The Staffordshire Coalfields

The county of Staffordshire is seated upon coal measures in all but its north-eastern extreme where the Namurian Millstone Grit of the Pennine Hills marked the boundary of the carboniferous forest. The coalfields are divided by natural geological faulting into three distinct areas; the South-staffordshire Coalfield also known as the 'Black Country' Coalfield and its celebrated 'Ten Yard Seam' extends partially into the neighbouring county of Worcestershire, the measures of the North Staffordshire Coalfield including the productive 'Potteries Field' lay within the geological folding of the Pennine foothills, and the deep measures of the Cannock Chase Coalfield were located between these two.

The Cannock Chase Coalfield

The Cannock Chase coal measures are geologically separated from those of South Staffordshire by the Bentley Fault which runs from east to west between the area north of Walsall and Wolverhampton. This fault causes a downthrow of the coal-producing seams by a depth of up to 360 feet (c.110m) in the area south of Cannock, which means that the concealed measures of the Cannock Chase Coalfield lie at greater depths than those of the North and South Staffordshire fields, the measures near Rugeley, for example, being at a depth of some 1,600 feet (c.488m), whereas those of the South Staffordshire Coalfield lie at depths of about 800 feet (c.244m). The western and eastern boundaries of the Cannock Chase Coalfield are delimited by significant faults, to the west the Mitre and Bushbury Faults cause a downthrow of about 3,000 feet (c.914m) below Triassic rocks, while to the east beyond the Clayhanger and Eastern Boundary Faults are the barren Upper Coal Measures which lay outside the area of carboniferous forestation. The coal measures in the north part of the Cannock Chase field dip beneath overlying Triassic rocks but have been proven in deep boreholes sunk at Tixall; the properties of the coal thus obtained would seem to indicate a union with the seams of the North Staffordshire Coalfield.

Coal Mining in the Cannock Chase Area

The Middle Coal Measures of the Cannock Chase Coalfield outcrop in a roughly triangular area delimited by Brereton to the north, Pelsall to the south-east and Essington in the south-west; these surface coal deposits were the first to be extracted from the area perhaps being utilized as early as Roman times. The actual need for coal in a non-industrial society within an area which was known to have been well forested was actually very low, as one might expect, and this meant that even though the coal was lying around, literally waiting to be picked up, these surface deposits lasted until well into the post-Medieval period. The Victoria County History of Staffordshire (Vol.2, p.72) divides the coal production in the county into four arbitrary periods:

Limited Exploitation of the Exposed Outcrops (To c. 1550)

There are records of coalworking at Rushall near Pelsall in the late-13th century and the first coal-mining operations recorded on the Chase were in 1298 at Cannock within the manor of the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, and the Bishop also owned another coal-mine on his manor at Longdon recorded in 1306. These latter workings were probably situated within Beaudesert Old Park where there was a sea-coal mine recorded in 1367 and another two by the 1440's. After the exposed coal had been depleted the coal was mined relatively easily from shallow seams just beneath the surface, sometimes by means of 'drift mining' techniques wherever seams of coal were exposed in hillsides, but mainly by the sinking of 'bell pits' through the thin overlying rock strata into the coal seam beneath, which was then extracted from a circular area within a small radius around the vertical shaft entrance, only excavating the coal as far as safety would allow before abandoning the pit and starting another one close by. These near-surface methods of coal extraction were employed along the line of the coal outcrops throughout the Medieval period.

More Extensive Exploitation of the Deeper Measures (c. 1550-c. 1750)

Prior to the industrial age the primary fuel for fires was wood, which was also the preferred material for use in building, and this had caused the woodland covering much of Staffordshire to become felled during the Medieval period and the remaining woodland to be tightly controlled. But by the late-Medieval times brick and tile had replaced wood and thatch as the primary building materials and these more-robust building materials in turn enabled the post-Medieval industrial expansion, which brought a greater need for ironstone and the coal with which to smelt it. In the later 16th century Staffordshire and particularly Cannock Chase was a primary source for both of these materials. The Paget family were managing a number of coalpits on their land in Beaudesert Old Park in the early-1560's, there was ironstone and coal mining recorded as taking place at Cheslyn Hay in the 1630's and in nearby Great Wyrley by 1642, and the recovery of several 17th century wooden mineworking skips at Essington would attest to mining operations here at the time. All of the coal retrieved from the Cannock Chase Coalfields during this period was of inferior quality to that recovered from the mines to the south of the Bentley Fault in the South Staffordshire Coalfields.

Rapid Development in Support of the Iron Industry (c. 1750-c. 1870)

By the end of the 17th century in Britain coal had become the primary fuel for fires, both industrial and domestic, and this period was also to see the gradual decline of charcoal production on the southern periphery of the Chase which had for centuries fueled the iron-works of the Medieval age. These relatively small local concerns were unable to compete with the rapidly expanding ironworking industry which was developing around places like Dudley, Bilston and Wednesbury which were being supplied by new coal coking plants fuelled from the South Staffordshire coalfield. The ironworking industry on the Chase continued to use charcoal produced from the local coppices but all significant charcoal production on the Chase had ceased by the mid-18th century, and along with it the charcoal-fuelled iron foundries unique at that time to the Chase also disappeared. The advent of the Trent and Mersey Canal through the area north-east of the Chase in 1777 was to provide an easy method for the distribution of coal recovered from the well-established mines around Brereton (just south-east of Rugeley), with which it was linked via a tramway. By 1818 the City of Lichfield received the greater part of its coal along the Trent and Mersey from the Brereton Collieries and by 1850 Brereton was the most important mining centre on the Chase Coalfield, although mining activity continued to the south of the Chase concentrated along the line of the exposed measures, with a long-standing pit at Brownhills and others at Cheslyn Hay, Essington and Great Wyrley. Between 1850 and 1870 mining activity on the southern part of the Cannock Chase Coalfields expanded northwards away from the line of the exposed seams, with many new pits opening north of the Watling Street Roman road, this expansion was due in the main to two entrepreneur colliers, William Harrison and John Robinson McLean. William Harrison began mining at Pelsall in the second quarter of the 19th century and shortly thereafter expanded the new family business north-westwards, sinking the Grove Pit on Wyrley Common and moving on to sink pits at Brownhills, the family business finally establishing the Mid-Cannock Colliery in the early-20th century. John Robinson McLean was one of the founding members of the Cannock Chase Colliery Company who started their holdings in 1852 with the acquisition of the Uxbridge Colliery in Hednesford which had just started production under the ownership of the Marquess of Anglesey, Lord Uxbridge; the Cannock Chase Colliery Co. went on to establish many mines ?in the Brownhills/Chasetown area? and by 1859 were transporting coal as far afield as London.

Gradual Decline and Eventual Elimination (c. 1870-c. 1950)

There was a boom in mining activity throughout the 1870's which was to see the expansion of existing collieries at Brereton Hayes and the opening of the speculative Fair Oak Colliery at Slitting Mill in Rugeley which attempted to access the deep measures in the northern part of the Chase Coalfield. A spate of newly-formed mining companies also sank new pits on the southern part of the Chase Coalfield, mainly around Cannock itself, where the East Cannock, Cannock and Leacroft, Cannock Old Coppice, Mid-Cannock and Cannock and Huntington mining companies all opened new workings. Many of these collieries, however, did not live up to expectations and failed to give their investors any return; typical examples being the East Cannock Pit which cost 150,000 to establish and was sold in the early 1890's for a mere 20,000, also the Fair Oak and Huntington mines which both had to be abandoned due to flooding without yielding so much as a bucketful of coal. Despite the failure of many of the new mines the existing collieries continued to win coal from the deeper workings, the total production from the Cannock Chase Coalfield steadily increasing to top 3 million tons per annum by 1890. New pits continued to be sunk throughout the final years of the 19th century, the New Coppice Colliery at Norton Canes being won in 1894, a third shaft was sunk at Wyrley Common, the failed pit at Huntington was re-opened in 1902 and new shafts sunk to unprecedented depths of over 1,660 feet, the Mid-Cannock Colliery was re-opened in 1914, new shafts were sunk at the West Cannock Colliery in 1914 and 1916, a new deep shaft was opened at the Old Coppice Pit in 1920, and Hilton Main Colliery was established in 1922. By 1925 there were collieries working the deep measures of the Cannock Chase Coalfield at Brereton, Cannock Wood, Wimblebury, Burntwood, Chase Terrace, Heath Hayes, Cannock, Hednesford, Brindley Heath, Huntington, Norton Canes, Great Wyrley and Pelsall. The only major development on the Cannock Chase Coalfield since the 1920's was the sinking of the Lea Hall Colliery at Rugeley which was begun in 1951 and completed by 1960.

The geology of the Chase coal measures is discussed in:
The Geology of Cannock Chase

Bibliography

The Victoria History of the County of Stafford : Volume II Ed. by R.B. Pugh (OUP, London, 1967);
The Brereton Collieries 1791 - 1960 by Ken Edwards (CCMHS, 2005);
Lea Hall Colliery 1948 - 1990 by Graham Warburton & Ken Edwards (CCMHS, 2006);

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