Bill Hartley mines an archive
John Watson was a colliery viewer working in the Northumberland coalfield in the middle of the 18thcentury. His journals, written from 1750-55, came into the possession of the Mining Institute in Newcastle but beyond this nothing is known of the man. Watson didn’t always stick to a dry record of mining operations and as a result we get some insight into life in mid-18th century Northumberland.
There was no such thing as a mining engineer in those days and the way Watson worked suggested he had learnt his trade as an estate surveyor; someone who looked after the business of an agricultural property. Mining and agriculture were closely connected, with coal being another resource to be exploited. Back then an intelligent boy might be talent spotted and perhaps with the assistance of a benefactor, gain a place at one of the small grammar schools in the county. Such schools had no interest in providing a classical education. The emphasis was on mathematics. Classroom learning was augmented by practical experience outdoors, where boys would hone their skills by measuring and surveying the surrounding fields.
Watson’s day could begin in the early hours of the morning and not end until late evening, depending upon how far he had to travel. Generally he would be underground at some point giving instructions or measuring progress. These were not coal mines as we know them but rather a series of pits. Technical limitations, notably the ability to provide ventilation, constrained their size. In addition there was often the Rise Dyke to be negotiated, one of several intrusions of hard volcanic rock, which would have been immensely difficult to get through with the tools of the time. Watson would occasionally draw up leasehold documents and a standard clause excused the lessee from attempting to penetrate a dyke more than 12 feet in thickness. His journals also refer to ‘troubles’. Essentially these were washouts; points where a prehistoric river or stream had cut through the strata. Water was often a problem too and there are frequent references to the use of ‘fire engines’, primitive pumps which were invented by Thomas Savery (1650-1715).
It was not all work for Watson. In one entry he records attending the local church and mentions the sermon which was on the subject of self-denial. We can be forgiven for wondering how much opportunity for denial Watson and any colliers in the congregation might have had in 18th century Northumberland. At other times he would squeeze in dinner at a fellow mine viewer’s home but even then would record some task completed on the way back. He seems to have been a man who lived with a constant sense of insecurity, assuaging this with the quantity of work he squeezed into each day.
Watson was employed by a partnership led by a Mr Fetherston who had an office in Newcastle. He was summoned to meetings on a regular basis, where he had the unenviable task of explaining underground conditions to a group of men only interested in squeezing profit from their enterprises. Peripheral costs such as sinking shafts to ensure a decent supply of air might be seen as an expensive nuisance. Plainly, they lacked Watson’s knowledge and he regularly battled to explain to the ‘Gentlemen’, as he called them, that mining could be a hit and miss affair. He earned just £40 a year for a wide range of responsibilities: drawing up leases, paying wages, and keeping an eye out for fraud. Underground, he was responsible for giving directions to the overseers and making intricate measurements. Since output and therefore sales would have been the chief concern of Watson’s ‘Gentlemen’, there is a sense that the measurements were designed to convey the extent of his control of operations underground. Additionally he might be involved in negotiations with a contractor over the rate for sinking a new pit (payment was by the fathom). Whilst mining was a dangerous job a new sinking could be even worse. Imagine being lowered in a tub down a 12 foot diameter shaft into thirty or forty fathoms of blackness, the walls shored up with timbers, to work by candlelight. Evidently they used a lot of candles and Watson always stipulated that the contractor must supply his own.
One of his harshest critics among the partners was the appropriately named William Unthank. Encroachments by neighbouring collieries sometimes occurred. On one occasion Watson had worked out a reasonable level of compensation, whereby the offending colliery would make good and carry out some drainage work. Enter Mr Unthank who at a meeting induced the partners to seek an assessment of how much coal had been mined and demand payment. After this Watson seems to have been at low ebb, made worse when he records hearing talk among the workmen that he was to be replaced. It may have been a joke but it caused him to write despairingly about how he could not ‘please his agents’ and had never been ‘rewarded appropriately’.
There were further problems with the partners in 1755. A new drive or tunnel was being created in one of the collieries. Watson had put forward his estimate for doing the work but encouraged by Unthank the partners decided to try Joseph Bell, another mine viewer, who claimed he could do the work more cheaply. Watson could hardly conceal his satisfaction when Bell failed to deliver. It seems he had been skimping on stone and timber. Unthank was forced to concede that Watson had been right all along. In August of that year Watson’s social standing received a boost. He was invited to accompany Robert Fenwick, High Sheriff of Northumberland, when he rode out of Newcastle to meet the justices. This may have been a significant honour for someone who probably didn’t rank as a gentleman but was playing an important role in the economic life of the county.
Watson was also involved in what we would call industrial espionage. On one occasion he reports meeting up with a Mr Iona who took him on a tour of fields around Killingworth. The sites of various boreholes were pointed out to him. This was potentially useful information since a lessee could avoid these locations when sinking a pit. He also went on a tour of fields near his own colliery with the wonderfully named Leonard Linkworm who showed him places where others had tried and failed to find coal. On another occasion Watson could hardly conceal his glee, though he did omit the name of the person, who had sold him the notebook of Richard Peck, a deceased mine viewer. If the contents were anything like his own notes Watson would have gained important information about the value, depth and location of various coal seams.
A mine viewer had to deal with a bewildering range of weights and measures. These were mostly volumetric and shaped by transportation requirements. Much of the coal mined in Northumberland was destined for the London market: the boll and fother were used for cartage to the staithes and sometimes they might be interchanged with a Winchester Measure such as a dry gallon. The Ten had to be used when drawing up a lease, since this was a measure of payment in kind to the landowner. Transport on the Tyne was measured by the keel and after loading the chaldron was used. Watson recorded the various costs incurred when moving coal to London. The Corporation of Newcastle charged a duty as did the Port of London. In the latter there were also charges towards ‘new churches’ and the ‘Lord Mayor’s Orphans fund’.
The real expansion of the Northumberland coalfield was yet to come and when it did the more primitive methods of working began to disappear. Watson’s journal hints at the changes to come when he mentions the appearance of Boulton and Watt steam engines. He also notes investors coming in from across the border in Leith and as far south as Staffordshire. Watson probably didn’t get a share in this bounty. He and others like him did the hard work before almost vanishing from history.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service