The 17th Century (1603 to 1712)

With an ever-expanding population of nearly five million people at the turn of the 17th century now dependent on coal, England’s industry of coal mining needed to grow. The town of Newcastle began to evolve into the epicenter of the coal mining industry in Britain as more of its coal seams were exploited.

An influx of migrant, rural workers surged into Newcastle to fill positions in the expanding mining industry; however, Newcastle’s long-time residents did not welcome them kindly.  The miners were viewed as second-class, uncivilized citizens, creating a rift in the coal-mining town. One historian notes, “Coal created a new gulf between classes. The medieval peasants and artisans, whatever their disabilities and trials may have been, were not segregated from their neighbors to anything like the same extent as we the coal miners of the seventeenth century coilery districts”.[1] When the day-to-day lives of the coal miners of the time are considered, it is evident why the miners were viewed as a different breed of human.

Few jobs in history have been more dangerous or more unenviable than that of a 17th-century coal miner. With little knowledge of the dangers that lay beneath Earth’s surface, miners were routinely placed in perilous conditions. Mining tunnels were cramped, dark, and damp. Cave-ins were frequent, as were floods, fires, and asphyxiation by deadly gasses. The miners associated the threats in the mines with the work of demons as they dug ever closer to the depths of hell.[2]

Through the 1600s, the largest threat to the expansion of Britain’s mines came from flooding. By 1610, the proprietor of one of Newcastle’s largest mines warned Parliament that, due to the lack of drainage, the city’s accessible coal would be exhausted by the year 1631.[3] Obviously, this estimate proved untrue, though the battle between man and water underneath Britain’s surface remained very real past 1631. Without a way to pull water from the bottom of a mine to the surface, mine operators relied on gravity tunnels for drainage.

The most primitive method of mine drainage was through gravity tunnels. This system used gravity to pull water from subterranean tunnels to a lower surface level, typically in a valley. The tunnels often measured as small as 18 inches wide and 48 inches tall, requiring miners to crouch for many hours a day during digging; many gravity tunnels extended more than one mile underground before reaching a valley. A major issue arose each time that the tunnel digger finally reached the flooded tunnel when burrowing uphill: a sudden rush of water would erupt into the tunnel, often drowning the miners stuck in the claustrophobic space with no escape for hundreds of yards.

17th century horse powered engine

17th century horse powered engine

Sites where gravity tunnels could be utilized quickly became exhausted as mines were pushed ever deeper beneath Earth’s surface. In the latter half of the 1600s, mine proprietors devised more creative ways of removing water from their mines. Multiple levels of pumps had to be used, in most cases, to bring water up to the surface. Some mines were lucky enough to have a stream nearby so its energy could be tapped by a water wheel. Most mines, however, depended on horse power to control the pumps. Large operations employed 50-60 horses 24 hours a day to turn the multiple pumps. Despite intense research from England’s brightest minds, including the Royal Society of London, a true answer to mine drainage would not be found until the year 1712 when the precursor to the machine that would forever change the world first appeared in the small town of Dartmouth.


[1] Nef, J. U. The Rise of the British Coal Industry. Vol. 1. 1933. Reprint, London: Frank Cass and Co., 1966.

[2] Freese, Barbara. “Launching a Revolution.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[3] Freese, Barbara. “Launching a Revolution.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

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One thought on “The 17th Century (1603 to 1712)

  1. Pingback: A day without coal | daryanenergyblog

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