Coalmining in Brownhills, by Gerald Reece.

In light of the fact that there’s so much interest in the history of mining on Brownhills Common, and particularly vibrant speculation about the steam engines that gave Engine Lane it’s name, I thought I’d take an unusual step. Much of the speculation and accepted history of mining in Brownhills stems from one book and a series of talks by one man: Gerald Reece. His brilliant work ‘Brownhills: A Walk Into History with Gerald Reece’ was published by Walsall Local History Centre in 1996, is very hard to get hold of, and long out of print. I’ve been working from a series of photocopies from the copy in Brownhills Library, which I’ve only ever seen once and now seems to be on permanent loan.

Last week I acquired my own copy, costing over £18, found by a book search service. In light of the continued reference to this work by myself and other contributors to this subject, I think it’s time that everyone should be able to peruse Gerald’s excellent writing for themselves. I will therefore scan and post his writings on mining here on the blog, this being the first instalment. I am not intending to rob Gerald of sales; indeed, should this work become available again I will remove these posts. If you sees a copy, purchase it; this is a remarkable book.

In awe of Gerald I certainly am, but his work isn’t without question. Like many local writers, Gerald doesn’t include a bibliography, and many statements appear out of nowhere, hence the ongoing circularity I referred to last week. I’m hoping that those interested can read this work, and use it to comment and build on what Gerald wrote.

So, on with the text. It’s been machine scanned, so there may be some odd errors I’ve not noticed.

An iconic photo of miners who would have worked Brownhills Common at rest. From the brilliant book 'Memories of Old Brownhills' by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

When coal was first mined in Brownhills is unknown. No documented evidence exists giving the date and place of the initial operation. What we can deduce however is that a commercial traffic in coal would not have taken place on a large scale before the last decade of the 18th century. Before this period there was too little local market for the product and a limited means of transportation.

Coal mining in the Brownhills area was a two pronged operation. I have already mentioned the Northern Section and the establishment of the Field, firstly under the direction of The Marquess of Anglesey and later under the guidance of John Robinson McClean and Richard Chawner and their formation of the Cannock Chase Colliery Company.

The South and West Coalfields of Brownhills date back much earlier than the Northern Coalfield. Again I refer to the division of the Parish of Norton Canes into its two separate Manors. Norton Common came under control of the Lords of the Manor of Norton Canes, usually there were more than one. Brownhills Common came under the control of the Lord of the Manor of Little Wyrley. · The Hussey dynasty. The Hussey’s came to the area at the end of the 17th century. Joseph Hussey of London married the heiress to the Manor of Little Wyrley, Sybil Fow~e.

In neighbouring Great Wyrley coal mining was evident in the late 17th century. Early in the 18th century ‘Engines’ of the Newcomen design, built locally, are documented as being erected in Great Wyrley in 1722.

In the Perambulation (beating the bounds) of Little Wyrley in 1742 changes can be noted in the names of several ancient fields. These appear as Coalmans Field, Oggeley Pitts, Starkins Pitts, etc.

Plan of shallow and bell pits in Brownhills from 'Brownhills: a Walk Into History with Gerald Reece' - anyone know where the original plan is located? Click for a larger version.

The plan above shows the shallow and bell-pit workings on Brownhills Common during the middle of the 18th century. Note the siting of the Engine House in the area that is still called Engine Lane. It is known from the will of Phineas Hussey in the 1770’s that he had ‘Fire engines’ at his collieries in Brownhills. ‘Fire engine’ was the term used to describe mine drainage engines at that time.

In 1789 Brownhills Colliery was leased to John Hanbury. The Hanbury family had long been associated with the area and they appear to have been loosely related to the Hussey’s by a marriage during the Civil War.

John Hanbury died in 1792. Only one of his three sons, William, inherited their father’s interest in coal mining. John Hanbury’s brother Thomas died in an accident in 1773. His widow, Mary, remarried a William Sparrow. After John’s death in 1792 little direct control of the Brownhills Colliery seems to have come from the IHanbury family. When the lease expired in 1810 it was not even offered to them for renewal. Phineas Hussey leased the property to Thomas Price.

The early mines, pits and shallow diggings known collectively as the Brownhills Collieries were scattered in the area between Watling Street in the north to the Pelsall Road in the south.

It is from the 1811 lease to Thomas Price that we can realise the true extent of the Brownhills colliery and the population that lived there.

Indenture dated 21 February 1811.

Between Phineas Hussey of Little Wyrley and Thomas Price of Bescott;

All the Colliery and Collieries Coal Mine and Coal Mines Coal Pits and Coal Works Seam and Seams of Coal Mines Rows Veins Pits Groves Beds and Holes of Coal Cannel Coal Slack of every kind nature and quality and also Clay. Situate lying and being on the Waste Lands at Brownhills in the Parish of Norton under Cannock…….Freedom to enter lands and grounds in the Occupation of William Caddick by a measurement 3 Acres 21 Perches under which the mines lye to sink and search for get slack coke sink shafts make Drifts Soughs Railways and other Ways……. All that Messuage Farmhouse or Tenement Outbuilding Enclosures Arable Land Meadow and Pasture Land now or Late in the occupation of John Hanbury by admeasurement 376 Acres 21 Perches…….Parcel of arable land in the occupation of James Caddick by admeasurement 16 Acres 1 Rood 32 Perches……. Several all those Messuages Cottages Workmens Houses Tenements with Garden now or lately in the Occupation of Betty Cooper.. John Vernon.. Samuel Astbury.. Robert Hickin.. Thomas Emery.. Thomas Jobbem.. Benjamin Whitehouse.. John Fairfield. Mary Holcroft (Widow)……. Two Houses formerly Birches Farmhouse in the occupation of William Wright and William Ash……. Messuage called or known as Stonehouse in the occupation of William Ash.

Thirty years after this Indenture was exchanged the census of 1841 list several of the early residents as still living in the same dwelling houses. Even given the 5 year allowance of the 1841 Census some lived well into their 80’s. Descendants of many of the early residents still live in theBrownhillsarea. Theirnamesperpetuated.

The indenture of 1811 was carefully worded regarding terms of repayment. 1/5th of the selling price of all coals mined would go to Phineas Hussey. A very tight profit margin indeed. Thomas Price may have made a go of it if it had not been for the intervention of William Hanbury. William was not amused when he discovered his distant relation’s subterfuge in the renewal of his agreement. He joined forces with William Sparrow and they leased, from the other eo-Lord of the Manor of Norton Canes John Ogden, lands adjoining the area leased by Thomas Price. These lands formed a part of Norton Common and were situated between the south shore of the Reservoir and the Watling Street. Shafts were sunk in the area between what is now Hednesford Road and Whitehorse Road. Swiftly they undercut their rival in a Price War (pun) Eventually, in 1812, Thomas Price was obliged to surrender his lease to Phineas Hussey and return control of the land.

I can find no accreditation for this map, or where it came from. Note the engine - as mentioned in other maps - seems to be at the Cathederal Pit, the main deep drain pit for the area in the days of deep mining. From 'Brownhills: A Walk Into History with Gerald Reece'. Click for a larger version.

Hanbury and Sparrow took over the lease on very favourable terms. Cutting Phineas Hussey’s share down to 1nth they obtained a thirty year lease. The short partnership between Hanbury and Sparrow was to end bitterly after a lengthy legal battle. Phineas Hussey died in January 1833 leaving debts of £5,395.13s.6d. and outstanding repayments on a loan of £17,000. The Estate had received little income from the Hanbury controlled Brownhills Collieries. Hanbury was making a very good return from his other holdings. The Ogden Estate had changed hands and the new eo-Lord of the Manor of Norton Canes was Thomas Gildart. In November 1843 Wtlliam Hanbury purchased Thomas Gildart’s 2/3rd share of the Manor at a public auction held at the George Hotel, Walsall. It gave hitu control and the mineral rights to his lands formerly leased on Norton Common. In 1844 Hanbury’s lease on Brownhills collieries came up for renewal. It was expected that another long term agreement was in the offing. The Hussey Estate still had debts and was being controlled financially through the Chancery in London. A lease was arranged between the Executors of the Will of Phineas Hussey and Wtlliam Hanbury for a period of just seven years. The ‘sporting rights’ of the area appear to have been of more importance to Hanbury than the mineral rights. In 1849 he surrendered his lease to Brownhills Collieries back to Phineas Fowke Hussey, now of age, and heir to the Hussey Estate.

The lease was taken up by Wtlliam Harrison for a term of 21 years. In addition to taking the ‘Old’ Colliery Lands Wtlliam Harrison’s new lease included Frog Hall Estate (the southern part of the present Wilkin Housing Estate) then in the occupation of William Woodhouse.

The section of Plot’s map of Staffordshire Circa 1680 and depicted on page 9 shows a building of sorts standing on the site and named as Frog Hall. Apart from several later documents that relate to the sale of land only, I have come across no other information. If Plot was right in plotting maybe a hall did stand here during the times of the Civil War.

The northern part of the (Wilkin) estate was then known as James Piece and Thackers Piece and was in the occupation of Charles Mann who rented it from the eo-Lord of the Manor of Norton Canes, then William Hanbury, for £12 per year.

To be continued…

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27 Responses to Coalmining in Brownhills, by Gerald Reece.

  1. Victoria Owens says:

    Not sure whether this detail will be of interest, but in the course of transcribing the engineer James Brindley’s pocketbooks for a talk I gave earlier this year, I came across details of his 1759 account for work on a ‘Fire engen’ at ‘LIttle Wirley’ for Phineas Hussey.

    The entries start on March 9. They include details of a visit in April to Coalbrookdale to ‘take care of the castings’, ordering a ‘communication pipe’ from Cheshire in May, ‘work at the boiler’ through late May and June, and conclude on August 30, with mention of a further two days work on the boiler. (James Brindley, Pocketbook, 1759-60, Archives of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London. The pages are unnumbered).

    While the story that Brindley was illiterate isn’t strictly true, his handwritng and spelling are a law unto themselves, My reading may well miss the mark from time to time, but I think I’ve given the gist of the thing.

    Victoria Owens

  2. GERALD REECE says:

    My book ” Brownhills, a walk into history ” is based upon 15 years of researching original deeds and documents. During that period I visited archives throughout the country, where possible, copying data for reference. I then gleaned this collated information for my story. It is solely my interpretation of the facts. There is no bibliography of established works simply because there were none.
    There is another chapter I should add to the story. It refers to coal mining on Coppice Side in the early 18thC. and the sinking of the first shaft using a “Fire Engine”. It includes reference to James Brindley and the machine he installed in Engine Lane.

  3. Hello, Gerald.

    I’m so glad you’re reading this. Your book is one I’ve been desperate to get hold of for ages, and treasured the bits I photocopied when I had access to a copy. It remains the only in-depth writing on many aspects of Brownhills history, and is an exemplary work. I hope you don’t mind me featuring these sections here. It’s a shame the book is no longer available, and I’m keen to share the wealth of information they contain.

    Of course, if you’d rather I remove them, then I quite understand, and will do so without delay.

    If you feel minded to add to the story, I would be only too happy to feature the work here on the blog. It seems to enjoy a diverse readership who are fascinated and eager for local history, and anything that clears the often muddy waters is welcome. I you wanted to publish, I’ll happily point readers to an e-book or Amazon sale, whatever. Your voice comes echoing back in all my searches and I missed the chance to hear your talks.

    My comment about the bibliography is not a dig, but it’s the way local history books mostly are. I’m very interested in the Bell Pit Map above, and the map and key from 1858 on pages 112 and 113, for example. I’d love to see both documents, if possible, personally, yet I don’t know who keeps them. Since you state in your Epilogue that you lived in Devon at the time of writing, with the 18 years between publication and getting the book, documents like that can be hard to find, particularly without titles. The internet is great with the online access to archive cataloging, but it tends to search on text-keys only. I, and others, are trying to pick up the story and see if there’s anything else we can add or discover. It’s a fact that that would be easier if we knew where some particular bits of information had come from.

    I well understand your perspective may be different. But so many references come back to your work – Wikipedia, Heritage Environmental Records, the anecdotes of those who heard your talks and so on, that sometimes it seems like you’re totemic of the whole history.

    Thank you for your contribution, Gerald, and thank you for a wonderful book. It’s lovely to know you’re still out there, and in some way, thinking about Brownhills. I don’t know if you’ve visited in resent years, but the skyline has changed a little since 1996. Some things got worse, some improved beyond all measure. But deep down, the same old Brownhills is still there, and I like to think that here, the Brownhills Debating Society still meets as one of it’s venues.



  4. pedro says:

    As an outsider as far as Brownhills is concerned, but nevertheless interested in local history, I came across the clipping in the Newspaper Archives concerning a certain engine that Bob has highlighted.

    As I have said, it jogged something in my memory as to a subject that I had read on the Blog about interest in Engine Lane, and so I sent it to Bob.

    This may not be the “Engine” but it was a long shot. But Gerald I am left tantalised by the reference…

    “There is another chapter I should add to the story. It refers to coal mining on Coppice Side in the early 18thC. and the sinking of the first shaft using a “Fire Engine”. It includes reference to James Brindley and the machine he installed in Engine Lane.”

    I do hope you will share the source of this interesting find.

    In Anticipation, Pedro

  5. Annie Emery says:

    Hi there

    I am tracing some family history at the moment, and I have got as far back as Robert Emery born 1810, however, seeing Thomas Emery had one of the residences listed above in Ferbuary I am wondering if that could be Robert’s father, my great, great, great grandfather, we think he may have been called Thomas.

    My great grandfather Thomas Emery had built and lived in Rose Villa on Walsall Road, and he was underground manager of Conduit Colliery. He was born in 1846, and most of his sons started work in the mines including my grandfather, who then went on to be a butchers buyer.

    I wonder if any of the men in the photograph are Emerys?!

    Annie Emery

  6. GERALD REECE says:

    Having read your recent Blogs I am sure I have answers to many questions asked. I still have most of my reference documents. I intend to visit Brownhills this year and I will be pleased to present any documents I may have on requested topics. Perhaps a venue can be arranged ?.
    The Sale Notice provided by ‘Pedro’ ties in with my findings as being the buildings later known as Swing Bridge Farm. More research is needed but Acreage, Mines of Coal, Steam Engine, Canal, Newly erected in the 1820’s, etc, etc, all seem to fit.

  7. Hi Gerald,

    I know this is completely off topic and I apologise… but I hear from my mom that you were best friends with my Grandad Sid Orgill, I was wondering whether you have any videos or pictures of him that I could get copied as I have very few if any of him. If you could possibly email me at and let me know about anything you may have i’d be very grateful.

    Kind regards,
    Jack Flowers

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