written by Elihu Burritt).

The Mineman's Bell
Many a truly gen'rous soul,
Men of iron, men of coal,
Men of metal bade me sound
Sweetly to all the hills around
(Written in November 1817 and one of a number of verses intended to be cast upon the bells of the new church at Dudley)

Coal provided the fuel for smelting and processing iron. It was also used to fuel the boilers. Chainmaking also flourished and developed as mines needed chains.

The iron ore in the region was the first to run out, by as early as 1845 iron ore was being brought in from North Staffordshire. From the 1850s the iron trade began a slow decline, production moved to where there were fresh supplies of ore. Coal production continued, but it also slowed.

The region was also rich in clay, with high-quality fireclay rated among the best in the world, extending in a belt from Stourbridge through Brierley Hill and Pensnett to Kingswinford. Clay plus coal led to the founding of the world-renowned glass industry.

So far we have coal, iron ore and fireclay. In order for the region to become the industrial heart of Britain there must be limestone. Enter the Wren's Nest Hill at Dudley, which is a limestone outcrop that, despite centuries of quarrying, still contains vast reserves. Dud Dudley (bastard son of the Lord Dudley) had experimented with iron smelting using coal as a fuel. Dudley referred in his "Metallum Martis" to the use of limestone as a flux in the smelting of iron ore. Lime was also used for agricultural purposes and the industry prospered until early in the twentieth century.
(The Black Country - Harold Parsons) - available from The Black Country Society

What was it that made the Black Country the industrial heartland of Britain? There is a simple formula:
(Coal and iron ore) + (limestone + clay + sand) = Black Country industrial development.

Mining in the region had been carried out at shallow depths for generations. Thirteenth century documents refer to coal pits in Wednesbury, Halesowen, Sedgley and elsewhere, only for domestic purposes for at that time there was no other need for it.

There is still plenty of coal in the Black Country, but it is impossible to mine using current methods. One of the last working pits was on Burton Road in Upper Gornal, working until about 1950.

Subsidence was a hazard associated with mining, no-one living in the Black Country could be certain to avoid. "Old Mrs G" would not leave her cottage until it was quite tottering and the floor was so covered with water that they had to lay down planks for the clergyman when he went to see her. Finally the neighbours forcibly removed her to save her from drowning."
(Pits and Furnaces - Mrs Alfred Payne [1869])

Pay for a miner was very low, work was extremely hard and conditions would not be tolerated today. Actual work was very crude, the main tools being used were picks and shovels, the coal went into 4-wheeled tubs, pulled to the pit bottom by ponies. Lighting consisted of tallow candles stuck in clay.

Each pit had at least one blacksmith, he had to sharpen all the picks on a daily basis, shoe all the horses and carry out any other smithing that was necessary.

Some explanation of the jobs and terms will be useful to help those new to the industry, but interested because they have mining ancestors. As many as I can find are included here:

Engine man tended the winding gear engines
Blacksmith looked after the iron work and horses working in the pit
Deputy Sets props, lay tramroads and looks to safety in the mine
Dialler surveyor
Pikeman Responsible for dropping the roof in the "thick" seam. He had a very dangerous and skilled job, and was one of the best paid men in the mine.
Pit Bank The top of the pit
Banksman The man working at the pit bank to lands the goods and the men
Band a layer of slate in the coal seam
Brakesman manages the winding engine
Craneman boy from 12-17 who manages the crane by which the coal was raised and for keeping account of the amount raised
Downcast shaft or part of shaft by which fresh air entered the mine
Davy lamp used by miners
Hewer man who extracted the coal
Horse-keeper tends the horses in the pit
Lamp-keeper in charge of the Davy lamps and common oil lamps
Overman 3rd rank of mine officer, in charge of everything underground - people, ventilation, keeps accounts of everything happening underground.
Putter boy who pushes trams of coal from the workings to the crane
Screen tapper attends to the screens (for screening coal by size)
Shifter an underground labourer
Token-hanger boy of 9-12 years, responsible for the tokens used to identify the hewer of a particular basket of coal.
Trapper a boy, stationed at a door for guiding air, responsible for ventilation
Trimmer spreads the coal in the wagons used to transport the coal away from the pit
Viewer the agent, manager and head of the colliery (usually had an under-viewer)
Way-Cleaner boy who clears dust from the tram rails, usually aged 11-15 years.
Wasteman clears away stone falls and attends to ventilation obstructions, has an assistant called a shifter

Beginnings of Mining

The making of nails had become an important industry in the Black Country by the early seventeenth century. Richard Foley had been one of the main names associated with nailmaking; he has been credited with bringing the secret of the slitting mill to the Black Country. Mining during the seventeenth century developed alongside nailmaking, both were dangerous and extremely hard occupations.

The 30-foot seam of 'think coal' was to make the Black Country a prosperous area. This was the only resource of its kind anywhere in the country. In places the coal reached the surface and had been mined for centuries. Main centres were Sedgley, Coseley, Bilston, Wednesbury, Netherton and Halesowen.

Early methods were studied by a Doctor Plot, a chemist from Oxford, who published his findings in his "Natural History of Staffordshire".

"Much coal was mined by simply following the seam into the hillside, often for up to 100 yards. Eventually though, proper mining methods had to be used. The sheer thickness of the seam caused problems and pillars of coal had to be left to prevent cave-ins. The main coal brought to the surface was in large lumps, these were easier to sell than the slack and rubble, which was mostly left underground."