Remains of Portland No.1 Colliery (Isaiah’s Pit) uncovered in 2006.  Photo Credit: MuBuMiner

Portland Collieries Bicentenary

Development of the Portland Collieries in the Nottinghamshire coalfield

Two hundred years ago, in the Spring of 1820, development commenced on Portland No. 1 Colliery, in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield. Situated in the upper reaches of the Erewash Valley on the Derbyshire / Nottinghamshire border, the whole region would become a hive of coalmining activity later in the nineteenth century with collieries being developed nearby at Langton (1844), Kirkby (Summit) 1890, Bentinck (1895) and Brookhill (1908).

Twin shafts, one for pumping purposes, were sunk by the Butterley Company (1790-2010) to the Top Hard seam at a depth of 180 yards, on land belonging to the Fourth Duke of Portland, in the parish of Kirkby-in-Ashfield, near Selston, Nottinghamshire. Portland No.1 was the first of several collieries which were developed in the Portland Coalfield, eventually seven collieries made up the unique multi-shaft mining complex. It started production in 1821 and supplied coal to the new Mansfield Gas Works which opened in the same year.

Map showing locations of Portland Collieries Nos. 1 – 7

The colliery was situated adjacent to the newly opened Mansfield and Pinxton Railway (1819), an early horse-drawn railway, which linked the town of Mansfield with the national canal network at Pinxton Wharf, a distance of eight miles. Pinxton was situated on a branch of the Cromford Canal which opened throughout in between  Langley Mill and Cromford in 1796.

In ‘Annesley Through the Ages’ (1995), Denis Pearson describes the Portland Collieries complex as being ‘the forerunner in our district of the deep mines of the concealed coalfield that we know so well today’. By the mid 1820’s the Portland Collieries were producing around 50,000 tons of coal per annum and this grew to 120,000 tons per annum when it was fully operational in the 1860’s. During the 1850’s the Portland Collieries complex were producing good profits for the Butterley Company of some £10,000 per annum (Ref: Portland Path Book, 2011). Philip Riden in ‘The Butterley Company 1790-1830’ , suggests that No.1 was by far the largest colliery concern of the Butterley Company and within fifteen years of the first lease, new pits were sunk to the south of the Mansfield and Pinxton Railway, served by a short private branch. These would be No.2, No.4 and No 5 pits at Portland respectively.

The site of Portland No.5 was the location of a archaeological dig in 1979 prior to opencast coalmining operations commencing. Stone Blocks from the short private colliery branch were rescued and went on display at the Nottingham Industrial Museum at Wollaton Hall.

Portland No. 1 Colliery: Photo Credit: Kirkby Heritage Centre

Portland Collieries and the Butty System

Portland No.1 and 2 collieries were known locally after the Butties (Sub Contractors) who ran them. Hence No.1 was known as ‘Isaiah’s Pit’ after Isaiah Rigley with No.2 being known as ‘Jerry Pit’ after Jeremiah Lowe. The Butty system operated on a sub-contract basis where the Butty contracted with the Company to get the coal out at a set price, employing ‘colliers’ and ‘hewers’ to ‘win the coal’ on piece rates (contract). Isaiah Rigley and Jeremiah Lowe were ‘Big Butties’ who operated like a Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) would operate nowadays. The Big Butty oversaw the whole coal getting operation, Portland No.1 colliery employed around eighty men and boys.

Portland No. 2 Colliery (Jerry Pit): Photo Credit: Kirkby Heritage Centre

As the coal industry rapidly grew during the nineteenth-century, collieries became larger in terms of size, production and manpower, and the industry was now governed by several Acts of Parliament which changed the way it operated. One result of this was the ‘Big Butty’ system evolved into the ‘Little Butty’ system in which the Butty was now in charge of sections of a ‘longwall coalface’ known as ‘stalls’. Each stall was then split into sections called ‘stints’, a stint being allocated to a collier to get coal out on piece rates (contract). The term stint entered the workplace vocabulary and in later years would refer to when any shift in the pit had been completed; one was deemed to ‘have done their stint’! The autobiography of Lord ‘Alf ‘Roben’s, National Coal Board (NCB) Chairman 1961-1971, is called ‘Ten Year Stint’. The most well-known ‘Little Butty’ in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield was Arthur Lawrence, a Butty at Brinsley Colliery near Eastwood, and father of the controversial Eastwood author, DH Lawrence. He was portrayed as the character, Walter Morel, in the 1913 novel, ‘Sons and Lovers’.

Butty Paying Out: Photo Credit – Rev Cobb collection

1841 Reports into the employment of Children and Women in Coalmines, Kirkby Portland Coalfield

In 1841 some of the workforce at Portland Collieries featured in the evidence to the Royal Commission Report on the employment of children and women in coal mines. Sub Commissioner John Michael Fellows headed the report for the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Coalfield. The evidence led to the 1842 Coal Mines Act which banned the employment underground of women and children under ten.

Under the title of Kirkby Portland Coalfield, the report stated that there were twenty-nine boys employed below the age of 13 with a further twenty-seven employed between the ages of 13 and 18. They worked fourteen-hour shifts (6am – 8pm) with two breaks for snap (food). The report included details of working methods and many of the lads were used for the ‘Dog Belt’, a method of haulage work in which a belt was put around a lad’s waist and then attached at the other end to a sledge or container of coal. The report also contained evidence of accidents, many of which resulted in fractures with the lads being off work for several months.

Extract from the 1841 Royal Commission Report into children working in Coalmines – Portland Coalfield.

Portland Row

To house its Portland Colliery workforce, in 1823 the Butterley Company built Portland Row near to Selston. The Row consisted of forty-seven connected terraced houses with no ‘gennels’ * in between. The Row included a Beer House at No.1, a Methodist Chapel at the rear of No. 25 and at one time a ‘Tommy Shop’. The latter was a Company Shop where the workforce had to get their provisions. It operated on the Truck System where the workers were paid in tokens which could only be used in the Tommy Shop. Tales of abuse of the system proliferated with over-priced goods and adulterated food being main factors. The Truck system was eventually outlawed, a first Truck Act being passed in 1831.

Other pit hamlets developed at Kirkby Woodhouse near to Portland No.4 and 5 collieries, these were known locally as Todd’s Row and Bleak Hall.

* ‘gennel’ is the local term for a pedestrian gap between terrace housing.

 Portland Row, Selston – Built 1823 and demolished in 1965/66.

Portland Row lasted well beyond the collieries they were built to serve, being demolished in 1965/66. As with the aftermath of pit closures later on in the 1980’s, there was talk about the destruction of close-knit communities when the Row was condemned in 1963. Memories of life in Portland Row were recorded as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) ‘Selstonia Living Heritage Project’ (2008-2011).

Demolition of Portland Row – Notts Free Press, 17th Sept 1965

Portland Collieries – The End

In 1880 No.1 and 2 pits merged underground, with coal from No.1 being turned up No.2 shaft. No. 3 pit was closed in 1880 followed by No 6 and 7 pits which were abandoned in the 1890’s. No. 1 Pit (Isaiah’s) closed in 1907 but was kept on for pumping purposes.

A major dispute occurred in the 1890’s between the Butterley Company and the New Hucknall Company over the issue of the sinking of nearby Bentinck Colliery by the latter. The disagreement was over the exploitation of deeper coal seams, the Butterley Company having to leave a ‘coal pillar’ for the sinking of Bentinck Colliery which commenced in 1895. Bentinck was the only local colliery which didn’t sink to the Top Hard seam, by the 1890’s the best reserves in this seam locally had been mined by then. The dispute resulted in a legal battle in 1908 which the New Hucknall Company won, despite an appeal by the Butterley Company. The final workings at Portland were at No.2 colliery in 1915 and the Portland complex was officially abandoned in 1921. By this time, the Butterley Company had established and expanded its Kirkby (Summit) Colliery and later in the 1920’s it would develop another large colliery at Ollerton in what would become known as the Dukeries Coalfield.

Some of the Portland buildings remained until after World War Two and the NCB filled in No1 and 3 shafts in 1954.

Portland Collieries – Aftermath

In 1988 the Selston Branch of the Workers Education Association (WEA) produced a booklet entitled ‘Some Aspects of Selston’s Mining’, which featured aspects  of the history of  Portland Collieries.


WEA Booklet, ‘Some Aspects of Selston’s Mining’, 1988.

Deep mining in this part of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield finished at the end of January 2000, when the Annesley-Bentinck Complex (Midlands Mining) finished production. From 1991 Bentinck received coal from Annesley Colliery via the Black-Shale to Surface Drift, where it was washed, prepared and sent to Ratcliffe Power Station via railway from the pit-head.

Portland No.1 (Isaiah’s Pit) was uncovered in 2006 by excavations work on land owned by John Seider, a former chock fitter at Newstead Colliery. Subsequent ‘sink hole’ type incidents appeared in the vicinity over the next few years by means of an old ventilation shaft appearing near the site of No.3 shaft and a surface water sough was discovered near to site of No.1 colliery.

Portland No.1 shaft uncovered – 2006.  Photo Credit: MuBuMiner

In 2011 the Portland Path heritage project produced a book about the Butterley Company tramway which ran from the Portland Collieries and Selston’s Mexborough Colliery to Jacksdale Portland Wharf from 1823 to 1893. Murals of the tramway appear at various locations along the four-mile route.

Industrial heritage Mural at the side of the B600 in Selston showing the route of the Portland Tramway.

The last coalmining member of the Rigley family, Geoff Rigley, a former Onsetter at Bentinck Colliery (1959-1989), reaches his 80th birthday in 2020. He is a direct descendent of Isaiah Rigley, Big Butty at Portland No.1 Colliery.

Geoff Rigley 2019

Further Reading

Pearson, D,  Annesley Through the Ages, Annesley, 1995.

Portland Path Project, The Portland Path: An Early Nineteenth Century Nottinghamshire Railway and the Collieries it served, Jacksdale, 2012.

Riden, P, The Butterley Company 1790-1830, Chesterfield, 1973.

Vanags, J, The Mansfield and Pinxton Railway, Old Mansfield Society, 2001

Workers Education Association (Selston Branch), Some Aspects of Selston’s Mining, Selston, 1988.

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