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The coal story from a pre-historic swamp to riddlin' the gleeds

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 31, 2014

  • Wednesbury miners circa 1897

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IT IS the fossil fuel called coal that put the black into Black Country and had such an influence on the way the region developed throughout the social and economic upheaval of the Industrial Revolution.

It determined the way tens of thousands of people worked, lived and in many cases died, and it began its incredible journey from the swamps of carboniferous Britain to the forge, foundry and cottage fire-side between 270 and 350 million years ago.

It is easy to forget how significant coal has been to the Black Country now that visible evidence has almost completely disappeared; the closure of the mines, the dismantling of the winding gear towers and the removal of the pit mounds that scarred the landscape for generations. But there is more than enough evidence to remind us of its importance in the photographs that were taken at the time; the blackened faces of miners just coming off shift after their lengthy stay in the bowels of the earth; the characteristic signs of the presence of a colliery that could often be seen for miles around, and the busy canal wharves that were alive to the noise and fervour of loading and unloading the black gold for transportation to factories, foundries, forges and domestic consumers.

The geology of the Black Country is well documented and probably one of the best vantage points to see evidence of coal without having to descend underground is at the old Doulton's Claypit in Saltwells Nature Reserve where a seam of coal runs for several hundred feet along the side of a cliff. This is the result of millions of years of rotting trees being compressed by overlying silts and sandstones, initially becoming a dense layer of peat before the carbon element in the material transformed it into coal.

Early commercial coal excavation here in the Black Country began in the late 17th century and the historian Dr Robert Plot, writing in 1686, described how the miners of Wednesbury, in their open works, "rid of the earth and dig the coal under their feet and carry it off in wheelbarrows." This mining activity took place at an outcrop of the famous Staffordshire Thick Coal and these black outcrops scattered across the landscape almost certainly led to the use of the Black Country name. The mines got deeper as concerted efforts were made to extract the layers of Thick Coal which followed natural undulations in the underlying strata, and soon the Black Country became pock-marked with the characteristic landmarks of mining activity.

Black Country historian Ian Bott has kindly provided us with an 1897 publication called "Wednesbury Faces, Places and Industries" from which we have used several photographs to help tell the story of the journey of coal from the carboniferous swamp to riddlin' the gleeds in the hearth.

The book states that in 1897, "Wednesbury coal mines are nearly exhausted after centuries of working, first as open-works, with the aid of inclined plane or ladders; secondly as bell-pits, and lastly as deep shafts with winding gear, once worked by gin-horses, now by steam engines." The men in the picture had just arrived at the top of the shaft in the cage, their demeanour describing the hard and dangerous work they were employed to do.

On August 4, 1842, a law was passed that stopped women and children under 10 from working underground, but surface work was still a legitimate occupation and the photograph of the Pit-Bonk Wenches describes their resilience in the face of hardship. In 1897 pit-bank girls earned 1s. 3d. to 1s. 9d. a shift, working for eight hours on the stretch sorting and loading the coal. When a tub came up from the pit it was handed over to the women who screened the load and then picked the coals by hand to determine the various qualities. The Wednesbury book said of the pit-bonk wenches, "They are somewhat masculine in tone and brawny in physique with no distinctive working costume. But in Staffordshire a cotton bonnet is used to keep the coal-dust from the hair and a little shawl to protect the shoulders."

The canal side wharf shown in the photograph belonged to William Charles, its location Wednesbury Bridge, a commercial hot spot of loading and off loading coal for destinations far and near. Charles' business dealt with the Thick Coal as well as rough and fine slack, gas coke, gas breeze, and moulding sand.

It's near journey's end for our prehistoric fossil, and a well known late Victorian Wednesbury character draws us ever closer. Photographed in Russell Street he was a coal-jagger' the local term used to describe the selling of small loads of coal, generally by pony or donkey load. It was a system of supplying poorer households with the only fuel they had to keep the family warm.

A large fire in the hearth was no doubt enjoyed by all the night before, but in the morning someone had to be responsible for riddlin' the gleeds. This done, the coal story had been told.

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