Early Mining Methods - History of Coal Mining

Before coal mining, wood was the main source of fuel. Wood provided good levels of heat when in the form of charcoal, but to fuel the industrial revolution this wasn’t enough. Let us take you on a journey through early mining methods.

Coal was a key part of Britain’s industrial revolution and that’s when coal mining in the UK really took off, rapidly growing from small scale mining to a large scale industry. Richard Arkwright with the introduction of factories, and James Watt with the improvement of the steam engine only saw the demand for coal to increase further.

Early Mining

Coal mining started by mining coal that was exposed at the surface in open pit and drift mines close to the surface. With coal, this is relatively rare so coal available at the surface soon ran out and it became clear that mining deeper and following the coal seam underground was the next stage. Underground mining started using the following methods:

  • Bell Pit Mining

    Bell pit mining was one of the early methods of underground mining. The name comes from the shape that the mine forms. A long narrow shaft is dug down until it reaches the coal seam. Once it reaches the seam, the coal is then mined laterally along the seam either side of the shaft, creating the bell shape. The coal would then be wound up to the surface in a similar way to getting water out of a well.

    Once a bell pit mine became too dangerous to be mined further, due to the risk of roof collapse, water build up or the build up of gases, the mine would be abandoned. Another mine shaft would then be sunk further along the surface to mine more coal from further along the seam. This would continue, and many areas would have a cluster of bell pit mines.

  • Room and Pillar Mining

    As underground mines became bigger, the danger of roof cave-ins became more and more apparent. This led to the method of room and pillar mining. So instead of abandoning a bell pit mine when it got too big to hold itself, pillars of coal would be left un-mined to act as supports. That way the ‘rooms’ at the bottom of the shaft could be bigger, provided enough pillars were left standing to support the ceiling.

  • Longwall Mining

    Room and pillar mining was a great idea, and methods similar to this are still used in different mining practices today. The downside to this however was that valuable coal had to be left behind. Longwall mining was a method where workers would mine at the coal face and as the mining face moved further along the seam, timber supports would be put in place prevent cave-ins. The empty chamber would also be filled with spoil and waste product to help support the ceiling, leaving an access tunnel large enough for workers and coal to be brought up to the surface.

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