Old King Cole

There are lots of places in the world that have a close association with rocks, many are even named after them. Nantwich and other -wich’s in Cheshire are named after salt and brine springs; Rhyolite in Nevada, after a volcanic rock; there’s Coalville in Leicestershire and Leadhills in Scotland and so many more. But I’m going to argue (without a hint of bias of course) that there is one place in the whole world that has a closer association with a rock and is more famous for it than anywhere else.

Guessed it? It is our own Toon and the rock is of course...coal. Don’t believe me? Which other place has a universally understood metaphor, which enshrines the association in the English language: ‘Taking coals to Newcastle’!

Coal has been mined in the north east of England since Roman times and exploitation grew under the Bishops of Durham in the 13th and 14th centuries. But Newcastle’s profitable relationship with coal really took off in 1530 when a Royal Act granted the burgesses of Newcastle a monopoly on all shipments of coal to the quayside. Mining coal in and around Newcastle was the dominant industry throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I believe it was only in 1985 that the last colliery within the city boundary (Brenkley) closed. At its peak, in the North East, the coal industry employed over 250,000 people and produced over 56 million tons of coal.

As a young geologist, I would occasionally have to go down those mines; it left a mark on me. You’d have to walk bowed to the face under creaking pit props, or man-ride on conveyor belts and remember to duck and get off at the right time. Then crawl on hands and knees for what seemed like an age, behind a noisy, dusty, shearing machine ripping coal off the face, while hydraulic jacks kept the roof up and then moved forward and let it collapse behind you. I always came back up the shaft thinking there is no way I could do what miners did, day after day. But I also remember the humour and closeness of the men who did and how they did not take fresh air and nature for granted when they returned to the surface. How northern lives, communities and the landscape have changed. 

I was reminded of the city’s mining heritage last year. I did a piece of consultancy for Newcastle Council planning department on potential LGS. You’ll remember that acronym from a prior blog: Local Geological Sites - places with especially interesting rocks. I’ll risk boring you with more on this in a future blog, but after a lot of research into old mine plans and geological maps and exploring denes and river banks, we ended up proposing several sites to them. Shales with marine fossils at St Anthony’s, old sandstone quarries in Jesmond Dene, faulted strata in Sugley Dene. 

It was perhaps to be expected, but still disappointing, that the only real accessible evidence of Newcastle’s coal mining heritage, in terms of rocks or landscape, were sketchy remains of coal workings in Walbottle-Throckley Dene and pockmarked ground near Cow Hill on the Town Moor, caused by the collapse of old shallow coal workings. Oh to have been able to find, and get designated, a decent section of a thick coal and the old workings that mined it! But for understandable reasons such features are no longer visible in the city.

In a couple of generations, I wonder, will there be any memory of the debt that this city and region and the country owes to coal miners and to the rock they mined? Yes, we will rightly associate this fossil fuel with its disastrous impact on our climate. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if, the next time the city planners approved a development that encountered old coal workings in the foundations, they made provision for a little part of the mines and the coal to be preserved and accessible so future generations will remember what really made Newcastle prosperous and famous. It would be a small token when set against coal’s contribution and the sacrifices so many people made.