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Geoinvestigate’s  desk top CMRA studies and Haematite Mining Assessments unravel Cumbrias Coal Mining and Iron Mining Legacies

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The following article gives a brief background to coal and iron mining activity in Cumbria, the Westrn Lakes and Allerdale and Copeland and the services Geoinvestigate provide to enable house buyers, home owners, developers, architects, surveyors and engineers both to buy to build safely in respect of the regions coal and iron mining legacy. The article is based on a shortened version of the chapter by Ronnie Calvin RM in Lakeland’s Mining Heritage.

West Cumberland Coalfield  

The coalfield extends along the coast from Whitehaven to Maryport, a distance of fourteen miles, and varies in width from four to six miles. From Maryport it continues a further twelve miles to Wigton, but narrows to about two miles in width. In addition a large area of coal has been worked under the sea bed, mostly in the Whitehaven area, with the coal being mined up to four miles out from the coast.

There are seven principal coal seams in the Whitehaven area:

  • Upper Metal Band – 3ft 6ins wide, at 48 fathoms deep (at Wellington Pit)
  • Preston Isle Yard (Burnt) – 2ft 6ins wide, at 53 fathoms deep
  • Bannock – 6ft wide, at 74 fathoms deep
  • Main Prior – 9ft wide, at 96 fathoms deep
  • Little Main – 2ft wide, at 127 fathoms deep
  • Six Quarters – 6ft wide, at 139 fathoms deep
  • Four Feet – 2ft 3ins wide, at 187 fathoms deep

The dip of all the above seams is seaward, with a fall of approximately 1 in 2. The Main seam crops out near the line of the low road to St.Bees, and has been worked from a very early period along the outcrop as far as Partis Pit near Stanley Road, Mirehouse. The Bannock seam crops out at a correspondingly higher level.

At first the coal was worked from the outcrops where the seam was exposed. One of the earliest records of coal mining in West Cumberland dates to 1560 when Sir Thomas Chaloner, lord of the manor of St Bees,in granting certain leases within the manor, reserved for himself the right to dig for coals while at the same time granting his lessees liberty to take coals from his pits for their own use, on the condition that they paid and laboured from time to time therein, according to the custom of the manor.

Throughout their history the coal mines of West Cumberland, and in particular those in the Whitehaven area, were plagued with firedamp (CH4), and as greated depths were reached the problem of ventilation became critical. Accumulations of gas precipitated explosions which killed or maimed the colliers and seriously damaged the underground workings. To the employer the damage done to the mines was more important than the loss of life.

East Cumberland Coalfield   

According to the Victoria County History the first record of an early attempt to prove coal in East Cumberland is in the books of the Newcastle Corporation, wherein it is stated that in 1552 coal was bored for in Greenside Rigg in the parish of Farlam.

The major area of mining activity appears to have been Tindale Fell where there were many pits. In 1801 Tarnhouse and Talkin Collieries produced 197,015 loads of coal, rising to 278,615 loads in 1810.

From early times coal had been worked at other places from the carboniferous limestone series along the Pennine range, but apparently it was mainly used for lime burning. The most importantarea of such mining was said to have been at Croglin. When the manor of Croglin was purchased by Charles, Duke of Somerset, in 1738, it included a colliery which was in continuous operation till 1864. There were also early coal workings at Hartside and Renwick in the Crossfell range, the earliest reference being in the account book of Lady Anne Clifford for 1665.

In 1900 the Victoria County History lists 43 collieries in Cumberland, of which three were at Alston and one at Nenthead. These were:

  • Alston Drift Colliery, owned by W Benson, with 15 employees
  • Guttergill Colliery, owned by Vieille Montagne Zinc Co, with 7 employees
  • Rock Hill Colliery, the Alston and Nentforce Quarry Co, with 6 employees
  • Dowgang Colliery, Vieille Montagne Co, with 7 employees

In 1905 these firms were the only producers of coal at Alston, and did not employ more than 40 persons underground altogether. The three firms were all working the little limestone coal, which in the Alston district is found in two distinct seams twenty feet apart, the upper being about 20 inches thick and the lower 12 inches thick.

Elsewhere coals has also been worked on a small scale in the Caldbeck, Shap and Stainmoor areas. At Caldbeck the little limestone coal crops out on the southern flanks of Warnfell Fell, and numerous shafts indicate that the seam has been extensively worked. Its thickness is said to vary between 1 foot and 2.5 feet. A lot of this coal would have been used for lime burning.

At Borrowdale, Stainmoor, it was worked at many localities in the lower carboniferous series, and in the Westphalian Argill coalfield. Here coal was worked by adits on the north bank of Argill Beck, where it is said to have been nearly four feet thick. A trial pit was sunk in 1946 and two feet of coal, overlain by siltstone, was proved. The last small working in this area was an adit, now collapsed, where coal up to seven feet thick was said to have been worked. Mining ceased in 1946.

Iron and Haematite Mining in Cumbria

The following article is based on a shortened version of the chapter by Richard Hewer and Alen McFadzean in Lakeland’s Mining Heritage.

The iron industry has slowly matured within the Lake Counties for centuries, with industrial growth spreading from the small bloomery and forge sites, coastal plateau workings and the narrow veins of the fells to the huge mining and iron smelting complexes of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The industry declined during the mid 20th century because of dwindling ore reserves, cheap foreign imports and the pressures of economic viability.

The mining areas were divided into well-defined regions. Major deposits occurred around Egremont, Cleator, Cleator Moor, Ennerdale, Eskdale, Millom and Ulverston, with numerous smaller deposits within the Lakeland fells – Langdale, Coniston and Grasmere for example.

Western Lakeland

The Whitehaven region has evolved from several distinct groups of rock. The carboniferous limestone overlying the Skiddaw slate on the south eastern side has in turn been overlaid by the coal measures in the north-west. The southern area is covered by the St Bees sandstone. The principal ore bodies occurred within the seven bands of the carboniferous limestone series, the latter having been subjected to varying degrees of earth movement and faulting, whilst the iron solutions penetrated the fault lines from above and below. The resultant ore bodies formed large flats (bodies of solid ore) which connected with the bedding planes of the host rock, irregular bodies occurring as large swellings within the vein, or true veins or faults whereby the haematite solution followed the lines of weakness. the miners were forever optimists for, just ahead of them, the vein could open out into a new and profitable shoot of ore.

Large, shallow deposits were extensively worked by the early miners. Development was rapid – easily worked deposits provided greater profits – but with this ambitious drive came the dangers and disasters. Roof falls were commonplace, holing into abandoned workings and slides of disturbed ground were all part of the miner’s way of life. In several instances, where all the ore had been removed from the slats, it was necessary to fill the large voids with waste rock, and in some cases sand was blown into the cavities leaving only heavily timbered shafts for access to the lower workings.

Several varieties of iron were mined. The most common type was compact, hard and massive, and of a bluish-purple hue (hard blue) usually associated with the flats. Kidney or pencil ore was often found in irregular deposits in the first or second limestones. Specular ore was something of a rarity often found in cavities (loughs) and saved to be sold as specimens by the miners (a lucrative sideline). Lesser ores consisted of dark ‘black’ soft ore; smite ore (very greasy and highly coloured; muck or ‘ring’ ore.

Research and fieldwork has shown that the deposits were exploited in Roman times. Several bloomery sites suggest operations by early British or Norse settlers. Many of the sites date from the late medieval period but could have obliterated earlier workings. The earliest documented evidence of mining within Egremont parish related to Bigrigg Mine in 1179. The surface cover was shallow and the deposits easily exploited, probably as open casts. Between 1179 and 1635 the search for further deposits was intensified. During the later years a large pure deposit of ore was discovered at Langhorn which, by 1709, when it was still being worked, had yielded over 21,500 tons of ore.

In 1784 Crowgarth Mine tapped a particularly rich body of hard blue ore. 20,000 tons were transported to the Carron Foundry in Stirlingshire. After this date there followed a 10 year slump in the iron trade which slowed development work in Cumbria. However, following this unsettled period the metal prices improved and mining gained momentum until the decline in the 20th century. Advertisements often appeared in the local papers offering plots of land “with great prospects of iron ore”.

Exploration within the Lakeland fells was spasmodic. The veins of haematite were small, rich, but often mixed with stone. Tranpsport was difficult and iron prices were low. During the 1840s prospectors tried any likely veins, but it wasn’t until the mid 1860s and early 1870s that serious attempts to work the lodes were instigated. The valley sides of Ennerdale Water received considerable attention, especially at the sites of ancient workings. The Crag Fell Mine was the only producer of any quantity. Meanwhile Floutern Tarn (Red Gill Mine) received notoriety for the activities in share dealing by Faithful Cookson who was also associated with several other ventures in the area and in neighbouring Eskdale. The trials around Scale beck and along the flank of Gale Fell provided a limited amount of ore which was sorted, cleaned, bagged and wheelbarrowed away!

The Kelton and Knockmurton mines were the only large producers of ore from the Skiddaw slate formation. The mines were owned by William Baird & Co of Gartsherrie, Scotland, who had ventured south in search of quality ore for their blast furnaces. Between 1869 and 1913 over 1.25 million tons were raised, much of which was transported to their works though some went to the Moss Bay and Harrington furnaces near Whitehaven and a little to the Midlands.

The mines of Eskdale have fortunately left us with the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. This was constructed solely to serve the mines, and was nearly ‘lost’ when the workings closed down. Nab Gill Mine, further developed in 1870 by Whitehaven Iron Mines Ltd, worked the veins in the Eskdale granite. It produced roughly 8000 tons per annum, but tonnage declined after 1881. The iron ore was extracted by overhead stoping and removed from Nab Gill by way of an inclined tramway to the main line.Gill Force and Gate Crag mines on the south side of the valley were the second major producer, served by a branch line from the Railway. Several small workings dot the valley slopes.

Southern Lakeland

The haematite ore fields of Furness are bordered to the north by Silurian slate and to the south by permo-triassic sandstone, the host rocks being a succession of six distinct limestones deposited during the Carboniferous period. Unlike the non-ferrous mineral veins of the nearby Lakeland mountains, the haematite lodes of Furness conform to no particular pattern. Only in certain circumstances – mainly in the southern and eastern areas of the ore field – do they manifest in true mineral vein form, the deposits of the north and west being in highly irregular masses.

Large-scale mining has taken place at a number of locations between the towns of Barrow and Ulverston. The major ore deposits were situated at Askam, Roanhead, Park, Yarlside, Stank, Mouzell, Crossgates, Marton and Lindal;  with peripheral deposits at Urswick, Stainton, Pennington and Plumpton. Across the Duddon Estuary, in the carboniferous limestone between Millom and Haverigg, ore was mined at Hodbarrow from one of the largest bodies of haematite ever discovered. Three miles to the north-west an outlying vein in the Wicham Valley yielded haematite ore from the fault between the limestone and the older Skiddaw slate.

Just when mining began is a point open to conjecture. Archaeological evidence determines that ore was smelted in the vicinity of Urswick during the Iron Age by indigenous Celts. Cistercian monks from Furness Abbey commenced mining at Orgrave, on the outskirts of Dalton, prior to 1235, and by 1300 had developed several locations for the winning of ore, mostly in the vicinity of Dalton. These initial ventures were probably open cast workings, exploiting shallow layers of mineral worked with ease once the overlying boulder clay had been removed.

Mining methods varied considerably across the Furness and Hodbarrow ore fields. In the narrow mineral veins around Urswick and Stainton, traditional methods of stoping were employed. In the veins, cross veins and ore flats of Whitriggs – where the ore tended to mass in irregular pockets between the limestone bedding and natural rock fissures – the ore was systematically robbed, allowing the roof to collapse and reveal more ore. In the gigantic ore bodies (sops) of Park, Roanhead, Mouzell, Elliscales and Lindal Moor top slicing became widely adopted. This was a method similar to the board and pillar system of mining coal, the difference being that the pillars were also removed, allowing the roof to crush down on the sole while another slice was being worked underneath.

The Hodbarrow deposit was, like the sops of Furness, large and irregular. Top slicing was employed prior to 1922, but problems with subsidence and the close proximity of the sea brought about a change in policy and the adoption of bottom slicing. Ore was removed in slices from the sole of the deposit and the resultant voids filled with a slurry mixture of water and sand to prevent instability.

Water was a problem in the Furness mines. With the country rock being carboniferous limestone underground runners and feeders were plentiful. Cornish beam engines were installed here and across the Duddon. Horizontal pumping engines were common throughout the district, while during the early years of the 20th century several companies resorted to electrification as a means of improving their de-watering systems.

After the peak years of the 1870s and 1880s, decline was hastened by the gradual exhaustion of some of the older pits and the import of cheap iron ore from other countries, notably Spain. In Furness the last big pit – Woodbine Pit at North Stank – closed in 1946. The end came in 1960 when the Margaret Mine and inclined drift in Henning Valley, Lindal, was bought out by a large concern and subsequently closed. Hodbarrow Mine continued in production until March 1968 when its greatly reduced work force of 103 men was laid off, bringing to an end haematite mining in the south of the county.

Borehole Investigation of Shallow Coal Mining

Over the past 6 months Geoinvestigate’s new compact microdrill system has proven its worth and that it’s just the answer for investigating Cumbria’s coal and iron mining legacy. Microdrill offers restricted access, small diameter rotary open-hole drilling which is first and foremost SAFE, fast, clean, quiet, cost effective and environmentally friendly. New Microdrill has been designed for probing for shallow workings in limestone, sandstone and coal as well as locating mine shafts and sinkholes.Micro-drilling rig for shallow mine workings

New Microdrill reaches the places other rigs cannot get to

Recently Microdrill was in action in Newcastle on the Northumberland Coalfield. Having previously obtained a coal drilling permit from the Coal Authority to drill with small volume water injection flush Microdrill was delivered to site on the back of a standard flatbed trailer.

Microdrilling Site Investigation

Shallow mine working investigation of a housing estate in Newcastle

Access to the drilling positions in several gardens was tricky but achievable with Microdrill.

In accordance with Coal Authority Guidance on Managing the Risk of Hazardous Gases when Drilling or Piling Near Coal (essentially a Code of practice for safe drilling and piling through coal) Microdrill new small volume water injection system was in this instance considered to be the safest flushing medium.


Potential gas emission hazards arising when drilling into abandoned coal mine workings

This is because there was assessed to be an unknown or undetermined gas risk as is so often the case in exploratory drilling works on the UK coalfields.


New Microdrills small volume water flush injection system is by far the safest way of drilling mine workings

The Coal Authority normally stipulates small volume water injection flush for their internally managed exploratory drilling works because it ensures minimal risk to the public from hazardous gases including carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. In fact it is rare under the Coal Authorities strict safety policy for drilling through coal for them to permit anything else but water.

Microdrill on it's 50th job

Probing for shallow mine workings and coal in Newcastle Microdrill on it’s 50th job in Newcastle

The Coal Authorities strict policy with regard to water flush is something to be considered by site investigation companies when compiling a Coal Mining Risk Assessment (CMRA) or drawing-up a source-pathway-receptor based risk assessment for drilling permit application.


High pressure small volume water injection makes Geoinvestigates New Microdrill system safest

It should also be borne in mind by drilling contractors and consultants that the CA polices drill sites checking some 10% of drill sites per year to ensure compliance with the permit. A change in drill flush from that originally agreed with the CA would be a breach of terms and conditions and could result in prosecution.


Geoinvestigate’s New Microdrill working through the night on a coal mining investigation 

New Microdrill has been demoed to the CA who gave it their nod of approval suggesting that in their opinion it was easily capable of reaching 50m and much deeper though up till now it has only been tested to 30m which is typically the limit of interest for shallow mining investigation.md8

Coal at 11m depth turns drill water black indicating the seam is intact and the ground is stable  

Geoinvestigate Hartlepool

Geoinvestigate carrying out a contaminated land site investigation and gas survey in Hartlepool

If you require a coal mining investigation, Phase 1 desk study, coal mining risk assessment (CMRA), Phase 2 intrusive site investigation, geotechnical investigation, ground investigation or you need a contaminated land survey or landfill gas survey, trial pitting or borehole drilling please do not hesitate to contact one of our regional offices. Our team are only too happy to assist with your enquiry and will ensure that you get our most competitive quote.