Coal Mining History in Durham County

Although lead ore has long been mined in the hilly district that forms the western portion of Durham, and although iron ore has been worked in several places within the county, these branches of the mining industry are reduced to utter insignificance in comparison with the enormous development of coal-mining, which may be said now to form the staple industry of Durham.

Here, as elsewhere, the origin of coal-mining is lost in obscurity, and it is quite uncertain when coal was first used as fuel. It is highly probable that the first coal used in this coalfield consisted of the rounded lumps of coal washed up on the beach from the seams that outcrop along the sea-shore in Northumberland, and that these were collected and used as fuel, just as they are used to-day by the poorer fishing folk along the Northumbrian coast. It could not be very long before the outcrops of similar material in the valleys of the Derwent and other rivers also attracted attention, and these coal seams would then have been attacked and gradually followed downwards, thus forming the commencement of the industry of coal-mining. It is probable that the coal picked up along the shores was originally known as ‘sea-coal,’ and that which was dug out of the ground as ‘pit-coal,’ the words ‘sea-coal’ and’ pit-coal’ that so frequently occur in documents of the seventeenth century showing apparently that the two terms bore somewhat different meanings at one time, although the material described by them was also recognized as being identical.

One of the difficulties of determining the real beginning of the use of coal lies in the indiscriminate use of the word ‘carbo’ to designate both charcoal and mineral coal. The notices preserved in the Boldon Book of the smiths at Wearmouth and Sedgefield and of the colliers at Escombe who in Bishop Pudsey’s time were bound to provide coal (carbonem) for the making of plough-shares, relate more probably to charcoal fuel, as is certainly the case in the almost parallel though rather later record in the register of Worcester Priory of the holding of one John the collier who was to make each coke of coal for 1d.

There is however no doubt that the rich and powerful bishops of Durham in their capacity as counts palatine favoured the development of coal-mining in their principality at a very early period, and it is to this fact that we owe the greater completeness of the records of the industry in this part of the country as compared with other portions of Great Britain.

There is good reason to believe’ that coal from the neighbourhood of Plessey in Northumberland was shipped to London quite early in the reign of Henry III, and already in 1256 complaints were made that the approaches to Newcastle were rendered dangerous after nightfall by derelict or unfenced coal-workings. In the next reign it was found by inquisition that the prosperity of the same town had during the past century been enormously increased by traffic in coals. For the working of coal in the Palatinate during the thirteenth century there is less evidence, probably in great measure owing to the reckless destruction of the archives of the see, but as early as 1243 we find an entry on a roll of Pleas of the Crown before the justices appointed by Bishop Nicholas Farnham that in Darlington ward, Ralf the son of Roger Wlger had been drowned ‘in quodam fossato carbonum mans’ probably a derelict coal-pit. The use of the term fossatum is worth notice, and probably indicates an open-cast working. In northern England, as in the Forest of Dean, open-cast workings and bell-pits marked the first development of mining, though in Northumberland and Durham the pit and adit stage had been reached in certain localities by the middle of the fourteenth century, if not before. It is hardly probable that the coalmining industry of Durham during the thirteenth century was comparable in extent with that of the neighbouring county of Northumberland, to which the history of the early export trade undoubtedly belongs, but with our fragmentary sources of information no exact estimate can be formed. It is not until the year 1274-5 that a specific reference to the profits of the bishop’s coal-mines is found in the accounts of the See. References at a much earlier date to mines generally may have covered mineral coal as well as lead and iron, but as to this no certainty is attainable. During the vacancy however consequent upon the death of Bishop Robert Stichill, the accountant who answers for the issues of the bishopric of Durham from 20 August 2 Edward I to 12 November of the following year includes £34 7s. 4d. from the farm of the fisheries, with the mines of coal and brew-houses (bracinagiis) for the same time. Rather more than twenty years later we learn from the Great Roll of Receipts of Bishop Anthony Bek that a regular profit was being derived from a coal-mine in the ward (quarterio) of Chester, while the increasing recognition of the value of the new fuel is probably indicated by the composition of 1303 made by the same bishop with his great manorial freeholders when he was obliged to confirm to them the right of taking certain minerals in their several lands.

The early use of mineral coal was undoubtedly for industrial rather than domestic purposes, limeburning in particular, and probably the working as distinct from the smelting of iron. But early in the fourteenth century the introduction of the iron chimney probably made the use of mineral coal less open to objection, and it may be noted that in 1310 the monks of Jarrow had two iron chimneys in their hall (aula) ; thus it may be no coincidence that in the earliest of their accounts extant, those for 1313, we find mentioned a purchase of nine chaldrons of (carbonum maritinorum).

We are unable to fix the exact date when coal-mining began on the southern bank of the Tyne at Gateshead and Whickham, and there is little doubt that the men of Newcastle-on-Tyne did everything possible to hamper the development of the industry, but probably coal was being worked in this neighbourhood and possibly shipped in vessels moored at the wharves on the southern side of the river in the early years of the fourteenth century. It is certain that by 1356 the industry had become well established at Whickham, as Bishop Hatfield in that year granted to Sir Thomas Gray, knt., and John Pulhore, rector of Whickham, five mines on lease for twelve years at a yearly rent of 500 marks, an enormous sum for the time. Some conditions of this lease are deserving of careful attention. It is agreed that the bishop shall not allow new mines to be opened in the neighbourhood which might depreciate the value of the privileges of the lessees. As to the mines of Gateshead, which were then already open and at work, the bishop promised that none of their output should be carried or sold to ships, while the holders of the Whickham mines should be allowed the option of acquiring the lease of the Gateshead mines also at the expiry of the term then existent. As to the management of the Whickham mines, the lessees were obliged to work them as far as they could with five barrow-men, according to the view and oath of the master forester and the viewers, the rate of output being fixed at not more than one keel of coal per day. The master forester on his part was bound to furnish a reasonable amount of timber not only for the timbering of the pits, but also for the staiths or wharves. It is significant however that any damage done to the bishop’s tenants in Whickham either by mining operations or the carriage of coals had to be made good by the lessees.

It is probable that the lessees of the Whickham mines did ultimately acquire a lease of those at Gateshead, at least for a time, but the shipment of the coals from this neighbourhood was not effected without strenuous opposition from the burgesses of Newcastle, and the appeasement of the quarrel required the intervention of the king. In connexion with a grant of mining rights at Gateshead about 1364, we find the first specific reference in this district to the use of the ‘watergate’ or tunnel for the draining of the pit. In respect to the working of the Tyneside mines after the Black Death, it may also be mentioned that in 1373-4 John de Belgrave and Nicholas Cooke were authorized to seize workmen and coal-bearers within the liberty of Durham to supply the lack of labour at Whickham and Gateshead.

Another important colliery in this district was in Winlaton, held by Lord de Nevill of the bishop of Durham. In 1366-7 no less than 576 chaldrons of coal were purchased here by order of Edward III for the works at Windsor Castle, while at about the same time the earl of Northumberland was holding the manor of Fugerhous with a coal-pit for which he paid a yearly rent of £26 13s. 4d.

The importance of the mines along the south bank of the Tyne during the fourteenth century give them the first claim to attention, but coalworking activity was not restricted to that district. At Ferryhill, Hett, and Lanchester we hear of coal-pits before 1350, and in this year some interesting technical details are preserved in Hatfield’s Survey of the opening of a fresh mine at Coundon, when ropes, scopes, and windlass were bought for the work, and the total expense was 5s. 6d. Furthermore the monks of Durham were leasing a mine in the township of Ferry at least as early as 1354, and in 1361 they possessed a coal-pit at Rainton. From the Bursar’s Roll for 1376-7 we find them paying £6 6s. 6.5d. ‘in sinctatione unius putei’ at Heworth, together with the making of the necessary picks, buckets, and ropes (cordis). Another pit also was sunk there to a depth of 6 fathoms at a cost of 6s. a fathom, with an additional 6d. for some extra. Finchale too owned a mine at Lumley in 1348-9, and in their inventory for 1354 figure two coal-picks and two wedges of iron (yeges ferris). Their most important venture however was at Softley. This repaid them well from about 1362 right on into the next century, yielding a steady annual rent of £6 13s. 4d. The Vavasours possessed a mine at Cockfield before 1375, and a colliery was being worked at Evenwood in 1383-4, and probably earlier.

The amount of material available for the history of the Durham coal-mines during the fifteenth century is so abundant that a rigorous selection is necessary, and all that can be done here is to supplement with a few particulars, hitherto unpublished, the valuable account furnished by Mr. R. L. Galloway in his Annals of Coal Mining. That writer emphasizes the importance of the lease of South Durham mines, described as the ‘mines of coal and of iron ore under the coal’ in ‘Raby, Caldehirst, Hertkeld, Hethereclough, otherwise Tollawe and Wollawes,’ and in the barony of Evenwood, first granted to Ralf de Eure, and renewed in 1424 to William de Eure for a term of nine years at a rent of £112 13s. 4d. per annum, and later still renewed to him and other parties on many occasions with certain variations and intermissions. In all probability this lease put an end to the profitable working of the Finchale mine at Softley and affected adversely other mining speculations on a small scale in southern Durham.

From the chief forester’s account for the years 1-2 Bishop Neville (about 1440) we obtain a clear idea of the considerable part played by the episcopal coal-mines in the economy of the Palatinate. As to the farm of £112 13s. 4d. due from the mines of Raby, Caldehirst, and Hetheredough, the, account makes no return, because this was rendered by Thomas Buk, appruator earundem minerarum. He does however return a sum of 40s. received from the lessees of coalmines at Chester with ‘Les Scamelyng.’ Nothing was forthcoming from the farm of the coalmine of Cholden, which usually amounted to £61 3s. 4d., because it was in the lord’s hands in default of a tenant. But from a coal-mine at Ryton 26s. 8d. was received, no doubt the value of a licence to work the mineral there with which the rector of Ryton was in some way connected. No return was made of the farm of the Whickham mines, usually £26 13s. 4d., because that pertained to the accounts of the constable of Durham. Nothing was returned from Evenwood, ‘quia nullus puteus ibidem existit.’ From Robert Hall, lessee of a mine at Ivestone, which was wont to return 38s. 4d., and a new mine near Newbigging and Ivestone, which should return 13s. 4d., a sum of 26s. 8d. was received. The mine at Kimblesworth, which used to produce 20s. a year, was utterly ruined (omnino vastatur) and yielded nothing. Nothing again had been received from the mine at Stanleyburn in Chester ward, which used to pay 2s. 6d. a year. Nor from the mine at Burnhousden, which used to pay 3s. 4d., but now in default of a tenant in the lord’s hands. Similarly the coal-mine of Middlewood with the quarry of ‘Bakstaneford’ lay ‘waste’ in the lord’s hand, as also the coal-mines of Frankeleyn, Benfeldsyd, and Conkeburn. The Gateshead mines produced a farm of £66 13s. 4d., but they were not included in the chief forester’s account since they were managed by a special officer (appruator), William Askeby. At Wolleyhill mine, which used to return 26s. 8d., there was no lessee, and in consequence it was in the lord’s hands. But 20s. had been received of Thomas Claxton in respect to a new coal-mine opened up at Camehill.

From this account it is clear that the mines of Whickham and Gateshead in the north, and the mines of Raby (Raly?), Hethereclough, and Caldehirst in the south of the county were immensely more valuable than any others, and it is probable that the success of their working and the greatness of their output daunted mining speculators. This may account for the number of mines in the hands of the bishop for which apparently no tenants could be found. The religious houses, however, and doubtless private landowners, still worked coal-pits for their own use whenever they could profitably do so, a good example being the mine of Moorhouse Close, which about 1457-8 yielded the monks of Finchale £10 a year, besides eighty chaldrons of coal supplied to the monastery. This mine was worked by them right up to the date of the dissolution of their house, and deserves special remembrance in the history of the coal-mines of Durham, as it is here that we first hear of coal being got under the level of free drainage, since in 1486-7 the monks spent £9 15s. 6d. on the new ordinance of the pump, which was no doubt worked by horse-power.