The Nottinghamshire Coalfield.

Some notes regarding its ancient history.


The word "coal," formerly spelt "cole," seems to have originally signified a piece of carbon glowing without flame, which is the sense of the scriptural "coals of fire." In one of Caxton's books, 1481, occurs the sentence. "They reck not whose house burneth, so that they may warm them by the coles." A writer of 1628 alludes to the "turning of trees to coles for fuell." Again Walton, the angler, 1653 says, "Let him (a chub) then be boiled gently over a chafing dish with wood coles."

In consequence of the later transition in the meaning of the word, it is needful to exercise care in perusing old records, or one may easily fall into error. Although during modern times the universal use of mineral coal has finally resulted in the name being limited to that only, it was formerly the practice to use some qualifying term to distinguish the different kinds of fuel. Hence the mineral was variantly styled stone coals, pit-coals, earth coals, or sea coals. Regarding the last term, it is supposed that coal from Newcastle was carried southward by water long before it was worked inland, and so acquired the name of sea coal, or sea-borne coal. A Newminster Latin charter as early as 1236 alludes to "carbonem maris" while an Ely charter of 1253 gives it in English as "secole." Caxton, 1489, has "chaldernes of see colys."

Occasionally we seem to get the wor used in its modern sense, as by Trevisa (1387), " Col groweth under lond;" a Newminster charter of 1547, "A Myne of Colles." Also an Act of Queen Mary, 1563. "That na coales be had furth of the Realme."


The use of coal does not seem to have been known to the ancients, nor is it known at what time it began to be used as fuel. There seems, however, to be reason for thinking that Britain was the first European country in which coal was used to any considerable extent. Perhaps the earliest reliable evidence of its regular use is represented by the grant to the monks of Newcastle of a coal-pit at Preston, Haddington, between the years 1210 and 1219. Henry III. is said to have granted a licence to dig coal in 1234. About the end of the 13th century it began to be used in London, but the innovation was complained of as injurious to human health. In 1306 the Parliament petitioned the king to prohibit the use of coal, and a proclamation was accordingly issued against it, but owing to the high price of wood it was not found possible to dispense with it.

It may seem strange to us who are so accustomed to it that to our ancestors the smell of burning coal was extremely obnoxious, insomuch that it would appear at first only the poor utilised it, except under necessity. Leland the antiquary, 1538, says: "Though betwixt Cawoode and Rotherham be good plenti of wood, yet the people burne much Yerth Cole." Nor could its use have been familiar to Eden, 1553, who wrote: "They digge out of the mountayneg a certayne kinde of black stone which burne in the fyre like coles" (charcoles.) Morwing, 1559, says: "Such coales as are digged out of the ground are condemned bicause of their foule smell." Yet again, in the petition of the Brewers' Company to Queen Elizabeth, 1578, occurs, "Hersealfe greatly greved and anoyed with the taste and smoke of the sea cooles." We are not without local notices of the former prejudice against this fuel. Heywood, 1606, supplies us with the earliest occurrence of a familiar proverb, "As common as coales from Newcastle." In Brereton's writings, 1635, occurs the passage, "besides great collieries employed for the use and supply of the commons and poor of the town."


The great majority of Notts collieries have been opened and developed during modern times, but some few of them are undoubtedly ancient. Strangely, however, our local historians have entirely overlooked the subject, and nothing has ever been written on the industry in early times, so far as we can discover. The oldest coal workings in the county appear to have been on such parts of the great local coalfield as lie nearest to the oounty town. Here a double influence was probably at work: first, a fuel supply for the townspeople; second, an "export" trade, so to speak, by water carriage down the Trent, from the wharves at the Trent Bridge, such as we know was carried on in later centuries.

The earliest allusion we have found to the local use of coal occurs in the "Annales de Dunstable," where it is related that in 1257 Henry III., going to Chester, left the Queen at Nottingham, but she "found it impossible to stay there by reason of the smoke from the sea coal." Whether the chimney arrangements at the Castle were defective, or whether the smoke complained of was carried from the town, we are not informed. However, though not so recorded, there can be little doubt that the coal in question was a local product. The same remark applies to the Castle accounts for 1307, where there occurs a charge of 5s. 4d. for ten loads of "carbo-maritimus," or sea coal. (About this time we have evidence of the charcoal industry being in full swing in Bestwood Park and Sherwood Forest).

The coal mining industry in the neighbourhood of Nottingham must have been carried on for generations, and probably for centuries, prior to the date of our earliest proof. This is as follows: "On the 26th June, 1348, we have record of the transfer of the moiety of a mine at Cossall. William de Smalley, of Stanley, conveyed to Richard Stotur, of Nottingham, "that half part of a mine of sea coals and culms (i.e. anthracite shale), with appurtenances, in the town and in the fields of Cossall, which Henry, son of Peter de Cossall, had of the gift and feoffment of Henry, son of Richard de Cossall. &c. Allusion is made to the local colliers of the period, viz., "Robert Plomer, of Cossall, John Shepherd, of the same, and other workers of the said mine."


Orange notes that Sir Robert Cotton, in his records, p. 35, has the following item: "In 1395, the 18th of Richard II., the inhabitants of Nottingham and others prayed a remedy against a certain exaction imposed upon them by the Constable of the Castle, of four-pence for every load of coals passing into the town from the Forest of Sherwood."

In the Nottingham Mickletorn Jury presentments for October, 1395, we obtain a glimpse of the trade in the county-town. Seventeen men and two women were "presented" as being "common forestallers and gatherers of coal, selling it excessively high, to the serious detriment of the whole people, because they make it too dear." It is clear that the delinquents were in the habit of buying up the supply, and then making a "corner" of the commodity. In the same document a local shoemaker was presented for having "stolen in the night and carried away the coals of Thomas de Arnold (one of the nineteen forestallers), under "his wall, against the peace of our lord the king." In 1433 a Nottingham bellfounder entered action against a Kimberley man, for occupying with two cartloads of seacoal, &c., the place wherein he cast his bells, so that he was unable to make bells there. &c.

In 1467 it was presented that Thomas Marshall, of Nottingham, corviser (shoemaker), had "forestalled; four cart-loads of sea-coal, at a place called Sand Cliff (the upper end of Wollaton-street), not permitting those coals to be led and carried to the king's market of the town aforesaid, to the prejudice and damage of our lord the king's folk." This, of course, was another instance of the old offence of manipulating the market, at the entry of the borough boundary. On account of the situation of the pits, to the west and north-west, all coals would enter the town by Derby-road or Wollaton-street. It is interesting to note the cumbrous ancient method of buying and selling them in the open Market-place, like other commodities.


We have mentioned that in ancient time the Notts, coalpits appear to have been confined to the neighbourhood of Nottingham. The most remote of the recorded workings (all in the hundred of Broxtowe), was at Selston. White, 1832, might well state that the Selston Colliery had been established "several years." In the Corporation archives there is yet preserved a bond dated 3rd July, 1483, from Elisha Day, of Watnall Cauntcliff, Notts., husbandman, to Richard Ody, of Nottingham, in a hundred shillings, for the delivery at Nottingham of ten wain-loads of coals called "Pytte Coles," at the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula (August 1st), every wain-load containing a whole "roke" of coals of "Selston Pitte"; and another ten loads at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th). Some indication of the importance of the Selston mine is afforded by the circumstance that in 1535 the monks of Beauvale derived a yearly income of £20 from "profits of sea coal here."

We have a casual reminiscence of the same colliery half a century later, in the petition against the high-handed proceedings of the obnoxious "Saltpetre Man," as printed by Bailey, and dated 8th October, 1589: "At the quarter sessions holden at Newark, within this countie of Nottingham, there was a general complaynte made unto us by the whole countrie that one Johne Foxe, saltpeter maker, had charged the whole countrie, by his precepts, for the carrying of cole from Selsona, in the countie of Nottingham, to the towne of Newarke, within the same countie, being 16 miles distant, for the making of saltpetre, some townes with five carriages and some with lesse, or else to give him four shillings for evrie loade, whereof he hath received a greate parte. Uppon which complaynte we called the same John Foxe before some of us at Newarke, at the sessions there, to answere the premises, and also to make us a propocition what loades of coles would serve to make a thousand weight of saltpeter, to the end that we might have sette some order for the preparing of the same; but the said Foxe will not sett downe anie rate what would serve for the makeinge of a thousand," &c. Palpable evidence of the ancient workings are yet visible at Selston.


Wollaton Pit first comes under notice on the 1st of April, 1549, when an action was brought for breach of custom there, revealing methodical arrangements such as would be likely to exist only in the case of a long-established institution. Richard Smalley complained against John Parlby, "That whereas there is a coalpit called 'a mine of coals' within the Manor of Wollaton, in the county of Nottingham; of which pit the said Richard has been for the space of 12 years past, and is still, one of the colliers; and in the same manor there exists, and has existed, from time out of mind, a custom used and approved that each person there buying coals ought to receive and have from the collier who has delivered the coals, a certain sign called 'a mark or token' for a whole roke of coals, for three-quarters of a roke, or for half a roke of coals, and that the aforesaid sign shall be delivered to the doorkeeper of the coals there by the hands of the buyers of the coals, and the payment of the money for the aforesaid coals ought to be made by the buyer to the aforesaid doorkeeper, according to the quantity of the mark aforesaid, as is aforesaid; [otherwise] the collier who has delivered the aforesaid coals and sign to such person buying coals and not paying, and delivering the aforesaid sign to the said doorkeeper, for the time being, shall pay for the coals so taken and carried away at his own expense; of which custom the aforesaid John Parlby, being not in the least ignorant, on 20th June, 1548, at the same pit, received and had a whole roke of coals, value 18d., by the delivery of the said Richard, together with a sign for one whole roke, according to the custom aforesaid; and the aforesaid John Parlby, scheming to falsely and fraudulently defraud the aforesaid Richard Smalley of the coals aforesaid, on the said day and year, carried away the aforesaid whole roke of coals thence without paying the sum aforesaid, to wit 18d. for the said yoke of coals to the aforesaid doorkeeper, according to the custom aforesaid: for which reason the said Richard paid the aforesaid 18d. to the said doorkeeper for the aforesaid roke of coals so carried away by the aforesaid John; whereby he says that he is injured, &c., damage 6s. 8d." However, despite this circumstantial story there was evidently something to be said on the other side, as a verdict for the defendant is recorded.


But Wollaton coalpit is best known in historio association with the building of the famous hall, 1580-1588. In the English translation of Camden's "Britain," 1610, we read that "Wollaton is rich in vienes of cole, where Sir Francis Willughby, a knight nobly descended from the Greis, Marques Dorset, in our dais built out of the ground with great charges (yet for the most part levied out of his cole-pits) a stately house with artificiall workmanship, standing bleakely, but offering a very goodly prospect to the beholders far and neere." Thoroton, 1677, also alludes to "the House at Wollaton, the Stone whereof was all brought from Ancaster, in Lincolnshire, by the people of those parts, who then fetch'd Coles from Wollaton, which they had for their labour," &c.

However, bearing in mind the contemporary low prices ruling in the coal trade, the extremely slow rate at which it must have been produced, the difficulties of carriage at the period, &c., it is abundantly clear that the old story calls for considerable revision or qualification. A high modern authority is strongly of opinion that the Wollaton building operations absorbed the materials of the vast priory of Lenton, closely adjacent, and of which scarce a vestige remained in Thoroton's day. Moreover, a manuscript preserved at Wollaton, written by one of the builder's immediate descendants, says:—"Notwithstanding ye stone and its carriage cost nothing but ye return of cole wch. Sir Francis made for it, and that at that time Labourers' Wages was very small, yet it appears by a very particular account that ye building, of that House cost Sir Francis four score Thousand Pounds." Long before the building was completed Sir Francis was borrowing money and mortgaging his estates. An old inventory of the contents of the hall describes a full set of fire-irons in Sir John Willoughby's own room, including a hammer to break "coles" with, thus proving the widespread prejudice against the use of the mineral did not extend to Wollaton. Coming down to later times, we find it noted that in December, 1767, the weather was so severe in Nottingham that the navigation on the River Trent was stopped. This occasioned the assembling of a large number of bargemen, who went several times to the local coal pits to beg coal, which was generously given them by Lord Middleton and others, and 24 of them took a number of loads of coal, of three tons each, into the town, and sold them to the poor at one penny per hundred under the common price. In dismissing the subject of Wollaton coal pit we may just mention Throsby's note that a party of Lord Middleton's Wollaton colliers demolished the ruinous church of Flawford, near Ruddington, about 1773.


A sidelight is thrown on this old local industry by the minutes of the Nottingham Town Council for the 8th of April, 1552, when the chandlers of the town collectively and individually undertook to sell their tallow in Nottingham only, and not to outsiders "other than to the collepyttes," under pain of forfeiture. Evidently the dependency of the townspeople on the collieries led to such exception being made in their favour. The colliers appear to have worked day and night by candle-light.

The earliest reference to coal in connection with a local charity is probably the ordinace of William Phillipott, of Newark, by his will, 18th March, 1556 that yearly, in the summer-time, four "rooks" of coals should be purchased for his five almsmen. John Smith, by his will, 17th April, 1581, left his land subject to his heirs providing "against Midsummer, six whole and good rookes or loads of coals to be distributed for ever on that day amongst the poor remaining and abiding" within the parish of Sutton-on-Trent, Notts.," &c. In both these cases the coals would be brought on the Trent, probably from Nottingham. Other local coal charities are of later date, as Mansfield and Cossall. 1691; Blyth, 1700; Nottingham (Collins) 1704: Carcolston, 1737. &c.

Among certain orders for keeping hospitality in the College of Southwell, 1576. printed by Dickenson, we read that the Residentiary for the time being "shall have all the boon carriage of coals for his time of residence."

The prejudice against coal amongst the upper classes arrears to be reflected in a letter preserved in the Rutland MSS., relating to the provisioning of a house in Nottingham, 6th July, 1587:—"There are twenty rooks brought into charcoal, and laid up in store. I have kept the party that makes them (the charcoal burner) in case you want a greater number." At this period the use of coal was probably very common among the people. An inventory of the goods of a deceased Sneinton husbandman. 1599 mentions a hovel containing "haye, olde woodde, and coles."


Having now brought these notes down to the close of the 16th century, it may be well to temporarily turn aside for the purposes of devoting attention to the county town itself, and to the question whether a coal pit ever existed within the limits of the ancient borough itself? Such question may safely be answered in the negative. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of apparent evidence in the opposite direction that needs to be dealt with.

In 1368 Richard Colier, of Nottingham, left by his will all his granges (=barns) lying upon the Spittleland (=hospital land) near St. John's Hospital. Richard Colier himself is elsewhere described as a merchant, and it may be that his surname is indicative of his trade. The barnes alluded to were probably identical with the "Coliar Barnes" mentioned in 1435 and 1460, and most likely marked by the Beck Barns (now Beck-street) of Peet and Bladder's map of Nottingham, 1744. Thus, though the place-name Collier Barns may only record a local family name, it is just possible it may also record a local trade associated with the spot.

Immediately adjacent, and crossing the south end of Beck-street, was and is a still more significant place-name, viz., Coalpit-lane, which used to include the present St. John's-street. Coalpit-lane is first alluded to in 1575, and in the same document, immediately following, we have a reference to "Colyars-lane," evidently Beck-street. "Collier-lane" again occurs in 1624. Now comes the question; What is the true historical signification of this old street name Coalpit-lane, far removed as it was from the nearest coal mine? It may be mentioned that the westward continuation of the street, viz.. Parliament-street, was called Carter-gate in 1610, 1706, &c.—a name that further occurs without location, as early as 1582-3, 1587, 1588, &c. A high local authority, Mr. W. Stevenson, informs us that for centuries there was carried on a coal traffic between the wharves at the Trent Bridge and the coal-pits north-west of Nottingham, and that it took the line of these streets, which constituted an easy gradient. Mr Stevenson further states that: "This street's name [Coalpit-lane, i.e., the lane leading to the coalpits] along with that of Carter-gate, are relics—shipwrecks of time—pertaining to the ancient low level traffic of Nottingham."


But we confess to not feeling altogether satisfied with such derviation of the name of Coalpit-lane, which was never applied to its continuation the old Carter-gate, nor to Wollaton-street, both of which were nearer to the coalmines. Personally, we are more inclined to associate Coalpit-lane with its immediate neighbour. Collier-lane, in connection with an ancient industry. They are both situate on the limits of the mediaeval town, in immediate association with the road to the town-wood or coppice.

There is ample evidence, as the New English Dictionary will show, that in old English the word "coal-pit'' had two distinct meanings, viz., the present one, and, secondly, "a place where charcoal is made." The latter signification still obtains in the United States. An Early English proverb, somewhat akin to that of the frying-pan and the fire, sneaks of missing the lime-kiln and falling into the coal-pit, i.e., charcoal-pit. As a natural consequence it followed that the word "collier" was applied both in the present sense, and in respect to one who had to do with charcoal burning or dealing. Hence, we are certainlv of opinion that our Nottingham Coalpit-lane derived its name from adjacent charcoal-works, existing prior to 1575, and possibly once the property of Richard Collier. We are strengthened in this view bv a documentary reference, dated 1545, to "a selion of meadow-land near le Colyer Pyttes." In 1587-8 we read of the "Collyer Pittes, near the Beck." Elsewhere they are described as situate east of the Beck and the highway leading to St. Ann's Well—possibly on the site of the old pottery.