Chatterley Whitfield Colliery

 It is not know exactly when coal mining started in the Whtifield area but early texts refer to coal mining activities as far back as the 14th century. According to the “Shaw’s History of the Potteries” mining started in earnest in 1750, when Ralph Leigh of Burslem collected coal from Whitfield twice a day, using 6 horses to carry the coal along lanes which were impassable by wagons. About 100 years later, in 1838, the site comprised an engine house, a coal wharf,  a carpenters shop and brickworks. In 1853 at least 3 different shafts (the Ragman, Bellringer and Engine shafts) were in operation, the deepest being about 72 m. After the completion of the Biddulph Valley train line by the North Staffordshire in 1860, Hugh Henshall Williamson, who in 1834 had inherited large parts of the Whitfield estate, sank two further shafts (one of them called the Prince Albert shaft) to increase capacity. In addition, he constructed his own horse operated railway link from the shafts at Whitfield to the Chell sidins alongside the NSR Biddulph Valley Line. In 1863 a single winding engine served the Ragman, Engine and Bellringer shafts. Coal was transported up these shafts in 400kg tubs, which were also used to lower and raise the miners. The use of these tubs to ferry men up and down the shafts was a common, albeit dangerous, practice before the introduction of cages. As time went on the various shafts at the Whitfield Colliery were deepened, which led to major ventilation problems, especially in the seams which released large quantities of the highly explosive gas methane. Up to 1868 the miners in the Whitfield Colliery still used candles!

View of the Plat and Institute Shafts and headgears
1930s photo of the colliery
The Colliery in 1930
The Colliery in 1930

Just before Hugh Henshall Williamson’s death in 1867 the colliery changed hands and  a group known as the ‘Gentlemen of Tunstall’ took it over, forming the first limited liability company to operate the mine called “The Whitfield Colliery Company Limited”. The new owners of Whitfield immediately set about the task of improving the shafts by deepening the Engine Pit to the same level as the Ragman Pit (148 yards) and widening both shafts to accommodate two cages. In addition each of these shafts was equipped with its own steam winding engine. The use of the Bellringer shaft on the other hand was discontinued. The “Whitfield Colliery Company Limited”, however, was pretty shortlived, its life coming to an end in 1872 . A year later the Whitfield Colliery was acquired by the Chatterley Iron Company Limited, which owned blast furnaces, an oil distilling plants and a colliery in the nearby Chatterley Valley and which  was looking for an adequate supply of coal for its furnaces. Shortly afterwards the Bellringer shaft and another old shaft (the “Laura” shaft), were taken back into operation, widened and deepened. The Bellringer shaft, which was renamed “The Institute” shaft now reached a depth of about 400 m. During the early morning of Monday, February 7, 1881 there was a serious fire and explosion at the Chatterley Whitfield Colliery  killing twenty-four men and boys and causing the collapse of the Laura Pit and the entire shaft and pit top were abandoned. At the same time the Institute shaft had to be partly filled, in an effort to extinguish the fire. 

Hesketh Winding House

As the output of coal at Whitfield increased, it became necessary to improve the coal transport system. In 1873 the decision was taken to build a railway line between the colliery and the blast furnaces in the Chatterley valley, thus significantly reducing the cost of transporting the coal. However, because of the earlier, heavy capital expenditure and a recession the company ran into serious financial trouble in 1876 and was only saved from bankruptcy by closing a large number of the smaller pits. However, in 1880, just a the company was recovering the oil distillery at Chatterley was destroyed by a fire and by 1884 it was in such dire financial straits that an application was made to the Courts asking for the closure of the colliery. The application was eventually withdrawn and the company’s affairs were placed under the control of three liquidators. One of these was the previous Company Secretary, John Renshaw Wain, whose son, Edward Brownfield Wain,  was to lead the Company to its ‘Golden Age’.  Edward became undermanager at the colliery in 1882 and was promoted to Colliery Managet in 1886. Under his leadership, profitability greatly increased and by 1980 the Company was making a profit again.  In the same year the liquidators came to an understanding with the North of England Trustee, Debenture and Assets Corporation Limited of Manchester who agreed to purchase the old Chatterley Iron Company. This resulted in the formation of a new  limited company under the name “Chatterley Whitfield Collieries Limited” and in the following years the company underwent a significant expansion so much so that by 1899 the colliery produced in excess of 950,000 tons of saleable coal. 

The Platt shaft and headgear with the Hesketh Shaft and heapstead in the background.

Following a minor explosion in 1912 it became obvious that additional ventilation was required and, in 1913, the decision was taken to sink a new This shaft was 5 metres in diameter and 213 metres deep. The corresponding heapstead and winding engine house were constructed entirely of brick to a German design and is unique in British coal mining. It is believed that the German construction workers were interned here during the First World War. An additional shaft (the Hesketh shaft) with a depth of 585 meters was finished in 1917.  A massive horizontal steam winding engine, which still exists, was installed by the Worsley Mesnes company of Manchester in the Winding Engine House to become one of the principal coal winding shafts. A new power house was also constructed as part of the complex.  in 1915, electrically driven coal cutters and compressed air shaker conveyors were introduced to help remove some of the physical work required to mine and transport the coal from the face. Up to then all the coal was extracted manually. As the pits became deeper drainage became a major issue and by 1930  the colliery had 16 underground pumps, and the average amount of water pumped out of the mine in a 24-hour period was about 2.50 million liters.  This water was pumped into a pond on the surface and the water re-pumped to the boilers and washeries.

The late 1920s and early 1930s were difficult times for colliery owners and miners alike. During the general strike of 1926 convoys of motor lorries travelled to Whitfield from all over the country to buy the small coal that was stocked at the colliery. In 1929 only 193 days were worked and during the 1930 Depression 300 Whitfield miners were made redundant. North Staffordshire collieries worked on a tonnage quota system during this period and when the monthly quota had been produced they had to stop work.

Engines in the Hesketh Winding House

By 1932 all underground haulage had been mechanised, most of the pit ponies thad gone and steel supports had began to replace the traditional timber pit props.  In addition, there were also technological advances with coal cutters and conveyors which were becoming increasingly necessary as tonnage began to increase. In 1938 a new boiler house containing twelve Lancashire Boilers fuelled by pulverised coal and considered to be one of the best in Britain were brought into use. The 1930s were momentous for Whitfield because not only were there over 4,000 men employed, but in 1937 it became the first colliery in Britain to mine one million saleable tons in one year, a feat it also achieved in 1938.


Engines in the Hesketh Winding House

From 1938 onwards and during the Second World War, there was little change until the mines were nationalised on Wednesday, January 1, 1947. After that date a policy of modernisation took place throughout the whole mining industry. In 1952 mine cars and locomotive haulage were introduced underground at Whitfield and a new mine car circuit installed on the surface. The building to accommodate this is still standing. With the advent of cheap oil supplies from abroad in the late 1950s, contraction in the coal mining industry began to take place. The collieries most affected by this were the older ones where the best coal had been worked out and at which it was difficult to mine coal economically. Chatterley Whitfield was one of the victims of this period, output declining from over one million tons per year in 1937 to 408,000 tons in 1965. Coal drawing stopped at the Institute shaft in 1955 and the Middle Pit in 1968. In 1974 it was decided that Whitfield coal could be more easily worked from Wolstanton Colliery and an underground roadway was driven to join the two pits. In 1977 coal drawing at Chatterley Whitfield came to an end.

The Lamp House