Coalmining in the Hebburn area

by Norman Dunn

Site Editors Note - Norman Dunn is a much valued regular contributor to the Hebburn Website. I requested that he produce this fascinating article following a couple of very well received postings which Norman made to the website message board. Norman served his own engineering apprenticeship from 1960 to 1965 at the nearby Wardley Colliery which opened in 1855, some 63 years after the first mine in Norman's home town.

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Hebburn's first pit had opened in 1792 and the town soon had three collieries :-
  • 'A' Pit was situated between Wagonway Rd. & Auckland Rd.
  • 'B' Pit was off Black Rd. (Black Lane in those days) south of St. Oswald's Church.
  • 'C' Pit was next to Lyon St / Ellison St junction, on land later used by Hawthorn Leslies for their steel stockyard.
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Hebburn Colliery in 1844.

Hebburn's Claim to Fame

Do today's Hebburn folk know our town has at least one claim to fame?

In 1815 the inventor of the 'Davey' lamp, Sir Humphrey Davey, took gas from Hebburn 'B' pit to test his new lamp. Wine bottles of Methane ('firedamp') were drawn from the pit & taken to London where the gas was used in tests. The new lamp proved a lifesaver because since coal was first been mined, thousands of lives had been lost with gas explosions.

Click to see full size In 1850's model 'Davey' lamp The light had to shine through the gauze, so imagine how little light got through? Later lamps used a combination of glass and gauze. Hebburn, Felling, Washington, Wallsend, all our local Pits had lost hundreds & hundreds of men through 'firedamp' explosions. Once the tests in the laboratory proved successful, a lamp was then taken underground at Hebburn and tested in the workplace. While in Hebburn, Humphrey Davey stayed with Cuthbert Ellison at his home 'Hebburn Hall'. - Click to see full size

Ellison at the time was the owner of Hebburn Colliery. Miners all around the world soon benefited from this new 'Davey' safety lamp, which not only worked, but it actually burned the 'firedamp' entering the gauze, slightly increasing its efficiency to produce light. Hebburn would have become known in all countries that mined coal.

Wardley Colliery was just a short distance over our Hebburn border about half a mile from Mill Lane. The underground workings extended into Hebburn, mining coal that Hebburn's three older Collieries had not reached. In the 60's Wardley unlike larger Colliery's such as Westoe, Monkwearmouth, Boldon still used manpower to shovel coal onto conveyor belts, although mechanisation was being tried on certain thicker seams.

Wardley/Follonsby (same Colliery) had three deep shafts. One at the Wardley site was an 'Upcast Shaft' where stale air was 'pulled' out by a Fan at the surface, after it had circulated through the mine. Two 'Downcast Shafts' where the fresh air entered the mine were at Wardley & Follonsby. The 'lamp cabin' baths, locker rooms, canteen, medical centre, offices etc were all situated at the Wardley site where the miners also entered the mine. Because no coal was drawn at that site it could be kept clean with nice lawned areas, not looking like the typical 'pit'.

The dirty part of the coal-getting process i.e. bringing the coal to the surface, washing & grading it, Workshops, Garages, Stockyards, Railway Sidings etc. was all at the Follonsby site about 1 mile away. The same coal seams our Hebburn ancestors worked from 1792 to 1931 were also being worked at all the neighbouring mines such as Wardley, Usworth, Boldon, Washington etc. Coal seams had names given to them years ago such as the 'High Main seam' the 'Bensham seam', 'Maudlin seam', 'Hutton or Wallsend seam', 'Busty seam', 'Low Main seam' 'Beaumont seam' 'Brockwell seam' etc.

Some coal seams close to the surface were easier to mine, but a lot of coal was well over a thousand feet underground. At various points in between there were seams but some only 10 to 12 inches thick and unviable to work. One seam, the 'Monkton Seam' was only 96 ft. from the surface and that coal was being mined in 1618 from a 'Shaft' in the vicinity of Cambridge Avenue where St Cuthbert's old Vicarage once stood. The way that coal was probably mined would be by the 'Bell Pit' method where a shaft was dug down to the seam, then all around the shaft bottom the coal would be excavated forming a 'bell shape'.
One seam runs under the River Tyne & both Tyne Tunnels slice through it. (Pedestrian & Vehicle tunnels). This seam may be either the 'High Main' or 'Monkton' seam.
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'Bell Pits', an early method used to obtain coal .

In the 1960's Wardley was extracting coal from its deepest seam 1480ft below ground & the seam was nearly 6ft thick. This seam was worked by machines (Mechanised coalface) using armoured chain conveyors along the face, hydraulic roof supports, & machines that rode along the chain conveyor and cut & loaded the coal, rather than men doing it using shovels. This seam would be much deeper at coastal collieries because the coal seams naturally inclined deeper towards the coast.

Most of the coal mined at Wardley in the 1960's was from the 1260 ft level. When you stepped out of the pit cage you were facing in the direction of 'White Mare Pool' & the main-roadway was similar to one of our Metro tunnels in size but unlit except for around the shaft area. It was 12-15 ft high & 20 to 30ft wide. This roadway headed towards 'White Mare Pool' then forked left & right. The right fork headed towards Follonsby & onto Usworth Colliery in Washington. The left fork headed towards Hebburn with 'Districts' going off it. (A district has one Coal Face plus the three roadways leading to it i.e. Mother & Tailgates)

Large heavy battery powered Locomotives, with there own Loco Sheds close to Follonsby shaft, shuttled back & forth along this main roadway pulling 'Mine Cars' (massive 'tubs' holding tons of coal) to Follonsby shaft where Wardley & Usworth coal was taken to the surface. Empty Mine Cars were taken to the various Districts where the 'Mothergate' loading points were located. The 'Mothergate' just mentioned was a smaller roadway that led all the way to the coalface. Even though it was smaller it was still 10 or 12ft high and supplied fresh air to the coalface workers. On the left of this road going 'in bye' towards the coalface was a rail track for taking in supplies such as pit props & girders. Diesel tractors with 4 large tyred wheels could be drove over this track pulling trailers of supplies, but mainly drove up the tailgates. These tractors were special, for underground use & had exhaust filters to clean the exhaust & prevent pollution of the air or ignition of mine gases. If they used the tailgates then any fumes went out to the Upcast shaft. On the right of the Mothergate was the main Conveyor carrying coal out from the coalface to Loading Points where a Chute directed coal into the row of Mine Cars.

The Mothergate conveyors had another unofficial use because the Fitters & Electricians would put there heavy tool bags on the bottom belt which would then be taken 'in bye' while they had to walk 'inbye'. A wiper just before the return roller would then sweep off the tool bags. Coming back out from the coalface, we sometimes 'rode' the conveyor & came out with the coal, then jumped off before the Loading Chute. Management frowned on this dangerous practise, so you hadn't to get caught doing it, but it could save miles of walking over very rough roadway and rail track.

The first time I was called to a coalface we walked for what seemed miles then came to the end of the roadway, which was just solid rock. I wanted to know where the coalface was, so the Fitter I was working with told me to look down to floor level where I saw a 20 to 22 inch high horizontal cutout going across the roadway & off to the right & left. 'That's the coal face' said the Fitter. I am 6ft 2ins and the roof was lower than my knees. This is a view of the coalface from one of the roadways.

Click to see full size This is an 18inch seam (45cm). Imagine 200 yds of this as your workplace and only the light on your helmet to illuminate it. It was much worse a hundred or more years ago. Also all of this is in total darkness and the only light was from your own cap lamps. Other coal seams at Wardley, thankfully, were thicker & ranged from 2ft 6ins up to about 5ft 6ins. I remember being on the 'Maudlin' coalface at a depth of around 800ft, and the seam was about 5ft thick.

What struck me were the masses of Fossils in the roof. These fossils were ferns that you see today in the countryside. Ferns that were millions & millions of years old 800ft underground fascinated me. These coalfaces stretched for 100 yds to the left & 100 yds to the right, and at each end were roadways called 'Tailgates' & all unlit.

These roadways were separated from the 'Mothergate' by large airlock doors that kept fresh air & stale air separate. The tailgates took the stale air, dust, gas, smells, fumes to the 'Upcast Shaft' where a 'Fan' at the surface pulled this air from the mine causing clean fresh air to replace it via the 'Downcast' shafts & into the Main Roadways & 'Mothergates'. Coal cutting machines weighing tons pulled themselves by wire rope and undercut the coal with a jib. It cut a 4-6 inch slot into the base of the coalface where the coal seam met the rock floor. This jib was 6 ft long & worked exactly like a chainsaw.

The 'Driller' then came onto the coalface & drilled inch & a quarter holes x 6ft deep every few feet along the 200 yds of coalface. The 'Shot-Firer' followed behind & packed every hole with explosives and 'fired' the coal once everyone was off the coalface & as safe distance along a roadway.

Click to see full size The 'Shot firer' at work. He is 'stemming' the holes with explosives ready to 'fire' the coalface. This is a fairly thick seam of coal 3 to 4ft high. The coal was then ready for shovelling onto two 'face conveyors' (one on the left coalface, one on the right). This is when the 'Filler's' came on shift. The 'reek' from the explosion & the dust quickly dispersed into the Tailgates, but anyone in those gates had all that to contend with. (Best place to be was the Mothergate as air travelled into the 'Tailgates')

The dust was so thick you could feel it & it felt like you'd choke, so it was suffocating for a minute or two. It was a daily event and as we often worked or travelled in the tailgates it was one of the hazards of working down the pit. What was worse was when they advanced the roadways each day because rock needed bigger explosive charges than coal so the explosions were terrific & the dust choking. The 'Tailgates' were not just added escape routes but basically an exhaust where stale air was taken to the Upcast shaft.

The 200 yds of coal now needed to be shovelled onto the two coalface conveyors by men called 'Fillers' lying on their sides in a space with a roof only 20-22 inches from the floor. (Roughly the height under your chair). I tried this once just to see how difficult it was & found it almost impossible lying in that position. How on earth men shovelled tons & tons of coal in that position still amazes me. Obviously with thicker seams the work was less cramped. The left & right Face Conveyors deposited their coal onto a short armoured Chain Conveyor in the Mothergate, which then loaded onto the main conveyor. The coal then travelled by conveyor to the Loading point & into awaiting Mine Cars. At the points where coal was transferred from one conveyor to another, water sprays soaked the coal to damp down the dust.

Once the coalface was cleared of coal, the 'Pullers' then came & moved the conveyors & advanced the roof supports to follow the new coalface that was now 6ft forward of yesterdays face. The coalfaces advanced 6ft everyday, so the three Gateways also had to be advanced each day to keep up. The men who did this job were called 'Stone men'. This work was heavier than coal work because stone is heavier than coal; so the men used smaller shovels. Drills with stone cutting bits drilled deep into the stone & explosives shaped the new 6ft of roadway which was then supported with curved steel girders & wooden boarding.

The excavated stone was dumped into the empty area where coal had once been which helped support the roof. Lots of times when the 'Pullers' removed the pit-props to reposition them over the new face, the roof dropped like a guillotine just a few feet away from anyone on the coalface. It was terrifying at first, especially when you were doing your coalface training & had never been on the face before. These 'Puller's' knew exactly what they could & could not do, but to me it looked dangerous. All of this was controlled & there was really nothing to worry about? One time I remember crawling the100yds towards the Tailgate pulling my tool bag with the strap around my ankle & just before the Tailgate the roof was down to about 10 or 12 inches due to some fault in the Strata. I remember being a little claustrophobic then because I was lying on my stomach & my back was scraping the roof. At the time I thought 'If the roof moved I'll be trapped' Luckily for me I only experienced this once on the coalface although the Miners probably saw it lots of times.

All under-ground workers in my day had it comparatively easy compared with the miners of long ago plus we had good wages. We had modern battery powered lights on our safety helmets. Even a simple thing like a safety helmet saved my head from injury numerous times. Miners in the old days only had cloth caps, so bumping their heads on the roof must have been common.

The pre-1815 miners used candles as lighting, but these were the cause of many explosions. 'Steel mills' were another method of lighting, and were a contraption that used a rotating wheel rubbing a piece of flint, producing a shower of sparks. The miners then had to work using the sparks as lighting. It must have been a nightmare underground in those times. All of this hard dangerous work and on payday they were paid with tokens to spend in the mine owned shops. When I was at Wardley, Davey lamps were still carried by the Officials & some of the miners.

A miner carrying a Davey lamp was paid a little extra for this, but it wasn't used for lighting. It was used for testing to see whether or not gas was present in the District.
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A 'Steel Mill' showering sparks for illumination in the 1700's & early 1800's.
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Hebburn Collierymen c.1900
A 'Deputy' (Foreman) came into his district that he's in charge of about an hour before his men & walked the whole District checking its safety. Only after these checks were completed would men be allowed to go into their respective work areas. The Deputy literally walked miles & miles of a district during a shift, checking for 'firedamp' & anything else dangerous. The Davey lamp's flame indicates to an expert if gas is present & even tells you what percentage of gas is present. Firedamp (Methane) accumulated at roof level so he would raise his lamp high up in the roadway to check.

Black Damp (CO2) accumulated at the lowest point & would snuff out the lamp due to lack of oxygen. Officials had re-light able 'Davey' lamps, but the ordinary miners Davey Lamp could only be relit back on the surface. Other dangerous gases in the mines were Carbon Monoxide, which has no smell, or taste & half a percent of it in the air will kill a person. This gas is the same one that can kill in the home if your gas appliance is not burning correctly & there is not adequate ventilation. 'Stink Damp' was another gas that could kill miners. It smelled like rotten eggs & killed the victim's sense of smell, so they thought the gas was no longer around and continued working, not realising they were being gassed.

Hebburn Collieries always had problems with water entering the mine but it was made even worse in the early 1800's by other Collieries along the Tyne. To make money more quickly, some pits did not fill the voids after the coal was extracted. The roof would then eventually drop & subsidence allowed Tyne water into the seams. Even though it may not have been Hebburn Colliery's fault the other pits were mining the same seams, so water infiltrated via them. In the 1830's the owners of Hebburn Colliery, Thomas Easton & Co decided to erect a pumping station at 'Friars Goose' beside the Tyne at Felling. This had three sets of pumping engines in constant use to keep the workings free of floods.

Other Mine owners paid towards this pumping operation that also kept there mines free of flooding, but in 1850 they disputed having to pay towards this pumping, so the pumps were stopped & Wallsend & Hebburn Pits were flooded. Hebburn stayed flooded from 1859 to 1870. A new Company 'The Tyne Coal Co' took over Hebburn Colliery in 1863 to drain the water & by 1870 it was drained as far as the 'Low Main' seam at 1020ft. This cost the company dearly because they closed down. A new company took over called 'Wallsend & Hebburn Coal Co' & by the 1890's employed over 1300 men & boys.

By the early 1900's Wallsend pit had serious water & gas problems and had to sink a new shaft. The costs eventually crippled the company & in 1931 Hebburn closed. During the time Hebburn was open at least 200 men had been killed. Wardley also had lots of water to remove from the mine each day & had modern electric powered 'Mackley' multistage centrifugal pumps to do this task with. Hundreds of smaller pumps situated all around the mine workings pumped water into various 'Standages' then onto 'Sumps' where during the nightshift these Centrifugal Pumps were started up at the Hutton level near the Shaft. These 'Mackley's' pumped 3000 gallons every minute & ran all night on cheaper electricity. (3000 gals per min x 480 minutes is 1,440,000 gals)

Previous to these modern centrifugal pumps, Wardley had used an old pump house at the Hutton level that was still there but unused. In this pump house were massive Victorian cast iron Ram Pumps probably dating back to the 1850's. These were still there in the 60's because they were probably too big & too expensive to remove. These pumps will still be there to this day, 1000 ft underground & underwater forever because Wardley closed in the 1970's. Everything that I have wrote regarding Wardley Colliery is what I remembered after just a short five-year career there. Many men worked lifetimes at these collieries & could probably write books with there experiences.

Norman Dunn 2002