Headstocks have come to symbolise coal mining communities and coal production. Thirty-five years ago there were some twenty-five pits in operation across Nottinghamshire, each one (with the exception of the fully-enclosed tower winders) clearly identified by the sight of the headstock wheels turning. The development of the headstock was born out of the need to exploit deep coal seams and is very much a product of the industrial revolution.


Headstocks: A video history
A video history of the colliery headstock or winding gear. Featuring former Senior Mining Surveyor Robert Bradley. 

Fig 1.  Diagram showing the principle of Bell Pit working in coal mining. 

Opencast mining and Bell Pits
At first, people took coal from the surface (opencast mining) where they found coal at the ‘Basset-edge’ where coal ‘outcropped’ to the seam. Shallow pits were dug to extract the coal, which led onto the development of ‘bell-pits’. These went a little deeper and when working became too difficult the miners simply dug another one nearby. Many bell pits were uncovered during construction of the M1 Motorway which ran through the outcrop area including; Trowel Moor, Babbington, Selston and Pinxton.

As bell pits got deeper, hauling coal to the surface became more difficult. The situation was improved by the introduction of a ‘windlass’. This developed into putting a ratchet on the wheel which meant you could let go of it without the load tumbling into the shaft. As a result, women and children could wind coal to the surface. This practice is illustrated in the ‘Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Mines and Manufacturies’ (1842) which documented the plight of children working underground.

Fig 2. Preserved Horse Gin or Whim Gin formerly at the Nottingham Industrial Museum and now awaiting restoration at the Lancashire Mining Museum.  Photo Credit – MuBu Miner.

The windlass was replaced by the ‘horse gin’ a wooden structure consisting of a large horizontal wheel powered by a horse, walking in a circle underneath. The mechanism was attached to a smaller wheel with a rope extending down the shaft. The horse gin increased production and facilitated development of a more robust shaft system as heavy timber supports could be transported into the mine.

Fig 3.  Colliery steam winding engine at Donisthorpe Colliery, South Derbyshire coalfield, steamed on the final day of production in March 1990.  Photo Credit – SDMPG. 

Steam winding
With the advent of the industrial revolution, horsepower was superseded by the steam engine,
allowing even greater throughput and deeper, more extensive underground workings. Horses were still used in the production of coal but their role shifted from the surface ‘pit-top’ to the ‘pit-bottom’ where they were used to haul materials around the tunnels and transport coal-tubs from the coal-face to the shaft and out to the surface. Steam-powered winding engines brought huge gains in productivity. Theses engines were usually enclosed in brick-built winding houses which became a common sight around Britain. Winding engines were operated by boys and had ropes extending to a vertical wheel located above a single shaft that was used to transport men and materials in and out of the mine. In some collieries a diagonal ‘drift’ tunnel could be dug to help transport coal to the surface independently of the miners and materials.

Fig 4. Preserved wooden Tandem Headstocks at Brinsley Colliery, near Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.  Photo Credit – MuBu Miner. 

The dual shaft system
Single shaft coal mines were outlawed by Act of Parliament in 1862 as a direct result of the Hartley Colliery disaster in which two-hundred-and-four men and boys lost their lives. The accident was caused when the cast iron beam of the steam engine split in two, sending tons of debris down the pit shaft. The shaft at Hartley Colliery was divided by a wooden ‘brattice’ – a fairly inefficient ventilation system designed to allow fresh air to pass down one side, returning foul air up the other. At Hartley Colliery, the brattice collapsed into the mine when the beam engine broke. ‘There was no way these men could survive, until they could move all the debris from the shaft, which they tried. But by the time they got down there, they had all suffocated. No air!’ (Bradley, 2013).

The new legislation compelled colliery owners to sink two shafts instead of one, so that in the event of a similar accident, the miners would have a means of escape. Tandem headstocks made from pitched pine, like the ones preserved at Brinsley are typical of the period and clearly illustrate the move towards twin shafts. This configuration also brought improved ventilation; with fresh air passing down one shaft and contaminated air being expelled through the other. This meant that miners could dig deeper and further underground. Tandem headstocks were also developed at Babbington, Cinderhill, High Park (Eastwood), Watnall and Hucknall collieries.

Fig 5.  Lattice steelwork headgear at Annesley No. 1 Downcast shaft, Nottinghamshire Coalfield, in 1987.  Photo Credit – MuBu Miner. 

Steel lattice frameworks
‘They found that over the years, the wood would tend to rot and become unstable and unsafe. At Mansfield Colliery, the Inspector of Mines said “this is unsafe” and he made them stop winding coal. But they were very clever: They built a steel framework over the top of the wooden one and the Inspector let them keep winding with a small wheel under this framework’. (Bradley, 2013). Steel lattice frameworks began to replace the old pitched pine headstocks. The changeover from
wood to steel occured throughout the 1920’s: Pleasley and Hucknall were both converted but Brinsley did not change as it was assumed that the mine would close. However, the shafts at Brinsley were retained as an escape route (‘second means of egress’) for Selson Colliery.

Throughout the twenties, the Nottinghamshire coalfield expanded north-east of Mansfield into the Dukeries. These new pits went straight to lattice frameworks which were incredibly strong and commensurate with the depth of the shafts which were going much deeper: Blidworth, Bilsthorpe, Ollerton and Clipstone all went straight to latticework. ‘They weren’t allowed to do any other, the inspectorate wouldn’t allow it!’ (Bradley, 2013).

Born out of the need to overcome common problems , many technical solutions were devised by the mineworkers themselves. At Pinxton, John King who worked in the Blacksmiths workshop on the engineering side of the colliery developed a mechanism to overcome rope ‘overwinds’ – where the cage would keep coming up the shaft without stopping, with often fatal consequences for the men inside. King devised a copper pin that would break if it passed a certain point at the top of the headstock: Releasing a sprung claw to hold the cage in-position. The device, known as the ‘King’s Patent’ saved thousands of lives. A similar system was developed in Lancashire by Edward Ormerod and either of these two systems have been employed in mines all over the world.

Fig 6. John King and his wife of Pinxton with a model of the cage detaching hook he invented.  Photo Credit – John King Museum. 

After the First World War, Nottinghamshire saw huge expansion of its coalfields. The new mines were complimented by construction of ‘model villages’ improving living conditions for many working people. Private mining companies like the Stanton Iron Works and Newstead Colliery Company (responsible for Bilsthorpe and Blidworth respectively) effectively annexed the county’s existing rural settlements. When sinking began, many itinerant workers were Irish labourers. It was dangerous work extracting earth and rock and lining the shafts with brick and prefabricated ‘tubbing’.

Tunnel collapse and flooding were a constant threat but the work proved highly lucrative. As local labour became absorbed by work at the new collieries, the county’s agriculture went into decline. The colliery companies were sensitive to the welfare and education of their workforce.

At Blidworth, plans drawn-up by the Newstead Colliery Company included 1,200 houses with gardens, sports grounds, shops and schools. They also commemorated the work of the writer James Prior whose novel ‘Forest Folk’ had recorded village life around the time of the Luddite uprisings (c 1811 – 1816). ‘The Forest Folk Hotel’ – a centrepiece of the village featured leaded windows depicting themes from the novel. Initial development at Blidworth did not go to plan: As the village lay between existing collieries at Newstead and Rufford, it was not thought necessary to sink exploratory bore holes. Unfortunately, the strata proved different from that of its neighbours and at one point the whole village was boarded-up amid fears that coal would never be found in the area.

Fig 7. Blidworth Colliery and pit village.  Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection. 

Collieries established between the war years employed steam winding engines to drive the wheels that were held aloft the lattice-steel frameworks. These towering structures with their attendant pit chimneys and sprawling workshops came to dominate the local landscape. There were huge social changes too, the local population expanding with an influx of experienced workers arriving from the declining coalfields of Scotland and the North East.

After World War Two as unskilled, pre-mechanised working methods ‘stinting’ were phased out, mining coal became more skilled. The National Coal Board set up under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act (1946), sought to standardise working practices, conditions and pay. An important part of this new organisation was the creation of the NCB Film Unit which not only produced newsreels for public consumption but created a whole range of training films to improve safety and educate its workforce.

‘Mechanisation developed strongly in the nineteen fifties. And created other problems in winding coal, because you couldn’t sort it out down the mine, you had to sort it out on the pit top, which consisted of the screening and then a ‘washery’ plant, which gave different grades that were put into trucks and taken away to different industries, for power station or domestic use. All mining underground needs materials to be taken onsite: These were things like; arches, timber, steel props and ‘chocks’ (hydraulic supports) as we call them – ‘walking chocks’ – all automated – Huge machines that had to be taken down the shaft to cut the coal. The amount of stuff that went into a pit was unbelievable, compared with the amount of coal that came out.’ (Bradley, 2013)

Tower winders
Steam winders were eventually replaced by electric winding engines. Modern collieries such as Cotgrave, Ashfordby, Selby and Harworth took on a new form. These so-called ‘tower winders’ consisted of a vertical engine sitting directly above the shaft and were enclosed in a concrete tower; its function now hidden because you could not see any headstock wheels turning.

Fig 7. Tower winders at the ill fated Asfordby ‘Super Pit’ near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.  Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection. 

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