Coalmines under the sea

Coal-measures sandstone (with thanks to David Kelly for this photo)

Note: since writing this 'story', Haig Colliery Museum closed for refurbishment with the help of HLF funding,  re-opened in 2015 with a visitor centre and cafe then, sadly, closed again in early 2016. In March 2016, the liquidators have agreed that West Cumbria Mining should take on a 2-year lease to use the Visitor Centre as office space.



My interest in the undersea landscape of the Solway arose when David Kelly gave me a “geology tutorial” while we scrambled up and down the cliffsbelow Sandwith near St Bees’. At the bottom of the cliff we stood on a purplish-red sandstone that was older than the red sandstone of St Bees’ – this was the “coal measures” or “Whitehaven” sandstone, dating from nearly 300 million years ago, and so-called because it overlies the deep coal-seams that stretch from Whitehaven and Maryport, out to the Isle of Man. That day, David explained that this sandstone, which had been oxidised to a dark red colour by exposure to the air, would have looked much paler to the miners burrowing beneath the sea – and suddenly, the flat seascape took on an entirely new dimension.

It is startling to discover that coal has been mined in the Whitehaven area since the 1700s, and Haig Pit, the last to close, was shut down in 1986, so there are still people around who worked in the colliery or remember the pit and the locomotives and coal-ships. For this reason, Haig Colliery Museum is enormously important as a reminder of West Cumbria’s past, and of the major role that Coal has played in our social and economic history.

Pamela Telford, with volunteer Andy Ainsworth and mining artist Paul Schofield, volunteers at Haig Colliery Museum (With thanks to Pamela Telford for this photograph) 

Pam Telford, the Museum's Manager, started there in 2003 as Volunteer Coordinator and has been there ever since. "It's a life-sentence!" she says, laughing, but she is passionately committed to the place and what it means. "I absolutely love the job, I love doing it, and talking to folk. I just think I'm really privileged. I believe the Museum has a place here. The colliery is what Whitehaven was built on, the families of Whitehaven have been part of it for so long ... It would be nice if it was heated, though!" The enormous engine rooms that are a major part of the Museum are certainly large and cool, even on a July day, but the local pigeons are clearly happy to use them as shelter, as evidenced by a few splats of pigeon-poo on the floor and a feather on the table. "They get in through the vents up there," Pam shows me, pointing up to the roof, "And sometimes when I come in in the morning I find them waiting by the door to be let out!"

The remains of the Colliery are at Kells, on the cliffs above Whitehaven. The first time I visited, with my husband and brother-in-law and his two children, we stood on the cliff above the Firth that was glittering in the sun, looking over to the distant Galloway coast. The Isle of Man was a silhouette on the horizon. Now, and a few years on, the wind-turbines of Robin Rigg are the fixed signs of human intervention in the Firth but, fifty years ago, there would have been hundreds of men working deep beneath the sea.

Details of an engine and fly-wheel (photo: Ann Lingard)

We had parked near the great spoked wheel of shaft No.5, which dominates Haig Pit's red-brick buildings, and we walked past a shed where two locomotives stood waiting; past a metal cage that once carried 20 men at a time down the shaft, and coal-laden “tubs” that transported the coal; past another great wheel, now propped against the side of the building – and through a small door into a vast well-lit hall, crammed with machinery, models and photographs.

Ted Wilson's map of the undersea coal-workings. (Photo: Ann Lingard)

I had been worried that the family might be left hanging around impatiently while I talked to Pam. Not a bit of it! The children were taken off by John Greasley (who was then secretary of the charity for restoring the Pit) to start up the huge compressed air-driven engines of the winding-gear. Then Thomas Norman (who had worked down the Pit and is now a volunteer guide) harnessed each of the children to a “tram” or coal-wagon so that they could get an idea of how Victorian children were employed. Meanwhile the men got involved in heavy discussions about 40-inch cylinders, 7-foot piston strokes and Bever-Dorling engines.

Mapping the mines

There are three exhibits in the Museum which, for me, give a startling insight into the sheer scale of the collieries, the quite extraordinary size and interconnectedness of the three-dimensional maze of tunnels beneath the sea, the sea that is just out there beneath the cliffs. The first is the map of the collieries, hand-drawn and coloured by one Ted Wilson. When? There is no date. The map shows the outline of the headland and the harbour, and stretching out to the West and under the sea are blocks of colour, each representing a mine: green for Haig, pink for Saltom, brown for Kells. Within the blocks of colour are exquisitely-detailed plans of the thousands of “roads” and faces and tracks beneath the sea, mile upon mile of them, with some of the pits interlinked by roads that acted as escape routes.

Saltom winding-house, 2015 (photo: Ann Lingard)

And then you look at the dates and see that Saltom was first sunk more than two-and-a-half centuries ago, down to 456 feet below mean sea-level; in 1819 men dug it even deeper, to 778 feet – then it was closed in 1848. King Pit, sunk in 1750, closed in 1790; Kells, sunk 1737, closed 1878; William Pit (“the most dangerous pit in the kingdom”) was sunk in 1804 and closed in 1955. In contrast, the mighty Haig Pit is modern: started in the First World War (hence its name), its No 5 shaft reaches down to the Main Band at a deep 1200 feet, and the workings were dug out nearly four miles under the sea.

Diagram to show the relative depths of the collieries (With thanks to John Lackie, who drew it.)

Ted Wilson's hand-drawn map reveals even more: dotted across the mainland are tiny circles that indicate small, sealed-off workings, with names like Knockmorton pit, Burnt pit, Wood-a-green and Thicket. Most of them would have been forgotten, Tommy Norman said – except for the subsidence they cause. “All these la'al pits, the reason why people knows about them is because houses are built on top o’ them!”

Secondly, there's the glass case with a painted plaster diorama - constructed by Montague Birrell Black (1884-1964) and recently rescued from elsewhere - that beautifully models in three dimensions the cliffs and sea and Haig Pit buildings, from which No. 5 shaft sinks down through the layers of shale and coal and sandstone, and heads out under the sea.

Detail of the Haig Pit diorama (Photo: Ann Lingard)

And Number 5 shaft is there again, in a wood and glass case that is nearly five feet long, shown more intimately and in great detail in a technical drawing of a section through Haig Pit Drifts, drawn by W. Johnson in 1921. The drawing is tucked away beside the Museum's entrance, in front of boxes of Fanta cans and KitKats -- and was recently bought on eBay for £500. Pam tells me the story: prior to moving into a retirement home, an elderly man was clearing out some of his possessions which his family then advertised on eBay. Someone alerted Pam to the fact that a drawing related to Haig Pit was for sale, and she bought it outright. "I heard that one of his friend's had spirited it away from the surveyor's office at some stage, and he'd had it ever since!"

Stories and reminiscences

All these pits, big and small, have thousands of stories, as many and as individual as the people who worked the mines through the decades. If you go to Haig Colliery Museum and look at the exhibition, talk to ex-pitmen who work as volunteers, read the archive held at the Library in The Beacon, listen to the oral reminiscence project, and read the stories and poems written by those who were involved in all kinds of ways with the collieries, you will almost be overwhelmed. There are the stories of the young children who pulled or pushed the laden trams and stood in the dark to control the ventilation doors; the women who worked down the pit and the gangs who worked at the face, boring, firing and filling; the tunnellers and the ones who cut and placed the props.

Cover of "Ah'd Gaa Back Tomorra!": Memories of West Cumbrian Screen Lasses. Compiled by Maureen Fisher & Sue Donnelly, and published by the Whitehaven Miners Memorial & Living History Project. ISBN 0-9544112-1-8.

Outside there were the "screen-lasses" who worked at the tables where the coal was graded, and the brakemen who controlled the laden and unladen tubs that went down the inclined plane or brake to Whitehaven. There are the stories of the pitmen who braved cramped and dangerous conditions – explosive “firedamp”, methane, leaking from the face, or poisonous “afterdamp”, carbon monoxide, that killed canaries and made men unconscious – to rescue their friends and fellow-workers. There are the stories of the men caught and killed, or who made almost miraculous escapes from the many explosions and fires. The centenary of the terrible fire, at William Pit in 1910, was recently commemorated by, amongst other things, the production of a handsome Memorial Book in which 1700 names of the men and boys who died in the pit during its 150 years, are written in beautiful copper-plate writing. "People come to look at it and find the name of someone they knew - one couple even came from America. They can get quite emotional about it," Pam Telford tells me.

There are also the stories of enthusiastic and committed people like Pam and Tommy Norman, and the many other helpers and volunteers involved in fundraising and restoring Haig Pit as a museum and community centre for local people and visitors. The collection gets added to and changed, and not all the stories are about the pit, either: the second time I visit the Museum I'm confronted by an exhausted-looking and dirty young man with torn trousers, slumped by the table with his legs stuck out, boots off to ease his feet. Pam tells me, "I was offered him and the little lad over there, and I had to go and collect them in the car. They were sitting there in the back, and I got some funny looks. And I hadn't thought about this - you don't, do you? - but because he's a mannequin his limbs wouldn't bend. I was trying to dress him in those trousers and someone walked in - he must have thought it looked like a sex act!"

As for Tommy Norman's own story, he started work in Haig Pit in 1962, and, because I have never been down a pit myself I asked Tom the naive but obvious question, “What was it like?” He surprised me. “It was the best days of my life! It was the companionship.” His eyes twinkled and he laughed. “We were all related by drink! We were paid out in the pit yard or the pub, each gang was paid for the coal they’d cut and it was shared out in the pub. 'One for you and one for you and one for you.' And if there was coins left over, the kids got them. There was always kids hanging round the yard on Fridays.”

Tom and his gang would go down in the cage and then sit in the “man-riders”, trucks with seats that were pulled along on cables, towards the face. Each shift lasted 7 hours 15 minutes, but what with the time in the cage and man-rider, and then a walk for a couple of miles or more, the men might take more than an hour to reach the face. “But getting back was a lot quicker!” Tommy grinned. It was cold in the roads because of the ventilation, but hot by the coal-face, and the narrow tunnels were dim and dusty - and often wet.

Miners' boots (photo: Ann Lingard)

Wet and dry water

I had had the vague idea that there might be problems with sea-water seeping through the rocks – certainly, there are photos in the museum of engines for pumping water so I asked Tommy about this too.

“There was water, aye, but it was fresh water, from freshwater lakes. They bored up into it then pumped it out.” He was still indignant at the injustice. “They said there was wet water and dry water. Wet water came through the roof and we’d get two bob a shift for it coming on our heads. But dry water came up through the floor, and they said it was dry water because it was wettin’ our feet!” Clogs were not allowed because the nails might strike sparks and ignite the firedamp (chocolate biscuits wrapped in foil were not allowed either) so one way of avoiding wet legs was to get a worn-out pair of wellies and cut the bottoms off, then pull the tops over your boots.

Freshwater beneath the Solway! The more I have learnt about the Firth the more it has surprised me, and now I see that one of the important stories associated with the coal is the Solway’s own story. To think about the Solway’s coal and how it got there, we have to think in big numbers. The earliest signs of life on our planet date back to the early PreCambrian period, an almost unimaginable 3500 million years ago. You probably know the metaphor about Life on Earth: if we think of the period of life on earth as equivalent to a single day, then fish and amphibia didn’t evolve until about 9.15pm, the dinosaurs arrived about 10.25pm, and humans came dangerously late to the Ball, at nearly one minute to midnight. The Carboniferous era (355-290 million years ago), important because of Coal, was between 9.25 and 10pm. About an hour earlier, the huge Iapetus Ocean, which lapped at the “Solway” shore, was at its widest – but of course the Solway was not in existence. “Lakeland” was part of “Eur-America” and was still south of the Earth’s equator. As it moved North, the mountains were eroded and worn down, and gradually shallow seas extended over the land. In the earlier part of the Carboniferous, “Lakeland” was hidden by tropical seas, but towards the latter part of the period (at about 9.50pm) the landmass was visible again and near the equator; there was now a landscape, of tropical swamps and forests. All those vigorous plants, growing and dying, decaying under anaerobic, acid conditions, to make peat which was pushed down by sediments accumulating on top, compressed, and squeezed by the movements of the land – gradually forming an oily black stone.

Whitehaven colliery: part of a section through Haig Pit drifts (from a drawing at Haig Mining Museum. Photo: Ann Lingard 2015)

This coal lies in several seams or “bands” at different depths, that are separated by layers of rock such as sandstone and shale; in some places, fresh water has seeped down through the various fault lines and formed shallow lakes between the layers. Then humans, coming on the scene as midnight approached, learnt to mine and burn the coal as a non-renewable source of heat and energy.

Although Haig Pit was closed for economic reasons, the Solway still hides a rich store of coal. A note in the museum states that hundreds of millions of tons remain, up to 10 miles offshore and for two miles each side of Haig’s main roadway, enough coal to produce “1 million tons per year for 800 years.”

Now, in 2015, two companies, West Cumbria Mining and Cluff Natural Resources, are interested in exploring the possibilities of extracting coking coal and gas (by Underground Coal Gasification) respectively. For updates on this developing story, see the Solway Shore-walker blog.

Ships and sharks

Haig Colliery Museum from the air (With thanks to Simon Ledingham and VisitCumbria)

During the coal-mining era the Solway played its part in other ways, too. The washed and graded coal was taken down to the harbour at Whitehaven, and there the locomotive, the “Askham Hall” – which has been partly renovated and now awaits its removal to the Eden Valley Railway Museum – shunted the tubs to the ships that were waiting in the dock. Pam Telford remembers how the harbour was always noisy and black with dust. “You could hear the tubs coming down and when you’re an eight-year-old it was like an earthquake,” she tells me. The coal was then shipped over the Solway and across the Irish Sea to Dublin, by sailing ships in the early days and more recently by steam and diesel. Earlier, local coal had been used to fire the many kilns in this region, where locally-quarried limestone was burnt; and coal was later necessary for the steel industry. It is inextricably tied up with the geological and social history of West Cumbria, both on land and sea.

The day I met David Kelly for my geology tutorial at St Bees' we had stood on the Coal Measures sandstone. Afterwards, I had wandered along to Fleswick Bay, and noted the many names of residents of Kells that were carved into the cliffs. It is likely that many of them had been miners, for the Solway’s story about coal has its playful side, too. The late Norman Hammond, whom many will remember with great affection as a highly-knowledgeable and likeable naturalist, and who also ran Solway Sharkwatch, once told me that when Haig and the other pits closed for the annual holidays in July and August, back in the 1960s, he would see as many as 200 miners and their families in the bay, enjoying the sea and fresh air.

At that time large numbers of basking sharks used to come to sea off St Bees' and Norman used to drift among them in his small boat. On one occasion some of the miners shouted out to him from the beach. “I was asked if I could take them out to have a closer look, which I was glad to do,” Norman said. “One man said he’d love to swim with them and I told him to slip over the side – off came his clothes and in the nude he swam with the sharks from Fleswick to St Bees’ Bay.” For several years thereafter, Norman would pick up miners and take them out to see the sharks. “It gave pleasure to a lot of people, including us, to become so closely acquainted with those monster fish. I’d pick up miners at Whitehaven Harbour and take them round below the cliffs to see sea-birds, sharks and cetaceans, and bring others back from St Bees’ on the return trip.”

Norman was given some fossil freshwater mussels that had been found in the 'musselband' in one of the mines under the Solway – dating from the time when rivers and swamps covered the Solway basin.( This year, 2016, I too was thrilled to be given some fossil freshwater mussels from an exploratory core drilled by West Cumbria Mining.)

Gulls and pigeons are not the only birds associated with Haig Colliery Museum. At the end of my first visit with the family, John Greasley gathered us all together and we tiptoed into the shed beneath No.5 shaft’s huge wheel. “Stand here – and look up,” he said. There, high up on a girder, in startling contrast to the blackened machinery around us, was a male barn owl, dozing in the daylight, pale and elegant and still. The shed is no longer there, but the barn owls remain - and as I arrived for my second visit, Pam was on her way outside. "I was going to check on the new baby," she told me. An abandoned baby owl had been introduced just the previous day into the Haig Museum's owls' nest - and seemed to have been accepted. "Apparently barn owls can't count!".

Copyright Ann Lingard, 2010, 2015 & 2016. (This is a revised and updated version of an article that appeared in Cumbria Life in 2004.)


There is more information about the mines and the area on the 'Colourful Coast' website

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