The Mining Landscape

The most important coalfield in Shropshire is the Coalbrookdale Field a significant part of which lies within Madeley. 

On the northern slopes of the Severn Gorge the easy accessibility of all the major beds of coal and ironstone, clay and the underlying Silurian limestone encouraged their working from earliest times and this ease of working linked with nearby river transport played a major part in the success of the area during the Industrial Revolution.

Some coal was being used at the Roman city of Viroconium (Wroxeter), to fire the central heating system of the baths, but the earliest surviving documented exploitation of mineral resources dates from 1250 when Philip de Benthall granted the monks of Buildwas free access over his estate for the conveyance of coal, stone and timber. In 1322 the prior of Wenlock granted a licence to Walter de Caldebrok for ‘the digging of coles at the Brocholes’ on payment of six shillings a year. During the later medieval period local limestone was being quarried and used both as building material and in the manufacture of lime. Outcrop coal was being extracted and, in some instances, already transported by barge along the Severn to more distant customers. By the early 16th century iron was being produced at a number of bloomery (smelting) furnaces around the area and local clays were being used for tile and pottery manufacture. Already some underground working, from ‘levels’ (tunnels cut into the hillside) was taking place. Madeley coal was certainly being shipped to Worcester by the late 16th century.

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries the Coalbrookdale Coalfield was producing 95% of all the coal mined in Shropshire and was second only to the extensive North East Coalfield in terms of national productivity. This led to a tenfold increase in population between 1570 and 1670.

Sir Basil Brooke was making steel by the cementation process at Coalbrookdale in the early 17th century and the first steam engine used to drain a mine in Madeley was in use at The Lloyds in 1719 and was soon followed by steam winding engines. By 1800 more than 100 were in use. At least one blast furnace was operating by the middle of the 17th century and, around the same time, the tunnels on the Madeley bank of the river were said to be producing over 30,000 tons of mineral per year. Much of this was being loaded into boats at the wharfs downstream of the shallows near Bedlam and around The Lloyds. Some of these tunnels were said to extend more than 1000m beneath the Madeley bank.

There were other important innovations. Wheeled vehicles running on rails (originally of wood but later of iron) became a feature of mines both underground and on the surface and some of the earliest in the world are thought to have been operational locally. As well as underground systems there was an extensive network connecting the pits on the surface. Some of these passed through the Madeley streets and included ‘inclined ways’ or ‘jigs’ both on the surface and underground. Many tramways converged at the canalside ironworks at Blists Hill including one which transported coal and ironstone from Meadow Pit Mine ( which was located between Madeley Cricket Club and the Lees Farm roundabout) via an inclined plane at Bagguley’s Wind (now a public footpath) and, from the mid-19th century, via the Lee Dingle Bridge which crosses Legges Way.

In 1773 Reverend John Fletcher visited a pit ‘supposed to be near a mile under the ground’ and, by this time, many of the longer levels must have been connected to shafts on the hillside. Another visitor, in the 1790s, described a trip down a shaft near Bedlam ca. 100m deep, using a windlass and traveling along an ‘iron-road’ for at least 160m in a ‘carriage’ and then another 240m by stooping. Offered the choice to return up the shaft or to walk out through the level he chose the latter!

Around this time large companies were formed and, from the 1750s, control of most of the mines in Madeley Parish (although not all) had passed to the Madeley Wood Company partnership. Among these early mines were the Paddock Pits and the New Barn Pits to the north of Madeley and Footrid and Hollands Footroads to the south. Others included Cyder House and Draw Well Pits and slightly later Stilehouse, Baughs and New Hills. The precise location of most of these pits cannot now be identified and some may have undergone later name changes.

More centralisation led to organisational innovations. Until this time most raw materials had been extracted by small operators and sold on to producers with transportation by wagon or packhorse and via the river. However, the new, growing concerns played a bigger part in mining their own raw materials which they then moved over their own tramways to their company furnaces and forges – the forerunners of the modern ‘vertically integrated’ multinationals.

Coal (often in the form of coke) was now used for a whole range of processes. These included brick and tile making, salt production and glass and china manufacturing as well as malting. Abraham Darby I had been apprenticed to a maltster before becoming involved in the manufacture of brass and iron working. He set up a brassworks in Coalbrookdale in 1706 and then a copper-smelting furnace. In 1708 he leased the blast furnace in Coalbrookdale and began to smelt iron ore using coke as his fuel and introduced the use of sand-moulding in the making of castings.

The exploitation of other local resources also expanded. Local clay was used in the manufacture of a wide range of bricks and tiles although the Coalport China Company (and possibly the Madeley China Company) used china clay (kaolin) imported from Cornwall in the manufacture of their famous porcelain. In 1786 a spring of natural bitumen (The ‘Tar Tunnel’) was encountered by miners driving a tunnel from the banks of the Severn to the Blists Hill shafts. The bitumen was used as pitch for coating (including the bottoms of locally-made coracles), as a component of coal tar soap and for a variety of medicinal purposes.

The coal seams all dip to the east under Madeley and, by 1800, new sinkings at Blists Hill, Brick Kiln Leasow and the Meadow were reaching depths of over 200m. Pits were sunk at Shaws (1810), Hills Lane (1820s) and Halesfield (to a depth of over 300m) during the 1830s. From the 1840s seventeen shafts were sunk by James Foster’s Madeley Court Company in the north east of the parish. All these pits worked both coal and ironstone and some also worked fireclay, red clay and shale for brickmaking. The last mine to be opened in Madeley was Kemberton in 1864 and it was also the last to be closed (in 1967).

The local collieries came in all shapes and sizes. Some were small and old fashioned, some (notably those of the Madeley Wood Company) large and modern. Small pits at Rough Park and Woodside worked mainly coal with some clay and there were extensive, shallow pits around The Woodlands on Madeley Bank working brick and tile clays while the workings at Lincoln Hill produced limestone and Walkers Earth (a poor-quality variety of Fullers Earth, used as a soap substitute and as a soothing ointment).

Mining was already declining during the latter part of the 19th century and many mines were already worked out and beginning to close by the early part of the 20th. There are nearly 100 known and named pits in the old Madeley parish, most of which had at least two shafts or adit (tunnel) level entrances. Many were highly innovative in their methods of working and, as a group, they are very unusual in that they were able to produce such a wide range of useful materials at the right time so that the area’s industries were able to develop as early as they did.

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