21 Aug 2016
In reply to your email. Some facts and figures which may explain some of your questions.
After the dreadful disaster at Lofthouse 23rd March 1973 where 7 miners were engulfed and perished by water and mud from an old mine shaft that was being undermined, where the distance between the working panel and the bottom of the shaft was thought to be sufficiently adequate and safe. Unfortunately, as was found later by Surveyors examining old records, unknowingly a borehole had been drilled down from the base of the old shaft and the undermining panel causing the weakened strata to collapse. The district was sealed off and no further working was carried out in that area due to any other unforeseen dangers. This shortened the life of the colliery as other areas of the pit were also deemed possibly unsafe due to lack of positive knowledge of old workings etc and as to their accuracy. It was thought prudent to act on the side of extreme caution to prevent such a disaster happening again. This was agreed by unions and management. All plans of working districts and proposed workings were examined in great detail by Surveyors at all collieries in the country and in future an 'in depth' questionnaire form was filled in outlining any possible dangers, the Surveyor at the colliery being the first signatory followed by the Colliery Manager before being countersigned by higher management at HQ level. This led to dozens of proposed working areas being cancelled.
Lofthouse closed in July 1981, after 104 years through exhaustion of workable reserves. This does not mean that there was no coal left to be mined but probably to access certain parts of the mine was not only costly but impractical. With the old fashioned method of longwall advancing tub stall system radiating out from the pit bottom most of the coal could be mined working up to faults from both sides for example but with the modern panel system of straight gates for conveyors much coal had to be left due to working between faults where known. Many panels were short-lived due to large faulting cutting across the face.
The argument / observation for safety as well was given as a reason to close other collieries in the area. As you rightly point out there were jobs available at other collieries round about and most of the younger miners were found employment, a few of the older ones taking the redundancy terms on offer.
As a subsequence mines in Yorkshire were closed, it was obvious that all miners could not be found work at local nearby pits as some of these were on limited life and also with more modern methods of extraction fewer men were required in any case. Unfortunately due to strike actions in 1972, 1974 and in particular the year long strike of 1984/85 there were dozens of workings that had to be abandoned due to a variety of reasons such as lack of maintenance and machinery seizing up, water ingress, gas emission, weighting and floor lift or crush closing roadways and faces, deteriorating to the state of danger or impractical recovery. The pits were only maintained on a safety routine by Management personnel due to miners being on strike. This only led to further closures as the mines not only became uneconomical but lack of confidence in the market led to many companies changing their allegiance and fuel to other forms such as gas or oil and of course the Government of the day found that imported coal from around the World was cheaper than we could mine it, taking into consideration all aspects, such as wages, expensive machinery, replacements etc, etc, many reasons of course not seen by the ordinary layman. The price of coal on the open market is priced in $ not £s. Overall the industry was losing money and bailouts became too much to bear.
In the USA fracking was being done on a large scale causing the eventual demise of the coal mining industry and a massive drop in the price of coal, recently in the last few years of our deep mining down to about $35 a tonne whereas we could not compete at all, as ours was around $65 min. (A point of interest, we have been fracking in the UK since 1949 and particularly around Gainsborough since 1956 as a method of rejuvenating oil wells or gas extraction. It was first thought of around 1918, so it is not a new idea. However with the introduction of further chemicals into the high pressure water system worries about the effects on future drinking water supplies has still not been resolved and probably won't be for many years to come, however I believe as many others in the industry and many Geologists that it will not become a major problem. Ask the protesters how they will supply all energy to a growing nation in future.
No disrespect now to the miners...but to go on strike to save jobs or a mine was foolish....it only hastened the process as outlined above and to pay high wages for lack of profit is likened to a corner shop....if you can't sell your goods and you are employing someone, then within a short time you are in debt and the business closes with staff being sacked.....in my opinion it was bad advice given to the men and that split the industry...the end of deep mining in the country was in Dec 2015 with the closure of Kellingley in Yorkshire. A few months before Thoresby closed in July 2015, the last mine in Notts. Around 1,000 years of coal mining had ended. A few surface opencast sites will continue if allowed by Town & Country Planning and / or the public who are generally opposed to it.
At any mine you cannot work all the coal seams found in the shaft sinking or by drifting down deeper from underground. Only certain seams are available to work for their quality, thickness etc. The Barnsley Bed (Top Hard) was probably the most important seam worked over a large area of the Yorkshire / Notts / Derbys Coalfield. It was a thick seam consisting of several layers that could be used for domestic fires, gas making, coke production, industrial use, oil / petrol production from it also. Even so because the seams dip gently to the East the seams become deeper with the added problems of heat and exhaustion of the workers.
However the seam was prevalent to underground heatings (spontaneous combustion) and large emissions of methane gas within the explosive range, causing many working areas to be abandoned. Many other factors affect the life of a mine. Depth of seam and thickness and characteristics of the seam with low dirt content, low sulphur and chlorine and high calorific value being favoured. Heat control for men working....generally the deeper the mine, the hotter it is....men can only stand so much before heat exhaustion is reached, thereby curtailing many hazardous or physical jobs. Due to working a seam, subsidence is experienced at the surface in various forms....cracks and collapse of buildings.... roads need repairing, water mains or gas mains fracturing.... the slope of sewer pipes being tipped the wrong way..... power lines and transformer stations being tilted.... cannot undermine rivers without affecting the flow....subsidence costs prohibitive under densely populated areas.....limited working under railways, motorways, canals, city centres etc and of course cannot work all the seams under one area otherwise the surface would lower more and more, creating multiple problems. Public are upset by having to have subsidence repairs done, particularly several times, and also it got to the state where people could not get property insurance in certain areas.
A major factor was working time at the coalface districts. The further away from the pit bottom the longer it took for men and supplies to get there. Similarly for men to get back to the pit bottom at the end of the shift left very few hours for coal production as the unions had agreed to seven and a quarter hours plus one winding time as a shift's work many years before. This lead to much overtime being worked to keep up or improve production but increased the cost of production overall. A downward trend I am afraid. When the mines were re-privatised the law was changed as a condition of work and hours of work were extended, but even so wage rates were high and another factor crept in and that was contract work, both private and pit personnel who would agree with management to do a job with so many men, then 'manage to do the job in far less time with fewer men', thus earning huge bonuses...eventually pricing themselves out of the market and out of a job...
Examples for Some Collieries Closed in North Yorkshire Area.....Barrow 1873/76 to May 1974 (100 years), Caphouse sunk 1825, merged with Denby Grange closed Oct 1981 (156 years), Dearne Valley 1902/03 closed March 1991 (88 years), Dodworth to 1985, Emley Moor 1876 to Dec 1985 (109 years), new drift mine Ferrymoor / Riddings 1970/73 to Mar 1987 (15 years), Fryston 1873 to Dec 1985 (112 years), Glasshoughton 1895 to Mar 1986 (91 years), Gomersal 1911/14 to June 1973 (60 years), Kinsley 1978/79 to Jan 1986 (108 years), Manor 1899 to Dec 1981 (82 years), Nostell 1887 to Oct 1987 (100 years), Park Hill/Denby Grange 1877/78 to Jan 1983 (105 years), Peckfield 1872/74 to Dec 1980, (106 years), Redbrook 1903 to June 1987 (84 years), Rothwell 1867/70 and 1949/51 to Dec 1983 (113 years), Royston 1976 to Sep 1989 (13 years), Savile 1874/75 to Aug 1985 (110 years), Sharlston 1865 to 1993 (128 years), Walton 1890 to Dec 1979 (89 years), Wheldale 1883 to Oct 1987 (104 years).
In the Barnsley Area......Barley Hall 1886/87 to May 1974 (87 years), Bullcliffe Wood / Denby Grange to Sep 1985 (around 100 years), Higham / Dodworth 1915 to June 1987 (72 years), Newmillerdam 1929 to Nov 1981 (52 years), Rob Royd 1896 to June 1987 (91 years), Rockingham 1873/75 to Nov 1979 (104 years), Shuttle Eye 1837 to Apr 1973 (136 years), Thornecliffe 1859 to May 1974 (115 years), Wentworth Silkstone 1856 to June 1978 (122 years).
Most colliery companies in the 1800s and early 1900s sank mines to last between 75 to 100 years when they would be outdated or worked out. As can be seen most achieved that figure and many beyond it, becoming old pits. There is only so much that you can do to make a mine more efficient and workable and many of the mine shafts were not large enough in diameter to accommodate extra air for ventilation and cooling, several power cables, telephone cables, tube bundle ventilation cables, water pipes, methane pipes etc or larger cages or skips. Although tried at some collieries in the country it was found practically impossible to widen a shaft whilst normal coal production is carried out.
Another major factor was spoil heaps. With modern mining using power loading cutting machines all production was sent out of the mine to be sorted and washed etc ready for distribution to customers, a major one being the Power Cos. In the early years of the pits most of the dirt mined was stowed underground and only coal loaded by miners at the face was sent out of the mine. With the use of shearers, trepanners, slicers, etc the discard from the coal prep plant was sent to the tip which then grew quite considerably in a short time depending upon the vend of coal to dirt, many producing more dirt than coal, e.g 47% coal and 53% dirt. Most pits were producing more dirt in substantial quantities and subsequently dirt tipping at some pits had to cease due to the agreed extent in area and height as agreed by Town & Country Planning Rules. Many dirt tipping schemes were contested by the public and local authorities....the saying 'not in my back yard' applied.
The Selby complex was planned to last 100 years...it lasted 25 years, closing in 2004. All 5 pits ... North Selby, Wistow, Stillingfleet, Riccall and Whitemoor were connected to the 2 main spine road some 11km long by vertical bunkers loading onto twin conveyors delivering to Gascoigne Wood coal preparation washery plant. Water was a problem and low lying land with water courses. Partial extraction had to be employed as the method of mining when longwall advancing panels was halted due to circumstances, some of which are outlined above, but this system relied on rapid development advances and an efficient and reliable supplies system. Latterly the complex was losing money in the teens of millions of pounds (£) per quarter. No mining villages were built for these mines and men had to travel from their existing housing which invariably was close to the mine they were employed at.