Coal mining at Coalpit Heath in the 1840s

Historian Trevor Thompson has researched local coal mining and this is a synopsis from his records

Local people lived in small cottages, built on the ridges of Frampton Cotterell, and many spent their life working in the collieries at Coalpit Heath.

The Great Pipe Roll (1223) mentions coal-mining by surface quarrying. Day-holes, shallow drifts and bell pits were typical of 15th - 16th - 17th centuries, then as technology advanced, deeper shafts were dug during the 18th and 19th centuries. Newcomen’s steam engine was further developed by James Watt, to pump out flood-water which enabled mines to be sunk to even greater depths. Four engines existed in the 1840s at Coalpit Heath, with coal being raised from eight pits. Operation costs were financed by Sir John Smythe & Co. who entrusted the management of mines to a bailiff.

Cock Road Pump house (1840) sadly with dilapidated cars over the main shaft.
See bricked-up window where arm of beam engine pumped water from workings

In 1845 Henry Hewitt of Serridge House was the bailiff with 65,000 tons of coal extracted annually, but transportation to markets in Bristol was a serious problem. In 1831 a dramway was constructed from Coalpit Heath, with trucks drawn by horses along a graded track to the Avon at Keynsham. This was inefficient so it lasted only nine years before the power of steam was harnessed, then a steam railway was built directly into Bristol. Pits connected to these lines were Mays Hill; Ram Hill; Ram Engine; Churchleaze 1 and 2; Orchard; and New Engine. The Frog Lane Pit was not sunk until 1853.

The winding house (1853) at Frog Lane

There were 300 colliers in the pits, nearly 50 of them boys under 13yr, and another 50 under 18yr. The men were paid £1 for a ten-hour day 6 days a week; while boys’ pay was 1/3 of that. Often colliers worked in gangs contracted to undertake a task, e.g. 4 men would be paid 65p to sink a shaft.

Working conditions were OK because as technology advanced, pumping engines kept the pits dry and candles could be used due to the absence of gas. The hewer would cut 4 yards of coal-face, leaving two yards of coal in situ which would be left as a pillar to support the roof. Working height depended on thickness of the seam, usually about 2’6”. The boys were tuggers, and they fastened a belt around the waist, to which was attached a chain with a hook, which was attached to a wooden tub filled with 2cwt of coal. Since galleries were low the boys could not stand, so had to crawl with the chain between their legs, distances of more than 40 yards up inclines or along level roadways. For smaller boys one tugged while the other pushed.

Wooden tubs used in local mines had similar dimensions to this steel coal-tub from Yate’s twin-town.

Coal was raised using a windlass and rope set up over the shaft. This rope had a series of bucket hooks to raise several baskets of coal at a time. Up to 10 colliers attached a rope from their belt to a bucket hook, then by holding the main rope with one hand they used the free hand to push themselves from the wall of the main shaft. The whimsey came into use from 1870 and traces of the foundation remain at Ram Hill. This had a large horizontal drum around which the rope was coiled and was operated by a horse treading round the vertical axle. Nearly thirty tons of coal could be raised each day. Coal was loaded into horse-drawn trucks at Ram Hill before starting journey to the Avon

Earlier generations of miners were uneducated and they had few rights, so discontent and violence were common. Whitfield and Wesley spoke for them, showing pity and saving their souls. George Whitfield quotes in his journal for March 30th 1739:-
“The place where I preached at Coalpit Heath being near the maypole, I took occasion to warn them of misspending their time revelling and dancing. Oh that all such entertainment were put a stop to.”
It is recorded that in 1739 John Wesley preached to 1500 miners from an open-air pulpit at Hanham Mount.

Pulpit at Hanham Mount

Real reform came with the Methodist - Henry Budgett and his friends who canvassed action. Children started to receive an education at Sunday Schools, then in the1840s a National School opened in School Road, a British School at Brockeridge, and later in 1868 the Manor School at Roundways. Miners attended worship regularly, always dressed in a best suit and hat

By the end of the 19th century mining concentrated at the Frog Lane Pit, but production ceased in 1949, due to exhaustion of the main seams and geological problems with the Holly Bush seam. The colliery was now uneconomic.