The Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery, sometimes referred to as Pilley Colliery as it was established in the village, was a large and long-lived concern. Sinking of the first shafts commenced in 1853, and winding of coal from the pits as a separate unit ended in 1966. Taking its name from the title of its largest mineral owner and landlord, the Earl of Wharncliffe, and from the primary coal seam intended to work, the Silkstone coal, the Wharncliffe Silkstone company was founded on the line of the South Yorkshire Railway, then only recently established to improve access from the Barnsley coalfield to the regional industrial market, but also to connect the wider South Yorkshire coalfield with the burgeoning London domestic coal market.
The firm began as a private partnership in 1854 as Baxter, Walker, Jeffcock and Company, trading as the Wharncliffe Silkstone Coal Company, which consisted of:
- Robert Baxter (1802-1889), of Doncaster (Solicitor to the Great Northern Railway Co.)
- his brother Edmund Baxter (1804-1891), of Doncaster, solicitor in partnership with his brother
- George Walker (1801-74), of Osgathorpe cottage, Sheffield (Director of the Great Northern Railway Company)
- his son Horace Walker (1830-1885)
- John Jeffcock (1803-1878), of Cowley Manor, Chapeltown,
- his son Parkin Jeffcock (1829-1866) Mining engineer (withdrew from partnership in 1865; killed in the Oaks Colliery Disaster in 1866)
The colliery was officially opened on 9th September 1854 when the Parkgate coal seam, some 5 feet 4 inches in thickness, was the first to be reached at 60 yards below the surface. A winding engine of 40 Horse Power was erected to work the Parkgate seam, along with workshops and workers cottages. An additional shaft was underway at that time heading a further 100 yards below the Parkgate. The celebrations were fulsome and optimistic:
“Success to the Wharncliffe Silkstone Coal Company […]
If ever there was a necessity for the formation of a new company and the opening of new sources of supply, that time was now arrived. Coals were increasingly required by the railway system, by the manufacturers, and by the farmers themselves. Last winter, such was the deficiency in Sheffield, that the manufactory with which he was connected was actually brought to a stand for want of coal. […]
They had found the coal where they expected to find it, and already some 150 men were employed. But in the course of a few years they might hope the number would be increased to 300 or 500.”
W. F. Dixon quoted in Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 16th September 1854, p.11
The Silkstone seam was officially opened on 29th December 1856, at some 156 yards from the surface, the shaft passed via the Thorncliffe thin seam at 90 yards. An 80 Horse Power steam engine from Messrs Davies of Tipton, near Birmingham had been built and erected there in 1855, and had a long life – the engine still being at work in 1954 when photographed by George Watkins (ref. Steam Engine Record 626).
With the deeper shaft and Silkstone coal now at hand for the London market, one of the proprietors, George Walker, raised a rousing toast:
“He hoped they might be the means of warming many firesides, and making an Italian climate out of an English winter.”
Sheffield Independent, 5th January 1856
A family affair
Alongside the Baxters, who were largely non-executive partners, though had a keen eye on railway and commercial questions, and the Jeffcock family who had a number of colliery undertakings in and around Sheffield, the Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery became particularly synonymous with the Walker family. Three generations would be directly involved in the colliery: George Walker (1801-1874), one of the originators; his son Horace Walker (1830-1885), and his grandsons, Horace’s sons George Blake Walker (1845-1921) and Henry Stirling Walker (1862-1946)
George Walker (1801-1874) was originally a sugar refiner from Sheffield who became a Director of the Great Northern Railway Company in 1852, and was associated with the Sheffield and Rotherham bank for many years. With the advent of the South Yorkshire Railway and the London coal trade via the GNR, his involvement in Wharncliffe Silkstone was a logical extension.
Horace Walker (1830-1885) became Managing Partner under his father, and was instrumental in guiding the company through difficult financial periods in the 1860s and 70s. In May 1879 he together with several family members and friends established a limited liability company Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Company Ltd, purchasing the business from the previous private partners for £25,000. Together with the Newton and Chambers families, the Walkers concern was responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of miners.
George Blake Walker (1854-1921) was Underground manager, Managing Director and Chairman at Wharncliffe Silkstone in a career of over 40 years at the pit. Like his father and grandfather before him, he saw the colliery through some very difficult times, and was always committed to developing the property, applying labour-saving, safety and innovative technologies to ensure and sustain the viability of the pit. Alongside Wharncliffe Silkstone, GBW was involved in a number of other collieries, in the UK, Australia and Canada, working as a professional consulting mining engineer, he was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and of the Institution of Mining Engineers. Locally he was a very active member of the Midland Institute of Mining Engineers, being President 1896-8 and Secretary for many years. Nationally he was made President of the Institution of Mining Engineers 1918-19.
Henry Stirling Walker (1862-1946) an interesting mix of the military, business and philanthropic. Gazetted to the 3rd Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment in 1880, made Captain in 1883, he joined the 3rd Battalion of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment in 1896, becoming Major in 1905, before retiring in 1910 with honorary Lieutenant-Colonel rank. He served during the Boer War 1899-1902 as a staff officer at De Aar, Cape Colony. Prior to the Great War he was perhaps better known for his involvement in local rifle shooting clubs and competitions. In 1914 he returned from retirement to serve as temporary Major in the 9th (Service) Battalion, York And Lancaster Regiment and later with the 8th (Service) Battalion as a Lieutenant-Colonel. After the war he was prominent in the Sheffield district for the Church Boys Brigade and National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children . Throughout his life he held positions at the Wharncliffe Silkstone and Lidgett Collieries and continued to be a Director at Wharncliffe after his brother George’s death, retiring from the board shortly before his own death in 1946.
Managers and Men
John Booth Platts (1851-1872) was one of the first managers at the colliery having previously been engaged in the sinking of the shafts from Easter 1854. He experienced his share of tragedy with the death of his son Tom at the No.2 pit on Saturday 12th September 1863; at the same time he was central to a number of labour disputes with the men which brought the pit a certain notoriety. Following a strike in 1858, and the formation of the South Yorkshire Miners Association, the first lodge of the SYMA was established at Wharncliffe Silkstone – Lodge No.1. A former miner John Normansell was established as a weighman for the men at No.1 pit. Normansell would go on to become secretary to the SYMA, later the Yorkshire Miners Association (see further information on labour relations).
In perhaps the most prominent run-in between labour and employers, Mr Platts found himself brought before Barnsley magistrates by the workmen’s representatives regarding Normansell’s treatment in what was probably the first legal action under the 1860 Regulation and Inspection of Mines Act (23 and 24 Vict., c.151). As Platts himself related to a select committee several years later:
“The decision was given against me. We objected to his being a weighman at No.2, because the Act specifies that the weighman must be one employed in the mine; and I received instructions from the company to object to his being placed there as a weighman so long as they already had one.
…previous to the time we paid by measure, and that was in 1858; I took out 42 weeks from 13th July 1858, to 4th May 1859, and I found that the total quantity drawn during that time was 70,418 tons; we took the corves at 5 1/2 cwt. each, that is when paid by measure. If I take the first six weeks after we began to pay by weight, I find that in those corves, instead of 5 1/2 cwt, the men were induced to send out 5 3/4; they sent out a quarter of hundredweight more by weight than they did by measure…
…when a man is sending out by measure, it is his interest to load his corf as light as he possibly can; when he is sending out by weight it is just the contrary; he then loads his corf as much as he possibly can, because it is his interest to do so.
Evidence of John Platts, 2 July 1866 (Q12584-12610), Report from the Select Committee on mines ; together with the proceedings of the committee. Minutes of evidence, and appendix, House of Commons 431, 23 July 1866, p.433
John Platts was also a great innovator, being one of the first to apply compressed air to haulage from 1866, and 1868 for pumping. Together with the Walkers, innovation would be an important part in the survival and endurance of the concern.
John Turner Peel (1821-1896)
John Peel worked at Wharncliffe Silkstone for many years, later succeeding John Platts as manager, Peel who lived at Park House Wortley was the certificated manager until 1886 when he retired from that role. He also served as President of the Wharncliffe branch of the West Riding of Yorkshire Miners Permanent Relief Fund. In a letter to a local newspaper he gave a useful indication of the responsibilities of the manager:
“The public appear to expect that it is the business of the manager to see personally after every detail in the working of his colliery. If he were six men in one he might possibly accomplish it; as it is, he cannot do anything of the kind. The Act of Parliament provides that the entire management of a mine above and below ground, shall be entrusted to one person. The mine may comprise any number of separate pits, extensive workshops, and machinery, and the general management of a huge concern.
The manager practically works through two chief subordinates- his engineer, who manages the surface works, and his one or more underviewers, who manage below. The underviewer usually has about as much of the pit to manage as he can get through in a week although he visits the more important points more frequently. He in his turn probably has under him four or five overmen, each of which has the responsible charge of so much of the pit as he can visit every day. He superintends the actual working of the coal, and carries out the instructions of the underviewer. An overman’s district usually comprises from 100 to 200 men, over whom he has complete control. The overmen are responsible to the underviewer, the underviewer to the manager.
In addition to the overman, each of these has his assistant, or back-overman, who takes charge of the pit during the afternoon, and, independent of all these, an responsible to the underviewer, is the master wasteman, who has charge of the ventilation.
When I add that for a colliery employing 1000 men there are, besides those named, perhaps fifteen fire-triers, who do nothing but make examinations, and attend to brattice, &c., I think I may fairly claim that if accidents do occur it is not because a parsimonious spirit prevents the employment of an adequate staff, but that colliery owners, as a rule, are desirous of doing whatever may be necessary to ensure the safety and comfort of the workmen employed.”
Letter to the Editor ‘Accidents in Coal Mines’, from John Peel, 8th October 1878, in Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 10th October 1878, p.5
Industry and Innovation
Wharncliffe Silkstone became renowned in the late 19th and early 20th century as an innovative pit. This was not science for science’s sake; rather both labour and trade difficulties, matched with geological faulting meant that mining several seams in challenging conditions and with labour disputes required the managers to ensure an efficient plant and invest in the future profitability of the pit.
Not all of the experiments proved successful long-term. George Blake Walker was an early advocate of electricity as a power source in mines, and working with Albion T. Snell and the Immisch company in 1888, he helped develop an electric locomotive for underground haulage, used at Wharncliffe Silkstone. The first was a battery vehicle, “The Precursor” which was slow and only had a 3 month trial on a surface incline near No.2 pit. However the second locomotive which ran from 1890 used a trolley wire and gripped a fixed rope to haul corves underground on a road 500 yards long, graded on average at 1 in 9. It pulled loads of 5 tons at 3 miles per hour replacing 6 horses.
At a critical moment in the pit’s history, 1897, when the company was in significant arrears with its principal landlords and not able to meet its own costs, the board agreed to a Bye-product recovery coke oven scheme on the Simon-Carvès principle. The Simon-Carvès company provided the ovens and capital outlay for a long term profit share. After several delays the first charge of the coke ovens took place on 25th January 1899, the company accepting the plant as from 8th May 1899. This proved to be a very profitable scheme as the coke was highly prized in ironworks, while the by-products, including tar, benzol and ammonia, as well as the heat and gases which could be used elsewhere.
Visit the pit
- What better way to discover the Colliery than with a tour from the manager, Mr Blake Walker?
Every one knows the external appearance of a colliery. The framing which supports the large pulleys over the drawing shaft, the sheds and engine-houses, the sidings with their train of waggons, and in the background the workshops and other buildings are familiar objects enough. These things are seen at a glance, but the thing around which they are all grouped, the shaft itself, is naturally not visible till we are beside it and look down into its murky depths. Shafts or pits are the highways from the mine to the surface. They are made just large enough to allow of the small trucks of coal, inclosed in iron cages, being drawn up them, the usual size being from twelve to fifteen feet diameter. […]
Taking our place in the cage, we are dropped smoothly but rapidly into the gloom of the shaft, the darkness soon becoming complete. The sensation experienced by strangers descending a pit is very much akin to being carried up in a balloon, and if the movement is very rapid a feeling of sickness and giddiness is often produced. Arrived at the pit-bottom it is some time before the eye accustoms itself to the comparative gloom, and, although the spacious arches are fairly well lighted, the men employed about the bottom seem weird, dusky-looking beings, moving hither and thither in the dark caverns which open out on either hand.
We now proceed to conduct our travellers into the recesses of the mine, and since the details we propose to give differ widely in almost every colliery, we will take a trip into a district in the silkstone seam at Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery from whence so many London fires draw their supplies, and which may, therefore, have a special interest to some of our readers who may at this moment be toasting their toes by the cheerful blaze.
In a wide and lofty arch, such as one sees on the underground railway, we find ourselves between two lines of rails: narrow gauge lines they are, but not narrower than some of the railways running up into the slate quarries of the Welsh mountains. On one of these stands a long train of small waggons loaded with coal just come out of the workings, and each carrying about seven hundredweights. They are called in Yorkshire technically “corves” which is derived from the Teutonic korb, a basket, these waggons having succeeded to the name and uses of certain wicker baskets which were in use before rails were introduced. […]
On the other line (of which we have already spoken) is a train of empty corves, some seventy or so in number, and into one or two of these, which have been cleaned and provided with rough seats in the shape of blocks of wood, we will, with your permission, step, and take our places for the first stage of our journey. Our conductor gives a signal and immediately a rattling of ropes and wheels is apparent, and with a jerk, such as would not be approved of on a regular railway, we find ourselves in motion. As we leave the shaft arches we feel that we are leaving behind us a comparatively light and cheerful place, and as we plunge into the black darkness, which is broken only by our own dim safety-lamps, we cannot but feel (though we may not express it) some such sentiment as Dante saw writ over the portal of his Inferno:
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
But now we are moving quickly, and from gloomy gallery to dark cavern we travel on till after some five or six minutes we see lights in the distance and we feel the train passing over the points of a siding and then coming to rest. Here are men and horses engaged in working the traffic and dividing the trains, for we are at a junction where diverging lines leading into different districts of the pit. Presently our portion of the train is in motion again, and taking in tow by the ropes of another engine, we are carried onwards for a further distance. One more stoppage at another junction and we are once more borne onwards to the farthest station where the coal is brought out of the faces where it is wrought. Here we encounter a group of weird-looking youths, very lightly clad, waiting for the arrival of our train. Each detaches and carries off one of the corves, which he pushes into the working place where it will be filled and brought back to the station, and from thence returned to the shaft.
The coal-hewer, or collier, is the important personage for whose convenience the whole organisation of the pit exists. He is the ultimate end of all things. Without him the others’ occupations are all gone. His work demands experience, skill, and strength. […]
In order to work the call to advantage it is laid out in faces, each collier having a separate portion allotted to him. His business is to detach the coal so as to produce it as large in size as possible, small coal being of very little value. To do this he must undermine it, and when this is done to a depth of three or four feet for some yards in length the coal above begins to detach itself from the roof, and break off from the solid coal along a line at the back of the groove which has been undercut. It now requires to be propped up till the collier is ready to let it down. If the coal is too strong to fall unaided powder is used, and now in places where the use of powder is considered dangerous caustic compressed lime takes its place. Coal-cutting machines have been in use at Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery for many years, but they have not as yet been largely used in collieries generally.
Returning to the upper air, daylight at first strikes almost as strange as the darkness had done on our descent. The pit top is a busy scene. The unloading of the cages, the screening, cleaning, and sorting of the coal, the shunting of the waggons, the engines and machinery working all around present a most confusing sight to the unaccustomed eye. The various secondary operations of a large colliery are in themselves considerable. There is the shop for the enginewrights, the blacksmith’s shop with its steam hammer, the joiner’s shop, the sawmill, the waggon shop, the storehouse filled with every conceivable article of ironmongery and drysaltery – ropes, chains, indiarubber, and so on; a mill and granary for corn and fodder, and last, but not least, a large room where the safety lamps are cleaned, trimmed, and lighted.
We have now given some account of a colliery as it is to be found in Yorkshire, and although we have by no means exhausted all that is interesting about it, we must have exhausted the patience of our readers who will think we have lingered long enough in so black and uncouth a region, so we will now bring our essay to a conclusion, and seeing them safely bestowed in the London express wish them a pleasant journey and good-bye.
Extracts from: Walker, George Blake, ‘A peep into coal country’, English Illustrated Magazine. Volume 6, May 1889, pp.566-574
Disaster – Explosion
At Whitsuntide 1914, when a small contingent of men were at work in the pit when a gas explosion took place, triggered by the sparking from a Clarke Steavenson electric coal-cutter being used in the Whinmoor thin seam. The accident was investigated and led to heavy criticism of the colliery management over the handling of the ventilation which had become defective when an engineering change was made. The build up of gas when the ventilation was defective allowed a spark at the cutter to cause a larger explosion which resulted in the deaths of 11 people and injuries to a further 4. This explosion marred the generally good safety record of the pit, and restricted the use of electricity in the Whinmoor seam for some time.
Snell, Albion T., ‘Notes on electrical work in mines’, South Wales Institute of Engineers. Transactions, vol.XVII, 33rd-34th sessions, 1890 &1891, pp.196-204
Barnsley Archives A-3732-B -Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Report books 1897-1905,
Sheffield Archives COAL/WHS – Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Company Ltd (Records of South Yorkshire Colliery Companies – predecessors of the National Coal Board)