Coal has been mined in North Lanarkshire since the Middle Ages. In 1162 lands in the area – now known as the ‘Monklands’ – were given to the monks of Newbattle Abbey. These monks are known to have dug coal in the Lothians, and probably also mined Lanarkshire’s shallow-lying coal seams.
With the Scottish Reformation in the late 1500s, these lands were confiscated from the Catholic Church. The rising price of wood during the 1600s forced many enterprising Lanarkshire landowners to turn to coal for fuel. However, mining was restricted in scale by the technology of the day.
Perhaps the first documented reference to coal mining in North Lanarkshire is a case dated 1616, when John Muirhead of ‘Brydenhill’ (Braidenhill, near Glenmavis) fell into dispute with Matthew Newlands of nearby Kipps. Newlands supposedly bore a grudge against Muirhead and dammed a stream, causing Muirhead’s ‘gangand heuch’ (a working ‘cutting’ or mine) to flood beyond repair.
All haulage had to be done by hand or using wooden hoists. It wasn’t until the development of steam engines that there was the necessary power to lift huge weights of coal or clear flooded mine workings. Thomas Newcomen’s ‘atmospheric engine’, developed in the early 1700s, was the first widely used engine of its type in Britain. A Newcomen engine, dating to 1812 and used at Farme Colliery in Rutherglen, is on permanent display at Summerlee Museum.
With the arrival of steam power, mining moved away from ‘bell pits’ – so-called as their side profile when dug down into the ground resembles a bell – as larger quantities could now be lifted and deeper seams mined.
‘Adit’ mines were dug down at an angle, with coal being loaded into ‘hutches’ on rails which were towed or pushed up the ‘dook’ (sloped roadway).
‘Pits’ tended to refer to collieries where the means of getting down to the coal face was by a vertical shaft. This allowed access to deeper coal seams. These were accessed by the rotating pithead pulley, which lowered and raised miners and coal from the pit bottom in ‘cages’. This operated by cables running from the drum of the colliery engine.
At the pit bottom, coal was extracted using the ‘stoop and room’ method, where pillars of coal were left for roof support. Additional roof support was provided by wooden pit props, a method still used well into the 20th century.
Another obstacle was getting coal from remote mines to its intended market, whether that was for the ironworks furnace or the household fireplace. The construction of the Monkland Canal in the late 1700s, built to transport coal from the North Lanarkshire coalfield to the growing city of Glasgow, allowed for huge growth in the area’s industrial output.
William Forrest’s 1816 map of Lanarkshire shows collieries popping up all along the Monkland Canal. This was followed by the Union Canal, opened in 1822, which was built to transport coal into Edinburgh via the Forth and Clyde Canal.
The beginnings of powered railway transport in the 1820s opened up a huge range of possibilites, beginning with the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway in 1826. This further transformed Lanarkshire, linking its coal with all of Scotland.
Between 1800 and 1841, 11 new ironworks opened across North Lanarkshire, mostly in the Monklands area. The 12 blast furnaces of Gartsherrie Ironworks, the largest in the world at the time, needed huge amounts of coal. The Bairds of Gartsherrie, along with other ironmasters, also owned a large number of collieries and ironstone mines across Lanarkshire and Scotland.
In a matter of decades, places like Coatbridge and Motherwell would grow from being an assortment of little farmsteads and tiny villages into large industrial towns with their own identity and community life.
Life underground in the early days was harsh and dangerous. Bell pits would be dug outwards into the coal seam until the point of collapse. With only candle or tallow light, shifts would be worked in almost complete blackness.
Early recorded cases of collier fatalities include that of a man named Brown, from Kilsyth, killed on 29th March 1753 by a pit roof collapse; and Robert Gun, from Jerviston near Motherwell, who was killed 27th October 1767 when he missed a hold climbing down into the pit and fell to his death.
Women and children were employed underground at this time – whole families might be working at any one time. Typically there was a gendered division of labour, with men ‘hewing’ (cutting the coal) and women and children ‘drawing’ (moving the coal to the surface). Very small children were used as ‘trappers’, opening and shutting ventilation doors.
One such trapper was 9-year-old Janet Snedden, who worked in Gartsherrie No.1 Pit in 1842. She worked alongside Janet Ritchie, “a single woman who hooks on and off the corves on the chain for drawing coal up the pit; comes down a quarter before 6 and goes up again about 4 p.m.”
When these conditions – including the idea that women might be wearing trousers, or little above the waist because of the stifling heat underground – were reported by a Government Commission, it provoked moral outrage in Victorian middle- and upper- class society.
For mining communities, it was simply a fact of working to survive. Women and children were banned from working underground after the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act.
Lanarkshire’s miners were also among the first to organise collectively. As the industry developed, small mines and pit villages appeared all over Lanarkshire. Coal masters could wield a great deal of power over the workforce and their families – they paid the wages and owned the houses and shops. Friendly societies and miner’s associations began to grow as an early form of social security, and in some cases developed into prototype trade unions.
Collective bargaining or negotiation didn’t exist in the modern sense, and as a result disputes between miners and the coal owners at this time were often high-stakes and hostile.
A recession in 1836-7 saw the price of iron fall which had an effect on the coal industry. A Lanarkshire-wide coal strike in 1837 began with miners employed by William Baird & Co. at Gartsherrie. It would last 15 weeks and was particularly bitter. Employers brought in ‘scab’ labour as well as the military and police to try and break the strike – miners retaliated by cutting pithead ropes and in one case were reported to have thrown a policeman down a mine shaft.
In the end they returned to work through starvation, and many were forced by their employers to leave and find work elsewhere.
Airdrie Branch of the National Union of Operative Colliers and Ironstone Miners of Scotland Door Plaque, 1837
Early mine workings still dot the Lanarkshire landscape. Remains of bell pits can be seen at the site of the late-1700s Wilsontown Ironworks near Forth. The mound-like remains of small pits operated by the Carron Company in the early 1800s can be seen to the north and north-west of the village of Banton.
Subsidence from these early shallow mine workings is still a major problem in places like Coatbridge. Even now, a lot of new housing has to be built on thick concrete bases to protect against any collapses underneath.