The weather’s getting colder and it’s time to put the central heating on or light the fire, so we thought it would be the perfect cue to talk about Knowsley’s rich coal mining heritage. It is likely that coal was mined in Prescot as early as 1510, but the first reference to coal came from the court roll of 1552. Coal at that time was mined for industry rather than domestic use.
Prescot lay above rich seams of coal, which were quite near the surface, making it easy to mine. It was brought up by sinking a new shaft every year and these shafts were known as ‘coal pit eyes’. In 2017 during the renovation work to turn the former Lancashire Watch Factory building into The Watchfactory, coal was unearthed. We were thrilled to be able to add the pieces of Prescot coal to Prescot Museum’s collection that were kindly saved and donated, because of course, mined Prescot coal will have gone up in smoke centuries ago!
The early mines had no means of pumping out water, so once the shafts flooded they would be abandoned. They would also be closed for winter and a new one started up the following year. As a result of this seasonal closure, winter was a time of unemployment for many miners.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the invention of the steam pumping engine meant that flooded mines could at last be used. Shafts could go deeper and the mines could be opened all year round. By 1746 Prescot Manor owned one and throughout the 18th century the local mines flourished. The engine was replaced with a new one in 1753, and productivity further increased, producing 75,000 works of coal compared to 60,000.
When the Sankey Canal was built in 1757, transporting coal to Liverpool from other mines around the St Helens area became a cheaper option. As a result the power of the local mines was lost, and Prescot Manor mine closed in the mid-1800s.
Whiston and the surrounding area is also historically linked to coal mining. Many shafts were sunk around the area including Carr, Whiston, Halsnead and Cronton Collieries. One of the first pumping engines in the North West was bought by Whiston Mine in 1719, considerably earlier than Prescot.
Whiston Colliery closed in 1897, and Halsnead in 1900, but in 1915, Cronton Colliery was opened on the old Halsnead site to meet the growing demand for coal from shipping companies such as Cunard.
Over the years there have been many strikes in support of wages and welfare for the miners. In the 1921 and 1926 strikes, many people went picking coal on the waste tips to support their income. Miners also sank their own ‘outcrop’ mines, using their local knowledge to identify where the coal seems lay.
During these times miners suffered great hardships, finding it difficult to feed their families. Soup kitchens and special funds were often set up to help bring some relief.
Between 1960 and 1980 Cronton’s workforce fell from 901 to 460 underground, and on the surface it fell from 252 to 122. Cronton Colliery was placed in review by the NCB in November 1983, and sadly, closed in March 1984 due to mounting costs.
These mining artefacts, most of which were used at Cronton Colliery, featured in our Made on Merseyside exhibition, and were photographed by Alan Edwards.
They include a helmet and methanometer (used to check the air quality in the mines), and the coloured wires are fuses that would have been used to detonate explosives. The pouch held a first aid kit and the necessary licences to access and administer morphia.