Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The Whitehaven Colliery Through Time by Alan W. Routledge. Amberley. £14.99
Before the shift in the coal mine could begin, a man would cover himself in soaking wet sacks. He would crawl along through the workings holding a lighted candle on a stick well above his head. If there had been a build up of methane to explosive proportions, it would be fired by the candle. The crawling man might be shaken or burnt, but the mine would be rendered safe for the men to extract coal that day.
Winning coal was always dangerous and Whitehaven was founded on coal.
From Norman and possibly Roman times coal had been found in the area, but it wasn't until the construction of the harbour, and the building of the model town by the Lowthers in the eighteenth century that mining became the lifeblood of Whitehaven.
Matthias Reed's painting of 1738 gives some idea of the well-ordered company town. On the left a new wagon way runs down the wooden rails from Greenbank Pit to the harbour.
The coal was exported across the Irish Sea. New industries developed. One of the Wedgewood family, finding suitable clay in the area, started pottery making and over the years "the coal mines fathered several more local industries including iron-ore smelting, glass-bottle-making, engineering and even the railways."
In the early days the men were lowered into the mine and men and coal were raised by windlasses either worked by their fellow workmen or by horses. Stone Pit was the first to use the safer and more efficient Newcomen Steam engine in the 1730s. In the 1920 a Beaver-Dorling steam engine was installed at the Haig Colliery and it was in continuous use until the pit closed in 1986. The 'banksman' who operated the machines "knew exactly where the cage was to be stopped and always delivered the men safely".
The mines were dangerous places. In the eighteenth century, Carlisle Spedding had invented a steel mill. Instead of the open candle flame, the sparks from a milled steel wheel rubbing on a flint, gave the men sufficient light to work. In 1750 Spedding sank the shaft for the King Pit. Forty years later the shaft had penetrated to sixty fathoms and King Pit was said to be the deepest pit in the world.
On 12th November, 1831, twenty-two men and boys were killed in an explosion at the Croft Pit. Today, the site of the pit and the giant chemical works which replaced it is flattened and overgrown.
In 1900, the William Pit employed 1,058 men, women and boys and produced 246,850 tons of coal. It was also know as the most dangerous pit in the country. "It endured many explosions and fires, each leading to a loss of life, the greatest of which was in 1947, when 104 men and boys perished."
Whitehaven was founded on coal and lts citizens knew the hardship, dangers and tragedies that came with the winning of the black gold.
The Bransty Arch was almost a symbol of the triumph of coal. However, it served to carry coal wagons rather than honour the Lowthers. It was "felled on 10 March 1927 to widen the road for almost non-existent traffic".
Today, the harbour with its dirty hurries and staithes offers walks for the tourist and the busy pits and factories are now no more.
Alan Routledge takes us on a journey in words and photographs through Whitehaven's industrial history. The grim workings and smoky skies have given way to grassy fields and neat memorials. The old landscape which made Whitehaven has largely disappeared.