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COAL MINING

Surface coal workings

There is much evidence of surface coal mining in the Nettlebridge valley where the Carboniferous Coal Measures comes to the surface. Some of the best preserved medieval coal mining remains occur around Benter, Stratton Common and Harridge Wood. Here, the coal seams outcrop in the valley floor and could be worked in a series of trenches and bell pits. There is documentary evidence of coal mining on Stratton Common from 1300 through to 1700.

Numerous mining remains occur in Harridge Wood, now a nature reserve run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Several shafts and bell pits occur here [654 482], and further remains occur in the separate eastern part of Harridge Wood here [658 483]. At least 52 bell pits (small shafts sunk along the surface outcrop of a coal seam) probably dating from medieval times lie scattered through the wood, together with a number of deeper shafts and 16 adits (horizontal mines for access and drainage). The remains of a number of water leats probably constructed to power water pumps for the coal mines can also be seen.

However, most coal was extracted from a large number of generally small mines between Chilcompton and Mells, which worked the thin coal seams in the Lower and Middle Coal Measures. Up to nine named coal seams were exploited in the Lower Coal Measures (shown on the geological map sheet 281).

Moorewood Colliery [ST 642 495]

The most westerly of the mines is Moorewood Colliery near Gurney Slade. Little is known about the old Moorewood colliery except that the shaft, 111 m deep, was sunk in 1824. The colliery worked six major coal seams, but closed in the 1860s. The new Moorewood shaft was sunk between 1860–70 by the Westbury Iron Co. to augment coal supplies from its other mine at Newbury Colliery near Vobster, superseding the old pit. However, the colliery experienced difficulties and flooded, and was finally closed by 1873.

In 1909 the mine was reopened by the Moorewood Colliery Co. Ltd. with a tramway connecting it to the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway near Chilcompton. It achieved full production within four years, and by 1924 was averaging 750 tons per week. However, it was never really profitable and by 1930, production had fallen back and in 1932 the pit was closed for good. The remains of the old spoil heaps and the old tramway incline can still be seen in the field north of the river.

Strap Pit [ST 648 495], Nettlebridge [ST 654 494] and Sweetleaze Collieries [ST 647 494]

These three pits formed a closely linked group of mines a couple of kilometres south-west of Stratton-on-the-Fosse. The Nettlebridge pit was being worked in 1831 when water from the Benter Level found its way into the workings and stopped working for a while. The mine suffered from poor ventilation and bad underground roads and the mine was closed in about 1870. Little is known about the early history of Sweetleaze colliery except that it closed by 1858. It was reopened in 1861, and work carried out to improve the drainage situation by driving a new level to connect with the Benter drainage adit and clearing out the old Edford adit.

This was superseded by the sinking of Strap or Downside Colliery. The shaft was begun in 1862 and finally, after a new owner stepped in, completed in 1874. The shaft reached a depth of 560 m, the deepest in Somerset and proved six major coal seams. However, the lack of any rail link made the mine unprofitable and it was closed, along with Sweetleaze in 1870. However it was given a new lease of life over 80 years later.

New Rock Colliery [ST 649 506]

A short distance to the north was the New Rock Colliery. This pit was sunk in 1819 and consisted of a winding shaft and a pumping\upcast shaft. The shaft was initially dug to the Globe seam at 166 m depth, but this was extended to the Garden Course seam at a depth of 360 m. The mine was taken over by Frederick Spencer in 1886 who developed the mine. Rather than deepen the shafts further, he drove an incline from the bottom of the winding shaft into the Great Course seam with a compressed air haulage system. He also made other improvements including building an electric power house in 1904 to assist ventilation. By 1935, output ranged from 3500–5000 tons a month and the mine employed about 700 men.

Under the National Coal Board in 1947 further improvements were made, notably the installation of an electric winding engine on the pumping shaft. The NCB attempted to improve output from New Rock which had considerable reserves, but was restricted by the small diameter shaft. Rather than develop New Rock, it was decided to reopen the neighbouring Strap Pit and link it to New Rock and Sweetleaze collieries, thus creating a more efficient mine, which began a new lease of life as the ‘Mendip Colliery'.

Mendip Colliery [ST 648 495]

Strap Pit was reopened in 1953 by the National Coal Board in an attempt to make the New Rock Colliery more efficient and utilize the large available reserves. The capping of the Strap Pit shaft was removed and the shaft cleared at a cost of £47 000. The shaft bottom was reached in 1956 and the workings connected to the neighbouring New Rock Colliery in 1957 when it became known as Mendip Colliery. Construction on winding gear was done and it was envisaged that coal from the New Rock Colliery would be taken out through the Mendip shaft. Other investment in winding machinery and mining equipment took place and the mine became fully operational in 1964. However, there were severe labour shortages in the area. This coupled with transport difficulties and the lack of a rail link caused the pit to make bad losses in 1968. The decision was taken to close the mine and by 1969 any available material was sold as scrap and the shafts infilled with material from the spoil heaps.

Old Rock Colliery [ST 649 497]

This shaft, just north of Strap Pit was sunk in about 1786 by Jacob Mogg and leased by him and several others. The mine was drained by an adit (the Benter Level) which enabled the mine to be worked. The adit was probably started in 1789 and was certainly in use by 1809. Several shafts were sunk, one of which was 219 m deep in 1860. The pit closed down in 1863, but it may have been reopened under a new name after this date when Strap Pit was developed. No trace remains today except a few spoil tips.

Barlake Colliery [ST 661 493]

This mine, near Barlake Farm a couple of kilometres south of Stratton-on-the-Fosse was sunk by Sir John Hippisley and others sometime before 1819, and a stream engine installed by 1825. The pit closed down, probably around 1840, and certainly by 1870 and little remains except for a small spoil heap and the tumbled stonework of the colliery buildings.

Pitcot Colliery [ST 653 492]

A short distance from Barlake Colliery was Pitcot Colliery. This mine was sunk sometime before 1750, but little is known until the 1780s. The mine was owned by the Knatchbull family, and was probably still working in 1824, but had closed by 1863. Little remains today except the remains of spoil heaps in the surrounding fields and the shaft stonework.

Holcombe Collieries

This comprised a small group of mines developed by the Gilson family in and around the village of Holcombe in the early 20th century. A drift mine was sunk at Knights Quarry [ST 668 501] to the northwest of the village in about 1914, but only six men were employed and the site closed down in May 1920. Another drift mine was driven behind Holcombe Brewery [ST 6725 4991] in 1914, but little coal was found and the site closed in 1918. The third mine was in Blackpool Wood, south of the village [ST 668 492]. Here, after £30 000 was spent on development, coal was eventually found and about 100 tons of coal were being mined each week. In February, 1823, the mine hit water and closed down the following month. The sites are either heavily overgrown or most surface evidence has been destroyed. Little can be seen today.

Coal Barton Pit, Ringing Bell Mines and Moon Pit

Several small pits occurred in and around the village of Coleford. The Coal Barton pit [ST 680 491] worked the Main and Perrink coal seams and was sunk in a field south of Coleford. Over 100 people were working at the pit in 1842, but the mine closed in the 1850s. Little survives of this early 19th century colliery and much of the site has been disturbed by later quarrying. An isolated stone-lined ventilation shaft [at ST 683 492] has been infilled and only a shallow depression remains. The Ringing Bell group [ST 690 494] comprised several shafts about 100 m deep working the nearly vertical Perrink and Main coal seams. The workings were abandoned about 1830 and in 1831 were said to be in a 'ruinous state'. Moon's Pit [ST 689 493] lay to the south of the Ringing Bell mines but little is known about the site.

Edford Colliery [ST 672 489]

Edford Colliery, situated on the Dorset and Somerset Canal near Edford, was sunk before 1863. In 1887, the pit employed 22 miners, and was owned by Howard James Ridler, who set up the Edford Colliery Co. Ltd. in 1914. The mine operated with two shafts with an engine house and boiler in between, and worked the Perrink, Standing Coal and Main Coal seams, but the ground conditions were very poor. In February 1886 two men were killed in an explosion which set fire to part of the workings, causing the lower part of the shaft to be sealed off. The mine also supplied foundry coke from coke ovens at the pit head, but although the company was quite innovative, installing coal washing plant and making fuel briquettes, the pit closed in July 1915. The site today is a concrete factory and none of the original buildings remain.

Newbury Colliery [ST 696 498]

The Newbury Colliery, between Highbury and Upper Vobster, was producing coal in 1799, superseding the nearby Old Newbury Colliery which had been working the Dungy Drift seam since about 1710. The mine supplied good quality coking coal to the Westbury Iron Works. By 1867 the mine was owned by the Westbury Iron Works Company, managed by J Batey and employing 53 miners. By the 1920s, the mine was producing 40 000–50 000 tons a year but was in serious financial difficulties. In September 1921 155 men were sacked to try and cut costs and the remaining 270 offered to take a cut in pay to keep the pit open. Between December 1922 and March 1923 the pit was closed through the breakdown of the pumps. By June 1927 the pit was in the hands of an official receiver and the men were on day to day contracts. A report stated that there were 15 million tons of reserves but the shaft needed deepening to 586 m. However, there was not the financial backing and the pit closed in August 1927. The site is now largely levelled, but some remains can still be seen including the tramway.

MacKintosh Colliery [ST 691 497]

The MacKintosh pit was sunk in 1867 as an extension to the neighbouring Newbury Colliery, and the shaft here and connected with Newbury by a small airway; air being pumped down the Newbury shaft and out of the MacKintosh shaft. Another shaft was sunk at Luckington in 1835 as an escape route, the miners having to climb the 41 m shaft on ladders. The mine worked the Garden Course seam and the coal was sent via a narrow gauge tramway to Newbury for screening and loading on to the standard gauge trucks.

The mine changed ownership several times between 1895 and 1917, and even shut down for a while. An accident occurred 1919 when the winding rope broke, and because the pumps were linked to water tanks on the lift cage, the mine began to flood and was permanently closed. Alas, the pit ponies could not be brought out and had to be destroyed.

Mells Colliery [ST 712 500]

Sunk in 1863, this pit was still operation in 1874, but had been closed down by 1881. In 1909, a new lease was taken out on the mine and a group of entrepreneurs set up the Mells Collieries Ltd. However, both the financial and working conditions of the pit were very poor. In 1930, mounting debts caused the pit to go into receivership and it was taken over. This new company also made losses and the mine was taken over again. This company again made a loss went into receivership in 1939. Despite new investment and an attempt to modernise the workings, the mine finally closed on the 30th October 1943.

In 1994, the engine house and fan house dating from 1909, together with the spoil heap were still intact, providing an unusual example of a small, structurally complete early 20th century mine.

Vobster Old Colliery, Vobster Breach Colliery and Vobster Colliery

The coal seams in the Nettlebridge valley around Vobster were highly contorted and often vertical, so mining techniques more akin to Cornish tin mines were often employed to extract the coal. The mines here were also prone to firedamp with several explosions being recorded; eleven men were killed in one such blast in 1800. The area contains several small pits, but three main sites are known; Vobster Colliery [ST 703 489], Vobster Breach [ST 697 488] and Old Vobster [ST 7053 4893].

Vobster Colliery had three shafts and worked the Perrink, Stone Rag, Main and Firestone seams. A branch of the mine led west and connected to the later Vobster Beach pit. Little remains except a spoil heap, the shaft head and a few building stones.

Vobster Breach pit was sunk in April 1860 to connect with Vobster Old workings, finally connecting through in May 1861. Another shaft was sunk later. The mine also hosted two ranks of coking ovens, which can still be seen today, although now seriously overgrown and in danger of collapse. The mine was linked by a tramway to Vobster and the Newbury railway via an incline. Another old pit, Vobster Old, occurs to the east, but little is known about the site and all that remains is a spoil heap.

Ebbor Gorge [ST 523 484]

A thin belt of Coal Measures strata occurs in Primrose valley, at the foot of Ebbor Gorge near Wells. Coal was mined here from a shaft 36 m deep in 1835, but the seams were very thin and only a small amount of coal was mined.
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