The Wheels of Fortunes: Remembering the Coal Industry

Coal has been mined in Wakefield since time immemorial. Find out more about the places that were shaped by coal mining.

Sarah Cowling, Digital Editor

Looking over the lake at Walton Colliery Nature Park, it’s hard to imagine that some unearthly being didn’t have a hand in creating such a heavenly scene, at the heart of God’s own county. But, until 1979, this patch of ground was at the centre of the Wakefield District Coal Industry. Here, the industrial buildings, spoil heaps, railway lines and mining villages all huddled beneath the pit head wheel. The wheels have been a feature of mining since the 17th century. Dozens of them sat in the West Yorkshire landscape and they came to symbolise the industry.

Some of these wheels survive today. Not high above the ground, but caringly and carefully placed in the churchyards, country parks, village greens and even in the centre of a roundabout. From Glasshoughton to Sharlston, Stanley, Outwood, and many more places in between, the wheels stand as a reminder of the industry that fuelled the industrial revolution, created communities, inspired innovation, made fortunes and took lives.

Walton Colliery Nature Reserve

Coal has been mined in Wakefield since time immemorial. At Castleford, Roman coal-fired pottery kilns have been discovered. By the 1200’s, Augustinian Monks at Nostell Priory mined at Crofton and small scale mining continued through the centuries.

In the early part of the 19th century the mining industry began to grow, feeding the needs of the new and innovative steam driven textile mills. The Aire and Calder Navigation was used to export the cloth far and wide. Entrepreneurial Victorian industrialists soon realised that in the ground beneath their feet there was high quality, abundant coal.

Using the network of waterways and later, rail, the rich reserves of coal could travel to the Humber Docks and feed the hungry furnaces across the country, driving the industrial revolution forwards. The mines were extended and deepened until the Wakefield coalfield became one of the most important in the country.

Lofthouse Colliery

Lofthouse Colliery

As the quantities mined became larger and larger, innovative ways of transporting the coal were explored. Long lines of floating tubs, pulled and pushed by tugboats were employed. Known as Tom Puddings, they apparently got their name because of the similarity to strings of black puddings, as they snaked their way, full of coal, from the Stanley Ferry, through the Yorkshire countryside, to the ports.

To get the coal to the canals, wagon ways and railways criss-crossed the countryside. The Wakefield district has one of the highest percentages of disused railway lines per square mile in the country. A wagonway opened in 1798 from the Lake Lock near Stanley. The line allowed anyone to haul their animal-drawn waggons along the rails down to the Aire and Calder Navigation. Locally called the Nagger Line, today it is incorporated into the Trans Pennine Cycle Route.

Anglers Country Park

The Coal-Rush of the mid 19th century transformed farming hamlets into fast growing, tightly-knit mining communities. Most of the properties in Bottom Boat were built specifically for the miners of Newmarket Colliery. Streets and streets of back to back housing shot up and workers moved from all over the country to take up the opportunity to inhabit them. Altofts, just across the River Aire, had the longest unbroken row of terraced colliery houses in Europe. It was called Silkstone Row, named after the seam of coal deep under the village. Ironically, it was demolished in the 1970’s due to subsidence

The communities stuck together through the tough times and the good. The task was hard and dangerous. Many gave their lives in the course of their daily work. 22 miners at Altofts Colliery were killed in 1886 when a huge explosion ripped through the mine. The direct consequence of this incident was that experiments took place at here to assess the dangers of highly volatile coal dust. The results helped to improve and develop underground safety and embed rescue procedures which are common place today.

RSPB Fairburn Ings

From a peak in 1913, the coal industry fell into decline. By 1984 there were just 56 collieries left in the whole of Yorkshire and over 25% of those were in the Wakefield District. The announcement of further pit closures led to the yearlong miners’ strike which ended in March 1985. The decline continued with Wakefield’s last mine closing in 2002.

And so the pit head wheels that characterised the landscape were removed from their vantage points. It was the end of the Industry that had shaped the landscape, villages, towns and people of this area.

Find out more about how one mine’s closure was only the beginning of a new chapter here.

Former Coal Mining Sites to explore

Anglers Country Park

Anglers Country Park

Located 4 miles south-east of Wakefield, Anglers Country Park is a perfect place to explore for nature lovers, walkers, dog walkers, cyclists, picnickers – and not forgetting tho...

Walton Colliery Nature Park

Walton Colliery Nature Park

Whether it’s a thrilling bike ride, adventurous horse ride or a relaxing stroll you’re after you’ll find

Lofthouse Colliery

Lofthouse Colliery

Located 3 miles north of Wakefield, Lofthouse Colliery Nature Park consists of woodland, heathland...

Stoneycliffe Wood Nature Reserve

A stunning woodland with a meandering beck trickling through – step into Stoneycliffe Wood, a semi-natural ancient woodland site, to enjoy bluebells and ramsons in spring, breedi...