The story of coal
Mining through the ages
Coal mining and utilisation has a rich history in the UK. Historical findings suggest that coal was used by the Britons before the Romans came to Britain even though its exact purpose is largely unknown. Early miners first extracted coal exposed on the surface of the land and then followed the seams underground.
Though there are few clues alluding to the exact use of coal in the Stone and Bronze ages, flint axes have been found embedded in coal, providing evidence of its mining in Britain before the Roman invasion. Evidence of coal stores along the length of Hadrian’s Wall suggests that the Romans learned about coal mining and its uses from the Britons.
Further historical evidence indicates that coal was picked up on beach outcrops at various places along UK shores. As the supply of coal on the surface was used up, settlers began to dig up the beach to uncover the seam and follow it inland. Some of these seams would have continued near the surface but generally the seam continued underground, encouraging the settlers to dig to find coal, and giving birth to coal mining as we know it today.
The first simple coal mine was the bell pit, which was 'mechanised' with a windlass powered by horses to draw up the coal to the surface. The mines were lit by rushlights, large candles that burned animal fat for light, and the mines were kept dry and ventilated. Many of the first Bell pit mines were operated by monks who distributed the coal to artisans for use in smelting and iron-work.
Room and pillar
The first simple Bell pit mines had many hazards including potential cave-ins and falling rock. In order to increase safety in the mines, the ‘room and pillar’ model of mining was implemented in order to increase the stability of the mine and keep it from collapsing.
The ‘room and pillar’ model began when a bell pit was dug and squared off at the bottom to form a 'room'. A mine would consist of various connecting ‘rooms’ where ‘pillars’ of coal were left standing to support the roof while coal was extracted. This system was used for centuries, and many references exist to such mines from the 13th and 14th centuries on.
One defect of ‘room and pillar’ mining was need to leave behind valuable coal in order to maintain the stability of the mine. The need to extract nearly all the coal from a mine led to the introduction of longwall mining, which was common practice from the 17th century onward. In longwall mining, a team of miners worked with picks and shovels to carve the coal from a coal seam in one side of a tunnel called a 'face.’ As more and more coal was removed from the face, the miners erected timber roof supports as they moved forward to prevent the mine from collapsing. Also to maintain support, the empty space behind the miners was filled with stone waste and spoil called 'goaf'. A road was kept open through the goaf for access from the mine shaft to the face.