An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire

Part 82 (of 92 parts) - Mineworking in Sutton, St.Helens

An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St.Helens
Part 82 (of 92) - Mineworking in Sutton, St.Helens
An Illustrated History of
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Mineworking in Sutton
Researched and Written by Stephen Wainwright ©MMXVII
Coal mining in Lancashire has to a limited extent been carried out for hundreds of years, with the Romans known to have mined at Wigan. There is also a reference in the Warrington Mersey Toll Crossing records from the 1300s for an amount of coal emanating from nearby mines. However it's unclear if its source was Wigan or St Helens. The mining in these early periods in St Helens was on a very small scale and was surface coal of generally very poor quality used for lime burning and by blacksmiths.

Mineworking was first recorded in Sutton Heath as early as 1540 with a seam of coal accidentally discovered by members of the Eltonhead family while digging a clay pit. As they were tenants on the Bold estate, this led to a lengthy dispute until the Eltonheads agreed to pay their landlord, Richard Bold, a commission on the coal extracted from his land. The Bolds themselves soon got in on the act and a number of new shafts were dug to the chagrin of the people of Sutton. Documents from about 1588 reveal residents highly critical of the mining operations of Richard Bold and record how mining had made walking in Sutton rather precarious. One said:
 Upon the said wastes, lanes, ways and passages, the earth does sink and so falls upon them in great deepness and holes...and also divers of his majesty's subjects have fallen therein and been drowned, killed and maimed. 

Believed to be the earliest illustration of coal mining activity in Lancashire which refers to ‘Pembtons coal myne’

The earliest illustration of coal mining activity in Lancashire

Earliest illustration of Lancashire mining

A very interesting early illustrative record of coal mining within the old Sutton Township is shown in the Scarisbrick Records of 1580 for the Burtonhead Estate Plan held in the Lancashire records at Preston. This clearly indicates the general location of five workings recorded as Pembton Coal Mines. In 1611 complaints were made to the Hollands as Lords of the Manor of Sutton regarding plans by the Eltonheads and Bolds to sink new shafts in the area.

These latest records were almost 200 hundred years before the introduction of the steam engine development needed to work deeper mines that we do have records for. So the question is what type of mining was carried out in the mid 1500s and how did it develop? Understanding what is meant by these records and more importantly, how Sutton's coal mining history developed, requires us to examine the impact of the key element of mining, which is the geology of the earth in the area. Most of the earth’s strata (i.e. layers) containing coal were horizontal when formed but over millions of years of evolution tremendous forces made significant changes to the strata form. The coal seam strata in the Lancashire Coal Fields, unlike those in the Midlands, has not been kind to mining companies. They had to cope with many challenges that these strata changes created and which was on-going, causing constant roof and floor buckling. It is not intended for this page to cover all of the geology conditions that took place in these periods of evolution; however a few basic ones will illustrate those which did influence the viability of coal mining and made the study of geology such an integral part of mine managers / engineers professional qualifications.

The Sutton Heath, Thatto Heath, Prescot Road area is of an appreciably higher elevation than Sutton itself, a feature caused by a significant upward force over millions of years of evolution. This created, for example, the major fault that passes through Croppers Hill on Prescot Road, a line that forms the northern limits of the old Sutton Township boundary. A fault in the earth's strata is where tremendous pressures have led to it being broken, producing a crack with height difference on either side, which could potentially be up to hundreds of feet. There are many other types of faults far too numerous to cover here, although references are made in the
Bold and Sutton Manor Colliery pages of major faults that seriously impacted on their full utilisation of coal reserves and which required high, expensive technology to overcome.
On the Sutton side (also on the other side) of the Croppers Hill major fault, the strata is unconformable in that a particular coal seam will appear at one depth below the surface in one area with a significant different depth in another area. This is known as the seam dip or seam rise. However even this dip/rise angle between areas might greatly vary, but in general terms the strata containing the Sutton coal seams dip down in a south / south east direction. In relation to the mines around the Ravenhead / Burtonhead districts, this dip promoted a continuous drain of water from the higher Eccleston strata. This would later need to be overcome if the better quality coals, such as Rushey Park, were going to be reached.

One final important but interesting fact of geology relative to mining is that of the strata temperature. The strata temperature in the Sutton mines at a depth of 50 feet is roughly constant at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. However it increases by 1 degree for every 60 feet below that point. This means that the No. 2 shaft bottom temperature at the later Sutton Manor Colliery would naturally be about 88 degrees. When the further depths of coal seam dip are added towards the coal faces – as well as the possible slow oxidation temperature of the coal measures – it can be appreciated that working conditions can be very hot and humid requiring good ventilation. Thankfully in these early days of mining the depths didn't produce those sorts of temperature.

The early 1500s mining described above was at locations where the higher level coal seams had been pushed up and exposed as surface outcrops. Initially these just required removing by pick and shovel, basically being the early opencast mining approach. In locations where clay pits had been dug or stone / slate quarrying had taken place, it soon became evident that if an adjoining coal seam could be seen in the strata, it would be dipping down at a certain angle. In order to keep working the mine, any shafts already dug would need to go deeper to reach that coal. This knowledge led to the very first method of underground mining, known as
Bell Pit Mining, which had started in England around 1300.

Bell Pit Mining was carried out by first manually digging a hole down to the coal seam and the coal removed by digging it out in the form of a bell chamber. The reason for this is that with the slow depletion of available timber to support the roof, the arch of the bell would be the strongest natural shape to minimise the collapse of the workplace. Into these pits the miner would descend via a rope lowered by a simple hand-winch pulley, which a couple of people would work. These would also wind up the coal contained within a basic rush basket that the miner filled.

Whilst the basic method of bringing the coal up appears very simple, fatal accidents did happen. This might be when the basket reached the surface and the worker reached out to pull the basket clear of the shaft and then overbalanced. These early Bell pits were only up to about 25 feet deep, with a limit to the size of the excavation of the chamber largely dictated by the strata geology at that point. Some of the other problems that were faced by the miner were that there was very little ventilation, gas in various forms could be released, he was working with a very basic tallow candle light, stones from within the shaft would be dislodged and being completely open, the chamber would be flooded at times by heavy rain.

When flooding or a complete collapse of the roof occurred or the complete extraction of the coal from within the chamber, the pit would be abandoned and a new shaft close by dug in the coal seam. The result of this was that eventually the whole area would be dotted with abandoned pits, mostly full of water, which created the conditions that the local residents were vocally complaining about in the record above. It is almost certain that the aforementioned Pembton mines would have been worked by this Bell pit method. Whilst it is easy to say now how improvements could then have been made, the available markets have always dictated the evolution of mining, and how much pit owners were willing to pay for their operations.
At the Ravenhead Sanitary Pipe clayhole excavation (next to Ravenhead Colliery) the adjoining strata wall when revealed clearly showed a band of coal within layers of various rock. This had been named the Fiery Mine, because of its very ‘gassy’ nature and being highly prone to combustion. This is depicted in the above photograph by R.G. Brook circa 1903. A clayhole worker is shown standing rather precariously on a ledge, which illustrates by comparison to his height, the thickness of the coal seam together with the relatively short distance to the surface. We know from records from the nearby Peasley Cross Colliery (which was located where the later UGB factory was), that the Fiery seam there was 2 feet 2 inches, and in the photograph this appears to be similar. The dip of these strata is approximately 1 in 7, which in general was a common dip for Sutton mines, but this of course varied throughout the many collieries, as has been said. Juxtaposed with the photograph is a sketch of the typical basic Bell mine technique of hand winding, with the miner shown in the Bell chamber.

The next development method in some English Bell mining records from about 1650, was to have two shafts in operation close together, although not being connected. This is believed to have resulted from miners finding the ventilation in one shaft was passing through the pervious strata structure into the other. This simple development resulted in a significant increase in the potential depth of the shaft because the improved ventilation diluted any gas within the chamber. Obviously with any increase in depth, an improved system of winding was required and this led to the use of a horse walking around in a circle turning the winding drum through a system of ‘cogs and wheels’.

The final development in the Bell Pit story came approximately around the early 1700s with the invention of the steam engines that were used to pump water out of the mine. This in turn was used to drive a water wheel connected to the winding drum. Bell mining although very basic, was, however, a very important period of mining history for Sutton because it provided much valuable information that was used in the economic development of the next stage of coal mining.

Only a few years later the progressive development of local and international trade, canals and railways, together with the Industrial Revolution, brought about increased mechanical invention, with opportunities to establish profitable businesses, and as a consequence coal mining was able to step up to another level. The wider application of the steam engine around 1700, together with the introduction of steel wire ropes, provided the ability to mine deeper to the more better quality coal seams, as well as winding larger loads of coal. Some of the early mines and businessmen operating them, include Jonathan Case and John Mackay.

Left: Showing Bartons Bank Colliery as ‘Old Coal Pit’; Right: Lark Hill Pit near Sherdley Park - Both from 1846 OS map

Left: Bartons Bank as ‘Old Coal Pit’; Right: Lark Hill Pit - 1846 maps

Bartons Bank Colliery on 1846 map

From around 1750 Charles Dagnall, who had made money owning a comb manufacturing business, was operating Bartons Bank Colliery in the Sutton / Watery Lane area along with other mines in Eccleston. He had erected a Newcomen steam engine, which certainly was a measure of his capital. However by 1765 he began selling off his mines, then the steam engine and finally the comb business and in 1870 was declared bankrupt - another indication of the difficulties in early mining. Bartons Bank Colliery was later worked by James Fletcher until his death in Sutton on June 15th 1838 aged 49. On September 5th of 1839 the mine was put up for auction at the Raven Inn in St.Helens, where it was referred to as Lower Barton's Bank Colliery. However there is no known evidence of it being worked past that year, despite the pit's close proximity to the railway. This district, incidentally, later became known locally as the "Owd Bonk".

An interesting feature on the 1846 Ordnance Survey map is the notation to the Lark Hill Coal Pit. There are no records available that we can find to nominate who owned the pit, but it would have been situated on land owned by the Hughes family, with its coal lease royalty paid to them. The interesting point is that a rail line had been put in place from the St.Helens Runcorn Railway near Peasley Cross bridge, which together with the lease cost, suggests that it was capable of covering these costs. On the plan very little support buildings are indicated, so that it is felt ownership by the Bourne Robinson Company was a distinct possibility as it was close to Sherdley Colliery. The rail line connected to lines out of Peasley Cross Colliery, with both collieries being owned by this company.

In 1826
Ellen Hughes of Sherdley Hall gave a fifty year lease to Messrs. Bournes and Robinson for a mine in Sutton which led to an escalation in mining activity. This was largely through the creation of two new railways that could quickly connect collieries with their markets. Other pits were created at Sherdley (c.1873), Lea Green (c.1875), Bold (1876), Clockface (1890) and Sutton Manor (1901). The Sherdley estate profited by collecting rent from a number of mines, including the St.Helens Colliery Company, Sutton Heath and Lea Green Colliery Company and the Sutton Manor Colliery Company which continued well into the 1940s.

By the mid-1840s, the output of coal in St.Helens districts was a million tons a year. Consumption of coal had greatly increased due to a rapid expansion of factories, growth of the railways and an increase in the use of steam boats. However, being a miner was an especially hard life which was illustrated on December 13th 1843 at a public meeting of three hundred local colliers that took place at the Moor Flat in St.Helens. A number of Sutton miners attended and their working lives were summed up in a keynote speech delivered by William Dickson of Manchester as reported in the Liverpool Mercury of 15/12/1843:
 No man in his labour was more exposed to physical exertion than the coal miner. In a place two feet high, how must he double himself up to work!… In some instances the collier was compelled to work naked, up to the middle in water. In a few years he was so surfeited that he could scarcely walk, and at thirty years of age they would not be taken for less than fifty. Look round this meeting. There is not one with the bloom of health on his cheek…the coal miner had to contend with the explosion of hydrogen and oxygen gas, and his health was undermined by inhaling poisonous gases from the minerals by which they were surrounded.  
The mines were the largest employer in Sutton and by 1900, 6000 men worked in them. They were renowned as hard working fellows but not always the most popular of folk. In 1862 Samuel Bishop the owner of a flint glass works remarked that:
 Colliers have a bad name; they used to live as it were isolated from everyone and were rough and ignorant; to some extent they are so still but towns have grown up round coal pits of late years ...the colliers have now been forced to mix more with their fellows and have improved accordingly. 

Left: Sutton-born Sam Woods; Right: Sherdley Colliery headgears which stood for many years after the pit ceased production

Left: Sutton-born Samuel Woods; Right: Sherdley Colliery headgears

Left: Sutton-born Sam Woods; Right: Headgears of Sherdley Colliery

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the wages and employment rights of local miners were improved by the formation of the Lancashire Miners' Federation in 1881 and then the Miners' Federation of Great Britain in 1888. Samuel Woods (1846-1916), who was born in Sutton, was the first president of the former and vice-president of the latter and briefly a Member of Parliament.

In April 1893 the Lancashire Miners' Federation voted for a closed shop and the minority non-union workforce in Sutton and St.Helens' pits were given a deadline of June 24th to become unionised or face unemployment. The ultimatum was issued by miners' agent Thomas Glover (1852-1913), who called for the miners to 'prove yourselves men by joining at once'. In 1906 Glover became the Labour Party's first St.Helens MP. In June 1914 the South-West Lancashire Miners' Federation pursued what newspapers dubbed a 'crusade' against non-unionist workers. St.Helens was considered the 'black spot of Lancashire' for non-unionism, especially in Sutton, and strikes took place.

Alexandra Colliery named after the Princess of Wales who visited the Ravenhead Glassworks nearby in 1865

Alexandra Colliery named after the Princess of Wales who visited Ravenhead

Alexandra Colliery in Ravenhead

Relations between pitmen and their employers was often poor with many strikes, often initiated by reductions in pay. The strike of 1881 led to a 100-strong detachment of infantry being based in St.Helens from January 22nd, ready to quell any disturbances. During the morning of February 9th it was made known to magistrates that 1500 colliers planned to march from Croppers Hill to Sutton Heath Colliery, where some miners were still working. So they sent a telegram calling for cavalry back up. A troop of the 5th Dragoon Guards quickly arrived in the town and their presence, along with a large body of police, managed to avert any trouble.

The near-national strike / lockout of 1893 badly affected many Lancashire pits and their communities. It was caused by a drop in the market price of coal and the colliery owners’ desire to compensate for reduced income by paying 25% less to their miners and drawers. There were many incidents in the Sutton district and on October 19th 1893, eighty police were showered with stones at Sutton Heath colliery by what the Manchester Courier said was a 'mob of 500 persons'. They'd assembled to try and stop some strike-breakers who'd been working in the pit and the men flung boxes of coal into the reservoir and threw stones down the pit shaft. After the police arrived in a number of wagonettes, the crowd was charged and they scattered in all directions.

Inventor Charles Heyes and part of the St.Helens Newspaper account of July 2nd 1915 - Contributed by Mary Heyes

Inventor Charles Heyes and St.Helens Newspaper account of July 2nd 1915

Inventor Charles Heyes of Sutton

Throughout the twentieth century there were many improvements in safety and mining practices down the pits. On July 13th 1914 a miners' rescue station was opened near Sherdley Colliery by Sir Thomas Ratcliffe Ellis. This had been paid for by the local colliery owners and was intended to train pit rescue teams in the best methods of life-saving. There were also numerous technological developments and the landlord of Sutton's Locomotive Inn, Charles Heyes, developed a safety device of his own. Heyes was also an engineer in a local foundry and along with his associate Jack Yates, patented the Provident Patent Safety Catch. This was a device that was intended to prevent pit cages from plummeting if their ropes or chains broke.

On June 30th 1915, Heyes demonstrated the invention at his Peckers Hill Road pub to members of the St.Helens and District Miners' Central Committee. The St.Helens Newspaper of July 2nd devoted many column inches to the demonstration, commenting how the attendees were full of praise for the safety device. However,
Councillor Waring predicted difficulties in persuading the colliery owners to invest in it. So the committee called upon the government to immediately instigate tests of the Provident Patent Safety Catch and if they proved satisfactorily, make its use compulsorily in mines.

An improved version of the device was patented in 1921, however it's unlikely that it was ever used in mines despite the enthusiasm of its supporters. For one thing there were others offering similar safety devices. It is known that Heyes became a director of the British Quick Fire Light Company based in Hoghton Road. They seemed to manufacture brass fittings that allowed the transmission of gas to domestic fires, thus enabling a faster ignition of coal. However this would have had limited appeal due to the additional gas costs and Charles Heyes was made bankrupt in 1924. Shortly afterwards he left the 'Round House' - as the Locomotive Inn was known to Suttoners - and moved to Croydon to find work.

Winding house / pit headgear at Sutton Heath Colliery on the corner of Sutton Heath Road and Eltonhead Road

Winding house / pit headgear at Sutton Heath Colliery in St.Helens

Headgear at Sutton Heath Colliery

The 1926 general strike and subsequent lockout hit all miners hard as relief was only paid to dependents of married miners. So on the 17th June Sutton miners poured into St.Helens town centre to join a march of 15,000 mineworkers who processed to the offices of the Poor Law Institution at Whiston. The St.Helens Newspaper reported on the event:
 In the streets adjacent to Bridge Street men were massed in their thousands from not only the centre of the town, but from Sutton, Parr, Clock Face, Sutton Manor and other districts...A jazz band from Sutton Manor appeared to appeal. 

1926 march to Whiston demanding Poor Law Relief with Sutton Manor British Legion jazz band


March demanding Poor Law Relief with Sutton Manor British Legion jazz band


March demanding Poor Law Relief with Sutton Manor British Legion jazz band

The Sutton Manor British Legion Jazz Band was formed during the 1926 lock out with the aim of raising funds for the miners' families. The photograph below of band members was taken in front of the British Legion Club in Gartons Lane, which was a timber structure that was later rebuilt with bricks and still stands today as a pump repair works.

Sutton Manor British Legion Jazz Band was formed during the 1926 lock out - contributed by George Houghton

Sutton Manor British Legion Jazz Band was formed during the 1926 lock out

Sutton Manor British Legion Jazz Band

The soup kitchens in Sutton and Clock Face were said to be amongst the best in the borough with local shopkeepers donating food and giving credit to hard-pressed families. A Sutton miner's wife in later years remembered:
 They didn't give us any strike money unless it was the odd half-a-crown now and then. I know we got food vouchers, that is all. We were really all in the same boat then, everyone was miners round Sutton. You could all console one another. It made a mess of the shops. Mr. Bell, the grocer, hung himself. He had so much owing to him through the strike. 
In 1850 there had been 36 collieries within St.Helens but by 1920 there were just a dozen. Of these eight were situated within the boundaries of the former Sutton township, namely Alexandra, Bold, Clock Face, Lea Green, Ravenhead, Sherdley, Sutton Heath and Sutton Manor. A couple of these would soon close and despite much coal still in the ground, the remaining pits would follow within 70 years.
Below is a list of known Sutton mines. Please contact me if you can add to it:
Ansdale Wood Colliery - Elton Head - Owned by Bournes & Robinson - sunk mid-1820s, closed late 1840s or early 1850s
Bartons Bank Colliery - Watery Lane - first mentioned 1750s - Taken over by James Fletcher, who ran it up to his death in 1838 when the colliery appears to have closed
Bold Colliery - Bold Lane - sunk 1881, closed 1985
Burtonhead Colliery - corner of Burtonhead Road and Sherdley Road - mentioned in 1809 when it was put up for auction, with the right to get coal from under 50 acres of land. Closed ?
Clock Face Colliery - Gorsey Lane - first sunk 1890, closed 1966
Collins Green Colliery - sunk 1800s, closed 1931
Elton Head Colliery - various pits dating back hundreds of years - mentioned in 1829 notices of the Liverpool Manchester railway and on mineworker William Bradshaw's death certificate from 1845 and on OS maps of the time
Lark Hill Pit - shown (only) on the 1849 OS map to the north of Sherdley Park and owned by Bournes and Robinson
Lea Green Colliery - Lowfield Lane - sunk in 1870s, closed 1964
Peasley Cross Colliery - first mentioned in 1856 as Peasley House Colliery with name changed in 1872 - closed 1906
Phoenix Colliery - Burtonhead Road - opened 1873, mentioned in Liverpool Mercury article (23/12/1892) as having 35 men and being 95 yards deep. Then in a Times article (15/11/1893) as having about 200 men. Manager Samuel Urmson unsuccessfully fought West Sutton council election in Nov. 1894 - closed 1895
Ravenhead Colliery (also known as Groves Colliery) - Burtonhead Road - sunk 1866, closed 1895 - reopened and mentioned in Times news article 4/6/1953 - closed in October 1968
St.Helens Brick & Tile / Wood & Co / Old Teapot - small scale mining (Frodsham /Old Teapot pits) associated with a brick and pottery works just south of Sherdley Colliery - began in 1880s, closed 1944
Sherdley Colliery - Broadgate Avenue, north of Green End Lane - first mentioned 1873, closed in 1944
Sutton Colliery - on several sites including that of an old glassworks in Marshalls Cross Lane, Peasley Cross - first mentioned in 1812, closed 1903
Sutton Heath Colliery - corner Sutton Heath Road and Elton Head Road (originally known as Mill Lane) - first mentioned 1867, closed 1932
Sutton Manor Colliery - Jubits Lane - sunk 1906-12, closed 1991
Stephen Wainwright
This website has been written and researched and many images photographed by myself, Stephen Wainwright, the Sutton Beauty & Heritage site owner. Individuals from all over the world have also kindly contributed their own photographs. If you wish to reuse any image, please contact me first as permission may be needed from the copyright owner. High resolution versions of many pictures can also be supplied at no charge. Please also contact me if you can provide any further information or photographs concerning Sutton, St.Helens. You might also consider contributing your recollections of Sutton for the series of Memories pages. Sutton Beauty & Heritage strives for factual accuracy at all times. Do also get in touch if you believe that there are any errors. I respond quickly to emails and if you haven't had a response within twelve hours, check your junk mail folder or resend your message. Thank you! SRW
This website is written and researched by Stephen R. Wainwright ©MMXVII  Contact Me
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