high littleton holy trinity church

High Littleton & Hallatrow
History and Parish Records


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Greyfield Colliery c.1900

Greyfield Colliery c.1900. The horses in the picture were used for pulling coal wagons on the surface. The office building on the right was later converted into 154 Greyfield Road.



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HL Early Coalworks
Hallatrow Coalmining
HL Mearns Rotcombe Heighgrove
Greyfield Colliery
HL Mining Deaths
Proceedings of Royal Society

Coal has lain under North Somerset for millions of years. It was known to the Romans and no doubt to those who came after them. Unlike metals that could be extracted from the ground and made into useable items, coal was only good for burning! In that regard wood and charcoal were both easier and cheaper to obtain.

From at least the end of the 16th century it was known that coal seams ran obliquely to the surface and that in some places there were outcrops. Stratton on the Fosse, Holcombe, Clutton and High Littleton were places in North Somerset, where such outcrops could be found, so it was only natural that coal mining should be undertaken first in places where the coal was on or close to the surface.

During the first part of the 17th century coal was largely obtained by either excavating the outcrops or driving an incline, which involved following the seam into the ground and making a tunnel as one went. The amount of coal that could be won by these methods was necessarily limited and so bell pits took their place. These were vertical pits, about 4 feet in diameter at the top and as much as 60 feet deep, which were widened out at the bottom to provide manoeuvrability and to develop the coal face. Ladders were fixed to the sides and coal was brought to the surface in baskets. As a further development baskets were brought up on ropes attached to a windlass operated by manpower and later by horsepower. When all the coal that could safely be extracted from a bell pit had been recovered, another pit would be sunk close by to intersect the seam and the waste from the second pit thrown into the first pit and so on.

Mining was probably carried on first by landowners, who extracted coal from their land for their own domestic fires. There would have been a small local demand for coal from larger householders, smiths and lime burners. Landowners generally were not interested in speculatively searching for coal, digging it up and selling it but the opportunity was not wasted on some of the more entrepreneurial members of the working class, who were willing to invest a bit of muscle and sweat if they could find someone to back them, in return for a share of the rewards, if any. Small partnerships were formed, which typically consisted of a coal miner and two local tradesmen, who would provide limited finance for a mining undertaking, hoping to make a profit between them. A lease was then negotiated with a local owner, under whose land coal was likely to be found, and in return for freeshare - such as one eight or tenth of all coal landed - paid to the owner, the partners were granted a lease for so many years. Any coal they found would have been sold locally or in Bath. Surviving records show mining being carried out in High Littleton from the early 1630s and in Hallatrow from before 1704 but this would certainly not have been the beginning of mining in the parish. As the years passed, mining became more prevalent as demand for coal grew and the rewards to the entrepreneurs grew.

By the middle of the 18th century coalmining had already become the biggest single industry in High Littleton and few parts of the parish had not been explored at some time or another. The owners of land, who received "freeshare" and the partners in the coalworks became rich and the miners, who earned a good wage for digging the coal, also benefited. Although the work was hard, the employment opportunities attracted many would be miners from other parts of Somerset. The ever-increasing number of entries in the parish registers indicates that the population of High Littleton more than doubled between 1760 and 1800.

The miners came to recognize the various different seams of coal that were repeated predictably in the Somerset mines. As early as 1719 John STRACHEY, a gentleman and amateur geologist from Stowey, sent a letter to the Royal Society, describing the strata found in the coal mines of Somerset. Seventy five years later William SMITH unlocked the secrets of strata, whilst surveying Mearns Pit in High Littleton, which eventually enabled him to draw the first stratographic map of Britain and predict with some accuracy where coal could be found.

As miners became more knowledgeable about the ground they worked in, they ventured deeper and deeper, lining shafts with bricks, propping the roof of the tunnels and sinking air-shafts in strategic places. In 1763 a coal seam was discovered at Old Pit, Radstock at a depth of some 450 feet and further seams were found down to 900 feet. Deep shafts were subsequently sunk successfully at Paulton, Timsbury and Camerton and the "Somerset Coalfield" was born. From 5 pits in the 1760s there were 26 pits operating in Radstock and northwards in 1795, employing some 1,500 men and boys. Not surprisingly the greater depths increased the physical danger to miners.

Thomas NEWCOMEN invented a steam engine, which first saw service in a colliery in Staffordshire in 1712 but it was not until 1781 that the first "fire engine" was used in the Somerset Coalfield for pumping water. Soon after steam was used for winding up coal. However, the traditional method of using horse gins to raise coal continued in many of the local pits throughout much of the 18th century, Paulton Engine Pit being a notable exception.

As new and more sophisticated machines and equipment were introduced, the capital required by coalworks became even greater. The cost was beyond the humble miner and local tradesmen, so mining partnerships were formed between larger numbers of people with money, such as the local gentry and wealthy financiers from further afield. To spread their risk the new mining partners would normally have small shares in several coalworks rather than a large share in one. Some grew rich and became very influential, none more so than the MOGGs and their successors the REES-MOGGs, who had long connections with Farrington Gurney, High Littleton and Cameley.

Apart from the cost of winning the coal from the ground, the cost of transporting it to the market place was of vital importance. Unless a pit had good access to road, canal or railway, it was hard to compete with pits which enjoyed these benefits.

The smaller mining partnerships in the Somerset Coalfield gradually fell by the wayside, when their pits became exhausted. As pits closed in one village, miners moved to other villages in the Coalfield, where there was a demand for labour in new pits. The last pit in High Littleton closed in about 1832 but, throughout the whole of the 19th century, coal mining remained by far the largest represented occupation in the parish. The population of High Littleton slowly declined from the 1840s onwards but it remained a very convenient dormitory village for pits in Timsbury, Paulton, Farrington Gurney and Clutton, which were within easy walking distance and where mining activity continued.

Some High Littleton miners moved to the north of England but many more went to South Wales to work in the pits or at the steelworks. Some stayed for a few months, some stayed for several years, others went to and fro several times. Many settled there permanently with their families, while others married girls from High Littleton, whose families had also settled in Wales. Several of these miners were removed back to High Littleton in the 1850s and 1860s, when they could no longer work because of illness or permanent injury and needed parish relief. Some of the unfortunate ones ended their days in Clutton Union Workhouse. The South Wales telephone directories abound with easily recognizable North Somerset surnames today and many who think they are Welsh are surprised to learn that their roots lie in Somerset.

As profits in the Coalfield dwindled or became non-existent, owners tried to reduce miners' wages in an effort to prolong the life of pits. The Unions would have none of this and pit after pit suffered long running strikes. This only served to precipitate the inevitable pit closures. One by one the Somerset coal pits closed and the erstwhile "coal barons" had to look elsewhere for their unearned income. One notable exception was Sir Frank BEAUCHAMP, who was fortunate enough to own the Norton Hill pit. This was so profitable that it became known as BEAUCHAMP’s Goldmine. The year 1947 saw the end of private ownership with the nationalisation of the coal industry.

Compared with pits in other parts of Britain the seams in the Somerset Coalfield were very narrow and much of the coal was of poor quality, which made it very difficulty to compete financially. After years of losses and dwindling coals reserves the last pit in the Somerset Coalfield was closed in September 1973.