The entrance to the pit
in the 1950s
Visitors arriving at Oakwell may be surprised to know that this was once the site of a busy colliery, employing in the 1960s over 360 men. Gomersal Colliery, or Nutter Lane Pit as it was sometimes called, closed in 1973. Coal in the Oakwell area, however, has been mined much further into the past than this.
The geology of the Oakwell District consists of sediments of the Upper Carboniferous period, making these rocks 280-300 million years old. Most of the rocks are shales and mudstones. Some sandstone occurs in the south of the Park around Oakwell Beck. The northern part of the Park is made of a substantial exposure of Birstall rock, a massive sandstone forming the highest areas of the Park.
Some ironstone deposits are found locally, while the Middleton Little coal seam outcrops within the Park. It was the presence of this surface coal which resulted in the area being mined as far back as the 14th Century.
In 1359 a reference to mining of iron ore and coal in the district stated that Edmund de Portyngton and Thomas Benetland demised to John de Brandon, the chaplain of the manor of ‘Oakwell in Gomersale’, amongst other items ‘delves ore et carbonum’ (all mines of iron ore and coal). These mines were simple scrape pits dug into the local hillsides, having a very limited life and extent.
Over 350 years later there is another reference to the industry. In 1717 a lease was granted of ‘All cole mynes or minerals now ungot in 2 closes in Gomersal at £31 3s 6d’. This coal was to be worked from the estate of Thomas Fearnley, a colliery master and attorney.
The industrial revolution
The 18th and 19th Centuries were times of great change. Britain had gained access to worldwide markets and coal was needed to power the new textile mills, brickworks and ironworks. As a consequence there was a steady improvement in the transport network. The Calder Navigation was cut in the middle of the 18th Century. The major roads and railways were built during the early and middle 19th Century. With cheaper and more efficient transport systems coal became an economic fuel.
This increasing development is seen in the history of the villages of Great and Little Gomersal. In 1838 two pits were located in these villages; by 1853 there were four. Other local pits were sunk at Birkenshaw and around Scotland Beck. Most of these mines were started and owned by local farmers and woollen merchants. The size of the mines varied considerably. Some were no more than ‘day holes’, while others were quite substantial providing employment for a sizeable number of men, women and children.
Working conditions were appalling, especially in this part of Yorkshire. This was partly due to the seams, all hand worked, which were usually no more than 3 feet high and sometimes less than 18 inches. These conditions came to public attention during Her Majesty’s inspection of the mines in the early 1840s. This led to the passing of the 1842 Mines Act which made illegal the employment of women and children under the age of 10 underground. The Act was nonetheless ignored for some time.
When the commissioners of the mines visited the Birstall and Batley areas they recorded some terrible accounts. It was common for girls and boys to start working down the mine at 8 years old, but sometimes children as young as 5 or 6 were sent down for up to 13 hours a day. They were often beaten and some had to work in almost total darkness. Incredibly, the commissioners reported that Thomas Townend left Batley poorhouse to work down a mine at the age of four. When asked by the commissioners for his views on life underground he surprisingly replied “I remember being in the pit; I liked it, but they wouldn’t let me stay”.
There was also a disregard for the dangers of mining and there was an horrific number of accidents. From 1853 to 1862 there were 1,012 deaths nationally attributed to underground accidents alone. The worst local disaster occurred at Combs Colliery, Thornhill, near Mirfield. An explosion in 1893 killed 139 men and boys. Only 7 survived out of the total underground workforce. Life expectancy was further reduced by mining related diseases like pneumoconiosis and rheumatic heart disease. In the 19th Century a miner would consider himself fortunate to reach the age of sixty.
By the beginning of the 20th Century most of the shallower seams in this area were exhausted. However, some of the deeper seams were still considered workable. In 1911 the Birkenshaw Collieries Co. Ltd, later owned by local coal owners the Gill family, started sinking shafts down to the Blocking bed at the site of the Countryside Centre car park. The colliery was officially opened in 1916 and by 1918 employed over 60 men.
The mine was opened out by the profits from the company’s Peacock Pit at Birkenshaw and despite periodic closures Gomersal was ready to produce coal again by 1932. During this period the mine often employed less than 10 men.
The 1930s were a time of great depression in the coal industry; upwards of 30 collieries closed within a 10 mile radius of Oakwell alone, including the Howden Clough pit, Batley, which mined coal from the Black Bed under the Hall between 1922 and 1926.
Despite the depression, Gomersal Colliery expanded. In late 1932 the shafts were sunk down to the Beeston Bed, more men were taken on from other collieries, and ventilation was improved. Later, when the Peacock Pit closed, its shafts were incorporated into the system. In 1936 production was up to 1,000 tubs daily.
The demand for coal during the Second World War meant that the pit was working 6 or 7 days a week. In 1947 the company, now called the New Gomersal Collieries Co. Ltd., handed over ownership to the National Coal Board. Another period of expansion followed and in 1951 there was increased mechanisation of the mine.
Further developments were carried out during the 1960s. The old system of underground haulage called ‘main and tail’ was replaced by remote controlled conveyors. From 1965 men and materials were transported underground by ‘coolie car’ and in 1967 a project to sink a drift to replace the existing shafts was completed. Production in the mid1960s was approximately 850 tons of coal per day.
In 1970 a highly sophisticated coal plough, used in conjunction with self advancing pit props, was installed into the Blocking bed. Six months later the system was withdrawn, unable to cope with Gomersal’s cramped conditions. The mine was now running at a loss.
Underground workings at Gomersal covered a large area extending for at least 1½ miles in all directions. Supporting pillars of coal under Oakwell Hall were retained. Problems associated with Gomersal included a tendency for the coal to deteriorate when stored on the surface, and despite the Colliery’s proximity to the rail network all the coal had to transported by road.
In the early days most of the miners came from Dudley Hill and Birkenshaw. As the pit developed men came from further afield. During the second world war a number of ‘Bevin Boys’ were taken on. After the war some Polish miners joined the workforce.
Despite Gomersal Colliery being in profit for most of its working life, from 1969 to 1973 it had been running at a loss. Then in March 1973, at the Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield, disaster struck when old wet mine workings flooding into a developing face. The subsequent loss of life alerted the National Coal Board to the high dangers of running a mine in an area riddled with old workings, particularly in a ‘wet’ area like Gomersal. After consultations between management and Unions, the mine was run down and in June 1973 was finally closed.
The view from the Hall
in the early 1970s
The view today
Fiddlehead and Fernblades
In 1974 the winding gear and buildings were demolished. and planning permission granted for a reclamation project to be carried out by the newly formed Kirklees Council. Work began in 1976 and the project was designed by the Landscape Architects division of Kirklees Directorate of Architecture, Planning and Development. Part of the £60,000 cost was met by a Department of Environment Grant.
The shafts were capped with concrete, the sludge lagoons formed by coal washing were removed and rapid growing acid tolerant grasses were planted on the site of the levelled slag heaps to prevent soil erosion.
The work was completed in March 1979 and received a Certificate of Commendation in that year’s Conservation Award Scheme of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and ‘The Times’ newspaper.
Today the 16 hectare Gomersal Colliery site is almost unrecognisable. Planted with wildflowers and woodland the site is a haven for wildlife.
A sculpture close to the Countryside Centre marks the location of the entrance to the drift mine and celebrates the mine and those that worked so hard in such difficult conditions. More information about the mine is available from the Countryside Centre. See the Visitor information page for more info.
'Life Dahn t' Pit' - Memories from miners at Gomersal pit
This small book is to remind people of the existence of mining in the area and in particular of Gomersal Colliery. It focuses in particular on the people who worked there and their families since the sinking of the first shaft in 1911.
The Gomersal Miners Project was conceived, devised, created and published by Spen Valley Civic Society, funded by the Local Heritage Initiative.