Bowburn Colliery (1906-1967)

A short history of Bowburn Colliery

In October 1905, the directors of Bell Brothers Ltd authorised Addison Langhorne Steavenson, their Agent, to take steps towards sinking a pit north of their colliery at Tursdale, to exploit royalties North of the Hett Whin Dyke. Sinking began in July 1906, after Gertrude Bell, the noted explorer, writer and Islamicist, and daughter of Sir Hugh Bell, chairman of Bell Bros. Ltd, cut a ceremonial sod. In the meantime, colliery buildings, a temporary pit heap and an engine house had already been erected and the colliery village of Bowburn had begun to be built to house the new colliery’s workforce.


The new pit, initially referred to as “New Tursdale”, was to save underground haulage to Tursdale, using a new siding from the North Eastern Railway. The shaft was sunk by E. Johnson & Sons of East Boldon, to a depth of 110 fathoms into the Brockwell seam, passing through the Harvey and Busty seams, It was a complex engineering project, requiring piling because of quicksand and swelling clay. Tursdale would continue working the Busty and the Brockwell in a south-east direction, with Bowburn working the East and West districts. It was expected that an unsuccessful 19th century shaft (see sub-page “Three Bowburn Collieries”), 500 yards to the east, would be used as the return shaft. 

Sinking of the downcast pit at Bowburn Colliery was completed in January 1908 and the first 16 tubs of coals were drawn in June. Cavils were drawn among the first 50 hewers in August. The workforce grew to 281 men that year and by 1930 had risen to 724. Then, in 1931, Tursdale Colliery stopped drawing coal and was merged with Bowburn, which was expanding in all directions. The Coronation Drift was developed 1937-39, to work coal in the Low Main, Harvey & Hutton seams east of the village. The main coal drawing shaft itself had two winding arrangements, the Harvey level winder drawing from the Harvey, and the Busty level winder drawing from the Tilley, Busty and Brockwell seams. The upcast, ventilation shaft – originally sunk in the unsuccessful 1840 venture – was by now the main man-riding shaft.

The extent of royalties worked by Bowburn Colliery after it merged with Tursdale in 1931.
(With thanks to Google Maps.)

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By the the 1950s, Bowburn was working six seams of coal – the Low Main, Hutton, Harvey, Tilley, Busty and Brockwell. The enlarged pit employed 2,076 by 1934 and this grew to at least 2,432 by 1958, when the pit was at its peak.

The workforce at Bowburn Colliery dramatically increased in the 1930s, with the merger 
with Tursdale in 1931 and the development of new districts in six seams.

In 1957-58, the colliery had a production target of 14,228 tons-per-week. This was exceeded by 2,059 tons in w/e 13th April 1957, an all-time record. By then Bowburn was easily the biggest producer in South West Durham, the other 25 collieries in the Area producing 93,904 tons between them – an average of 3,756 tons. (The next biggest was Dean and Chapter, at Ferryhill, which produced 12,818 tons.) The largest pits in the Durham coalfield were on the coast, in Mid-East Durham Area. Even so, in (for instance) March 1957, only three of them were producing more than Bowburn – Murton, with 18,344 tons; Dawdon, with 17,966 tons, and Vane Tempest, with 16,502 tons.

But within ten years, the colliery was to close. In 1937, the under-manager, Cllr. J. G. Ramsay, had claimed that Bowburn was one of the bright spots of the county, with an estimated future life of 60 years. Less than 30 years later, in February 1964, Bowburn NUM Lodge learned that the colliery was to be re-organised, reducing manpower, progressively, from 1,335 in September 1963, to 885 by March 1965, the reductions to be made by “normal wastage”. A survey of future workings had been carried out and the Croxdale Harvey District was to cease production at the end of March 1964, the Harvey Shaft subdivision would cease to operate around September 1964 and the Tilley Seam would become exhausted in March 1965.

The Low Main and Bottom Hutton seams had by then already been abandoned, in 1962. The Tilley was abandoned in 1964, the Brockwell in 1966 and the Harvey and Top & Bottom Busty seams in 1967. In May 1967, a special meeting of the Bowburn Colliery Consultative Committee, in the Miners’ Welfare Hall, heard Mr. Potts, NCB’s Area Director, announce that 30th June had been fixed as the date when the colliery would finally close. By then only 340 men were employed. 40 to 45 would be required for salvage and the rest would be found work elsewhere.

Last coals were drawn on 20th July and Bowburn Colliery closed on 22th July 1967. Demolition of Tursdale downcast pit gear began on 27th February 68. Winding ropes were taken off Bowburn upcast pit headgear on 29th May 68. The pit was finally abandonned on 1st June 1968.


The Price of Coal

Meanwhile 52 men had lost their lives, as a result of 52 separate accidents during the pit’s 60 years’ operation. These are listed on a separate sub-page of this website. (See sub-page “Fatal accidents at Bowburn Colliery”.)

The Mining Memorial in Bowburn Community Centre, lists those
who lost their lives through accidents at Bowburn Colliery

Detailed history

A separate sub-page of this website lists the dates of over a hundred events and landmarks in the history of Bowburn Colliery. (See sub-page “A history of Bowburn Colliery”.)


Who was who?

A separate page on this website is devoted to “Some noteworthy people”. As this site is developed, this will include lists of colliery and NUM lodge officials, as well as biographies and verbal sketches of some of the people who made Bowburn what it was – and is, today!


More information

For a huge amount of information about mining in the Durham coalfield, including Bowburn Colliery, we recommend that you visit the website of the Durham Mining Museum.