The Development of Mining in Warwickshire

Baxterley winding wheel memorial, 2014.
Photo by Benjamin Earl.

Coal mining has been engrained in Warwickshire’s heritage for centuries.  Stretching from Tamworth to Warwick, the Warwickshire coalfield covers 385 square kilometres and has been worked on since the 13th century.

In the 13th century, coal was mostly used by artisans and occasionally to heat homes. Warwickshire’s earliest mines were in the north of the county, where the coal lies close to the surface. This would be reached by making shallow bell pits or by digging an adit into the hillside, and was mostly done by monks. On one occasion at Arely colliery in the mid-twentieth century, the ground collapsed and the men and their machinery fell ten feet down into the bricked tunnel of a centuries-old monk’s coalmine. With most coal being transported by sea, and the Warwickshire coalfield being one of the most landlocked in Britain, trade was rather restricted to its surrounding areas.

Coal not a priority

Between the 14th and 15th century, coal mining in Warwickshire virtually came to a halt. The Great Famine (1315-1317), the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the Black Death (1346-1453) dramatically changed Britain’s social and economic needs, and coal was not a priority.

Slowly Britain began to recover and by the 16th century its wood supplies were running out, thus the demand for coal began to increase. Coal became cheaper than wood and increasingly began to be used in the domestic setting. Yet Warwickshire coal was still limited by the issue of transport. Horse-drawn carts would be hired from farmers, once the harvest had finished, to transport the coal to nearby places. But compared to the collieries further north, that could transport the coal by sea, Warwickshire’s coal industry was minuscule.

The First Industrial Revolution

By the 18th century, the First Industrial Revolution was in its beginnings. There was a great demand for Coke, a fuel made from coal that was used to power the forges and iron ore smelting furnaces. Yet Warwickshire coal’s large and highly sulphurous makeup made it unsuitable to be made into Coke, leaving Warwickshire’s mines absent from this industrial market. Warwickshire’s coal mining industry was yet to boom.

By the end of the 18th century, the newly built Coventry Canal linked Warwickshire’s mines with the West Midlands and London. This network meant that by 1830 Warwickshire coal was supplying Tamworth, Lichfield, Ashby and Oxford. However, transport via the canal to further distances was a rather lengthy and inefficient process.

It was the commercialisation of the steam engine that would see Warwickshire’s coal mining industry develop, however.