Coal Mining

commemorative statue at silverhill colliery
Commemorative statue at Silverhill Colliery

Early History

A large number of our ancestors were coal miners so I have included this information.

Initially coal mining would have concentrated on reserves that were easy to get near the surface. Mining was carried out in bell mines or drift mines. Bell mines were basically big holes at the surface where the coal was dug out. Drift mines are where a near horizontal passage is used following a seam of coal from the surface.

Coal mining in the Leeds area goes back to Roman times. Medieval bell pits were used to mine the coal by hand and some of these have been found in the Leeds area.

There was a drift mine at Huthwaite where the Wilson’s would have worked until it closed in the 1860s.

The Industrial Revolution increased the need for more coal and so it became necessary to go deeper and coal would then be mined by sinking deep mine shafts. An example of this was the New Hucknall Colliery at Huthwaite which was started in 1876 and is where other members of the Wilson family would have worked. Also, according to the Coal Mining History Resource Centre, in 1880 there were 111 collieries in Leeds.

Conditions in the 19th century would have been pretty awful. They would work with just picks and shovels by candlelight. Tunnels were often between 2-4 feet high and it would have been very hot work. Dangers included flooding, collapsing roofs and explosions from firedamp (flammable gasses such as methane). Safety did improve slightly when Humphry Davy invented his safety lamp in 1815.

Mining in 19th century

Miners then were not paid by the hour, but instead by how much they mined. This led miners to take their family down the mine to help. Women and children were used to get the coal to the surface, usually pushing heavy tubs, while the man carried on digging. Children could be as young as eight and women were expected to carry on late into pregnancy. Some men would even beat their wives and children if they thought they weren’t working hard enough.

As they were paid by how much they mined, they started early in the morning and worked long hours, also working six days a week. Some villages would have a ‘knocker-up’ whose job was to make sure they got up on time.

The 1842 Mines Act

In 1842, the Children’s Employment Commission interviewed children, women, and men who worked in the mines. Some of the report centred around women working in either scanty clothing (because of the heat) or even worse, in trousers. Victorian morality could not tolerate such things. After the report, Parliament passed an act in 1842 which prohibited women and male children under the age of 10 from working below the surface at the collieries.

Coal Hurrier

But that still meant 10 year old boys would work down mines. In the 1861 census, William Revell was 11 years old and working as a Coal Hurrier. These were boys who were employed to pull the tubs of coal along the pit roadways to the pit-bottom. They had to wear belts attached to a heavy chain. This chain was attached to the coal tub to enable them to pull the tubs.

Having boys who could earn money working down the mine was seen as a great financial benefit. John Roby Leifchild who wrote the 1842 report later wrote about mining family life. One of his comments was –
‘Families of boys among pit people are valuable property, on account of their earnings in the pits. A widow with a family of boys is considered a catch. I was told that such a widow was accosted by a suitor even at her husband’s grave. Her reply was, you are too late, I am engaged, I accepted before starting for the funeral.’


From 1850, safety in mines started to improve, between 1850 and 1914, the risk of a miner being killed declined by about three and a half times. In the 1880s some pits started to use electric or compressed air lights in some underground areas. From the 1930s, cap lamps with battery packs were introduced. Picks and shovels continued to be used into the 20th century, in the 1930s, 40% of coal was still mined without the aid of machinery. But even with improved conditions, mining continued to be a dangerous job. In 1866, the worst recorded mining accident in England occurred at Oaks Colliery near Barnsley when 361 men died.

My great great grandfather Simon Holmes was involved in a serious accident in 1868 resulting in him being unable walk. His story is on the Holmes page. I only know of one family member who was killed in a mining accident. My grandmother Mary Wilson’s brother-in-law Albert Key was killed in a mining accident on New Year’s Day, 1945. The Inquest was reported in the Nottingham Journal on the 4th January1945 as follows-
‘Accidental death was the verdict recorded by the coroner at the Kirkby inquest yesterday on Albert Key, 34, of 9 Peel Street, South Normanton, who was fatally injured by a fall of roof at the Langton Colliery, Kirkby-in-Ashfield on Monday. John William Kerry of Carter Lane South Normanton said he was about eight feet away from Key. They had just finished drilling holes in the bind for blasting and had moved their tools away with the exception of Key’s pick. He went back to fetch it when the roof fell and partially buried him.’
Just a simple decision to go back for his pick made the difference between life and death.

The Decline

The mining industry started to decline in the second half of the 20th century. Many of the local railway lines, originally built to transport the coal were closed in the Beeching closures of the 1960s. In the 10 years after the 1984–1985 miners’ strike, employment by British Coal and the number of pits it operated fell by more than 90%. Silverhill Colliery where Grandad Wilson had worked, closed in 1992 and a commemorative statue was put at the top of the slag heap. The top of the slag heap is now one of three places that compete for being the highest point in Nottinghamshire. Thoresby Colliery was the last mine in Nottinghamshire and it closed in 2014. This saw the end of a way of life that had been part of the fabric of life for two centuries.

More Information

The National Coal Mining Museum

The Northern Mine Research Society

Fionn Taylor Mining Website