A hole in the history

If ever anything were to prove the importance of a detailed mapping record, than my post of Wednesday last, ‘Common ground’ does just that. Whilst dredging the available mapping for the area beforehand, the 1938 draftings were unavailable in the archive for technical reasons. Thus, in the selections I chose, there was no evidence of mining to be found around my mystery shaft, near the site of the former level crossing at the top of Engine Lane, Brownhills.

I’ve had some top contributions on this subject, and, as ever, I welcome them all, but one in particular demonstrated Mr. Sod’s law to full effect. Reader Jim, rapidly developing the air of one who really knows what he’s talking about, said the following:

The area where the brick shafts are is marked West colliery (coal & fireclay) on the 1938 map Bob. It’s a relatively small spoil heap maybe it ran into problems that corner of the fields is often ankle deep in water.

So it was with great interest and no little impatience that I waited for the drafts to come online again. Finally, this afternoon they were released. Jim is quite correct, on the 1:2,500 1938 epoch 4 map for the area, there is exactly the feature he describes:

1:2500 scale Ordnance Survey plan of Brownhills Common. Most of the mining in the immediate area had ended by this time.

This is hugely engaging for me, and does indeed help solve the mystery. Whatever it was, it was clearly a very small operation. I will try and get to explore the area on foot in the next week or so. The building layout is not clear from the map segment, and the same date 1:10,000 scale draft of the same area complicates things more, showing an ‘L’ shaped building on the exact spot:

1:10,000 plan, also dated 1938, but clearly not from the same survey or epoch; in this won the railway remains in place. Click for a larger version.

On the subject of the Engine that gave the lane it’s name, I’m of the opinion that it was the steam pump installed at the Cathedral Pit, which acted as a central pumping facility for shafts in the immediate vicinity, emptying into the then Norton Pool, or Chasewater. David Fellows, author of the wonderful Brownhills Past website, is particularly interested in the subject of the machinery in question. He says this on the subject:

The Cathedral pit was opened in the 1850’s by William Harrison, it served as the main pumping pit for the other collieries on Brownhills Common. Tunnels connected this pit to the others and the water was pumped out into Norton Pool (Chasewater)

Robert Webster, who curated brilliant, but sadly lost local history site for Brownhills, wrote much on the pits of this specific area, and goes into more detail:

Now to the coalfields of Brownhills. Due to the fact that the coal seams between all the faults or cracks could not be reached from one mine shaft numerous shafts were sunk around the Brownhills area to get to all the coal seams.

Starting in the north part of Brownhills coalfields The mine that opened just to the south of the Hammerwich fault very near to the Wilkin Inn, was known as the ‘Coppice pit No 8′, or,’The Corner Pit’. The shaft was sunk around the area where the Wilkin road joins the Hednesford road. The two entrepreneurs who were responsible for developing the coal fields around Brownhills and Chasetown were, Mr Harrison and the excellent engineer Mr. J.R.McClean.

 To gain access to the coal in the Rising Sun Trough, Mr Harrison sank the, ‘Cathedral Pit’, as part of his Brownhills Colliery Co. This pit was to become the main pumping pit to remove water from the pits to the north and south of the Trough. The shafts were connected by tunnels to allow the water to drain from each pit into the Cathedral pit and so be pumped out. The Cathedral Pit was in an area known as, ‘The Wyrley Common’, which was just south of the Watling Street and West of Brownhills. Many pits were opened on Wyrley common by William Harrison including the Grove, Norton and Wyrley pits Mr Harrison’s pits employed over 1,000 men in the late 1800’s.

 Many other pits were opened at this time on the Wyrley Common. A little further west along the Watling Street the ‘Conduit Colliery’, was opened by the Conduit Colliery Company with the shafts, No’s 1, 2 and 3 being sunk. Conduit No 1 was a small pit employing 120 underground and 44 surface workers.Conduit No 3 was the largest and in 1896 employed 836 underground and 264 surface workers, the pits were managed by Mr W. H. Whitehouse. These shafts were sunk in the area now occupied by Leeways Ltd.Also the ,’SunPit’, ‘Hart Pit’, and the 3 shafts belonging to the Wyrley Common Colliery, which were to become known as the,’Red, White and Blue’.

South of the Rising Sun Trough on Brownhills Common, the coal was reached by the mines belonging to the Coppice Colliery Company. Numerous shafts were sunk, No 1 pit was half way between the Rising Sun and the Hussey Arms, just off the Chester road. No 2 colliery was 150 yards further south The No 3 shaft was just south of the Rising Sun in an area known as, ‘Engine Meadow’. The No 5 pit which was also a brickwork’s, was 100 yards north of Engine Lane, midway between, what was the London and North-western Railway and the tracks of The Midland Railway. The Brickworks was one of the few on the common and the people who worked the Kiln were paid in kind at the, “Tommy Shop”, which was at, Coppice Farm, which backed onto the Brickworks, William Marklew was the tenant farmer who also ran the Tommy Shop, which was reputed to be the last Tommy Shop in the UK.

6332 Striking miners at Bug Row, Coppice Common, Brownhills, early 1900s

Striking miners at Bug Row, Coppice Common, Brownhills, early 1900s – from Stuart ‘The Edditer’ Williams’ Flickr photo stream. These guys would have been digging surface seems on what is now the former clay pit for coal to sell for food. The row of cottages in the background was nicknamed ‘Bug Row’, but is marked as Coppice Cottages on the maps above.

This has been really illuminating for me. If you have anything to add, please do contribute. Little by little, we’re building up a picture of our history. Thank you for your help.

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38 Responses to A hole in the history

  1. D.Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    Gerald Reece’s excellent book, Brownhills a Walk into History ,ISBN 0946652422,published 1996 by Walsall History centre;-
    page 98… shows a map c 1800 with “Engine House” west of Charles Holdcroft House..along Engine Lane?
    page 99 … Phineas Hussey’s will in 1770 shows he had “fire engines” at his collieries in Brownhills..term used for mine drainage engines….(in the plural, note)
    page 108….”this area of Brownhills Common was crossed by deep water channels and drained by Steam Driven Pumping Engines”..in the plural.
    I was pleased to attend Gerald Reece’s lecture on the history of Brownhills, at the Brownhills Community centre, a few years ago. .This new information may add to, and clarify historical knowledge somewhat. Many thanks to David Fellows, here.
    Interestingly during his lecture Gerald Reece was able to clarify what a “Hay” was..as in Boney, Hanney and Ogley… I hope that the names , and the origins, don’t disappear from local knowledge.
    with kind regards, D.Evans

    • This is very interesting, but at the moment, only Gerald Reece and yourself, by extension, seem to assert this.

      I’ve never heard the term ‘Fire Engine’ to refer to a static pump; further, this seems like a huge amount of infrastructure in a very early period. The sinks, rises and drains on that part of the common – surfaced with impervious marls on the whole, water of a duck’s back – have been naturally draining for years, so I’m unclear as to the reason for any other than normal mine drainage.

      In 1770, the date of the will, Newcomen’s basic design was still being improved by Watt, so the commercial implementation of steam engines was still a rarified and sparse thing.

      Bear in mind that the great entrepreneur and mine engineer Harrison saw the need only for a pump at the Cathedral; these were high-technology, expensive pieces of kit, you didn’t buy one lightly.

      The key to this is the period during which the name ‘Engine Lane’ was adapted. Seems like further research is necessary.

      Best wishes, and thanks for your comments


      • mark says:

        hi bob, im not so sure how to use the blog lol so i hope yo dont mind my reply here, iv been looking for a bit of history on the woods at the end of engine lane and any old maps to show the area,many thanks

  2. D.Evans says:

    “Ello, Ello,Ello?”

    My father recounted one local incident during the Miners’ Strike 26.
    A large group of miners were taking in the air along the canalside in Walsall Wood, by the Coppy Pit..and happening to find “lost” lumps of coal on the pit mound, decided to take these home with them..doubtless part of the Noble Traditions of the Hard Times, then.
    In the distance along the towpath they espied the burly figure of Constable Warrington, on his regulation issue bicycle, pedalling towards them and getting closer and closer. Understandably the miners gazed on him in respect and awe, doubtless keen to see the engineering marvels of the bike as well as the perspiring ruddy-faced Officer of the Law going about his business.
    The constable , having counted the large number of miners facing him, dismounted from his conveyance, took out his note-book and pencil, gazed in every other direction but that of the assembled throng, noted with shaking hand that there was nothing to be seen, put his book back in his pocket..and rode away.
    I expect he then rode back towards the Travellers’ Rest..to count the empty barrels or to use their public facilities!
    with kind regards

  3. D.Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    no assertions by me….just curiosity!
    Reece’s book, page 99 ,mentions that;-
    “Engines of the Newcomen design, built locally, are documented as being erected in Great Wyrley in 1722”..but does not identify the source,sadly
    The life-size working replica of the Newcomen Steam Engine/pump in the Black Country Museum is quite a big building.
    So the development and proliferation may have actually been earlier than Hussey’s will, in fact.
    The first Newcomen Engine was built in 1712, near Dudley, with another near Wolverhampton
    Wouldn’t be a fabulous find..another treasure,.. if something of real local historical worth were to be lying in one of the fields in Engine Lane, waiting for Time Team..or that chap from Burntwood, to come along!
    That really would put Brownhills on the map!!

    with kind regards

  4. D.Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    from Brian Rollins book, Coal Mining in the north easr section of Walsall Metropolitan Borough, ISBN 09950892-6-3, published 2006
    I am indebted to Brian’s painstaking research for ths information;-
    page 94.. in the glossary of Cannock Chase mining terms section,
    Fire Engine.. a primitive steam engine

    Pages 35, 36 Coal Mining on Brownhills Common
    “The will of Phineas Hussey desccribes that he had”Fire Engines at his collieries in Brownhills”,..and adds,”These were steam driven mine drainae engines which were privided by the lord of the manor, at a consideration, to many of the smaller operations.”
    Phneus Hussey died in January 1833

  5. D.Evans says:

    wrong button again!
    Brian Rollins mentions that, bottom of page 35,
    “Phineus Hussey was allowed to dig these private (canal ) arms for access to the mines working his coal…and (that) the pumped mine waters successfully serviced the canal and when it reached the main canal system he sold the water to the principal canal Company.” circa 1793.
    All this seems to pre-date the Cathedral Mine’s pump of 1845 or thereabouts
    apologies for not being able to proof check the other note

    again, many thanks to Brian Rollins and his research.

    Perhaps the Brownhills Miner statue IS pointing to something still to be un-earthed!
    with kind regards

    • That’s interesting. It sounds like a cart mounted pump to me, like the later fire service pumps, that would make natural sense rented to jobbing bottle pit miners. They would fill with water and need to be drained. The date is better of the technology, too. I certainly see no evidence of a lumpen mass of large engines existing before the major pits had been dug.

      If there had been any kind of major drainage installation, William Harrison would have used or upgraded it. He didn’t let stuff go to waste. He was a good engineer, after all.

      The canal would certainly be used as a drainage channel, and there’s physical and written record for this. I’d be interested in how Hussey measured the water volume. Intriguing that Harrison pumped by pipeline to Norton Pool. More accurate metering, perchance?

      Best wishes


  6. D.Evans says:

    Hi Bob

    better than washing-up, any day!
    Thanks for your notes…….so..I wonder what the building called “Engine House”, west of Charles Holdcroft House in the circa 1800 map, shown on page 98 of Gerald Reece’s book, is, or was?
    Brian Rollins book , glossary section, describes an “Engineman” as “a person who operates the haulage system”
    ….so, perhaps, Engine = the haulage system?
    I wonder if this is or was different to
    “Winding Man” being ” the person who operates the shaft winding engine”.. or a title used more recently?
    ( I knew of the term “Winding House” used at the Coppy Pit in Walsall Wood in the 1950s,60s )
    or are both derivations of an earlier terminology, or are they employed for a different job?

    now for the adjectival washing-up !
    With kind regards

  7. lisa says:

    My great grandad was part of the miners strike and his wife was in the soup kitchen that fed them.

  8. David Fellows says:

    Hi Gents
    This is great stuff. I spent many an hour around Engine Lane trying to figure out where the “Engine” might have been, as was stated before, these engines were enclosed in a building such as the one at the Black Country Museum, so under the ground somewhere (I have my ideas!), there may be the remains of this, a great part of Brownhills history.
    Anyway, I have a fair few notes and articles about those early years, too much to put here, but briefly ..
    Taken from “The Newcomen Engine at Great Wyrley” , transactions of The Newcomen Society, Vol XLI 1968-9.

    In the late 1720’s there was a complaint filed in Chancery by Stonier Parrot against Richard Hartshorne, in regards to work on an engine at Lord Hays, Great Wyrley, and Loken Hays colliery which adjoined the works at Lord Hays.

    There was an agreement between Parrot and Hartshorne, and one Daniel Hawthorne that before March 1722, that Parrot would “Sett to worke, finish, compleate, and erect the fire engine, that was then begun to be built at the Lord Hays in Great Wyrley”

    As I said, it’s a long article (could scan it Bob if you’ld like it?), but the gist is, that Parrott is suing for money owed him in the building of the engine, and that the engine was neglected by Daniel Hawthorne, which allowed the pit to flood for a considerable time causing a loss of 500 pounds. He was also owed for work to ” remove said fire engine from the colliery at Lord Hays..to the pitt next to the ginn pit at Loken Hays and to set up in the same good workmanlike manner..”

    While the location of this engine is not exactly clear, it was a considerable investment at the time, and shows the problems with flooding, that were to dog the local colliers for years after.

    Note the term “fire engine” too. It was used for a considerable time in regards to fixed engines, for obvious reasons.


    • Thanks David, I’m interested in anything you’ve got. I find the whole thing a bit strange, and was hoping you’d pop up. I knew you were into this, but have never had any material, so couldn’t really help. What I can’t understand is that really, prior to Harrison, there were no really deep pits on the common, so there would, by my understanding, be some drifting going on, bellpitting and impromptu shallow shafts. One assumes these had a fairly short useful life and then were abandoned for a new spot. If the engines were fixed, and rented by some arrangement, does that mean they used long hoses? Really having trouble with this idea.
      A mate in the pub tonight suggested that an engine need not be steam, but in the period could really be any mechanical contrivance. Don’t know if there’s any milage in that, but whatever you’ve got I’m interested. So glad you’re still hereabouts.
      Best wishes


  9. David Fellows says:

    I think it’s fair to say, that a lot of the earlier mining activity and all the associated buildings etc, were probably obliterated by the later mining on the common, which went on in bits and drabs till the 1950’s I think.
    In regards to Newcomen engine, these were really cutting edge technology in 1722, as the first one at Dudley was only ten years before. There must have been a fair bit of shallow mining on the common in those years, to have justified the investment.
    Parrot had agreed to supply 20,000 bricks and lime to build the engine house at Lords Hays, so that would be for a sustantial structure. The “Fire Engine” was in the charge of a blacksmith called Daniel Blackthorne, who was supposed to build it, maintain it and to keep the water under “The Lower Coal”, he was to be paid 100 pounds a year for this.

    Yes, pipes were used to pump the water out of the different workings, although, it wasn’t until Watt came along, that the engines were really powerful enough to drain deep pits.
    As to the whereabouts of the “Engine” in Engine Lane, As D.Evans said above “Gerald Reece’s excellent book, Brownhills a Walk into History ,ISBN 0946652422,published 1996 by Walsall History centre;-
    page 98… shows a map c 1800 with “Engine House” west of Charles Holdcroft House..along Engine Lane?”

    If you look on the 1884 map you posted, next to the level crossing, there is a structure and enclosure marked “938.260” Now I haven’t been there for a few years, but when I was searching in the early 2000’s, this squareish enclosure could still be seen on the ground. That seems a possibility to me!
    That map also shows just how many shallow pits there were at the time.
    Will try and dig a bit more stuff up over the weekend.

  10. D.Evans says:

    Hi Bob

    please pass on my sincere thanks to David Fellows, and accept my own, too, Bob. The past is slowly revealing its secrets in a fascinating way, locally., and with some surprising outcomes….and offers the tantalising prospect of yet more to come!

    I hope that visitors to the Black Country Museum will take their time to pause at each of the village exhibits, and consider how Brownhills and district may have looked during the coal mining era..and what life would have been like for the people working and living in the conditions in those times.

    The Brownhills Miner is a fine statue; the Walsall Wood PitHead is a stark reminder.

    with best wishes

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  16. Victoria Owens says:

    Have found your blog by chance,Bob. Thanks for a rewarding read. Please pass on my thanks to David Fellows for his informative posts.

    As regards Phineas Hussey and his engine, for what it is worth, James Brindley (1716-72, he of canal fame) gives details in his pocketbook for 1759 of works on a ‘Fire engen’ at ‘LIttle Wirley’ for a Mr Hussey. The entries start on March 9, include details of a visit to Coalbrookdale to ‘take care of the castings’ in April, ordering a ‘communication pipe’ from Cheshire in May, ‘work at the boiler’ through late May and June, and conclude on August 30, with a reference (if I’ve understood it correctly) to a further two days work on the boiler at that stage. By July 1759, Brindley had started to plan the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal and had pretty much based himself at Worsley; he may have been attempting to make good the engine work at Great Wyrley from a distance.

    Brindley’s pocketbooks are highly idiosyncratic, and my attempts to transcribe his handwriting may well have missed the mark from time to time, but I hope I have given at least the gist of the thing.

    All good wishes,

    Victoria Owens

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  30. Alan Hughes says:

    By the Highbridge Crossing on Engine Lane there’s still a round, bricked pit or well, which was probably something to do with the colliery. Not sure what it was for…we used to climb in it when we were kids…for no particular reason!

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  33. Pedro says:

    Not surprisingly there is a question about some of the info given in the article above.

    David Fellows suggests that William Harrison opened the “Cathedral Pit” in the 1850s.

    Robert Webster says that the Cathedral pit was sunk by William Harrison as part of his Brownhills Colliery Company.

    The Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society (whose aim is to publish a Definitive History of the Cannock Chase Coalfields) inform us that William Harrison took over the lease of the Brownhills Collieries from William Hanbury in 1849. The first acquisition was a group of pits which were either worked independently or as an overall combine; these were the Sun Pit, the Hart Pit, the Meadow Pit and a larger mine, the Cathedral Pit.

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