South Yorkshire Coalfield

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The South Yorkshire Coalfield is so named from its position within Yorkshire. It covers most of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and a small part of North Yorkshire. The exposed coalfield outcrops in the Pennine foothills and dips under Permian rocks in the east. Its most famous coal seam is the Barnsley Bed. Coal has been mined from shallow seams and outcrops since medieval times and possibly earlier.

Yorkshire Historic county of Northern England

Yorkshire, formally known as the County of York, is a historic county of Northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Due to its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform. Throughout these changes, Yorkshire has continued to be recognised as a geographical territory and cultural region. The name is familiar and well understood across the United Kingdom and is in common use in the media and the military, and also features in the titles of current areas of civil administration such as North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and East Riding of Yorkshire.

South Yorkshire County of England

South Yorkshire is a metropolitan county in England. It is the southernmost county in the Yorkshire and the Humber region and had a population of 1.34 million in 2011. It has an area of 1,552 square kilometres (599 sq mi) and consists of four metropolitan boroughs, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. South Yorkshire was created on 1 April 1974 as a result of the Local Government Act 1972. Its largest settlement is Sheffield.

West Yorkshire County of England

West Yorkshire is a metropolitan county in England. It is an inland and in relative terms upland county having eastward-draining valleys while taking in moors of the Pennines and has a population of 2.2 million. West Yorkshire came into existence as a metropolitan county in 1974 after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972.


Geography and geology

The coalfield stretches from Halifax in the north west, to the north of Bradford and Leeds in the north east, Huddersfield and Sheffield in the west, and Doncaster in the east. The major towns of Wakefield, Barnsley and Rotherham are within its boundaries. [1] It is part of the larger Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire Coalfield. Its western boundary is defined by the outcropping of coal seams in the foothills of the Pennines and in the east by the descent of the coal-bearing strata under overlying rocks as they approach the North Sea. Since the creation of the county of South Yorkshire in 1974, the name can be misleading as the coalfield stretches beyond the Wakefield district and other parts of West Yorkshire as far as Keighley and Kellingley Colliery and the Selby Coalfield are in North Yorkshire. It is separate from the Ingleton Coalfield in North Yorkshire, and a small number of mines around Todmorden are part of the Lancashire Coalfield. [2]

Halifax, West Yorkshire Minster town in West Yorkshire, England

Halifax is a minster town in the Metropolitan Borough of Calderdale in West Yorkshire, England. Historically in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the town has been a centre of woollen manufacture from the 15th century onward, originally dealing through the Piece Hall. Halifax is known for Mackintosh's chocolate and toffee products including Rolo and Quality Street. The Halifax Bank was also founded and is still headquartered in Halifax. Dean Clough, one of the largest textile factories in the world at more than 12 mile (800 m) long, was in the north of the town. The premises have since been converted for office and retail use including a gym, theatre, Travelodge and radio station.

Bradford City and metropolitan borough in West Yorkshire, England

Bradford is a city in West Yorkshire, England, in the foothills of the Pennines, 8.6 miles (14 km) west of Leeds, and 16 miles (26 km) north-west of Wakefield. Bradford became a municipal borough in 1847, and received its charter as a city in 1897. Following local government reform in 1974, city status was bestowed upon the City of Bradford metropolitan borough.

Leeds City in England

Leeds is a city in the United Kingdom, located in the county of West Yorkshire in Northern England, approximately 170 miles north of central London. Leeds has one of the most diverse economies of all the UK's main employment centres and has seen the fastest rate of private-sector jobs growth of any UK city. It also has the highest ratio of private to public sector jobs of all the UK's Core Cities, with 77% of its workforce working in the private sector. Leeds has the third-largest jobs total by local authority area, with 480,000 in employment and self-employment at the beginning of 2015. Leeds is ranked as a High Sufficiency level city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network. Leeds is the cultural, financial and commercial heart of the West Yorkshire Urban Area. Leeds is served by five universities, and has the fourth largest student population in the country and the country's fourth largest urban economy.

The coal bearing rock strata or coal measures that make up the coalfield outcrop in the foothills of the Pennines and dip gently downwards from west to east. This area is known as the exposed coalfield. The coal measures are carboniferous rocks laid down between 290 and 354 million years ago. West and east of Doncaster the coal measures are overlain by younger rocks, permian limestone, [3] where the area is referred to as the concealed coal field. [4]

Stratum Layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics

In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil, or igneous rock that were formed at the Earth's surface, with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers. The "stratum" is the fundamental unit in a stratigraphic column and forms the basis of the study of stratigraphy.

Coal measures

The coal measures is a lithostratigraphical term for the coal-bearing part of the Upper Carboniferous System. The Coal Measures Group consists of the Upper Coal Measures Formation, the Middle Coal Measures Formation and the Lower Coal Measures Formation. The group records the deposition of fluvio-deltaic sediments which consists mainly of clastic rocks interstratified with the beds of coal. In most places, the coal measures are underlain by coarser clastic sequences known as Millstone Grit, of Namurian age. The top of the coal measures may be marked by an unconformity, the overlying rocks being Permian or later in age. In some parts of Britain, however, the Coal Measures grade up into mainly coal-barren red beds of late Westphalian and possibly Stephanian age. Within the Pennine Basin these barren measures are now referred to as the Warwickshire Group, from the district where they achieve their thickest development.

The Carboniferous is a geologic period and system that spans 60 million years from the end of the Devonian Period 358.9 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Permian Period, 298.9 Mya. The name Carboniferous means "coal-bearing" and derives from the Latin words carbō ("coal") and ferō, and was coined by geologists William Conybeare and William Phillips in 1822.

The northernmost extent of the South Yorkshire Coalfield is marked by the change of its richest and highest grade coal seam, the Barnsley Seam or Bed, to a thin seam of inferior coal which occurs to the north of Barnsley. [4] The southern limit was marked by the Barnsley Bed losing its coking qualities. [5]

Coking is the heating of coal in the absence of air (oxygen) to a temperature above 600 °C, to drive off the volatile components of the raw coal, leaving a hard, strong, porous material of high carbon content, called "coke". Coke consists almost entirely of hydrocarbons. The porousity gives it a high surface area, which makes it burn faster. When a kilogram of coke is burned it releases more heat than a kilogram of the original coal.

The structure of the coal field is not significantly affected by faults except along the River Don between Sheffield and Mexborough. These faults give rise to the Frickley and Maltby troughs where the coal measures are thrown down and lie deeper than in other parts of the coalfield.

Fault (geology) Fracture or discontinuity in rock across which there has been displacement

In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock across which there has been significant displacement as a result of rock-mass movement. Large faults within the Earth's crust result from the action of plate tectonic forces, with the largest forming the boundaries between the plates, such as subduction zones or transform faults. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes.

Mexborough town in the Metropolitan Borough of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, England

Mexborough is a town in the Metropolitan Borough of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, England. It lies on the estuary of the River Dearne, on the A6023 road, between Manvers and Denaby Main.

Coal type and seams

The coal found in the South Yorkshire Coalfield was a bituminous coal that was generally used for the production of coal gas and coke. [6] The coke was then used for iron and steel manufacture. Some seams produced coal suitable for raising steam, i.e. it had a low ash and sulphur content. Finally other seams produced coal for household use.

Bituminous coal collective term for higher quality coal

Bituminous coal or black coal is a relatively soft coal containing a tarlike substance called bitumen or asphalt. It is of higher quality than lignite coal but of poorer quality than anthracite. Formation is usually the result of high pressure being exerted on lignite. Its coloration can be black or sometimes dark brown; often there are well-defined bands of bright and dull material within the seams. These distinctive sequences, which are classified according to either "dull, bright-banded" or "bright, dull-banded", is how bituminous coals are stratigraphically identified.

Coal gas is a flammable gaseous fuel made from coal and supplied to the user via a piped distribution system. It is produced when coal is heated strongly in the absence of air. Town gas is a more general term referring to manufactured gaseous fuels produced for sale to consumers and municipalities.

Coke (fuel) fuel

Coke is a grey, hard, and porous fuel with a high carbon content and few impurities, made by heating coal or oil in the absence of air — a destructive distillation process. It is an important industrial product, used mainly in iron ore smelting, but also as a fuel in stoves and forges when air pollution is a concern.

The most famous seam in the South Yorkshire Coalfield was the Barnsley seam or bed. [7] [8] This seam which was up to 3 metres thick in places provided a significant amount of the coal produced by the coal field. [5] The Barnsley seam coal properties varied through the depth of the seam. The top of the seam was a soft bright coal, the middle section known as the "hards" was a dull hard high quality coal suitable for raising steam. The bottoms was another band of bright soft coal called "bottom softs". [9]

Other famous seams include the Parkgate seam that produced mainly gas coal, the Silkstone seam which produced coal suitable for many purposes and the Swallow Wood seam that produced household and gas coal. [10]

History of the development of the coalfield

Pre-19th century

There is evidence of coal mining in the field as far back Roman period. Documentary evidence of medieval mining around Barnsley, Rotherham and Sheffield dates back to the 14th century. An example of this is permission granted by Sir John Fitzwilliam in 1367 for mining to take place on his estate near Elsecar south of Barnsley. [11] These mines were shallow shafts or adits that exploited the coal seams where they outcropped. The coal would have been used locally as a heating fuel or in the production of iron. This small scale mining persisted well into the late 1780s when the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam's colliery at Lawwood had only 19 "picks" or miners. The reason for the delay in development when compared to the coalfields of Northumberland and County Durham was that the area had poor access to water transport which was the only economic method of transport before the development of the railways. [12]

The first area of the coalfield to gain access to improved transportation was the southern edge when the River Don Navigation was canalised as far as Tinsley near Sheffield by 1740. This allowed the collieries near Rotherham to export their coal east to the English coast and beyond and west Sheffield. By 1769 300,000 tons of coal were exported from the southern area of the coalfield. The colliery owners to the south in Derbyshire cut the Chesterfield Canal from Chesterfield to join with the River Trent near Gainsborough in 1777 which allowed them to compete directly with the South Yorkshire Coalfield. This in turn forced the colliery owners in Southern Yorkshire to improve their access to the sea. They planned a canal running from Wakefield south through Barnsley to the River Don at Swinton east of Rotherham. The canal called the Dearne & Dove Canal was started in 1793 and completed in 1796. The canal with branches to Elsecar and Worsborough allowed collieries through the coal field to be expanded. This can be seen with sinking of the Elsecar New Colliery by the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam.

The 19th century


The coal trade in the early 19th century suffered several periods of recession but as the British railway system expanded during the 1840s & 1850s the market for coal increased markedly and transport of the coal using the railways improved distribution of the coal further boosting the trade. This increase in demand drove colliery owners to move further eastwards away from the shallow coal seams sinking deeper shafts as the Barnsley seam, which was their main target dipped downwards.

During this period the coalfield suffered a series of fatal explosions as the available mine ventilation techniques were unable to safely deal with large quantity of methane or firedamp produced by the Barnsley seam in the deeper and larger mines being sunk. The contemporary colliery ventilation techniques were often poorly applied and even in collieries where the ventilation was well engineered the technique had a significant flaw. The flow of air was controlled by 'traps' or doors opened and closed by children when the tubs of coal passed. The children, being children, did not always close the doors when they should, resulting in explosives gases building up in the working parts of the colliery often with fatal consequences.

Some notable explosions are detailed further in the article.

The latter half of the 19th century was marked by further expansion eastwards. The opening of these collieries was possible as improved understanding of the geology of the coalfield allowed mining engineers to be more confident about the sinking collieries in previously un-mined parts of the coalfield. Improvements in drilling techniques allowed deeper bore holes to be sunk so the engineers had a better understanding of the coal deposits and this gave confidence to the speculators as to possible returns. The costs required in the deeper pits required more coal to guarantee a suitable return, therefore mines were set up in rural areas where large royalties could be negotiated with little in the way of buildings on the land to minimise the amount of coal that had to be left to prevent subsidence. The lack of population in these areas meant that the colliery owners had to provide accommodation in the form of pit villages and the quality of this varied considerably between collieries.

Early 20th century

At the turn of the 20th century many of the collieries on the exposed coalfield had exhausted the Barnsley seam in their royalty and rather than abandon their investment and experienced workforces many owners sank deeper shafts to exploit the seams that lay beneath the exhausted Barnsley seam such as the Parkgate and Swallow wood seams. Some examples of this include Cortonwood, Manvers Main and Elsecar Main At this time the first collieries on the concealed coalfield were opened such as Bentley & Brodsworth Main. These new collieries suffered many problems during the sinking of their shafts through wet sandstone and quicksand. It was during 1929 as these deeper pits sunk in the early years of the 20th century came into full production that the South Yorkshire Coalfield produced its record amount of coal 33.5 m tons, 13% of Britain's coal output that year.

The early part of the century was marked by increasing competition in foreign markets for the coal and as a result some mines were amalgamated to reduce costs and improve competitiveness. Outside the coalfield technology changes also reduced the size of markets as ships moved increasingly to oil as their primary fuel source, and train routes were electrified. Despite the amalgamations the industry was still seen as inefficient and to promote more efficient development of what was still a vital resource the Government in 1938 nationalised the coal reserves. During the Second World War, to ensure production levels were met, conscript labour redirected from the armed forces, the Bevin Boys, was used in the collieries.


The British coal mining industry was nationalised in 1947. Whilst this was done, in the words of the Labour Party Constitution, "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service" as part of a wider process of nationalisation it did allow the coalfield to be modernised and streamlined in a way that had not been achieved in the previous decades. The National Coal Board management in the 40 years following nationalisation, closed inefficient and worked out collieries, amalgamated and combined other collieries to form larger production units where significant assets such as skip winders and coal washing and grading facilities could be used by several collieries and opened new drift mines which could be fitted with the latest equipment. The results of these actions carried out against a backdrop of a volatile and declining market was that by the time the collieries of South Yorkshire were sold to private owners in the mid nineties the coal they produced was some of the cheapest in the developed world.


Post privatisation pits continued to close as the market for coal in the United Kingdom contracted with the development of gas-fired power station in the Dash for Gas and the continued use of cheap coal imports in the electricity generating business. By January 2015 only two coal mines were still working, Kellingley and Hatfield Main, although some shafts remain in use as pumping stations to reduce pollution from the abandoned workings. On 18 December 2015, miners at Kellingley worked their final shift, marking the end of Great Britain's deep coal mining industry.

Labour relations

There has been conflict between the mine owners and the miners for more than 200 years. A strike by miners in 1792 for higher wages at the Duke of Norfolk's collieries near Sheffield is an early example. [13]

During the 19th century a variety of unions or associations such as the Mining Association of Great Britain & Ireland, the Miners National Union and the Miners Federation of Great Britain were formed to campaign for improved wages and better working conditions. [13] They were largely unsuccessful. Two large scale strikes took place in 1844 [13] and 1893. The strike in 1893 was the result of a 25% wage cut by the mine owners which was eventually restored but not before two miners were killed by soldiers at Featherstone. [14]

The 20th century brought further strikes in 1912, [15] 1921 [16] and the General Strike in 1926. [17] These all generally failed to bring about any improvement in pay and conditions.

Following nationalisation in 1947 working conditions improved but pay fell behind national averages. Successful strikes in the early 1970s resulted in wage improvements but as the market for UK coal declined and collieries closed, tension between the miners and the government increased and in 1984 a large scale strike started. The colliery closure that started the strike was at Cortonwood in South Yorkshire. The strike's aim to preserve miners' jobs was not met as colliery closures continued. (A small mine in Scissett, Hay Royds Colliery, was not nationalised. It closed in 2013.)

Mining disasters

The South Yorkshire Coalfield has suffered some the worst mining disasters in Great Britain and the largest disaster in terms of fatalities in England. Some notable disasters either for their effect outside the region or scale:

See also

Related Research Articles

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Woolley Colliery village in United Kingdom

Woolley Colliery is a village on the border between the Barnsley and Wakefield districts in Yorkshire, England. The village is in South Yorkshire whilst the former colliery was situated in West Yorkshire in the Wakefield Rural Ward. The village is known locally as Mucky Woolley, a tribute to its coal mining heritage and to distinguish it from the more affluent village of Woolley situated two miles away.

The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was established after a meeting of local mining trade unions in Newport, Wales in 1888. The federation was formed to represent and co-ordinate the affairs of local and regional miners' unions in England, Scotland and Wales whose associations remained largely autonomous. At its peak, the federation represented nearly one million workers. It was reorganised into the National Union of Mineworkers in 1945.


Cortonwood was a colliery near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, England. The colliery's proposed closure was a tipping point in the 1984-85 miner's strike. Today the site is a shopping and leisure centre.

Maltby Main Colliery coal mine on the edge of Maltby in South Yorkshire, England

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Kiveton Park Colliery

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Barnburgh Main Colliery

Barnburgh Main Colliery was a coal mine situated on the outskirts of the village of Barnburgh, about two miles north of Mexborough in the Dearne Valley, South Yorkshire, England. The sinking of the colliery was commenced in 1911 by the Manvers Main Colliery Company of Wath-upon-Dearne.

Kellingley Colliery

Kellingley Colliery was a deep coal mine in North Yorkshire, England, 3.6 miles (5.8 km) east of Ferrybridge power station. It was owned and operated by UK Coal.

The Elsecar Collieries were the coal mines sunk in and around Elsecar, a small village to the south of Barnsley in what is now South Yorkshire, but was traditionally in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Minnie Pit Disaster

The Minnie Pit disaster was a coal mining accident that took place on 12 January 1918 in Halmer End, Staffordshire, in which 155 men and boys died. The disaster, which was caused by an explosion due to firedamp, is the worst ever recorded in the North Staffordshire Coalfield. An official investigation never established what caused the ignition of flammable gases in the pit.

Gresford Colliery

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Wharncliffe Woodmoor 1,2 & 3 Colliery Brief history of a colliery based in Carlton, Barnsley

Wharncliffe Woodmoor 1, 2 and 3 colliery was a coal mine that was located at the junction of Laithes Lane and Carlton Road, about 2 miles northeast of Barnsley, South Yorkshire and a quarter mile east of Staincross and Mapplewell railway station, on the Great Central Railway. The branch line junction was about 200 feet from Staincross that connected it to the colliery via a private line. The line finished up between the three main shafts and the coking ovens.

Coal mining in the United Kingdom

Coal mining in the United Kingdom dates back to Roman times and occurred in many different parts of the country. Britain's coalfields are associated with Northumberland and Durham, North and South Wales, Yorkshire, the Scottish Central Belt, Lancashire, Cumbria, the East and West Midlands and Kent. After 1970, coal mining quickly collapsed and had practically disappeared by the 21st century. The consumption of coal – mostly for electricity – fell from 157 million tonnes in 1970 to 18 million tonnes in 2016, of which 77% was imported from Colombia, Russia and the United States. Of the 4 million tonnes of coal, mined in the UK in 2016, all was from open-cast coal mines. Employment in coal mines fell from a peak of 1,191,000 in 1920 to 695,000 in 1956, 247,000 in 1976, 44,000 in 1993, and to 2,000 in 2015.

Lancashire Coalfield coal mining region in England

The Lancashire Coalfield in North West England was an important British coalfield. Its coal seams were formed from the vegetation of tropical swampy forests in the Carboniferous period over 300 million years ago.

Ingleton Coalfield

The Ingleton Coalfield is in North Yorkshire, close to its border with Lancashire in north-west England. Isolated from other coal-producing areas, it is one of the smallest coalfields in Great Britain.

Bradford Colliery

Bradford Colliery was a coal mine in Bradford, Manchester, England. Although part of the Manchester Coalfield, the seams of the Bradford Coalfield correspond more closely to those of the Oldham Coalfield. The Bradford Coalfield is crossed by a number of fault lines, principally the Bradford Fault, which was reactivated by mining activity in the mid-1960s.

History of coal miners

People have worked as coal miners for centuries, but they became increasingly important during the Industrial revolution when coal was burnt on a large scale to fuel stationary and locomotive engines and heat buildings. Owing to coal's strategic role as a primary fuel, coal miners have figured strongly in labour and political movements since that time. After the late 19th century coal miners in many countries were a frequent presence in industrial disputes with both the management and government. Coal miners' politics, while complex, have occasionally been radical, with a frequent leaning towards far-left political views. A number of far-left political movements have had the support of both coal miners themselves and their trade unions, particularly in Great Britain. In France, on the other hand, coal miners have been much more conservative.

This is a partial glossary of coal mining terminology commonly used in the coalfields of the United Kingdom. Some words were in use throughout the coalfields, some are historic and some are local to the different British coalfields.

Barrow Colliery

Barrow Colliery was a coal mine in Worsborough, South Yorkshire, England. It was first dug in 1873, with the first coal being brought to the surface in January 1876. It was the scene of a major incident in 1907 when seven miners died. After 109 years of coaling operations, the mine was closed in May 1985.

Bentley Colliery

Bentley Colliery was a coal mine in Bentley, near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, England, that operated between 1906 and 1993. In common with many other mines, it suffered a disaster in 1931 when 45 miners were killed after a gas explosion. The site of the mine has been converted into a woodland.


  1. Gray, G. D. B. (September 1947). "The South Yorkshire Coalfield". Geography. Geographical Association. 32 (3): 113–131. JSTOR   40565032.
  2. Northern Mine Research Society – Mines of coal and other stratified minerals in Yorkshire from 1854 Archived 14 March 2014 at
  3. BGS, Barnsley, p. 1
  4. 1 2 Hill, South Yorkshire Coalfield, p. 14
  5. 1 2 Hill, South Yorkshire Coalfield, p. 22
  6. Hill, South Yorkshire Coalfield, p. 20
  7. Hill, South Yorkshire Coalfield, p. 21
  8. BGS, Barnsley, p. 17
  9. BGS, Barnsley, p. 55
  10. Hill, South Yorkshire Coalfield, pp. 22–23
  11. Clayton, Elsecar Newcomen engine, p. 1
  12. Hill, South Yorkshire Coalfield, p. 16
  13. 1 2 3 "History of the NUM: 1 - Towards a national union". National Union of Mineworkers. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  14. "History of the NUM: 2 - Baptism by fire". National Union of Mineworkers. Archived from the original on 30 August 2016. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  15. "History of the NUM: 3 - Fighting for Principles". National Union of Mineworkers. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  16. "History of the NUM: 4 - The Lock-out of 1921". National Union of Mineworkers. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  17. "History of the NUM: 5 - The general strike". National Union of Mineworkers. Retrieved 6 March 2017.