Coal was one of the main reasons Britain’s industries developed quicker than any others’ during the Industrial Revolution. At coal mining’s peak in 1913, this industry consisted of about 2600 mines, producing 287 million tons of coal per year and employing a million people. The history of Erewash and surrounding areas is tied to coal to an extent easy to under-estimate today.
Mining communities in the area were tight-knit: many collieries had their own sports teams, and miner’s brass bands were common. The Ilkeston Miner’s Welfare club opened in 1924, standing on the corner of Bristol Road and Manners Road; offering facilities such as a library, bars and tennis courts.
Coal mining was important in Derbyshire for many centuries, taking place as early as Roman times. However, wood was the main source of fuel until its price increased in the 16th Century – after which land owners were quick to take advantage of the rich coal deposits on their land. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Codnor, Heanor, Shipley and Ripley were some of the most profitable mines across Derbyshire.
The demand for coal increased dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, as steam power began to dominate Britain. Across the Erewash valley, newly improved transport systems allowed coal to be transported across the country. The Erewash Canal was important for this (see our blog post on the Sandiacre Lock cottages here). The Nutbrook Canal came soon after, transporting coal from Shipley south to Nottingham and Leicester. Later, development of the rail network allowed Midlands coalfields to sell to London. By 1872, almost half of London’s coal began its journey south in Derbyshire’s mines.
However, conditions in the mines were terrible, and in the early 19th Century the working day for a miner in this area was even longer than the average: 13 to 16 hours per day, compared to a not much better national average of 12 hours. Travelling to the coal-face was an enormous challenge by itself, and, once there, the hard labour of mining was made more difficult by hot and cramped conditions.
The writer George Orwell visited coal mines researching for The Road to Wigan Pier, and says, ‘Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realised that before he even gets to his work he may have to creep through passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus… At the start to walk stooping is a joke, but it is a joke that soon wears off.’ Once at the coal face – which may be several miles away, ‘each man is shifting coal at a speed approaching two tons an hour’ – shovelling coal at this pace for hours on end, kneeling down at best.
This work was also incredibly dangerous. Ilkeston Mines Rescue Station, located on Manners Road, opened in 1916, with 30 men based there responsible for providing aid to over 60 mines in the area. One of the worst mining accidents in Derbyshire was at Markham Colliery in 1938, in which 79 miners were killed by an explosion.
Apart from a temporary increase in demand during World War Two, the coal industry declined substantially during the 20th Century. The last colliery to close in Erewash was Cossall Colliery in 1966, but the legacy of mining, while easily forgotten today, is integral to our history.