In the Court of King Coal

John Buddle, credit artuk.org

In the Court of King Coal

Bill Hartley considers a brace of pioneers

Posterity hasn’t left John Buddle (1773-1843) a household name like his contemporary George Stephenson yet when he died it was said that his funeral procession stretched for a mile. He was held in such high regard because of the work he did on improving safety in coal mines, something of considerable significance in the early Industrial Revolution. On first testing the Davy lamp which he helped to promote Buddle described it as ‘subduing the monster’,  the deadly methane gas known to miners as firedamp. Buddle was a Mine Viewer; in his day there was no such profession as mining engineer, indeed he learned the trade from his father.

During the year 1813, Buddle was a busy man with his services being called upon from Northumberland to Lancashire. His correspondence reveals what a primitive business it was and how Buddle’s technical knowledge could often be stretched to its limits. Throughout his reports, Buddle adds riders such as, ‘providing the engine used is of sufficient power’ or ‘a gentleman must be sought with the ability to successfully manage the undertaking’. He could only do so much and in those early years of the Industrial Revolution, working at the forefront of technology, there was much that could go wrong.

Clearly he wanted those who employed him to be aware of this. There is another expression he uses in his correspondence. Buddle refers to investors as ‘adventurers’, a term which nicely describes the high risks: get it wrong and the money would be literally and figuratively sunk costs. When surveying the Hart Estate in County Durham, Buddle walked along a nearby beach studying the exposed rock strata before concluding that the Magnesian limestone he found created a barrier and if coal existed then it lay far below. He was right about that: it took some years for technology to advance to a point where these strata could be breached.

Down in Yorkshire someone else entered the coal trade and unusually it was a woman. Anne Lister (1791-1840) has been rescued from obscurity by the BBC television series Gentleman Jack.  The writer has only shown a slight interest in Anne’s adventures in the coal trade, although in fairness the task of developing mines probably wouldn’t make enticing television except perhaps for Open University students.

Anne Lister owned the Shibden Hall estate in Halifax. It wasn’t a sizeable property being only about 400 acres. Fortunately the estates’ archives found their way into Halifax Public Library so it is possible to discover what was going on, at least in the coal mining department. Apparently her diaries are rather more attractive to a writer of Sunday evening TV drama.

Leaving aside her extra-curricular interests, Anne needed to make the estate pay. This wasn’t good agricultural land so apart from property rents and sheep grazing the chances of a decent income were low. Minor gentry would be a good description of the Lister family. The coal measures lying beneath the property were not the rich seams of Northumberland, the sort that John Buddle worked on. In Halifax, a modest two foot thickness being the average. However they did lie at fairly shallow depths unlike in the North East where the favoured measure was the nautical fathom, illustrating how deep they had to go. Even if the cost of sinking a pit was fairly modest the risks were still considerable. This was a primitive coalfield and well into the nineteenth century it was possible to find coal being raised from an unlined shaft using horse power. Not many people were prepared to make a serious investment.

What Anne Lister did was remarkable. She might have taken the easy route and simply leased the mineral rights to a local coal master as they were called, then hoped for the best. Instead she chose to work the coal herself. Direct involvement by the local gentry wasn’t commonplace. Instead, they preferred to let an agent handle such matters. Of course, to meet the needs of a contemporary television programme we need to see Anne taking on and beating the men at their own game. This is an oversimplification. Winning an argument with some patriarchal male might make for good television but in reality this was the least of her challenges. Adopting primitive pre industrial techniques would get some coal but it was inefficient and the surface damage could be considerable. Not far away a property belonging to the Radcliffe baronets of Rudding Hall was left looking like a moonscape after the agent permitted this approach.

Anne Lister chose to invest in two collieries which were over time to adopt modern techniques, notably steam powered winding to boost production. Investing in machinery brought its own risks. Boiler explosions were frequent and proper systems of inspection were years in the future. Some operators thought explosions were caused a by a mysterious boiler gas rather than working at too high a pressure without a proper safety valve. It didn’t take much to bring a colliery grinding to a halt.

In the North East what the people who employed John Buddle wanted to know was how much coal they could get out of the acreage they owned or hoped to lease. He produced reports of great precision showing prospective investors just what was available before adding a dose of reality. The rewards were great if that coal could be raised and loaded onto a London bound ship but start-up costs could be very high. Buddle would even quantify the cost of annual consumption of hay for horses that spent their lives underground, working the cranks or pumps where steam power couldn’t reach.

Anne Lister didn’t have access to John Buddle’s expertise. Indeed in the Halifax of her day there was very little to be had. She chose to reinvest profits back into the business which enabled her to gradually upgrade the operations to a level above the primitive techniques common to the district. In doing this she was preparing for a competitive threat which was beginning to loom on the horizon.

Halifax was a centre for wool textiles. The mill owners tended to be conservative when it came to new technology. They preferred to rely on harnessing their energy from local rivers. Across the Pennines the more forward thinking owners of cotton mills were much more enthusiastic about steam power. One of the reasons for the wool trade’s reluctance to change was the lack of coal in sufficient quantity. The arrival of the railway was to change that bringing supplies of cheap coal and presenting a threat to local producers. By her willingness to invest in modern techniques, Anne Lister made it possible for the Shibden Hall collieries to win a large contract with a local gas company. As a consequence hers were the only sizeable collieries in the district able to survive railway competition and they continued to operate up to the 1880s, long after her death

John Buddle’s correspondence illustrates the hazards of entering the coal trade and the primitive technology of the early Industrial Revolution. The Shibden Hall archive contains records of a remarkable woman who succeeded in a challenging business. She may have had an adventurous private life which the BBC finds a good subject for television drama but this shouldn’t overshadow her real achievement. 

The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers

Bill Hartley is editing the John Buddle Papers for the Mining Institute in Newcastle

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