Mike Hodder reviews Nigel Chapman’s book South Staffordshire Coalfield.
Following a short introduction about the extent of the coalfield and mining techniques, Nigel Chapman describes individual mines area by area. A description of their history is accompanied by historic photographs and recent photographs, the latter including some structures still surviving, others which have been demolished in the past few years and sites which are now in residential or other use leaving no trace of the former colliery.
Mining from the Middle Ages
The South Staffordshire Coalfield is divided two parts by a fault: to the south is the Thick or Ten Yard seam of the Black Country, and to the north the Cannock Chase Coalfield consisting of several thinner seams. Sections of both now fall within Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall or Wolverhampton.
In some parts of the coalfield, where seams were near the surface, coal was extracted by shallow pits from the Middle Ages onwards. Later, and particularly from the middle of the 19th century, shafts were sunk, accompanied by winding and pumping engines. Mining continued into the middle of the 20th century at a few Black Country and Cannock Chase collieries. Baggeridge, closing in 1968, was last mine in the Black Country, where the peak of production was the mid to late 19th century, by which time most viable seams had been exhausted. Chapman rightly draws attention to the transport infrastructure that was an integral and essential component of the mining industry, including haulage ways and tramways to basins on the canal network.
Other surviving remains of Black Country mines include the inclines and pithead baths of Beech Tree Colliery near Cradley and the fragmentary walls, now in woodland, of the engine house of Himley Number 4A pit (near Baggeridge). The pithead baths of Jubilee Colliery in West Bromwich survive, together with the track of its haulage way and bridges over it, but what was originally large a large waste tip is now substantially reduced in size. Where buildings survive, the machinery they housed has long since been removed and has mostly been lost, the notable exceptions being Cobbs Engine, now on display in Dearborn, Michigan, United States and the horizontal steam winder from Amblecote Colliery, reset in its winding house which has been reconstructed at the Black Country Living Museum as part of the re-sunk Racecourse Colliery pit.
Some of the collieries on the Cannock Chase Coalfield were still in operation in the middle of the 20th century. At Walsall Wood the former steam winding house and workshops survive, at Brownhills Colliery Cathedral Pit there are some remaining buildings.
This book clearly demonstrates what scanty remains survive of a once- thriving industry. In many cases traces have completely disappeared and where remains survive it is due to their location or to a fortuitous sympathetic reuse. The importance of the surviving remains is probably under-appreciated.
The collieries included in the book were presumably, and understandably, those with best pictorial record and in some cases surviving remains, but it would have been useful to have included some information about the many smaller and often short-lived concerns as a comparison even if no suitable illustrations are available, such as those in Tipton, which could have been illustrated by historic maps. An illustration of the bellpits remaining from early mining on Cannock Chase could have been included, and reference should have been made to excavated remains such as the 15th to 17th century coal pits at the Hansons Brewery site in Dudley town centre.
My special concerns in what otherwise is a useful and eye-opening book were the absence of an index and location map. Lack of an index or even a contents page made it difficult to refer back to individual sites, and a map would have been helpful, particularly as some inaccurate compass directions are given in text. The only map in the book is a geological map that has been reproduced at far too small a size. The book would also have benefited from information on which of the surviving remains are publicly accessible, such as Windmill End, or at least visible from publicly accessible areas, such as the pithead baths at Jubilee Colliery.
Mike Hodder is Birmingham City Council’s Planning Archaeologist. In the 1980s he became Sandwell Council’s first archaeologist, holding the position until 1994. He still lives in the Borough.