An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire
Part 81 (of 89 parts) - Sutton Manor Colliery Part 2 (1960 - 1991)
An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St.Helens
Part 81 (of 89) - Sutton Manor Colliery 2 (1960 - 1991)
An Illustrated History of
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Sutton Manor Colliery 2
Researched and Written by Stephen Wainwright ©MMXVII
The new Sutton Manor Institute or Welfare Club had been built in 1959 at a cost of £54,000 to replace the original building that had opened in 1922. It was financed from a Lancashire miners' welfare fund grant, of which the NCB contributed halfpenny for every ton of coal from Lancashire pits. However, soon after construction, the miners began complaining of cramped conditions inside the snooker room with insufficient elbow room. The club's committee limited the number of spectators, rearranged the furniture and even bought shorter snooker cues. But it was all to no avail and so three walls of the newly-built club were knocked down and it was rebuilt at a cost of more than £2000. The story of 'Miners Snookered!' even made it into the Times! In the Guardian's account, steward Edward Gallagher said he thought that when the club was at the design stage, they simply measured two snooker tables, forgetting that people have to stand behind them to play.
By the beginning of the 'swinging '60s', Sutton Manor Colliery was in a strong position with 1600 men on its books and coal output levels rising. Now controlled by the National Coal Board (NCB) since the industry's nationalisation in 1947, the colliery was annually outputting over 300,000 tons of coal and it seemed to have a rosy future. They could even afford to knock down and rebuild part of their new social club because there was not enough elbow room in their snooker room!
As revealed in Part 1 of the history of the pit, working underground at Sutton Manor Colliery could be highly dangerous, something that Harry Hickson is very much aware of. Between 1959 and 1966, Harry worked for the National Coal Board as an engineer, initially at Bold Colliery but then working out of the Haydock Area Office, he regularly visited Sutton Manor dealing with underground and surface installations. Harry describes how the above photograph illustrates some of the dangers:
This clearly shows one of the hazards of underground mining, namely extensive geological pressure being applied to an area. In this case it’s a roadway going into and out of the Coal Face. You could get the floor being pushed up, or as in this example, the roof being pushed down by the various faults in the geology of the strata. The Belt Conveyor shown, brings coal from the coal face out to a loading point, where it passes into the Tubs and then taken to the surface. The original roadway construction would consist of the heavy steel arch supports being evenly placed down the tunnel, with intermediate cross supports being placed all the way round between each arch to prevent loose rock from falling onto the conveyor, or more importantly, onto anybody walking to and from the coal face. The steel arches have been bent and twisted by tremendous roof pressure, the intermediate supports have been broken, or have come out, and about halfway on the right, there has been a considerable fall of roof material under the conveyor. On the left side the service pipes (air / water), have been pushed off their block supports and are bent / twisted. It will take a large amount of time and much material input to make this a safe working area.
During the early '60s, the National Coal Board began a study of the industry's pits, assessing long-term economic viability and cost-effectiveness. In October 1965 as a consequence of their controversial 'streamlining' initiative, the NCB decided to close the apparently uneconomic Clock Face Colliery. However, the adjacent Sutton Manor with its record-breaking production figures seemed to have a much more secure future. Having initially (and rather surprisingly) placed Sutton Manor in the 'jeopardy' class of at risk pits, the NCB removed it from their list and began an advertising campaign to recruit boys to Sutton Manor and Bold collieries. In a series of advertisements placed in the St.Helens Reporter during 1966, 15-year-old school leavers were promised a job for life:
Coal mining offers Apprenticeship and a Lifetime's career. Boys entering coal mining today can look forward to a lifetime in the industry. The new streamlined Coal Industry will have fewer collieries but they will be big ones and highly mechanised. And there's an Apprenticeship waiting for every boy accepted.
Fresh young recruits were promised "good pay right from the day you start". If they chose to work underground they'd receive a weekly wage of £7 3s 6d a week. The wage on offer for a 15 year-old surface worker at Sutton Manor was only slightly less, at £6 9s 6d. Employment benefits on offer included access to the canteen, pit-head showers, club and sports facilities.
Ex-miners were also targeted by the National Coal Board as part of their recruitment campaign using the headline 'Come Back Into Mining'. They were promised better pay than before plus 'permanent employment and a secure future'. The strap-line of the ads used uppercase to emphasise the longevity of employment on offer: 'Britain will need coal and mines for a LONG, LONG TIME'.
On January 10th 1967 the St.Helens Newspaper reported that £361,000 had been earmarked for future projects at Sutton Manor. These included a monorail system for carrying materials, the installation of powered supports and the enhancement of electronic indicating equipment, which linked underground machinery with a control panel on the surface.
In February 1967 AEI Electronics of Leicester announced that they were supplying remote conveyor control and monitoring equipment worth £100,000 to seven collieries, including Sutton Manor, which would be equipped during the following month. In March 1968 the NCB announced plans to cease coal production in No. 1 pit, in order to concentrate resources on the more economic seams within pit No. 2. The local NUM branch organised a mass meeting of mineworkers to discuss the proposals and the decision was taken to oppose them. This was despite a warning by area secretary Joe Gormley that a refusal to accept the plans could jeopardise the future of No. 2 pit. Sutton Manor’s secretary Joe Connelly disagreed, telling the St.Helens Reporter that:
The Board are painting such a glorious future for No. 2 that there are no reasons why it should close down. It is a well-known fact that No. 1 is uneconomic, but it has been said that Sutton Manor will be one of the finest collieries in the country. The miners, however, are still unhappy about the future. They want redundancy pay so that they can leave the industry and find alternative work.An unnamed miner added: “We are fighting for survival, for food, for a fair deal”. However with the backing of Joe Gormley, the NCB’s proposals were supported by a vote at the union's north-west area conference. As a consequence there was a reduction in the workforce of 481 men, leaving 937 men still on the books producing about ½ million tons of coal per year. Shaft No. 1 was still used by the colliery for essential ventilation as the downcast shaft and for winding operations for men and materials. No. 2 pit was the upcast shaft for winding coal tubs and where air exited the mine following its transit around the workings. The outside of No. 2 shaft was closed and sealed by concrete walls with the colliery’s main fan connected to this shaft via a fan drift. The fan drew air around the mine, with fresh air in effect being sucked down No. 1 shaft. Men and coal tubs entered and exited the upcast shaft through an airlock system.
The above photograph (left) show empty tubs ready to be sent back underground at Sutton Manor after being emptied by the tipplers. The above picture (right) shows the Banksman at the top of the shaft with empty tubs, which he has just loaded into the cage deck. There are two tubs on each deck, and he is responsible for ensuring that they are loaded correctly and will travel to the pit bottom safely. The Banksman controls the movement of the cage deck to the correct unloading / loading position by sending the appropriate signal to the winder in the Winding House. Unloading involves pushing the full tubs out of the cage to the other side, where they travel to the tipplers which empties them and they then come back round the circuit to the loading level. On the left of the photo you can see the safety gate guarding the shaft where the other cage is at its bottom, carrying out the same operations of loading and unloading. Materials such as steel arches, timber etc. are sent down the shaft in the same tubs, or longer trams, which are loaded in the colliery stockyard. Small windows of time are given for the winding of men up and down the shaft, while the tubs are out of the cages. (Description by Harry Hickson)
On May 17th 1969 fitter John Kenyon lost his life at the colliery while dismantling a coalface cutting machine. It somehow moved or slipped, which caused a part of the machine to detach and strike Kenyon, fatally injured him. As well as a manager each pit had its own undermanager, with Teddy Catterall and Ronnie Pearson serving in that position during this period.
On May 4th 1973 the St.Helens Reporter described how a £200,000 boost would give Sutton Manor Colliery a new lease of life and save it from closure by 1980. The NCB planned to use the cash injection to exploit virgin reserves in order to boost production by almost 2,000 tons a week, from what was then 350,000 tons a year to £460,000 tons. Twin 1,150 yard roadways would be driven through a major geological fault to get at 6 million tons of high quality coal in three seams. Peter Tregnelles, Director of NCB North-Western Area, said:
Without this injection of cash, the pit would have exhausted its workable reserves by 1980. The new seams are of good quality, and there is no reason why Sutton Manor should not continue to make a valuable contribution to the nation’s energy needs for many years.It was also revealed in May that Sutton Manor’s average coal output per manshift during the past year had been 33 cwt. This wasn’t considered bad but it was 11 cwt less than the output of Bold Colliery. On November 12th 1973 the NUM introduced an overtime ban in pursuit of a wage claim. On January 13th 1974, NCB Chairman Derek Ezra described how on a visit to Sutton Manor, he had seen volunteers manning the boiler house and having to operate the steam engines that powered the winching gear. Ezra also said that the overtime ban meant that underground workers were having to be laid off for two days, while winding cables were replaced. The coal board was bound by law to replace these cables every three years, but the work would normally be done at Sutton Manor during weekends. Ezra had a 30-minute tour of the colliery with its General Manager Ted Hart and Production Manager Gordon Gillatt and later at a press conference praised the management staff volunteers who were undertaking important maintenance and safety work.
The national dispute, which badly affected production at Sutton Manor, led to a state of emergency being declared and a general election. On February 28th 1974 the Daily Express reported how strike-bound Sutton Manor Colliery had agreed to allow 600 tons of coal to be shipped to an Ulster hospital that was running out of supplies. The NUM branch gave permission after Coal Board officials passed on an urgent appeal from the Londonderry hospital.
Later in 1974 a new 10-ton triple drilling rig was introduced that was said to resemble a mechanical octopus. It replaced the traditional hand-held drills in penetrating the new reserves and was the first in use within the Western coal field. The eight-strong-team of operators were trained on the new machine in Cornwall and overman Jack Ditchfield from Haydock told the St.Helens’ press how delighted he was with it:
It takes a full shift to drill such a big roadway using three hand-held percussive machines. But this new machine will cut drilling time by 30 per cent straight away. And when we fully realise its capabilities, there should be no stopping us.In October 1976 the feasibility of the untapped coal field just south of Sutton Manor at Barrows Green - that had been first mooted in May 1973 - was confirmed after the drilling of bore holes. The Colliery Manager Peter Male was quoted in the St.Helens press as saying that this boded well for the future:
Sutton Manor has been in jeopardy for some years because of a shortage of results from the coal face and we have lost some money. But this new field opens up new roads for the future and there are reserves of coal to last the pit for up to thirty years.However it would take about 18 months before the first Barrows Green production face would be ready. Coal was also being obtained from the two faces in the Higher Florida and Wigan Four Feet seams and marketed locally to industry, power stations and the domestic market. Although Sutton Manor now had a slimmed down workforce, there weren't as many accidents and the colliery seemed to have a good future. One mineworker's family was also able to enjoy a free trip to the Soviet Union!
Tommy Ludden worked in the Powder magazine and distributed detonators to shotfirers. About 1974 Tommy and his wife Mary - a former Sutton Manor pit brow lass who was then working at the colliery as a cleaner - travelled to Russia with daughter Jane on a three week all-expenses paid holiday. This was as a result of an arrangement between the Soviet super-power's Miners Union and Britain's National Union of Mineworkers. It was a wonderful opportunity to get away from the dirt and grime of the pit in the company of fifty other mining families from all over the UK. This group picture (above) was taken in a Black Sea resort with 11-year-old Jane sat on the front row 3rd left next to her mother and enjoying three weeks off school! Sutton Manor miners were selected from a rota and had to be members of the union to qualify for the holiday.
This photograph shows Joe Gormley, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, on a visit to Sutton Manor Colliery about 1975. The former coal face worker at Bold Colliery is pictured in the lamproom signing for a lamp along with Sid Vincent, the Lancashire NUM secretary. Foreman lampman Alf Houghton is pictured on the left pointing out the correct place to sign.
The above photograph from 1976 shows a group of police officers from St.Helens who, accompanied by three Sutton Manor mineworkers, are enjoying a tour of the colliery. The bobbies are the ones dressed more for a night out than a trip underground! On the far right of the photo is Tommy Peet, a mining instructor at Old Boston who had come to the colliery to learn the job of Training Officer. Standing next to him is Sutton Manor Colliery Training Officer Brian Salkeld. PC Tom Foster is fifth from the right.
In January 1977 some long-serving Sutton Manor and Bold miners were sent on a pre-retirement course at the industry’s Old Boston training centre. This was intended as a pilot scheme for the National Coal Board and was believed to be the first of its kind in the country. More than 20 veteran pitmen, who were approaching retirement age volunteered for the 16-hour course, which provided advice on pensions, benefits insurance, tax and even the need for active interests upon retirement. The classes were run by senior training officer, Percy Davies and course tutor Bob Howarth and impressed 62-year-old Sutton Manor miner John Clark, who said he wanted to return for more. In January 1978 the NCB announced a local incentive agreement with the Manor men. Such productivity deals were opposed by union leader Arthur Scargill but could mean up to £40 extra pay for underground workers at the colliery.
This history of Sutton Manor would not be complete without describing the volunteers who served as the colliery's firefighters. The significant dangers from a fire at a colliery cannot be over emphasised and after nationalisation a drive took place to ensure that each colliery had the best equipment. This was to be operated by a highly trained staff, supported by a professional full-time fire officer. As well as dealing with on site incidents and undertaking training, the team of firefighters at Sutton Manor competed in the annual Fire Brigades' competitions, which were open to teams from factories and pits.
The photograph above contributed by John Gill shows a team participating in West Lancashire Collieries’ Fire Fighting Championship during the early 1960s. The picture depicts the start of the competition in which the Sutton Manor team have run to the portable fire pump, pushed and manoeuvred it into the secured ‘nominated’ operating position. The team are in the process of removing the stored pump and connecting hoses under the observation of a Fire Officer, who is ensuring that each procedure is correctly carried out. Bob Ball is seen to the left and ‘Jock’ Irvine is in the foreground - more photographs from this competition can be seen in Photo Album 7.
Sutton Manor was also very successful in firefighting competitions during the 1970s and ‘80s and acquired many trophies. One of their best years was 1978 when the eight-man team entered six contests and won awards in all but one. Colliery Fire Officer Billy Saunders was quoted in the St.Helens Star on October 12th as saying: “Skill, initiative and total enthusiasm are the ingredients for success and the Sutton team have all of that”. As well as Billy, the core of the group included Colin Neimarlija, Terry Gilford, Jack Prescott and Alan Barnes, who all served for many years during the 1970s and ‘80s.
The aforementioned lamp room team also played an important safety role within the colliery. They were charged with not just distributing the lamps used by the men down the pit, but in keeping them in top condition. These photographs were taken in September 1981 with the picture above showing (L to R) Bob Mellor, Tommy Stanley, Nic Neimarlija and Alf Houghton. Bob and Alf are reprised in this second photo.
In 1982 the colliery announced its intention to sell surplus methane gas to the ICI Pilkington Sullivan works at Widnes. A 5 mile-long pipeline linked Sutton Manor with ICI and over five million therms of methane - equivalent to three million gallons of oil - was pumped through it. Cooling, distribution and pumping facilities were sited at the colliery and filtration and metering equipment was situated at ICI. The scheme cost £3 million and began on July 14th 1983.
Also that year Sutton Manor Colliery was chosen to undertake the first underground trials of a high pressure water assisted roadheader machine. Water had long been used in mines to reduce coal dust and prevent frictional sparks. The former impaired miners' visibility and had serious health risks, while the latter could cause explosions. Initially the method of application was somewhat crude using hand-held hoses, which was somewhat hit and miss. Over the years the means of deploying water in mining operations improved considerably, although its effectiveness was often curtailed by severe limitations in the water supply.
By the 1980s it was appreciated that the quantity and pressure of the water were vital factors for an efficient deployment. So purpose-built machines were designed, complete with large water tanks. Some early trials were conducted at the limestone mine at Middleton. These led to Anderson Strathclyde developing an RH22 High Pressure Water Assisted Roadheader in early 1983. Roadheaders were excavating / tunnelling machines with boom-mounted cutting heads, which had first been employed in mining during the 1950s.
Sutton Manor began the first coal mining trials of the RH22 HPWA in August 1983. A bulky machine weighing 35 tons and measuring 28 feet in length, it carried a 455 litre water tank, plus a 700 bar high pressure pump on its rear. The roadheader was employed within the mine’s Main Florida Intake, tunnelling under the Trencherbone coal seam, as well as through shale, mudstone, silt and sandstone. This created access to the Higher and Lower Florida coal seams, which in the 1980s were seen as being the future of the pit, providing coal for at least twenty years.
The trials lasted six months ending in March 1984 and were largely successful, especially when the RH22 was used at the highest water pressure. The cutting rate increased by 50%, there was no frictional sparking, energy consumption was reduced, machine vibration was minimised, visible dust was virtually eliminated and respirable dust was cut by half. On the negative side the total advance of the roadheader over the 28 week period was only 222 metres. However this was caused by many teething problems that had to be solved during the trial period, as well as through an overtime ban. An impressive 19.62 metres was, however, achieved in a single week towards the end of the six months, which boded well for the future.
In December 1983 the National Coal Board announced a £14 million investment in Sutton Manor which they predicted would provide a 'kiss of life' for the 'viable' pit, converting it into one of Britain's most modern collieries. The St. Helens Star began its report of the cash injection by saying:
Happy days could be here again for pitmen at one hard-grafting colliery. (St.Helens Star 15/12/1983)However the 1984/5 national strike delayed the implementation of the planned improvements. The period of the strike was one of the most difficult times in the colliery's life. Although it is also remembered for the generosity shown by many towards the miners and their families, who were denied state benefits. There were gifts from a number of sources, but especially from people in Liverpool. Sutton Manor's Brian Mitchell and Jim Smith took a brightly painted Play Bus into the city each week and people came out of their homes and donated whatever they could. There were also collection centres in Hardman Street and at the Liverpool Seamens' Offices. For almost a year the Printers Union took Sutton Manor miners to a local cash and carry to buy fruit, bacon, eggs and vegetables. Every week a man, who no one knew, turned up at the Sutton Manor Institute with a large bag of carrots and one of onions.
For the children of the strikers, the free school dinner was a lifeline that served as their main meal of the day and the community also ensured that the youngsters had an annual Christmas party. On August 23rd 1984, 200 children from Sutton Manor families got away from the hardship of the strike through a day in Blackpool. The trip was funded by the NUM and businesses, who provided specially reduced rates. There were also large reductions made by Blackpool Tower and the Winter Gardens, where meals and a disco were enjoyed.
There were some ugly incidents at Sutton Manor during the strike, which developed a reputation as the most militant pit in Lancashire. At the end of August a minibus, which was taking 15 pickets from Northumberland to London for a court hearing, was set on fire outside the Institute. On November 28th 1984 the Guardian newspaper published a photograph of the first coal that Sutton Manager pitmen had hauled to the surface for nine months, with General Manager Peter Earnshaw supervising the operation. However only a quarter of its 800 miners were working, compared to the Lancashire average of 58% with 77% employed in the whole Western area. As production resumed, NCB Western Area director John Northard announced that the investment planned for Sutton Manor had risen to £17.4 million. The three-year modernisation programme, would, said Northard, turn a consistently and heavily-loss-making pit into a profitable one, although there would be a slight reduction in labour. The improvements would entail a new electric winder, new ventilation fan, compressors and boiler plant, as well as modifications to the Coal Preparation Plant. It was claimed to be the biggest ever investment page in a North West pit.
On January 14th 1985 Manager Peter Earnshaw wrote to all still on strike outlining the £17m investment package and stating that 330 men were now back at work. A tax-free payment of more than £2000 was on offer to men who returned to Sutton Manor ending with the plea: “Finally, why not start 1985 by putting the strike behind you and join your mates back at work.” Advertisements were also placed in St.Helens newspapers inviting strikers to return, again telling those who were still out that ‘Your mates are back’. Unfortunately not everyone at Sutton Manor could still be described as mates after the strike ended in March.
The above picture by Ian Lally shows the layout of Sutton Manor Colliery with the following identified: 1) Forest Road 2) Colliery canteen 3) Main gates 4) Manager's block 5) Pit baths clean side 6) Pit baths exit 7) Pit baths dirty side 8) Surveyors office 9) Toilets 10) Engineering workshops 11) Lamproom
Soon after the ending of the strike in 1985, coal distribution by rail ceased at Sutton Manor with transport made by road instead. Over the years a number of locomotives served the colliery, with one of the first being a four-coupled steam engine called Samson, which was broken up in WW1. In 1908 a saddle tank called Ajax was acquired from Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock, which after the war was renamed Haig. Barclay’s also supplied Allenby in 1919 and this and Haig were responsible for pulling all Sutton Manor’s wagons until Monty arrived in 1940. Originally known simply as no. 1956, Monty was quite an old engine having been built in Wolverhampton in 1888.
In 1950 Monty was broken up for scrap with a replacement saddle tank loco acquired from the Hunslet Engine Company and given the same name. Six years later Allenby was transferred to Ravenhead, with Haig despatched to Lea Green Colliery in 1957. A saddle tank called No. 5 arrived in 1956 but had limited use and was broken up three years later. In 1957 diesel loco D1 arrived at Sutton Manor and during 1958 Monty (v.2) was replaced by Clockface. Around this time the colliery ceased using its private railway to the Liverpool and Manchester line at Lea Green, with all coal subsequently sent over the St Helens and Widnes line. During the 1960s Sutton Manor continued its mix of steam and diesel locomotives, with steam engine Amazon acquired in 1964 and another diesel loco arriving from Chisnall Hall Colliery three years later. However diesel became increasingly used and as the need for shunting work decreased at Sutton Manor, just one loco was in daily use.
There was also the stockyard loco (pictured above and part of the John Oates Collection). This small locomotive engine would pull a journey of mine vehicles, tubs and trams that were loaded with a variety of mining supplies to the pit head for sending underground. It would then pull empty vehicles returning from underground back to the stockyard for reloading.
In April 1986 the NCB denied rumours that they were pulling out of Sutton Manor’s £17 million investment scheme but conducted what they called a ‘manpower planning survey’ of the workforce. This involved letters being sent to the mineworkers to find out how they felt about redundancy. In an article in the St.Helens Reporter published on May 2nd 1986, which was titled ‘No job cuts planned – Coal Board’, the NUM revealed that many men had replied that they would consider accepting an offer of voluntary redundancy. However both the NCB and the NUM stressed that the survey was not a sign that job losses were on the way.
On May 20th at a meeting of Bold Parish Council, George McNicholas, a deputy at Sutton Manor, declared that contrary to rumours the colliery would still operating in forty years time. This was during a discussion about water from one of the coal faces, which had been flooding the top of Abbots Hall Avenue in Sutton. After the meeting Councillor McNicholas said: “We have antiquated machinery that will be replaced by August and will help us to make the pit more profitable”.
During the Spring and Summer of 1986, the NCB's successor, British Coal, electrified Sutton Manor's No. 1 shaft steam winder, leaving the No. 2 shaft winder in its original condition of steam. Sutton Manor colliery was, for a time, unique in possessing one of the newest electric winding engines, as well as having one of the oldest in number 2 shaft's steam winder. In fact it was the last colliery in the country to use steam as the St.Helens Reporter had reported eight years earlier:
The sounds and smells of steam engines have left the railways and the factories but they still hang over Sutton Manor Colliery. For steam power is alive and well and putting in a 24 hours a day shift...every year visitors come from all over the country to take a look at one of the last refuges of the steam age. (St.Helens Reporter July 14th 1978)
The No. 1 pit had previously been used for winding men and materials driven with the same coal-fired boilers built by the same company that manufactured the Titanic's boilers and engines. The electrification meant that for the first time in the mine's history, coal could be wound up the No. 1 shaft. The new structure was built around the old headgear, so that during construction coal production could continue. Yates & Thom of Blackburn had originally built the winding engine in 1914 with Fraser & Chalmers of Erith manufacturing the No. 2 pit’s engine. The new work was undertaken by engineering consultant's Qualter Hall & Co. of Barnsley and the opportunity was taken to replace the old coal tubs with modern skips, which upon reaching the surface were emptied onto a conveyor system that led to washery screens. As a result of the electrification, No. 2 shaft now became the primary shaft for winding and transporting men and materials. However there were no changes of mine ventilation with No. 1 continuing as the downcast shaft and No. 2 shaft as the upcast.
With months of this new investment, British Coal shocked Sutton Manor mineworkers by announcing that they were going to make 250 redundancies, more than was expected. The pit was considered uneconomic and the management claimed it was losing £25 for each tonne of coal that it produced. Jack Evans of British Coal told readers of the St.Helens Star that in his opinion some members of the workforce weren't grafting hard enough:
Despite our best efforts to make the pit a success, there is an apparent reluctance on the part of some members of the workforce at Sutton Manor...Its future is in the hands of the men. (St.Helens Star October 9th 1986)
An article in the St.Helens Council magazine ‘Business Focus’ was published around the same time in which British Coal warned that they would halt their £17 million investment programme at Sutton Manor unless the pit’s performance improved. John Harris said: “Output for 1985 – 86 fell 32 per cent short of this year’s budget so there will be no more investment in Sutton Manor until we get better results”. He acknowledged that there had been geological problems, but stressed that the colliery’s current losses could not be sustained. In fact the mine had lost money every year since 1974 and the management was losing patience with the men.
The warning was quickly heeded and by December 1986 British Coal was able to announce that productivity had reached an all-time high of 3.7 tonnes per man. This was one tonne above the previous record that had been set in 1976. At the same time a new coal face productivity record was claimed of 22 tonnes per manshift, almost two tonnes better than previously. Manager John Warwick said they had some of the best quality coal in the Western Area and called for a consistently high performance from the Manor men, in order to prove to British Coal that the colliery can be relied upon to produce coal at the right price and in the right quantities.
However in November 1987 British Coal claimed that a consistently high performance had not been delivered and issued a stark ultimatum to the 427 remaining mineworkers. They gave them just four weeks to turn a loss of £80 on every tonne of coal produced into a profit and if this wasn’t delivered, they would close down the mine. The men responded by breaking all output records but still fell short of the targets set for them by British Coal. Western Area Director Jack Evans had set them an output figure of 12,500 tonnes of coal a week and on December 3rd it was revealed that the Manor men had produced 10,026 tonnes during the past week. This was a record - as was the productivity per man-shift figure - but these were still not good enough. NUM Secretary Colin Brown claimed that the production goals were “totally unreasonable, given the circumstances”, with a cutting tool operating on a brand-new face at just three-quarters of its full capacity.
A fortnight later British Coal held a meeting with union representatives and informed them that Sutton Manor would be given more time to prove they could meet ‘realistic’ production targets. Jack Evans said the colliery had been given a “suspended sentence”, rather than a reprieve. But output and productivity did improve and by the end of January 1988 the colliery was making a profit of up to £200,000 a week. The Sunday Times on January 31st wrote that ‘the turnaround in the once-doomed pit is dramatic’, describing how three times as much coal was being produced at Sutton Manor than before the 1984 strike, with less than half the number of men. Their earnings had also increased from a take-home pay of £80 per week to around £130, along with increased productivity bonuses.
In February British Coal said the nationwide dispute concerning the pit deputies union NACODS was the equivalent of an “own goal” for the future of Sutton Manor, as it was likely to affect output. Safety rules meant that pits couldn’t operate without the presence of deputies and so miners had to be sent home when the deputies were on strike or observing an overtime ban. Union secretary Colin Brown said: “We have shown we are capable of meeting their targets but if we cannot get down the mine we cannot produce the coal”.
On June 16th 1988 Manor pitmen Kevin Mather, Bob Baugh, Alan Swift and the aforementioned Colin Brown appeared in the St.Helens Star with their pet pooch Gilford. The dog had wandered into their lamp room some weeks earlier and decided to take up residence. As the animal had been found above ground, it was given the name of the colliery’s surface superintendent. Whether Terry Gilford considered it to be a tribute or insult wasn't recorded!
The above picture (left) shows a group of fitters, joiners and miners enjoying a tea break. Note the significantly oil/grease-stained overalls, which suggests that some serious maintenance work was being undertaken on that day. Please get in touch if you can you explain exactly what they were doing. Back row L-R: Alan Williams; Colin Walker; Johnny Roberts; Ste Simm; Mick Conlin. Sat down: Tony Conlin Snr.; Terry Gilford; Mick Spriggs; Alan Woods. Kneeling: Tommy Price and Ste Conlin. The above photo (right) shows Undermanager Tom Melvin and Colliery Deputy Ken Bailey Snr. in the Colliery Control Room. This was the communication centre for contact with and from all underground districts and was the nerve centre of the colliery. The control room could be contacted by telephone and via an underground tannoy system known as ‘DACS’, after the name of the manufacturer, Derby Automation Consultants. These pictures are part of the John Oates Collection in Sutton Manor Colliery Photo Album 8, with captions and above descriptions and ids by Ken Bailey Jnr.
In August 1988 it was announced that the colliery had broken another productivity record with output breaking through the six tonnes a man barrier for the first time. Output from the pit’s 280-metre long Florida 24s face set a record of 14,550 tonnes, which was more than 1000 tonnes better than the previous best coal face tonnage. In 1989 Sutton Manor miner Steve Sullivan was made president of the Lancashire area NUM but continued to work on the coal face. Steve had played a leading role in the 1984/5 strike, during which he discovered that he had a talent for public speaking. As an activist he helped to ensure that the majority of Lancashire mineworkers went on strike and that Sutton Manor pitmen stayed out for as long as they did. Sadly Steve died aged just 41 in 1997, after a long fight against cancer.
The redundancies in 1986 left just 425 men on the colliery's books and by February 1990 with a downsized workforce, matters seemed to be improving. In the 5th edition of in-house publication 'Sutton Manor Magazine', then Colliery Manager Ken Leech praised the men for breaking three output records since the previous edition of the 4-page newsletter. For week ending 20/01/1990, total weekly output had been a record 15,096 tonnes and the colliery results for the month of January 1990 were shown as an operating profit of £157,000, with net profit after capital charges of £46,000.
Happy mineworkers posed for a photograph at the beginning of 1990 propping up a board which detailed their record breaking activities, subtitled as 'Manor Men Are Back Again'. The caption underneath the picture in 'Sutton Manor Magazine', referred to the output levels as a 'grand achievement'. Colliery Manager Mr. Leech in an article entitled 'Well Done!' explained that "work is well underway" on a new coal face. On February 1st the St.Helens Star published an article on the production success, which featured a photograph of Sutton Manor mineworkers holding up letters that formed the word ‘CHAMPS’. They wrote: ‘These powerhouse pitmen have hacked away at the record books and helped protect the future of their colliery’. Similar record breaking coal production levels had been achieved in 1988 and in both years a Sutton Manor ‘Record Breakers’ tie was given to all members of the workforce.
Concerns for the future of the colliery were raised again on March 15th 1990 when it was included in a lit of 41 pits that were considered most at risk of closure. In an in-depth report issued by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, economists Stephen Fothergill and Stephen Witt predicted that the Government’s plans to privatise British Coal would lead to the closure of many collieries, causing 35,000 mining job losses over five years. However British Coal dismissed the forecasts as “no more than guesswork” and Sutton Manor’s NUM Branch Secretary Rod Fraser said that the duo’s comments were “alarmist”, with privatisation actually helping the colliery. This was through an increase in orders for coal from National Power at Bold Power Station and PowerGen at Fiddlers Ferry. Fraser added that Sutton Manor’s coal was extremely high in calorific value with 85% of its output going to power stations.
By December 1990 the Colliery Manager was Peter Redford and in the Christmas edition of 'Sutton Manor Magazine (no. 9) he informed the pitmen that in the quarter that ended in October, output had gone down. He claimed that British Coal had lost money and so Sutton Manor had been put back into the 'Reconvened Review Procedure'. However, the colliery manager also revealed that since October, the week by week tonnage was starting to rise and there was some cautious optimism for the future with Redford also referring to planned development work.
So there was some bewilderment when on March 11th British Coal’s North West Group announced that the pit was unviable and recommended its immediate closure to the Corporation of British Coal. They claimed that Sutton Manor Colliery had lost £23 million over the previous five years, including a loss during 1991 so far of £3.2 million. On the following day members of the local NUM met to decide what action to take. Branch and Area President Steve Sullivan reported to the media that the men had voted to appeal against the decision. North Group Director Frank Middleton said he hoped there would be no compulsory redundancies and that those of the 450 men at Sutton Manor, including contractors, who wished to continue working for the company would be found work at other pits.
The MP for St.Helens South, Gerry Bermingham, criticised the decision and said he would raise the matter in the House of Commons:
The news has infuriated me, coming as it does after so much hard work put in by so many employees. It is a complete slap in the face and is a very short-sighted position. Sutton Manor had considerable reserves but the Coal Board has a policy of closing every pit to wind down production to allow a market for cheap, imported coal.On March 25th a campaign group was formed to fight the closure plans, spearheaded by the local MPs and Councillor Dave Watts, the Deputy Leader of St.Helens Council. Dave was also the regional chairman of the Coalfield Communities Campaign and said:
The miners have a watertight case. Sutton Manor is far from being uneconomic. The pit is making a profit now and has good prospects for the future. The consequences of this proposal do not bear thinking about. The Sutton area supplies more than 75 per cent of the labour at the pit and the loss of more than 300 jobs in such a close knit community would be absolutely disastrous.Despite the protests Sutton Manor Colliery finally closed on May 24th 1991 with 40 years of coal said to be still underground and a new £40 million Gladstone dock being constructed at Liverpool to handle cheap imported coal. Most staff continued working for several months dismantling the mine, salvaging equipment and making it all safe. Some left Sutton Manor as NCB employees but then returned working for private mining salvage companies until all the equipment had been removed. By the end of 1992 the whole site had been flattened. Budge Mining (now known as UK Coal) then spent two years with six staff in a mobile washroom, washing the coal that was picked out of the colliery spoil heap.
In August 1991 there was a final act of charity from the men when the Sutton Manor NUM branch fund was disposed of. There was £12,000 left in the account and it was decided that half should go towards the creation of a new hospice for the terminally ill, which became known as Willowbrook. £2,000 each went to Whiston and Alder Hey Hospitals for new equipment, with the remaining £2,000 towards the refurbishment of the Miners’ Home at Bispham.
The old National Coal Board gates in Jubits Lane and the remnants of the pit shafts are all that’s left to remind visitors of the site's illustrious past. After the colliery’s closure, the shafts were filled with stone from the pit bottom up to the first inset. Concrete was then poured in and more stone added up to the next inset, where more concrete was introduced. This process was repeated up to the top of the shaft, where a concrete cap and pipe were added.
The stone came from Holme Park quarry near Carnforth. John Melling was aged about 14 at the time and recalls working in the school holidays with his uncle who was contracted to bring stone from the quarry to Sutton Manor. John believes that the total amount of stone that his uncle and other haulage companies delivered was about 30,000 tons.
The stone was sent along a conveyor and into the shafts. I recall it took many weeks and the stone was a large grade, around 6 to 8 inches across. I remember one of the men who was working on site telling us how the first lot of stone that was dropped down the shaft sounded like thunder from above. It was one of those things that fascinates you as a young lad. It seemed a never ending job with truck after truck heading down from Carnforth for weeks.John adds that around the same time the Hotties canal in St Helens was being drained and all the rubbish and mud that had been scraped from the bottom was tipped onto the Sutton Manor slag heaps. These used to be enormous and they dominated the 230 acre site, which is now a Forestry Commission-managed woodland enjoyed by many. The people of Sutton haven't forgotten the site's illustrious past and, hopefully, the old NCB gates will remain as an ever-present physical legacy. In 2009 a number of heritage seats were installed on the site, courtesy of nearby Sutton Manor Primary and artist Bernadette Hughes, and a heritage art trail will be installed in 2010. Former mineworkers have considerable affection for their former workplace and as many as nine have had their ashes scattered or interred there.
A number of former Sutton Manor pitmen became councillors or civic leaders such as Harry Williams, who worked at the colliery for 50 years as a foreman in the power house. In fact his brothers Arthur and Wilfred worked for similar durations and so the trio put in about 150 years combined service at the pit. Harry held the distinction of being the Mayor of St.Helens in 1973, its final year as a borough council prior to becoming a Metropolitan Borough under Merseyside.
Mike McGuire served as MP for Ince from 1964 to 1983 and was then the parliamentary representative for Makerfield until 1987. When at Sutton Manor, McGuire served as full-time branch secretary of the NUM. Dr. Ken Moses CBE from Thatto Heath was a General Manager at Sutton Manor Colliery and later worked as a senior executive at British Coal. Former pitman Brian Spencer was until 2010 the Leader of St.Helens Council. Ernest Patterson deserves a mention too for his football prowess. The Manor miner of Shakespeare Road played some games for Manchester City in the early 1950s and was scouted by Doncaster Rovers.
Another with a distinguished Sutton Manor service record was Noah Lamb (1898-1990) who spent forty-eight years down the pit. Noah is pictured sitting on his bed inside his white cottage at 30 Chester Lane in Marshalls Cross where he was born. Being a miner for almost half a century didn't appear to do Noah any harm, as he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-two.
George Beresford Streete worked at Sutton Manor for 30 years after arriving in the UK from his native Jamaica in 1950. He served as a pit deputy and is remembered by colleagues for his ever-present smile. George's German-born wife Esther was a district midwife for 35 years after starting nursing at St.Helens Hospital. The mine also employed large numbers of Polish, Lithuanian and Russian pit men. On Saturday nights during the 1940s, Polish and Lithuanian miners often fought each other outside the Griffin pub!
Although many Sutton Manor Colliery pit workers lived in 'miners houses' in local streets, such as Tennyson Street and Forest Road, others like George and Esther Streete lived in Ditton at Widnes. Their houses were built by the NCB to house miners' families from Sutton Manor, as well as Cronton. They would cycle to work, unlike the local lads who'd mainly walk, the noise of their clogs puncturing the early morning peace. Post-war many of the mineworkers were proud of their gardens. The NCB held an annual garden competition and there was keen rivalry between neighbours. Pictured above is the home and garden of Sutton Manor pitman Albert Rigby, who lived in one of the Ditton houses. A keen gardener, Albert won the competition or was runner up on several occasions. Pictured in the 1950s prior to smokeless fuel, the houses are soot-stained like many other buildings at that time.
Although there were many improvements in terms of technology and practice during the 20th century, working down Sutton Manor was never easy. Ex-pit man Gary Conley described the conditions on BBC North West Tonight on March 4th 2009, in a report that commemorated a quarter of a century since the start of the 1984 strike: "It was hotter than the flames of hell in some sections and cold as the Antarctic in others."
Despite the often harsh conditions, the bonds of friendship between the workforce, in what's been called a family pit, were very strong. Almost twenty years since the closure, many mineworkers still have a considerable connection to the site. On May 31st 2009 as part of the Big Art Project, a work of public art called Dream was officially opened at the apex of the former colliery's spoil heap, which rises 270 feet above sea level. This artwork towers over the M62 and was designed by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa both to serve as a memorial for the site's heritage but also to look forward to the future. Appropriately, former Sutton Manor pitmen have played a pivotal role in commissioning this monument to the blood, sweat and toil that took place underneath the statue for eighty-five years of the twentieth century.
ALSO SEE: Memories of Sutton Manor by Stan Johnson who worked at the colliery from 1955-62; My Apprenticeship - Some Memories by Ken Bailey Jnr. who worked at Sutton Manor from 1975 until its closure in 1991; Lancashire Miners Gala Queen 1964/65 by Pat Beesley; Sutton Manor Colliery Photo-Album #1 (49 pictures); Photo-Album #2 (Mel Moran Collection - 50 pictures); Photo-Album #3 (50 pictures); Photo-Album #4 (Frazer Nairn Collection - 44 pictures); Photo-Album #5 (Frazer Nairn Collection - 44 pictures); Photo-Album #6 (No. 1 winder and headgear's electrification in 1986 - 38 pictures); Photo-Album #7 (John Gill, Ken Bailey Snr. & Jeff Bailey Collections - 40 pictures); Photo-Album #8 (John Oates Collection - 56 pictures); Plan of Sutton Manor Colliery (courtesy Mel Moran). Thanks to all the contributors to the Sutton Manor Colliery pages and albums, with special thanks to Harry Hickson and Ken Bailey Jnr.
Also See: Memories of Sutton Manor by Stan Johnson; My Apprenticeship - Some Memories by Ken Bailey Jnr; Lancashire Miners Gala Queen 1964/65 by Pat Beesley; Sutton Manor Colliery Photo-Album #1; Photo-Album #2; Photo-Album #3; Photo-Album #4; Photo-Album #5; Photo-Album #6 (No. 1 headgear's electrification in 1986); Photo-Album #7; Photo-Album #8; Plan of Sutton Manor Colliery
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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