The Lancashire Coalfields
The development of development of the Lancashire coal reserves took place at a later date than in other parts of the British Isles. In the middle of the 16th Century the inhabitants still burned turf when they could not get timber, in complete oblivion of the coal seams which ran beneath their land. There is evidence that when the expansion came, it was rapid.
The first known commencement of coal mining in an organised way was in 1521 when Lord Derby granted a lease of mines in Whiston.
In the South West corner of the County, the industry appears to have developed extensively at the end of Elizabeth 1st's reign, with the coming of ships to the Mersey to load coal for the Irish market. Shipments from Liverpool increased from about 300 tons a year between 1563 and 1599 to about 1,200 tons between 1611 and 1621, and to more than 4,000 before the Civil War. Exports did not increase further for some time after the Civil War because the local demand grew.
Initially, crop coals were worked by excavation of small pits up to 25 feet in depth. Towards the latter part of the 16th Century, the pits were being sunk to a depth of 70 to 120 feet. The usual cost of the shaft was £50.00 to £100.00.
The normal custom was to work coal outwards from the shaft until the roof showed signs of collapse and then the shaft was abandoned. The coal was filled into corves (circular baskets) and placed on wooden sleds and dragged to the shaft bottom. Horse gins were usually used for winding the coal. No artificial ventilation was attempted.
This method of working prevailed right through until the commencement of deeper shafts, which were sunk from about 1800.
The coalfield expanded rapidly from about 1820 and the Northern part of the field was heavily worked prior to 1930 in the areas of profitable seams lying at relatively shallow depths.
At the peak of working in 1907, there were approximately 320 collieries operating in Lancashire producing some 26 million tons of coal per year and employing 94,300 men.
During this era, coal was got by hand and individual, small colliery company fortunes fluctuated rapidly as coal was won and lost through hazards, such as underground water and geological problems.
After the First World War, there was a gradual drift towards machine mining; steel roof supports gradually replaced wooden supports and steel pit tubs replaced wooden ones. Pit ponies were replaced by mechanical haulage and electrical safety lamps were gradually introduced.
The collier in those days had to purchase all his tools for his work, such as picks; spades; hammer; wedges; powder; tallies; lamps and oil. There was usually a stores shop in the village where all these were kept. The collier would make cartridges from brown paper at home and fill them with loose powder. If the drill holes were wet or damp, he would collect grease from axle boxes and smear the cartridge with it as protection.
By Nationalisation in 1947, many of the smaller collieries had ceased working and the coalfield had become resolved into larger company concerns, working a relatively small number of large mines. The number of collieries working at this date was 65, having a total annual output of some 11.35 million tons.
Since 1947, the number of working mines had gradually reduced as reserves having become exhausted in the older mines and those to the North of the Area having a limited area and number of seams available. As major reserves and the future of the coalfield lay to the South, the Board embarked immediately after Vesting Day in a heavy boring programme to prove deep reserves and paved the way for the expansion of the collieries, which would be the major producing units up to the year 2000.
By 1962, the number of mines had been reduced to 41 and by 1967 to 21. Seven collieries were operating in October 1984. The majority of these closures had been brought about by exhaustion of reserves, but there are notable exceptions, namely Mosley Common; Astley Green and Bradford Collieries, which ceased operating during the late 1960's/early 1970's for other reasons. The last Lancashire pit to close was Parkside Colliery, which ceased production in 1993.
Cronton Colliery, near Rainhill in Merseyside, ceased production in March 1984. The pit had made heavy losses for many years and the limited remaining reserves were heavily geologically disturbed. Men were offered alternative jobs at other pits, which were open at that time, in the Lancashire Coalfield.
The Coalfield at Nationalisation consisted of 65 collieries, which were made up mainly of groups of mines operating within Company ownerships. The Wigan Coal & Iron Company, Richard Evans and Manchester Collieries were possibly the largest single concerns operating in the Wigan, St Helens and Manchester areas.
The Coalfield covered an area of some 550 square miles, the four extreme points were, roughly: Stalybridge on the South East; a few miles North of Burnley in the North East; Ormskirk on the North West; and Rainhill in the South West. In the centre of the coalfield, there were two barren patches of millstone grit, which covered an area of nearly 100 square miles. In the South, faulting brought tongues of Permo-Triassic rocks far into the area.
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