A brief history of local coal mining, by Don Wilcock

The following three-part history of local coal mining appeared in Bowburn Interchange nos. 12, 13 and 15, in March, May and December 2000. Stavros Young was the nom de plume of the late Don Wilcock, one-time teacher at Bowburn Modern School, noted local historian and one of the founders of Bowburn Local History Society.

Some details would need to be amended in the light of subsequent research – for instance the discovery that the “Bowburn Colliery” near Park Hill was not sunk until about 1847 (see “Three Bowburn Collieries”). However this remains an excellent introduction to coal mining in the Bowburn area.

Local Coal Mining (Part 1) by Stavros Young

(First published in Bowburn Interchange no. 12, March 2000)

Some of the earliest mentions of coal mines are in this area. Coal was worked at Hett in 1293 and 1407, at Coxhoe in 1327 and in 1428 (Coxhow), at Trillesden (Tursdale) in 1447 and at Cassop and Quarrington in 1456.

It’s not known where exactly these mines were, and as an extractive industry mining would in the long term remove all traces. Also the technology for deep mining had not then developed, so these must have been shallow mines from the surface or drift mines from the sides of valleys.

Coal does lie under the limestone. In Raisby quarry quite recently coal was extracted by opencast methods, and it is possible that the early miners cut under the limestone to the south of Coxhoe, near the railway bridge, and also under Quarrington Hill below Cold Knuckles.

Coal seams were exposed along the valley of the Croxdale Beck below Hett Mill. In the 1970s open cast coal workings to the north of Hett village broke into some “old workings” which led northwards towards the valley of Croxdale Beck. It was later discovered that along the south side of the valley there are a series of indentations in the hillside, under the area which was opencasted, with the appearance of collapsed adits with spoil heaps at their bases. It is an area which needs further investigation.

In 1904 a drift mine was open on the opposite side of the valley, Hett Gill, by Bell Bros and was worked for only three or four years. Later near that site a shaft was sunk and was used to de-water the workings of Metal Bridge Drift Mine.

This information on the early coal mining in the area appears among the records of both the Bishop of Durham and of the Dean & Chapter, usually as rentals, for it is another person working the mine, and there is no clear indication of their sites. Not until the 17th and 18th centuries do we find more detailed descriptions, usually on maps, of where the workings were.

With the recent submission for the proposed opencast site at Park Hill was a copy of a 1797 map which showed the presence of a “Fire Engine” just to the north of the site of West Hetton Lodge. There is an earlier reference on a survey of the “Fire Engine”.

This was usually the description given to a Newcomen type engine, which burned coal to produce steam, hence its title, the steam condensing in the cylinders to produce a vacuum which drew down the piston and through a beam raised the pump rods and de-watered the workings.

Such an engine required a great deal of capital for that time. It was hoped it would open out further workings, thus increasing the production of the colliery. We do not know who had the engine built.

The largest undertakings in the area were the Coxhoe and Quarrington Collieries, leased from the Bishop of Durham by the Misses Hale of Guisborough, Cleveland.

They were sending coals to the quayside at Stockton for export before the coming of the railway. When the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company were about to put their Bill to Parliament they sought the support of these influential ladies by offering to buy these collieries.

However the lease of Coxhoe colliery was bought by Henry Blanshard of London, and he had to wait until the Clarence Railway arrived at Coxhoe before he could export his coals.


Local Coal Mining (Part 2–The Railway Age) by Stavros Young

(First published in Bowburn Interchange no. 13, May 2000)

In 1821, the Misses Hale, who had leased the Quarrington and Coxhoe Collieries from the Bishop of Durham, wrote to the Stockton and Darlington Railway Committee asking them to consider a connection from their collieries to that railway so that they “would not put them into a state of inferiority compared with other collieries”.

Clarence Railway

It was not the Stockton and Darlington Railway which came to Coxhoe, but its rival the Clarence Railway – named after the Duke of Clarence, who in 1830 became William IV.

The “main line” of the Clarence ran from Haverton Hill on the north bank of the Tees to Simpasture Junction on the Stockton & Darlington, south of Shildon (near to the present Newton Aycliffe Station). It had a branch from Stillington to Mainsforth (through the Ferryhill Gap, where the line again branched), one to the west (the Byers Green branch) and the other to the north (the Sherburn Branch). The latter got no further than Coxhoe although the earthworks continued (and still do) to the Old Quarrington‑Bowburn road.

The Misses Hale were by now no longer proprietors of the collieries. They had sold out to Henry Blanshard of London, one of the Clarence Railway promoters. But the main coal owner was now William Hedley, the railway pioneer from Wylam. He had in 1824, taken a royalty on the Crowtrees site; he also acquired the Coxhoe colliery and opened out West Hetton Colliery. These were all eventually connected by rail to the Clarence railhead at Coxhoe. Hedley ran two of his own locomotives on these lines – “Wylam” and “Tyneside”. (Hence the name of the now vanished pub at Coxhoe Crossings.)

William Hedley, railway pioneer

In 1834, Hedley obtained running powers over the Clarence Railway in order to run his own trains of Crowtrees coals to Stockton for shipment. Unfortunately the trains with their noisy locomotives passed close to Mainsforth Hall, the home of the local historian, Robert Surtees. He objected to the noise and obtained an injunction against their use. This was not lifted until 1839, following his death. During the intervening years, all traffic, both mineral and passenger, had to be hauled by horses.

Other collieries were opened out in the late 1830s, including the first Bowburn Colliery. This was situated behind Clarence Villas, between the Sherburn spur and the Crowtrees railway. The Joint Stocks colliery or Coxhoe colliery was also opened, as well as the Clarence Hetton Colliery (or Clay Hole colliery), and in 1844 an incline was built up to the South Kelloe colliery, via the Joint Stocks rail connection. A waggonway was built from the Heugh Hall colliery down to the railhead at Coxhoe.

Meanwhile, the Durham and Sunderland Railway had built in 1837 a branch to Whitwell colliery, near to Shincliffe. In 1839, this was extended as a waggonway up into Cassop Vale, serving in passing Cassop Moor colliery (later the opencast coal site) and Cassop Vale colliery (used until the 1960s as a pumping station), to Cassop colliery at the top of the Vale. Coals from these collieries were conveyed to Sunderland to be shipped on the Wear.

Ralph Ward Jackson

In 1839 a dramatic change took place in the ownership of these collieries and in the transportation of coals. The man behind this change was Ralph Ward Jackson of West Hartlepool. Having developed West Hartlepool as a coal shipping port in competition with the established ports on the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees, Jackson sought to strengthen his hold by buying collieries ahead of his intended railways. As he had extended his railway or waggonway from Thornley towards Beacon Hill, at Quarrington, with a steep branch down to Cassop colliery, he considered it prudent to acquire by purchase the collieries to the north of the Clarence at Coxhoe and to rearrange the waggonways to lead towards his line.

He built a winding engine on Beacon Hill to lift the coal trucks out of the Crowtrees area onto his Hartlepool Railway. The changes included a new waggonway from Heugh Hall and from West Hetton also.

Unfortunately Ralph Ward Jackson’s initiative in developing his industrial empire brought him many enemies, who legally challenged his right to purchase the collieries with monies raised for railway development. As a result of enquiries, his empire came crashing down and the collieries were offered for sale on the open market. Only a few were bought; the others were forced into liquidation.

Local Coal Mining (Part 3) by Stavros Young

(First published in Bowburn Interchange no. 15, December 2000)

The Rise of the Coal Companies

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the huge landed enterprises of the north eastern coalfield (Londonderry, Lambton and Bowes, for instance) were being challenged in size by the newly formed joint stock companies, whose investments were being raised elsewhere, especially in the London financial markets.

As the demand for coal grew, expansion in the north east coal field was to deepen shafts to lower seams, which required investment in both time and money. Companies such as the Haswell, the Hetton and the South Hetton Companies and The Wingate Coal Company were among such joint stock companies formed at that time.

Rise of iron industry

The middle of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the North east iron industry, especially on Teesside. Apart from iron ore and limestone, the main thing required was coke. This was being produced from coal mined by independent concerns, at first in the primitive bee-hive ovens, of which there were over 14,000 in Durham by 1905, producing over 6 million tons of furnace coke. Examples of these type of ovens can be found at Inkerman, Tow Law.

The smoke from these, which were charged twice a week, was declared a nuisance and chimneys were erected and flues to them ran from each oven. Tursdale colliery’s battery of coke ovens had two chimneys. In 1882, at Crook, Pease and Partners introduced by-product coke ovens, the first battery of by-product ovens in Great Britain, in which the coal was coked in closed chambers and the smoke and other gases were recovered by distillation.

Among the ironmasters of Teesside, both Bell Brothers and Sir H. Samuelson & Company saw the potential of by-product coke ovens – the former at Page Bank colliery and the latter at Sherburn colliery. Both iron companies had acquired collieries in a small way. Bell Bros had got Page Bank from The Hartlepool Harbour and Railway Company, who had to dispose of all their collieries by law.

By 1914 Bell Bros owned collieries at Tursdale, South Brancepeth, Page Bank, Browney and Bowburn.

Bolckow, Vaughan & Company had collieries at Westerton, Binchester, Auckland Park, Leasingthorne, Brusselton and Shildon Lodge. By 1924, both these companies had become part of the Dorman Long complex of companies.

Throughout the Great Northern Coalfield, other coal empires were gradually emerging, as for instance Strakers and Love at Brancepeth and Brandon.

Shincliffe Bank Top Colliery

Joseph Love, who at one time had a share in Shincliffe Bank Top Colliery, was the son of a Tyneside miner and as a lad had worked in the pit. In his late teens he invested in a horse and cart, bought a stock of dry goods and hawked them around the Jarrow area as a travelling salesman and then acquired a shop and settled down as a shop keeper. He then became a speculative house builder which brought him into contact with Joseph Straker, a Northumberland timber merchant, whose daughter Love married. With financial support from his father-in-law, he formed Strakers & Love Coal Company. His death in 1875 revealed him to be a millionaire, probably the first coal owning one.

At his death in 1885, John Straker, Joseph’s son, the other principal partner in the concern, left slightly less than £1 million plus 12,000 acres of Northumberland estate.

Another Northumbrian estate, including a castle, was part of the Joicey empire. The founder of the dynasty had served an apprenticeship as a colliery viewer and mining engineer at Hetton colliery. In partnership he leased coal on the Beamish estate together with his brothers John and Edward, forming in 1837 James Joicey & Sons to work successfully collieries at Tanfield and Beamish. Following his death in 1863, and those of his brothers Edward and James in 1879 and 1881 respectively, the colliery concern was controlled by his nephew James. James greatly expanded the company by joining forces with the Hetton and The Lambton Companies and forming the Lambton, Hetton and Joicey Coal Company, creating an undertaking that controlled over 20 mines with an annual output of about 4 million tons.

Joicey was the only coal baron to be elevated to the peerage, as Lord Joicey. Others had to be content with mere knighthoods, as for instance Sir Lowthian Bell of Bell Brothers, the founders of Bowburn Colliery.