Home History The Birth of a Coalfield

The Birth of a Coalfield

January 1947

South Yorkshire Times January 4, 1947

Looking Back 150 years
South Yorkshire Pioneer’s Legacy

In South Yorkshire a chapter of its industrial history 150 years long came to an end on Wednesday when the old – private ownership of the mines – made way for the new – mines nationalisation.

This century and a half has seen a revolution, and so, as we stand on the brink of a new era, we record hereunder (of necessity in outline), in tribute to those pioneers, masters and men, some of the stories of their enterprise, foresight, courage, tragedy and pertinacity. It is the story of the birth of a modern coalfield.

1864 – Verdant Peace

For “that pleasant district of Merry England – which is watered by the river Don, “our story begins in 1864. The great white stone Castle keep, not yet an oasis in the desert of industrialism, still stands sentinel over the verdant peace that is Conisbrough and Mexborough, the farmhouse and two cottages that is Goldthorpe and, around the spur of the hill, the spacious dignity that its houses give Wath.

True, coal had been worked in Sheffield as early as 1795, “day – hole” pits that flourished richly down the years, the lineal forebears of the Roberts and the Bartholews brought the modern coalfield as near as Wombwell, 11 years before, but it was in 1864 that the cutting of the first sods by the Warings for the shafts of Denaby Main Colliery, brought King Coal its most easterly conquest in Yorkshire to date.

Denaby began a chain of development that led from Manvers Main to Wath, Kilnhurst, Cadeby, Hickleton, Barnborough, Goldthorpe and, in the twenties, to Highgate.

Others fell by the wayside; for instance, the old Brampton Bierlow mine and the venture began in September 1894, at Rawmarsh to work the Kent’s Main seam, about 5 feet thick, line less than 40 yards below the surface.

The valleys now lie desolate, but the march of mechanical progress is continued majestically. Highgate youngest and smallest of them all, today gets all its coal by machinery; Manvers anticipated the Reid report.

At first only the famous Barnsley Bed was worked in the area; next the Parkgate seam came in for large-scale exploitation. Now three or four thinner seams, for example the Silkstone, Haig Moor, Beamshaw and Shafton, are being mined, modern machine mining having made this technically and commercially possible.

A Christmas Fire

At Denaby the sinking of the shafts to the Barnsley’s seam was completed in 1871, and that first year 119,741 tons was raised. Output fluctuated, but in 1887 the half million was topped for the first time; 501,177 tons. At Christmas, six years later, a disastrous fire completely destroyed the headgear and closed the pit until the following February.

What emotions this pit and village has aroused in its 82 stirring years. Memories of WH Chambers, courageous mining enterprise, the famous “Bag Muck” strike, the evictions, and sturdy trade unionism – in 1883 the Denaby branch of the Y.M.A., with 600 members, was the largest in the country.

Year after year, Denaby exported more than, for shipping abroad, coal than any other colliery. In 1887 the figure was 200,000 tons, nearly double that of the next pit. Coal from Denaby and the sister pit, Cadeby, was shipped all over the world; France, Spain, Italy, the Baltic, South America, and in former years, Hamburg.

For that purpose the company built up an up-to-date fleet of steamers, and as long as 23 years ago each steamer was electrically lit and had the necessary provision for wireless installation.

Birth of Cadeby

In 1888, the company purchased the coal under the 4,000 acres Sprotborough estate and announced their intentions of sinking two new shafts which would enable them to draw 2000 tons every day. No, the pit was not to be put down, as confidently forecast, near Doncaster – but in close proximity to Conisbrough Station. This was the birth of Cadeby colliery.

The turning of the first sod was performed on March 25 the following year. In January 1893, coal was reached and coal getting commenced in mid 1894.

The depth of the water bearing strata was without precedent in various operations of the kind in South Yorkshire. From 80 to 120 yards depth the outflow of water from the rock amounted to more than 8,300 gallons per minute.

1894 was a notable year for this district, at Thurnscoe, Kilnhurst, Grimethorpe……

Letters listen to the speeches at a gathering in Thurnscoe that July to the sinkers employed at Hickleton Main Colliery to commemorate reaching the Barnsley bed on June 27, 1894. There is general satisfaction that not only has there been no loss of life in sinking the shaft, but there has been no serious accident whatever.

Mr FN Wardell (Wath), senior Inspector of Mines, says that one of the prospecting party which had explored the country to ascertain the most suitable place for a shaft had told him: “At that time all was rural country and we are nothing but the lowing of cattle and music of birds, and could only faintly imagine that the quiet would ever be disturbed by the musical note of the buzzer and the clang of workbench tools.”

The managing director, Mr Ernest Hague, said that after they had got the tubbing in they had sunk at the rate of 13 yards per week, including walling, and that was rapid progress to make in an 18 foot shaft. They had leased their coal from two owners Viscount Halifax and the Rev Thomas Thornley Taylor.

The same year the Hickleton Main branch of the Y.M.A. was formed. The population of Thurnscoe was 300, at the end of the year 500. A huge chimney, 200 feet high, had shot up at the pit. Already 30 houses have been erected and tenanted by colliery workmen, 20 more were being erected at Goldthorpe.

Today Hickleton, the biggest pit in the former Doncaster Amalgamated Colleries group, employs 3,000 underground, 600 above ground. It is one of the largest mines in Britain.

425 Yards Down

Still 1894…


At Messrs John Brown’s new colliery at Swinton Common, the Parkgate seam was touched 425 yards below the surface. Sinking operations have been in progress about three years.


Messrs John Brown’s are intending almost at once to commence sinking operations at Kilnhurst. They purchased the Parkgate seam underneath Messrs Charlesworth working at Thrybergh colliery and propose to sink a shaft near the Old Foundry at Kilnhurst and work the seam from there.


Mitchell Main Colliery began the first of a series of operations in connection with the coalfield at Grimethorpe. The first two sods of the two shafts were cut at Grimethorpe on October 9. Special facilities were provided for the ceremony by the Midland Railway Company, who provided saloon carriages for the occasion. A large crowd met the train – the first passenger train to enter the village! Lunch took place under a corrugated iron sheet erected for the convenience of the workmen.

Wath Main

Sinking operations at Wath Main, for which the Waring family were also responsible, began in 1876 and winding operations in 1879.

The introduction of mines mechanisation began in 1935. Mr GH Ashwin was then general manager and Mr MC Martyn manager. Mr A Fairhurst, now manager, played an important part in the new developments.

Wath was the scene of a remarkable outrage during the general stoppage of ‘93. September began with a week of riots by West Riding miners. On Wednesday, September 6, rumours reached Mexborough that there had been riotous assemblies at Rockingham, Highland Silkstone, Mitchell’s Main the previous day. More rumours that the miners had wrecked Manvers Main and were marching on Denaby caused panic. Tradesmen rushed to close their shops and erect shutters.

“Battle” of Wath Main

Actually the men had met that morning at Winterwell and decided to attack Wath Main. Their first raid was confined to smashing the pit windows, destroying the collieries correspondence and accounts and imprisoning the underground manager and one or two deputies. A charge by 12 policemen managed to release him, but the rioters, 2,000 to 3,000 a number, withdrew for free beer supplied at the brewery in the vain hope that it would appease them –and they then returned to the pit to fire the colliery offices.

40 police were mustered, but they withdrew for the protection of Wath after the arrival of the first Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who were greeted with the derisive cheers and a few stones.

Damage estimated at £5000 was done at the offices and other pithead buildings, and 21 rioters from Wombwell, Swinton, Wath and Bolton, subsequently appeared at Leeds Assizes, where 12 men were convicted. Sentences ranging from one month to 18 months imprisonment were imposed.

At Highland Silkstone the manager was stoned, at Wombwell 500 attacked the colliery. Shops were pillaged at Jump and Rockingham Colliery was fired.

One of the thinner seams to which we refer early was the Shafton, and this was first worked in the Dearne district in 1910 at Goldthorpe Colliery, where sinking operations began in July 1909. The proprietors of this second pit in what is now the Dearne urban district were Messrs Henry Lodge Ltd, of Ryhill Main Collieries, who leased the Shafton bed from Lord Halifax.

Sod cutting took place in a downpour of rain on Wednesday, July 29, 1909. A number of men were to be engaged on the sinking operations arrived at Goldthorpe the previous weekend, and on the Wednesday morning one of them took a spade and carefully cut round two sods on the site of the shaft in readiness for the formal ceremony a little later.

One Carriage Train

The old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway had a single track running to the field, and along the track came an engine and one carriage containing the guests of the day. The ceremony was performed by the railway company secretary, Mr RC Irving and Mr Baron Kilner (Wakefield).

Within two months the headgear was being erected. By the end of the year coal been reached.

The pit, which now employs nearly 250 men, remained in  Messrs Lodge’s ownership until 1922, and Goldthorpe collieries Ltd took over the mine.

Within four years there were still further mine development for the Dearne. Manvers Main had begun at Barnburgh

Pioneer Work at Barnburgh

The pit was sunk with remarkable energy under the direction of Mr W Bunting, and the Barnsley seam reached at 508 yards early in 1914. A year later sinking operations reached the Parkgate bed with one shaft at 745 yards. Barnburgh, set apart in green fields has been the setting of much pioneer work in mining practice, and in 1937 was the scene of the installation of the first successful skip winding plant in this country.

In April 1942, a violent underground upheaval entombed 17 men in the deep pit. 43 hours later eight men were rescued. Eight or nine hours later eight more men were found alive. Four lives were lost, and nearly 4 months later the story of the rescue operation was told by Councillor TH Barker, JP, one of the rescue party, in a broadcast to South African and home listeners, conducted from the pit bottom, more than half a mile underground.

The programme, in which the members and Barnburgh Band under West Melton Victoria Quite apart, took place in a corridor within 50 yards long straight from the shaft bottom, 25 feet wide and about 10 feet high. The whole scene was lit by electric lights, and planks formed an improvised platform.

Manvers Main Collieries have done much in recent years in welfare schemes for their 6,000 employees. A solarium, in which 650 men can be given ultraviolet and radiant heat treatment in an hour, was open in February 1942, to enable men to enjoy regular doses of artificial sunshine to compensate for that lost while underground. Earlier, in 1939, they installed an aerotone bath for treatment of rheumatism and sciatica among workmen. A second followed 10 months later.

Revolutionary Scheme

Manvers have not waited for the Reid report. Number 2 pit at Wath, sunk some 70 to 80 years ago to the 200 yards deep Barnsley seam – is now the newest pit in what until Wednesday was the Manvers group… thanks to revolutionary schemes embarked upon by the company earlier in the war. Working the Barnsley seam finished 20 years ago. For a short time it was used for winding coal from the Melton Field seam and then closed, but during the war number 2 shaft was sunk from the Barnsley seam down to the Haig Moor, some 70 yards below. Concrete head stocks were erected and in 1945 skip winding installed, then only the 4th to be installed in a British mine and the first of British manufacturing.

Last June, Mr EJ Kimmins, manager, announced that the question of locomotive hauling and automatic loading of the coal had already been fully investigated and the decision taken to equip number 2 pit with the system of locomotive haulage with large mine cars and a large trunk conveyor system. This work is now considerably advanced.

Manvers added Kilnhurst Colliery, with its royalty area of some 2,750 acres, to its group in 1945. The purchase also included the brickworks at Kilnhurst.

The “Bag Muck” Strike

Coal, a hard task master, takes constant toll of its servers. Of disasters underground a list we append I will say no more, but in the Labour field none of the industrial disputes of this district was more bitter than the prolonged “Bag Muck” strike at Denaby Main Colliery, a dispute which arose over the payment for getting the “Bag” dirt – the amount of dirt lying between two seams – and lasted 39 weeks from June 30, 1902 to March 23, 1903

Grim and Savage

The dispute, which was conducted on both sides with grim, almost savage determination, aroused feelings which remained for years after work had been resumed. Litigation arising out of the dispute reached the House of Lords, and it is estimated that the amount of strike pay distributed amounted to £46,008, the amount of wages lost to £259,359 and the amount of coal lost to 900,000 tons.

Men and boys existed on strike pay as little on occasions as 9s and 1s per week respectively. Help came from all over the country and abroad – 45 British sergeants and privates in South Africa contributed sums ranging from 6d to 6s. Some of the strikers eked out their strike pay by singing in the streets of West Riding towns.

Summonses issued by the colliery company during the strike numbered more than 600, and the dispute reached the height of its bitterness on January 1, 1903, when a specially mustered squad of police began to put into effect the first of the 750 eviction orders the colliery proprietors had applied for the previous month – and asked that they be not issued until after Christmas.

During an early strike at Denaby – in 1885 – 700 were turned out in their houses. This time 2,500 to 3,000 were rendered homeless. 500 eviction orders were affected, 250 householders as they move out previously. The homeless lived in schools, churches, tents and one family even in the old Mexborough Smallpox Hospital.

“Shots” were taken of eviction by an enterprising Sheffield man for “his animated Montgomery Hall entertainment the same evening.”

The district has not seen such destitution since.

Rapid Growth

The development of the coalfield naturally brought a rapid revolution in population. Vast housing schemes, colliery and municipal, sprang up round the pits. Parks, schools, churches (often erected by the colliery companies themselves), welfare schemes and other social amenities followed.

Hitherto quiet Mexborough – its population in 1843 was estimated at 1,300 – became by the enterprise of its citizens, the district centre.

Populations in 1871 were: Mexborough 4,316, Bolton 1,271, Wath 2,142 and Conisbrough 2,119.

20 years later Mexborough had jumped to 7,677; two years later it was 8,500. Conisbrough and Denaby rose to 6,207 1891 and Thurnscoe from 271 in 1891 to 3,132 in 1905.


And the men whose endeavours, patience, sagacity wrought these monumental changes?

South Yorkshire must honour individualist William Henry Chambers, barrister financier Buckingham Pope of Denaby and Cadeby, Arthur Thomas Thomson and his father before him at Manvers, John Millikin at Hickleton, George Shaw at Wath, the Warings, the Bartholomews, the Roberts, parliamentarian Ben Pickard, cloth capped “ “Ahr” Erb and Joseph Hall.

And the thousand colliery managers and thousands more miners.

This area now forms part of areas two and three of the North Eastern Coal Region. The day the miner dreamed of for a full 50 years has dawned. What will he make of it?

One of them – Councillor RH Shepherd, miner’s president at Denaby, remarked this week., “We are all one team now,” In the future? Plans are foreshadowed for a new pit in Bilham, Dearne Urban Council local authority, already for the workmen of three pits, dormitory for a fourth is planning all its development schemes in the light of providing for the pit village expected to be built in it on its outskirts for the Bilham undertaking.

10 years ago Major H.J. Humphrys declared: “The opening of the Doncaster coalfield has been temporarily checked, but it is certain to be resumed.”