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The Lanchester Common

The Lanchester Common

The Townships had grown out of the clearings which the first settlers had made in the forest, but that is only half the picture. There was other, poorer land which was simply not worth clearing, and which therefore remained as unenclosed waste. The Bishop kept it in his own hands but allowed all of his tenants to graze their animals on it as part of their tenancy agreements. In our area there were two such Commons, the Tanfield Moor roughly to the south and east of our site and more important the Lanchester Common on the southern boundary of Billingside. It straggled over 20,000 acres of bleak, inhospitable land, wrapping itself round Townships enclosed within it from Salters Gate in the west to Craghead in the east. A great wedge of it pushed north onto Pontop Pike and the high land above Dipton.

Until about 1800 the Common would have looked quite different from the comfortable enclosed land in the Townships. In these Townships there were hedges and walls enclosing small fields, with sheltered woodland. There were scattered buildings and cottages. On the Common there were no separate fields, no walls or hedges and hardly any buildings. Such buildings as there were, were unofficial ones put up by people who had encroached onto bits of the Bishop’s Common, and hoped not to be found out. There were a few in Dipton who had encroached, the most notable of which was Stob House on the Avenue. There would be tracks across the fells which often became the modern roads. Significantly, by the early 18th Century there were also small coal pits, several in the region of Billingside, exploiting the surface seams of coal that often outcropped on the hillside. The coal was transported via waggonways down to exporters mostly on the river Tyne.

There were also four wells on the Common in this vicinity serving the Township communities.

For more than 700 years the Common was neither cultivated, nor built upon, nor divided up into separate ownerships. The people in the Townships were allowed to graze their animals on it, to use the wells, to water their stock at ‘Common Watering Places’ (as can still be seen at Harelaw next to the sawmills), and dig stone for buildings from any of its 58 common quarries, such as that at the bottom of High Stables Bank, known as Pontop Quarry, and a similar one at Mountsett.

However, landowners and tenants alike were casting their eyes over their local Common and thinking of how much corn they could grow, and how many cattle it could feed if only it could be taken properly in hand by modern progressive farmers. The system was so deeply rooted in history, however, that it was impossible to change it without special acts of Parliament, called ‘Enclosure Acts’.

Our turn came in 1773. In that year the Bishop and some of his more important tenants decided it would be advantageous to all concerned if Lanchester Common could be enclosed and sub-divided. The Lanchester Common Enclosure Act provided for the Common to be divided into separate plots, and for those plots to be given to those people from the adjacent Townships who held grazing rights over it under the old system. The size of the plot was directly related to the size of the grazing rights accrued and therefore the larger Landowners were given the larger plots, while people who had been smallholders and who relied upon running a few ‘beast’ on the Common to make ends meet would get only a small slice. It took a few years to decide how to carve up the Common and it wasn’t until 1800 that the impact was starting to be felt. Significantly by 1780 there were more than 19 small coal pits on the Common in the vicinity of Billingside and Pontop, all exploiting the surface seams.

This then was the beginning of our modern landscape with new roads being constructed, new paths formally laid, the Common drained, fenced and cultivated.

The collieries and pits located on the Common were at one time mid to end of the 1700’s the great producer from the Great Northern coalfield. Adjacent to Billingside and Pontop around 1800 the following pits were in production:-

  • The Hive pit whose shaft was 340ft deep and which took huge quantities of coal from the Hutton ,Five Quarter, Brass Thill and Main Coal seams from under the Common and Billingside and which was in full operation well before 1800. It became an air shaft in 1898.
  • The Windsor North Pit
  • The Success Pit
  • The West Pit
  • The Pike Pit
  • The Wall pit
  • The Browns Pit
  • The Road Pit
  • 2 Intake Pits, and
  • 2 Water Level Pits.

Some of these pits are mid 1700’s and it is difficult to gauge their production and the extent of their activity under the Townships.All of these pits were linked via wooden waggonways to the staithes on the river Tyne dropping over 800 ft on some of the best civil engineering accomplishments of their time. The Main Pontop Pike way was opened in 1749 along with the Stob Way . Further branches were opened in 1750 and finally in 1780 the extension known locally as the ‘Lady Windsor Way’ pushed along the southern edge of Pontop Pike linking the North Pit and the Success pit to the Hive allowing the original route that ran adjacent to the A692 and across the hillside linking to the West, Pike, Wall, Brown’s and the Intakes eventually along the bottom of Dipton Park to be slowly abandoned and left as a footpath.

Such was the activity in the mines that between 1847 when Pontop Pike was officially measured at 1,048ft and 1892 when it was officially measured again at 1,035ft the old workings collapsing had reduced the hill by 13ft. Recent Ordinance survey sheets record the height at 313m or 1,026 ft suggesting a further reduction of 9ft.

In 1844 the largest of the local Common collieries was opened at the edge of Iveston Township adjacent to Billingside, and this Colliery worked the majority of the seams for 136 years. This was the Eden Colliery.

The Eden Colliery

The Eden Colliery was opened in 1844 by Mr Edward Richardson who quickly transferred ownership to the Derwent Iron Company and then to the Consett Iron Company. In the 1850’s it transferred to Edward Richardson and Co. and it remained in that ownership until nationalisation in 1947.

In 1894 it was listed in Whellan’s Directory of County Durham as having a production of 5500 tons per fortnight and at that time 90% was used to create gas for blast furnaces at Consett, with the remaining 10% used for household sale. In 1894 there were 261 men and boys employed. Further employment details were:-

1896 - 325 of which 264 were below ground.

1902 - 265 of which 206 were below ground

1914 - 537 of which 458 were below ground

1921 - 874 of which 786 were below ground

1930 - 862 of which 711 were below ground

1940 - 858

1945 - 684 of which 517 were below ground

1947 - 828 of which 665 were below ground

1950 - 951 of which 746 were below ground

1970 - 283 of which 240 were below ground

1975 - 307 of which 273 were below ground

1980 - 194 of which 169 were below ground

It had two shafts. The first was an air shaft sunk from 650ft above sea level and 161ft 10in deep.

The main shaft or Eden shaft was sunk from 828ft above sea level and was 409ft 3in deep. It cut through the following seams;-

The HUTTON seam at 103ft 1in

The LITTLE COAL seam at 108ft 6in

The MAIN COAL seam at 138ft 7in

The No. 1 seam at 288ft 11in

The TILLEY seam at 341ft 5in

The HAND COAL seam at 352ft 10in, and finally

The BUSTY seam at 352ft 10in.

It mined in the Brass Thill, Five Quarter, Shield Row, Towneley and Brockwell and between 1970-80 in the Harvey seam.

The most famous of the early mine Managers, Hedley, had a street of houses named after him when the two pit rows were built next to South Medomsley Colliery in 1906.

Probably the worst pit disaster happened at the Colliery on 7 November 1927 when John Davison 74, Andrew Dixon 49, and his son Robert 17, were killed by an explosion of firedamp about half a mile from the Eden shaft bottom. They were working in the Towneley seam which until that time had been recognised as free from firedamp. Allegedly, a degree of complacency had crept in and following an investigation by the Mines Inspectorate the Manager, Under Manager and a Deputy were ordered to pay £32 15s in fines and costs for their negligence. Not a lot for 3 lives!

The railway link between the Eden Colliery and South Medomsley Colliery closed in 1964 and was dismantled in 1965.

The Eden Colliery closed on 18th July 1980 having mined under Billingside for 136 years. An Andy Goldsworthy earth maze sculpture now stands where the main buildings stood.

Created on 28/06/2007 09:50 PM by dmarrs
Updated on 02/07/2007 09:57 AM by rmr
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