« PreviousContinue »
to its vicinity to the mines of Wednesbury. Hutton, the historian of Birmingham, thus writes on the subject:* “We know the instruments of war used by the Britons were a sword, spear, shield, and scythe. If they were not the manufacturers, how came they by these instruments? We cannot allow that either they, or the chariots were imported, because that will give them a much greater consequence.
They must have been well acquainted with the tools used in husbandry, for they were masters of the field in a double sense. Bad, also, as their houses were, a chest of carpenter's tools would be necessary to complete them. We cannot doubt, from these evidences, and others which might be adduced, that the Britons understood the manufacture of iron.
“Perhaps history cannot produce an instance of an im. proving country, like England, where the coarse manufacture of iron has been carried on, that ever that laborious art went to decay, except the materials failed; and as we know of no place where such materials have failed, there is the utmost reason to believe our forefathers, the Britons, were supplied with those necessary implements by the black artists of the Birmingham forge. Ironstone and coal are the materials for this production, both of which are found in the neighbourhood in great plenty. The two following circumstances strongly evince this ancient British manufactory: -Upon the borders of the parish (Birmingham) stands Aston Furnace, appropriated for melting ironstone, and reducing it into pigs; this has the appearance of great antiquity. From the melted ore, in this subterranean region of infernal aspect, is produced a calx, or cinder, of which there is an enormous mountain. From an attentive
* We do not profess to agree with the whole of Mr. Hutton's theory,
survey the observer would suppose so prodigious a heap could not accumulate in one hundred generations ; however, it shows no perceptible addition in the age of man. There is also a common of vast extent, called Wednesbury Old Field, in which are the vestiges of many hundred coal pits, long in disuse, which the curious antiquarian would deem as long in sinking, as the mountain of cinders in rising. The minute sprig of Birmingham, no doubt, first took root in this black soil, which, in a succession of ages, has grown to its present opulence. At what time this prosperous plant was set, is very uncertain; perhaps as long before the days of Cæsar as it is since. Thus the mines of Wednesbury empty their riches into the lap of Birmingham, and thus she draws nurture from the bowels of the earth.”
The same author brings the road leading from Wednesbury to Birmingham as an additional evidence of the ancient working of the mines in the former place. He says, “When an ancient road led up an eminence it was worn by the long practice of ages into a deep holloway, some of which were twelve or fourteen yards below the surface of the banks, with which they were once even, and so narrow as to admit only one passenger. . . . . Some of these no doubt were formed by the spade, to soften the fatigue of climbing the hill, but many were owing to the pure efforts of time, the horse and the showers.” Several of these holloways still retain their name, thereby marking their origin, and amongst them we notice the Holloway Bank, near Wed. nesbury, over which it is conjectured the produce of the Wednesbury mines was carried on horses' backs to Aston Furnace and Birmingham.
The antiquity of the mining operations in this parish is confirmed by the fact of the mines coming to the surface in
many parts; and the name of “the Delves,” given to a portion of it, may be considered a further proof. Some years ago, a square shaft was discovered there. Tradition calls such pits as these “Dane's shafts,” and applies the appellation of “Dane's cinders" to certain large heaps of scoria, met with in many places in England, with so great an accumulation of soil as to grow trees of a large size. Dud Dudley, in his Metallum Martis, mentions that, as early as 1665, “there were millions of tons of those cinders, and oaks growing upon them very old and rotten.”
Dr. Wilkes, of Willenhall, produces an argument in favour of the early working of the mines, from the fact that the foundations of Wednesbury Church are laid with “pockstone.” In his time (1739) the fire in the pits had extended over many acres, which frequently burnt through to the surface, and by its great heat acted upon the strata above, according to their varied and peculiar natures. Some parts were reduced to cinders, others hardened to a very great degree. Clay thus hardened is here called “pock-stone,” of which the roads about Wednesbury were almost entirely composed. The circumstance of the foundations of the church being formed of this kind of materials, is an evident proof that the Wednesbury collieries have been worked for several ages. The first actual mention of coal-pits in Wednesbury, as far as we have been able to discover, is in a deed, in the Record Office, Tower of London, entitled Assignacio dotis Julianæ quæ fuit uxor Johannis de Heronville, &c., wherein a piece of land is described as “lying near Bradeswalle, against the cole-pits.” The date of this document is 1315.* The next account is taken from the Itinerary of
* This lady had also a share in a certain "iron mine,” but where situated is not
Leland, the antiquary, who was employed by Henry VIII. to make a survey of England about the year 1538. He says, “ There are secoles at Weddesbyrie, a village near Walsall.' Camden, who followed Leland, and wrote his Britannia about 1575, says, “ The south part of Staffordshire hath coles, digged out of the earth, and mines of iron ; but whether more to their commodity or hindrance, I leave to the inhabitants, who do or shall better understand it.” The ancient parish registers also adduce evidence that the mines were worked in the days of Elizabeth. The register of burials, during that year, supplies instances of some who were killed whilst at work in the pits, amongst which is the fol. lowing :-—"Anno 1577, Christopher Daly was buried; he was killed in the ryddinge, in the colepit.” In the register of baptisms are the names of many children whose fathers are described as colliers and forgemen. In The Proceedings in Chancery in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, is the record of a suit, as to whether the tenants of the manor of Wed. nesbury had a right to dig coals for their own use, they laying claim to the same. William Comberford, Esq., Lord of the Manor, was the plaintiff, and Elizabeth Nicholas and several others the defendants.
The best account of the working of the Wednesbury mines at the period when he wrote is to be found in Plot's History of Staffordshire. This curious book was published at Oxford in 1686, and the following account of the Wednesbury coal is here transcribed from it:
“ The smithy's and kitchen fires are much better supplied by the common coal of the country, especially that of Wednesbury, Dudley, and Sedgley, which some prefer to the Cannel itself; the texture and other qualities thereof being such, viz., that it is a flat, shining coal, having a pretty open
grain, lying seldom in a level with the plane of the horizon, but most times somewhat inclining to it (according to which it cleaves into blocks at the discretion of the workmen), that it burns away with a sweet, bright flame, and into white ashes, leaving no such cinder as that from Newcastle-upon-Tyne; of which sort there is so great plenty in all parts of the county (especially about the three above-mentioned places) that most commonly there are twelve or fourteen collieries in work, and twice as many out of work, within ten miles round ; some of which afford two thousand tons of coal yearly, others three, four, or five thousand. The upper beds, above the ironstone, lying sometimes ten, eleven, or twelve yards thick—nay, I was told by Mr. Pershouse, of Nether Gornall, that in his grounds at Ettingshall, in a place called Moorfields, the bed of coal is fourteen yards thick; insomuch that some acres of ground have been sold for £100 per acre. I was informed of one acre that sold for £150, and well indeed it might be so, for out of one single shaft there have been sometimes drawn £500 worth of coal. Nor indeed could the county well subsist without such vast supplies, the wood being most of it spent upon the iron works, for it is here (as well as in other countries that fetch their winter stores from hence) thought not only fit for the kitchen, but all other offices, even to the parlour and bedchamber; and not only in private families, but now, too, in most, if not all, the mechanic professions (except the iron works) that require the greatest expense of fuel, as the glass houses, salt works, brickmaking, and malting, all of which were heretofore performed with wood or charcoal, especially the last, which one would think should hardly admit of the unpleasant fumes of such firing; nor indeed does it, no more than of wood, for they have a way of charring it (if I may so speak) in all particulars as