Sunday, 2 February 2014

Bentley Colliery Part 1 - 85 Years of Mining History

Bentley Colliery 1911

Industry Comes to Bentley

By the end of the nineteenth century Bentley was still largely a rural village on the outskirts of Doncaster. Imagine then the feelings of horror which must have crept over the local inhabitants when it was announced that investigations would be made into sinking a deep coal mine in the village. On the plus side it would bring much needed work to the area, but it would also bring dirt, pollution and newcomers.

Opposed to it or not, it became a reality, and changed the face of this once pretty village forever.

 

A Site For the New Colliery 

Bentley Pit was first sited for sinking by Barber Walker and Company near Bentley Mill in 1887 but the site proved unsuitable and investigations were carried out to find a site north of the village. The new site at the corner of the Daw Lane Plantation was first investigated in 1895 and the Barnsley Seam was found at a depth of 615 yards. After negotiations with local landowners the sinking began in 1904. 

Sinking the first shaft in 1905

The difficulties faced by the workers became almost overwhelming; quicksand to a depth of 100 feet proved to be the most challenging obstacle facing the sinkers. A system of interlocking piles to bore through the quicksand proved to be unsuccessful and work was stopped in late 1905. Another attempt to sink two shafts was made in March 1906 and was successful. The problems didn't end there though, unstable surface clay meant that surface buildings had to be carried in on huge concrete rafts.


Courtesy of Dianne Harvey-Marshall

George Ashmore pictured above with his family moved to Bentley from the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area to work at the pit. He was one of the many workers who helped with the sinking. Tragically George was killed in a mining accident in 1920. He was the first person to be buried in Arksey's 'New' cemetery.



Construction workers in 1908

Charles Senior Smith (1855-1923) a joiner during the construction, stands alongside an early model of the pit head buildings, which he probably made himself. The similarities of the model and the finished buildings are quite striking.

Charles Senior Smith, joiner (photo courtesy of Elaine Spencer)

The pit in 1910 looking very like Charles Senior's model

The pit was known as Arksey Colliery in those early days. Lying within view of the village, bricks from Arksey's Tuffield brickyard were used in the construction of the pit buildings.

1908, and the Union Jack is flying to show they had reached coal
 
By November 1908 the coal had been reached by both shafts and the workers were rewarded with a dinner organised by Mr Hildernby of the Bay Horse pub which was served in a large marquee erected in a field in Arksey Lane. 


The heap stead under construction 1910 - 1911


In 1910-1911 the colliery heap stead was built. This was a platform at the mouth of the shaft which was elevated above ground level, and allowed coal to be tipped on to screens or a conveyor. The Bentley heap stead was unusual as it was constructed from reinforced concrete. This material was considered lighter and more suited to the bad foundations on the site, and as there was no timber in the construction, it was more likely to withstand fire. The heap stead was built to a height of 45 feet up to the level where coal tubs would be lifted. A further 14 feet of concrete work was also built above that.


The heap stead


Mining and Miners 

By 1910 Bentley Colliery was employing around 1,000 men, 700 of whom worked underground. Working in three shifts the mine averaged around 2,000 tons of coal per day.

Bentley was said to be one of the most modern in existence, with all the latest equipment.


Bentley Colliery in operation


Coal was extracted using the longwall method, where coal would be cut from a long seam and removed as it fell. Props were then used to control the fall of the roof behind; the cavity left behind the extracted face was called the gob. The coal was then hauled away in tubs by pit ponies and hoisted to the surface.

Electric cutters were used to undercut the coal face, while electric drills were used to blast the face and cause the coal to drop. By 1940 conveyor belts placed parallel with the coal face, carried the coal away continuously. 


Plan of the pit bottom in 1924


The mine was laid out using a system of gate roads, which formed an underground grid of roadways as each face was worked. Ventilation was provided by two Capell fans, but the mine had to be constantly monitored for the build up of dangerous gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide. Gases in the gob areas could spontaneously combust, so gases were often left to build up behind seals where oxygen could be excluded.

Bentley coal working became famous for experiments in gob fires and spontaneous combustion, and the work has gone down in mining history.  


Bentley Colliery canary
 
Miners were issued with an identification token and a lamp before starting work; typically the day shift would start at 6 a.m. and finish at 1.30 p.m., the afternoon shift would start at 2 p.m. and finish at 9.45 p.m., while the night shift would start at 10 p.m. and finish at 5.30 a.m. It was dirty and risky work; exposure to inhaled coal dust could cause lung diseases, and there were risks from gas leaks, explosions, collapses, vehicle accidents and injury from equipment. Unions were set up to assist miners in medical, legal or financial need.

Coal production from the Barnsley seam was very successful, and reached its peak in 1924 when the yearly total exceeded 1,200,000 tons. After that yearly totals fell as the seam became depleted.

By 1945 the pit was fully mechanised with modern face machines and loco haulage. 


Loco haulage at Bentley Pit



Modern Mining

By 1968 the colliery was considered the 'sick man' of the area. It had the worst record for disputes and along with other industrial woes, it was threatened with closure. 
But just a year later, it was back from the brink in spectacular style due to increased efficiency. Bentley's future lay with the Dunsil seam when the two faces of the Barnsley seam had to be sealed off because of overheating. The number of faces was reduced from nine to three, and this meant that only one conveyor belt was needed to run the whole three mile length, from shaft bottom to face.

The three faces produced on average 17,000 tons of coal per week, and this productivity put the pit in the top ten in the country.

At a depth of up to a third of a mile underground, coal from the Dunsil seam had a long journey to the surface.

The coal was cut by huge power loaders, which cut and loaded coal automatically. The power loaders had a rotating drum with steel picks to cut into the face, then the coal would drop on to a steel conveyor, which had powered roof supports attached, which would move forward when the machine passed and support the exposed roof above.


Cutting coal at Bentley


Once on the conveyors, the coal would pass on to wider trunk conveyors on the roadways, then on to two 200 ton bunkers. From the bunkers the coal flowed to the pit bottom to a 330 ton bunker, which fed into eight ton capacity winding skips, from where it was wound to the surface.

With round the clock production and many miles of roadways underground, it was important to move shift workers and supplies speedily and efficiently. Descending the shaft 48 at a time, the men were then loaded on to small paddy trains and taken to the face. Supplies of materials would also be transported this way.



Above Ground

The colliery became a sprawling mass of buildings, stockyards, winding rooms, offices, control rooms and workers facilities which could be seen for miles around. The pit had its own branch line railway for shunting coal off to its various destinations, whether it be power stations, local industry, or to supply domestic heating. This map from 1938 shows just how much land the colliery occupied above ground.


Bentley Colliery site 1938
 

Facilities For The Workers

Bentley Colliery was a large operation, and needed over a thousand workers. Locals alone could not fill all the positions, so many men and families migrated from other parts of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and beyond to take up the jobs. These families needed housing, and so, a large housing estate was built near to the pit, and called Bentley New Village. 


Map from 1931 showing Bentley New Village

Apart from housing, social amenities were provided for the mining community. Bentley Colliery had its own football team (which still exists and is now part of the Central Midlands League). Founded in the 1920's, they reached the third round of the FA Cup in the 1956-57 season. 

Bentley Colliery Cricket Club was founded in 1912, and is also still in existence.

There were social clubs in both Bentley and Arksey, with more springing up in Scawthorpe and Toll Bar. The colliery had its own brass band, the Silver Prize Band, which won over 1,200 prizes and produced a number of gold and silver medal soloists.



Bentley Colliery Band 1958


More shops, public houses, a cinema, churches and a recreation park were all added to the growing township. This in turn led to better public transport, with trams, and then trolleybuses taking people to and from Doncaster.

The pit had brought prosperity to Bentley and a thriving community had sprung up in its wake, but the colliery and the community witnessed dark times with strikes, floods and disasters throughout the decades.



Dark Times In Bentley

The General Strike of 1926 affected the whole of the UK's coal mines, including Bentley. Coal production and exports had fallen since the end of World War 1, but mine owners wanting to maintain profits brought in wage reductions and longer working hours. In supporting the miners, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) began negotiations, but when they failed the TUC announced that a general strike would begin on the 3rd of May 1926. 

The strike lasted for ten days and as well as mines, heavy industry and transport was also affected, leading the government to enlist middle class workers and volunteers to keep essential services running. The TUC finally called off the strike, defeated, on the 13th of May. The miners drifted back to work, having to accept that lower wages and longer hours could not be avoided.


Bentley miners during the General Strike 1926


Five years after the General Strike came what must be the darkest day in the history of the pit. On the 20th of November 1931 there was an explosion underground which killed 45 men and boys. The full story will be told in the next part of this article, but the memory of this terrible event cast a shadow over the whole community for many decades.

Just six months after this terrible disaster, Bentley was hit with another crisis when severe flooding inundated Bentley, Arksey and the surrounding area. The colliery was flooded up to the pit head, but narrowly avoided being flooded in the pit itself, which would have been disastrous for those relying on the pit for their livelihoods. That aside, it was still another blow for the hard working people of Bentley to deal with. 



The Avenue and pit in flood


Forty seven years after the disaster of 1931, almost to the day, another tragedy hit the colliery. On the 21st of November 1978, seven men were killed in an underground paddy train crash. 
See more on the disasters here

The victims of both disasters are remembered on a memorial in Arksey cemetery.


Bentley Disaster Memorial
   
Disasters aside, nothing can raise more emotion in the coal mining community than the strike of 1984-1985. This major conflict affected the whole of the UK coal mining industry, and effectively rang the death knell for almost every pit in the country.

At that time coal mining was a nationalized industry managed by the National Coal Board (NCB) under Ian MacGregor. The mines were heavily state subsidised and although a number of UK mines were profitable, the government insisted that investment and mechanisation were needed to return the mines to profit. This would also mean job cuts, something the unions resisted strongly.


NUM leader, Arthur Scargill


Events escalated in 1984 when the government announced plans to close 20 pits, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. The leader of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), Arthur Scargill claimed that the government were actually planning to close over 70 pits, and effectively destroy the industry completely. Macgregor vigorously denied this and wrote to all members of the NUM accusing Scargill of deceiving them with his claims. 


A popular slogan of the strike


Recently released government papers showed that Ian MacGregor had intended to close over 70 pits, and Arthur Scargill was finally proved right. It also transpired that the Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher had colluded with MacGregor in this deceit.

On the 12th of March 1984, Arthur Scargill called for national strike action, and so began one of the most bitterly fought disputes in recent history.

Major clashes during the strike have been well documented. Bentley avoided being involved in any high level conflicts, but it wasn't immune from trouble.


A smashed bus outside Bentley Colliery


In October 1984, it was claimed by NUM officials at Bentley, that a man who was strikebreaking and going into work everyday was in fact a policeman, not a miner. NUM president Jock Nimmo said 'We know for a fact that this man is not a Bentley miner... the Coal Board is hoping some of the lads will go in if they think somebody else is working, but we know our members better than that.' A month later it was reported that the Bentley NUM committee had decided never again to represent any of the thirteen miners who had gone back to work. 


Bentley Pavilion soup kitchen 1984


The strike ended without agreement on the 3rd of March 1985, but not before many mining families had suffered terrible hardship. Some miners had already returned to work for the sake of their children. It was a huge blow to NUM members and the mining industry was never the same again.


Bentley after the Strike

Things picked up once again for Bentley in the late 1980's by tapping into the Parkgate seam. Production hit one million tons annually, and in December 1989 the colliery celebrated three productivity and output records, by reaching a weekly best of 25,975 tonnes, and also lifting their individual tonnage record two thirds to 7.85 tonnes per man. They also achieved a new shift record high of 30.11 tonnes.


Celebrating a new output record, 1989

Despite this success, the threat of closure was looming. Collieries all over the UK had been closing at a steady rate since 1985, and by the early 1990's the closures were intensifying. 


A Black Day For Bentley

On the 16th of November 1993, British Coal announced its intention to close Bentley Colliery. The news was accepted with a sad air of inevitability. Bentley vicar Bob Fitzharris said 'We are being held hostage to fortune by this evil [Tory] administration that worships the false god of the market place... it is a sad and a black day for Bentley.'


Demolition
 

The colliery was demolished during late 1994 into early 1995. Redevelopment of the site began in 1998, and now forms part of the Bentley Community Forest.

The resilience of the community pulled Bentley through the crisis and the township remains a thriving part of north Doncaster in the twenty first century. 




In April 1995 a pit wheel memorial was unveiled at the former Bentley Colliery Cricket Club (The Jet). It was constructed from a winding headgear wheel, two emergency winding wheels and stone blocks from the colliery offices. Pictured at the inauguration are Councillor Gordon Gallimore and former miner Tommy Brett aged 83 who cut the ribbon, along with officials and former miners.




Continues in Bentley Colliery Part 2 - Disasters.

Click here for a gallery of Bentley Colliery images.
 

7 comments:

  1. the bloke with the canary is don brooks....who also worked with the dons(rugby league) for summat like 50 years...nice fella.very good Alison......as a miner that worked at Bentley for 6 short years and is ,as you know,avid Bentley historian,i found this excellent!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  2. im on photo of record tonnage 1989 im bottom left,next to joe woodcock stood upat bottom of lamp cabin steps. johnny sykes on right near bottom of steps nick named mr pastry.of steve hudson at bottom right of photo. brian calland third from bottom of steps on rightside happy days

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  3. What was the guy,s name who is crouched next to you Jim , is it Darren ( Daz ) ?

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    1. yes its darren grainger ,terry grainger alias gringo ,was his father,he was the num branch delegate.

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  4. i played in the silver band 1967 / 68 what great memories ,along side my brother derick and my dad frank boyles who worked as a paddy driver in the pit also played in the band were my great mate garry peackock.and his brother eric ,i remember well there grandfarther a verry funny man played the drums .we played many venues and won lots of cups and trophys.still brings a tear just to hear a brass band.

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  5. Has anyone any idea when the branch line from Bentley to the Gowdall and Braithwell line closed?
    Nick.

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  6. I've just found out that a relative of mine worked as a colliery clerk at the age of 15, is there any information about the office workers please...his name was William Bell...thank you

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