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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

A new era in coal mining history

Part of an online exhibition to mark the Hetton Coal Company's pioneering advances in mining and railway technology in 1820.

Perspective view of Hetton Colliery works and railway, c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37) - © Durham County Record Office

Early trials

Hetton le Hole is on the lower slopes of the magnesian limestone escarpment that runs through County Durham. The Vane Tempest collieries that Arthur Mowbray had managed from 1799 to 1819 were below this escarpment but what he was now planning was to sink a shaft on higher ground to the east, through the limestone, something that had not been achieved before. Mineralogists at the time were generally of the opinion that coal did not exist in this area or, if it did, it would have deteriorated in quality. 

Test borings for coal had been undertaken since 1772 and, in 1796, the owner of the Hetton estate, John Lyon, employed Messrs Rawling to test for coal, which they found at about 160 metres (500 feet). Five years later John Buddle, at the time advising Mowbray the new manager of the Vane Tempest Collieries, purchased the results of the Rawlings' survey. In 1811, John Lyon commissioned a colliery shaft at Hetton, but ran out of funds.

When he was sacked from the Vane Tempest Collieries in 1819, Mowbray saw the opportunity and negotiated with Lyon for the rights to mine coal.  The Hetton Coal Company and Hetton Lyons coal were born.

Detail of Hetton Colliery, from the Perspective View [by Thomas Robson], c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37) - © Durham County Record Office
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Detail of the colliery from 'Hetton Colliery in the County of Durham. Perspective view of the Works of the Colliery, the Horizontal, Inclined and Self-Acting Planes with the Loco Motive and other Engines used on the Rail Way and the Staiths and Self Discharging Depot on the Banks of the River Wear near Sunderland', by [Thomas Robson], c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37).

The technical achievement

The technical achievement was immense, using ground-breaking technology to successfully sink a pit shaft through permeable limestone for the first time. Work began on 19 December 1820 and sinking the shaft was exceedingly difficult.

Water was a problem - Mowbray stated in publicity for the opening of the colliery that for the first three months 5,000 gallons per minute of water were pumped from a depth of 60 yards. It took until 3 September 1822 to reach the main coal seam at a depth of 148 yards - where they found the coal to be 'superior both in its quality and the thickness of its seam'.

Detail of strata, from the Perspective View [by Thomas Robson], c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37) - © Durham County Record Office
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Detail of strata from 'Hetton Colliery in the County of Durham. Perspective view of the Works of the Colliery, the Horizontal, Inclined and Self-Acting Planes with the Loco Motive and other Engines used on the Rail Way and the Staiths and Self Discharging Depot on the Banks of the River Wear near Sunderland', by [Thomas Robson], c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37).

Next - Running the new colliery

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