The Coal Industry in the Land of Oak & Iron in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries


There was a rapid expansion in the output of coal in the North East coalfield. It is estimated that production rose from 7 million tons in 1830 to 54 million tons by 1913. The widespread adoption of steam engines and safety lamp contributed to solution of problems of drainage ventilation and lighting. Horses were substituted for manpower in underground haulage and steam power was introduced for winding of coal to the surface. There were improvements in the haulage of coal between the pit head and the consumer. Wooden rails were replaced with wrought iron, inclined planes were built and both fixed steam engines and steam locomotives were introduced.

The Raising of Capital

The increase in the scale of production and the technological innovations called for an increase in capital which was beyond the means of the landed proprietors who had developed the industry in the previous century. Increasing skills by mining engineers improved mine design and led to the establishment of a profession keen to invest capital in the industry.

The creation of joint stock companies (companies where the assets were owned by several investors in proportion to the value of the shares they had bought in the company) had been outlawed by the Bubble Act of 1720 unless created by Royal Charter. This had been in response to the economic crisis caused by the frenzied and corrupt trading in the shares of the South Sea Company and its subsequent collapse. Those wishing to raise capital for a commercial enterprise and share the financial burdens and risks with others had to do so through some form of partnership. However, under partnership law, each partner was individually liable for the debts of the partnership and there was no means of limiting that liability.

The Bubble Act was repealed in 1825, once more allowing the creation of joint stock companies. The Limited Liability Act of 1855 and the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856 were passed to regulate joint stock companies and to enable the personal liability of investors for debts of the company to be limited. The rate of conversion from partnerships by coal owners to joint stock companies was slow in the North East coal industry, but accelerated during the depression of the 1860s. Banks became involved in short term lending. For example, John Bowes & Co borrowed considerable sums from the Northumberland and District Bank to finance its 1841 expansion.

Uses for Coal

There were three distinct uses for coal: burning; distillation to produce coke, gas, fuels and chemicals; smelting iron and other metals when mixed with molten metal.

Coal from Northumberland and South Wales was used to power steam ships. Colliery slack was used at the colliery to drive the pumping and winding engines.

Coal was used for iron and steel production. The bituminous coal of the Durham coal with a high gas and low sulphur content caked well to yield a hard coke, which prior to the introduction of the hot blast method, was needed for the iron furnace. The expansion of railways led to increased demand for coke as the early locomotives in some instances were not allowed to run on coal because of the excessive smoke they generated. The Marley Hill colliery (John Bowes & partners) was the largest supplier of coke in 1840s with four hundred beehive coke ovens.

Gas was also extracted from coal. There was a relatively small but stable demand for gas for lighting and domestic heating and cooking, increasing as the population increased.

In the1880s recovery coking plants enabled by-products such as ammonium sulphate, benzole and coal tar to be produced for use in the manufacture of dye stuff, pigments, perfumes, medicines, disinfectants, explosives and photographic materials.

Transport of Coal

The extensive wooden waggonway system of the 17th & 18th centuries was gradually improved and by the 1830s many of them were operated with a combination of fixed engines, inclined planes and iron rails. By the 1830s new mineral railways were being built, some of which used steam locomotives. Unlike the private waggonways, railways were mainly built by authority of Parliament and wayleave payments became less of a problem. Docks were built on the Tyne and at Seaham, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. The intermeshing of waggonways and railways and docks in the North East gave the region a great advantage in loading ships with coal for export. George & Charles Palmer had a yard at Jarrow where they developed the first iron screw collier, named the John Bowes (Charles Palmer was the managing partner of John Bowes & Company). This boat could carry 530 tons of coal and make a round trip from the Tyne to London in 120 hours (including 24 hours for unloading). By 1864 screw colliers carried 30% of all coal shipped from the Tyne to London and this rose to 100% by 1874. By 1860s hydraulic cranes, automatic weighing machines and floating derricks were developed to speed up the unloading of vessels.

Manpower and Employment

The Coal Mines Act of 1842 made the employment underground of women and children under 10 illegal. There was widespread evasion of the Act and it was still the practice in 1907 for boys to be introduced to the pit at the earliest legal age, receiving gradual promotion to the coalface after about seven years of apprenticeship. The Mines Regulation Act 1872 prohibited the full time employment of boys under 12 and limited working hours. The Act also stipulated that children between 10 and 13 were to receive half day schooling, a measure that reduced the attraction of employing them.

The colliery workforce was almost exclusively male and between 1862 and 1881 there was a marked ageing in the mining population. Migration between collieries was widespread in the North East, probably encouraged by the system of annual hiring in which mine owners tempted miners to move by paying travelling expenses and offering free housing.

By 1831 certain aspects of the annual bond had become contentious. Compromises were reached on most issues, but not on a claim for a guaranteed minimum wage. There was a 17 week strike in 1884 which ended in the miners returning to work on the employers’ terms. In 1872 a revived Durham Miners Union forced coal owners to agree to fortnightly contracts. The demise of the bond and long term contracts, however, did not end sanctions for breach of contract. The Master & Servant Act 1832 continued to apply making it a criminal offence for a worker to break his contract, punishable by a fine or up to 3 months imprisonment.

Weekly pay was gradually adopted after 1870

Contracts invariably contained rules relating to conduct in the mines with the power of the coal owner to fine workers for transgression. Colliery rules relating to safety were codified by General and Special Rules under the Mines Inspection Act 1855. The General Rules were applicable to all collieries. The Special Rules intended to take into account local circumstances, were drawn up by coal owners and submitted to the Home Office for approval. These proved unpopular because some owners saw them as an opportunity covertly to introduce contract conditions which would not have been accepted in negotiations. Although many unacceptable conditions unrelated to safety were excised by the Home Office, some slipped through the net and coal owners were able to impose sanctions on their employees for transgressions unrelated to safety.

Rent free housing was provided for most miners in the North East providing income in kind and relative comfort, but which could be used as a lever on labour. During the pitmens’ strikes in 1832 and at individual collieries on other occasions there were mass evictions.

In the North East the mining companies provided approximately half the supply of housing for colliery workers, the remainder being supplied by speculative builders. Lack of alternative supply with remoteness were the key factors motivating companies to provide houses. There was an absence of colliery housing in the larger settlements near the Tyne. Here housing was allocated according to a points system based on whether a man was married and the number of children he had.

Most colliery owners provided some form of schooling, but the amount of time spent in them was very small. The Mines Inspection Act 1860 obliged children to attend night school twice weekly for a total of 6 hours, but child mineworkers between 10 and 12 were exempt if they could produce a certificate to indicate basic literacy.

Between 1890 and 1905 there was a campaign for an eight hour working day, culminating in the The Mines Eight Hours Act 1909 which phased in this limit.

Unions of mineworkers existed from the 1830s but tended to be local to specific pits or formed to deal with particular issues and were not long lived. A national union was formed as late as 1889 (The Miners Federation of Great Britain) and this became the National Union of Mineworkers in 1944.

Advances in Mining Technology and Improvement in Safety

During the 19th Century the prospecting for coal became a speciality. The specialists were known as viewers and most of them were based in the North East. Boring techniques improved slowly. Boring rods were powered by steam and in 1840 hollow boring rods were introduced through which water was injected to flush out waste and lubricate the chisel. By the 1860s diamond core drilling developed. Industrial diamonds, set in an annular crown, rotated rapidly and facilitated the lifting of a solid core enclosing the strata.

Improved pumping machinery was developed. The Pulsometer steam pump could cope with water flows of 2,500 gallons per minute. Various improvements in sinking technology meant that by 1913 shafts of 6 metres could be sunk vertically and lining techniques improved.

A few mines relied on water wheels for pumping, but these were gradually replaced by steam power.

By early 19th century some collieries in the North East had up to thirty miles of underground passages requiring ventilation. At the beginning of the century furnace ventilation was widely used. Experiments were made with air pumps and mechanical fans. In 1866 the Addison pit installed a Guibal fan to ventilate the pit.

Lighting remained an issue. The miners’ safety lamps were criticised because they produced less light than a naked candle and did not eliminate the risk of explosion, particularly in the North East where the bord and pillar methods of extraction left pockets of gas. No lamp was safe except in well ventilated conditions. Naked lights remained the norm in large parts of the North East as late as 1913 (0.7 safety lamps per man).

Electric lamps were slow to be introduced because of the weight of the batteries and because of their limited life which lasted less than the length of a full shift.

Stella’s Emma Pit pioneered the use of natural gas to light the bottom of the pit and main roads in the1850s. Beginning in 1880s electric light began to supersede gas lighting.

Communications underground improved with the installation of underground telephone systems. Addison Colliery was the first colliery to have a phone system which was installed in 1877. Underground telephone systems expanded from the 1880s

Except for lighting and pumping, replacement of steam power with electrification was slow. The inferior DC system resulted in high transmission losses with a real danger of explosions from sparks. After 1895 large firms began to switch to Alternating Current. It became possible with transformers to vary voltages to suit different tasks with low transmission losses. Well shielded motors and armoured cables produced no sparks and centralised power production reduced costs.

Safety features were introduced in the middle of the 19th century for raising and lowering miners. Wire ropes were manufactured in 1848. Wire guides prevented the cage from hitting the side walls and automatic brakes were designed in case of wire failure.

Coal screening to separate large and small coals was originally performed underground, but in 1872 this practice ceased. In the North East coal was screened above ground by tipping it onto a grid of bars 2 cm apart. Boys and old men picked out extraneous matter. By the 1880s technology had developed to wash the coal.

The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers was formed in 1852. Regular meetings were held to discuss ventilation, the prevention of accidents and for general purposes to do with the winning and working of collieries. In 1880 leading coal owners endowed a chair of mining at the Armstrong College of Physical Science in Newcastle. The college had been founded in 1871 jointly by the University of Durham and NEIMME.