Wednesday, 29 June 2016

When coal was king

The pit headgear and engine house
Bestriding the landscape like industrial Eiffel Towers, pit headgear with their winding wheels used to be a familiar sight across central and northern England.
Not any more. King Coal has been deposed for nigh on thirty years now. The pithead which we gradually neared as we headed towards Leigh on the Bridgewater is the last in Lancashire and even it is now merely a static landmark that points the way to the Astley Green Colliery Museum.
The rather forlorn little one-street village of Astley Green used to be home to a sizeable colliery that employed nearly 2000 men - and women. These days it's a fascinating, ramshackle and at times poignant museum run by a dedicated team of volunteers.
Now that's what you call a steam engine
Pride of place goes to the massive – no, that's an understatement – gigantic steam winding engine which wound the cables via the headgear in and out of the mine to bring coal and miners to the surface.
 It's one of the largest in Britain and was manufactured by Yates and Thom of Blackburn in 1910, back in the days when British industry could build that sort of stuff.
It has four cylinders in a twin tandem compound arrangement. It developed an astounding 3300hp at just 58 rpm. I was lucky enough to visit at the same time as an old boy called Ken Eastham who, it transpired, worked on the engine and headgear here and elsewhere as an engineer until the mining industry finally died.
Winding wheel with, on its right rim, the brake shoe
He did his best to explain to this clueless codger how it all worked. Among the random bits I grasped were that the compound engine, he told me, directs used steam from the main cylinders through second, smaller cylinders to retrieve the remaining energy from it.
The winding cable ran on a cone shaped wheel enabling the cable to be low geared at first, then building up to higher gearing as momentum increased The maximum rope speed was 26 metres per second – that's nearly 60mph – when winding coal.
A big engine needs big spanners
It needed to be that powerful for the shaft was sunk nearly 3000 feet into the ground using what was state of the art technology (German this time) back in 1907. A 23ft wide iron tube with a cutting face on the end was forced down through the soft and boggy ground to reach the coal seam far below.
Plenty of history to be found at the museum
The colliery closed in 1970, before Maggie's mining mayhem. Today as you wander around there's fascinating historical information reminding you of the appalling and dangerous conditions early miners – men, women and children as young as five – worked in.
Outside exhibits are fairly random and ramshackle but perhaps the nicer for it. Sadly the collection of mining railway engines was all tucked away from the weather under canvas – that's a British summer for you.
The museum is free to visit but if you're as fascinated as I was you'll have to leave a donation.

1 comment:

  1. At times it is hard to visualise the speed of change. A few miles from where you are there was one of the most modern and ecologically founded pits in the country. I actually photographed it for the construction company I worked for back in the 60's. State of the art and a predicted long life. All waste that was mined was returned back down underground. It was also the only mine I have been down and was much cleaner than I ever expected nor I imagine older pits ever could be. The concrete pit heads were a landmark beside the M6 and East Lancs Road. It closed over 30 years ago and the complete site flattened. You would never know it ever existed. I know we look at old mines and their communities with nostalgia but I still find it hard to understand how an industry that was modernising lost it all.