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European Themeroute | Mining

Coal from European and American collieries was the universal fuel during the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless technical inventions in mining played a relatively insignificant role. The main cause was the ongoing abundance of workers. Colliery owners were able to attain higher outputs simply by ... more

Icon: MiningThe treasures of the Earth. European Theme Route Mining

Coal from European and American collieries was the universal fuel during the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless technical inventions in mining played a relatively insignificant role. The main cause was the ongoing abundance of workers. Colliery owners were able to attain higher outputs simply by employing more workers. For the same reason they were able to postpone any improvements to the catastrophic working conditions for a long time.

Thus, for centuries technical developments failed to move on from the Middle Ages, when mining in central Europe had been dominated by silver and gold. Hydraulic power was the main source of energy. In order to remove unwanted water from the pits, large water-wheels were installed both above and below the surface, linked by a clever system of rods with extraction pumps. In order for collieries to remain independent of fluctuations in natural water supplies. coal was also brought to the surface with the help of hydraulic power. The Oker pond in the German Harz region, constructed in 1720, is generally regarded as the first reservoir in Europe.

By this time surface supplies had been exhausted in many places; but digging to greater depths involved the use of ever larger water wheels to drive the pumps. The water column machine, first presented in France in 1731, offered a more efficient solution. Water falling from a great height drove a piston downwards, which was then emptied and rose back up again. However, the decisive innovation was the invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. This was first used to raise pit water in a colliery near Wolverhampton. Other British collieries soon followed. True, Newcomen’s invention needed huge amounts of fuel, but this was practically irrelevant because they were erected directly over the coal supplies. Only a few steam engines went into operation on the continent; in the Belgian mining areas around Liège and Mons. Improvements to Newcomen’s model, and new machines developed by James Watt, made steam technology truly viable around 1800.

By that time coal was the leading mining branch. By 1709 the English had already succeeded in making coke from coal. Around the end of the century the new fuel was in wide use in ironworks. This development rapidly increased the demand for coal on the British Isles. But further improvements in mining were necessary. The use of steam engines make the process more efficient. In addition the old winding cables made of hemp were replaced by wire rope, developed in metal-ore collieries in the Harz mountains in 1834. Lifts were then built into the shafts in British collieries, and wooden pithead scaffolding erected to hold the cable wheel.

New technical developments in ventilation were not put into operation for purely economic reasons. Fresh air was not only needed by the miners underground, it was also necessary to reduce the levels of explosive pit gas. For this reason experiments began with air pumps in British collieries: but colliery owners regarded the investment costs as too high. Many colliers continued to lose their lives as a result of explosions underground, and the risks were made greater by the use of open lighting; candles and oil lamps. In 1815 a scientist by the name of Humphry Davy came up with the first effective safety lamp, whose flame was screened off from the pit gas by an extremely thin wire trellis.

Work underground remained highly dangerous and extremely dangerous to health because of the risk of explosions, roofs collapsing and the bone-breaking labour beneath the surface. Hewers equipped with pick, chisel and hammer were sent along appallingly insecure, badly ventilated galleries which were sometimes so low that they were forced to lie down whilst working. The coal was then loaded into baskets or low wagons, to be drawn by horses over wooden or iron rails – when the galleries were high enough to allow this. If not, people had to push and pull the wagons. In British collieries this work was often done by women and children crawling on all fours. The loads of coal they had to push, weighed up to 250 kg.

Starting in the 19th century a huge number of mining engines were patented: the Englishman Richard Trevithick invented a rotating steam-driven drill; this was then followed by a piston drill that worked along the same principle as a steam engine. These inventions would have made work underground much easier, were it not for the fact that they were considered too expensive by the colliery owners. Real progress was only made after 1853 with the introduction of compressed-air drives.
Starting in the 1840s massive pithead towers made of quarrystone or redbrick, began to be introduced, mainly on the continent. They were able to bear the loads imposed on the cables, which were being let down to ever greater depths, better than the old wooden constructions. After only a few decades these so-called "Malakoff towers" (named after the fortress in the Crimea), often had to be made higher by the addition of a steel frame. Around the turn of the 20th century Malakoff towers were replaced completely by even higher steel frames.

About the same time the use of disc-cutting machines – a British innovation – was gradually spreading in the USA and Great Britain. These were equipped with chisels on moving discs, rods or chains to cut a horizontal rift beneath the level of the coal and thereby facilitate hewing. Although this invention lightened miners’ physical labour, it introduced a new stress: noise. Furthermore, the noise of the machines often made it impossible for miners to detect the cracking sound in gallery roofs, that preceded collapses. At first the disc cutters were driven by compressed air, but this was replaced by electricity after people found a way of preventing sparks from intruding into the galleries, and dirt getting into the machines.
Where there were suppliers of soft coal, it proved more advantageous to use a mechanical pick. This was introduced into Belgian coalmines and, after the First World War, into the pits along the Ruhr. Hand labour underground, which had continued almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, was gradually coming to an end.

The coal was increasingly transported from the surface via chutes hanging on chains and shaken with the aid of compressed air. In the 1920s companies began to equip their collieries with electrically-driven conveyor belts. Pit railways with electric locomotives were used along longer stretches. In 1934 a cutter loader was introduced in Great Britain for the first time. This not only cut coal but loaded it in a single working process. In areas where the coal was softer a coal plane was used as an alternative. The first experiments were made in France and the USA and improved to mass production standards by engineers in Westphalia (Germany). The plane was drawn along the surface of the coal, which simultaneously fell on to a moving belt. Finally, fully mechanised coal mining began in the 1940s.

Camborne | United Kingdom
The surface buildings at the King Edward Mine are the most complete of any tin-mining site in Cornwall, and include a calciner, a buddle house, a steam winding engine house with an adjacent boiler house, a set of Californian stamps and a twin horizontal winding engine supplied by Holmans of Camborn ...
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King Edward Mine
Troon
TR16 3SE Camborne, United Kingdom

Cardiff | United Kingdom
Situated on the outskirts of Cardiff at St. Fagan’s, is one of Wales’ major visitor attractions. An attractive range of historic buildings from all over Wales are gathered in a beautiful natural woodland setting. Among older exhibits can be found a preserved row of fully furnished Merthyr workers ...
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St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans
CF5 6XB Cardiff, United Kingdom

Chesterton | United Kingdom
The sights and sounds – and smells - of the country park couldn’t be more different from those in the mine. On the surface you’ll hear the birds overhead, see the wind in the trees, enjoy the fresh air. In the mine, you’ll find it difficult to see very far in the dim light, the roar of the fans ...
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Apedale Valley Mining Heritage
Apedale Heritage Centre
Loomer Road
ST5 7RR Chesterton, United Kingdom

Coatbridge | United Kingdom
Summerlee is a heritage park with a large exhibition hall whose aim is ‘to preserve and interpret the history of the local coal, iron, steel and engineering industries, and of the communities that depended upon them’. It is located in Coatbridge, once known as ‘the iron burgh’. Features include the ...
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Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life
Heritage Way
ML5 1QD Coatbridge, United Kingdom

Dudley | United Kingdom
There’s no towpath for your horse, and no engine in your boat, so how do you get your narrowboat through the long tunnel into the vast limestone caverns? You have to get out and push! Two men would lie across the narrowboat and ‘walk’ along the tunnel walls, pushing along tons of boat and its cargo. ...
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Dudley Canal Tunnel and Limestone Mines
501 Birmingham New Road
DY1 4SB Dudley, United Kingdom

Golcar | United Kingdom
The museum at Golcar provides many illuminating insights into the lives of nineteenth-century makers of woollen cloth, and into the ways in which domestic manufacturing gradually evolved into factory-based production. The museum occupies three of a terrace of four 3-storey cottages called Spring ...
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Colne Valley Museum
Cliff Ash
HD7 4PY Golcar, United Kingdom

Helston | United Kingdom
The underground tour at Poldark has been described by a distinguished authority as ‘one of the two most atmospheric mine tours in Europe’. Poldark, 3 km from Helston, is a multi-facetted visitor attraction that takes its name from a television series, parts of which were filmed there, but it is also ...
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Poldark Mine
Wendron
TR13 0ES Helston, United Kingdom

Liskeard | United Kingdom
Sett in the beautiful Loveny Valley on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, Carnglaze is Cornwall’s only slate mine and as such, played an important part in the mining heritage of Cornwall. It was of course slate that roofed the industrial revolution and the finely laminated, dark blue slate from ...
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Carnglaze Caverns
St Neot
PL14 6HQ Liskeard, United Kingdom

Ludlow | United Kingdom
The area around Clee Hill village, 8 km east of Ludlow, provides vivid evidence of an eighteenth century squatting community in which industry developed on a considerable scale. On the Clee Hills, which rise to almost 550 m above sea level, the carboniferous measures near the summits are capped by ...
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Clee Hills
Ludlow Tourist Information Centre
Castle Street
SY8 1AS Ludlow, United Kingdom

Matlock Bath | United Kingdom
The Peak District Mines Historical Society established its museum in the pump room of the former spa of Matlock Bath, which was immensely popular in nineteenth century after the opening of the Midland Railway through the Derwent Valley. There are many images and artefacts relating to lead mining in ...
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Peak District Lead Mining Museum
The Grand Pavilion
196 South Parade
DE4 3NR Matlock Bath, United Kingdom

Neath | United Kingdom
Cefn Coed Colliery Museum is situated in the heart of the picturesque Dulais Valley and tells the story of colliery life from Victorian times to the 1950s. The museum is housed in the original colliery building, which closed in 1968.Visitors can experience the harsh, damp and dark conditions that ...
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Cefn Coed Colliery Museum
Crynant
SA10 8SN Neath, United Kingdom

Newtongrange | United Kingdom
What is the link between a certain Lady Victoria, black diamonds and a place called Newtongrange in Scotland? It’s simple? For Lady Victoria is the name of the old colliery in Newtongrange and when the locals talk about black diamonds they mean coal which was once mined in huge quantities before ...
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National Mining Museum Scotland
Lady Victoria Colliery
EH22 4QN Newtongrange, United Kingdom

Pendeen | United Kingdom
The Levant Mine engine house, perched, apparently precariously, on a cliff above the Atlantic Ocean, houses the oldest working beam engine in Cornwall, a 24 inch (0.61 m) winding engine designed by Francis Mitchell, made by Harveys of Hayle, and installed in 1840. The mine extended to a considerable ...
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Levant Mine & Beam Engine
Trewellard
TR19 7SX Pendeen, United Kingdom

Penzance | United Kingdom
It is as if the walls were echoing once more with the rough tones of miners. As if weary feet were stamping against the bare cement floor, accompanied by the screeching tones of the rising cage. Nowadays, not far from Penzance, the Atlantic flows through the disused galleries of the Geevor tin mine ...
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Geevor Tin Mine World Heritage Site
Pendeen
TR19 7EW Pendeen, United Kingdom

Peterlee | United Kingdom
The Durham Coastal Footpath extends 17 km from Crimdon in the south to Seaham in the north through an area of Magnesian Limestone with boulder clay above it. It passes through an area that is an outstanding example of regeneration following the impact of large-scale industry. Coal in this part of ...
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Durham coastal footpath
Information: District of Easington Tourist Office East Durham Business Centre
Judson Road NW Industrial Estate
SR8 2QJ Peterlee, United Kingdom

Pontypool | United Kingdom
Set in the stable block of Pontypool Park House the museum documents the proud history of early ironmaking and coal production in this valley. It also tells the story of the Hanbury family and features their unique collection of Pontypool and Usk tinplate decorated in the “Japanese Style”. Pontypool ...
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Pontypool Museum
Park Buildings
NP4 6JH Pontypool, United Kingdom

Redruth | United Kingdom
The Cornwall Centre is dedicated to providing information about Cornwall and is staffed by professional librarians. Its collection of over 40,000 books and printed resources covers Cornish history, geography, industries, customs and highlights Cornwall’s mining heritage. It offers anyone interested ...
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Cornish Studies Library
Alma Place
TR15 2AT Redruth, United Kingdom

Redruth | United Kingdom
Cornwall was Europe’s principal source of tin from classical times and an important source of copper during the Industrial Revolution period, and the ores of many other metals have been extracted from its mines.The two steam engines at East Pool, alongside the main road between Camborne and Redruth, ...
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East Pool Mine
Pool
TR15 3ED Redruth, United Kingdom

Redruth | United Kingdom
“Heartlands” has transformed the mining heritage in the county of Cornwall into a huge "cultural playground". At its epicentre stand the winding gear and engine house above the Robinson’s Shaft. Monuments to early industrialisation, (including a Cornish pumping engine and a gigantic boiler), tell ...
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Heartlands
Robinson's Shaft
Dudnance Lane Pool
TR15 3QY Redruth, United Kingdom

Redruth | United Kingdom
Cornwall’s tin mines were world famous, but large quantities of tin ore were also obtained by ‘streaming’, by washing and sifting alluvium from rivers and streams or crushed waste that had been discarded at mines. Tolgus is the last tin-streaming works in Cornwall, the only survivor of 15 that ...
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Tolgus Tin
New Portreath Road
TR6 4HN Redruth, United Kingdom