Chris Upton looks at the rise and fall of one of the Midlands’ largest coal fields north of Birmingham

In 1990 the last coal-mine on Cannock Chase came to the end of its working life. Lea Hall colliery had been one of the most productive pits in Britain, and the first in the country to reach 1.8 million tons of the black stuff in a single year.

Over the 30 years of its life – Lea Hall had opened only in 1960 – more than 37 million tons of coal had been brought to the surface. Its closure brought to an abrupt end almost 700 years of mining in the area.

As they will always tell you in the Black Country, there was, and in some cases still is, an awful lot of coal under Staffordshire. The South Staffordshire Coalfield is what the Black Country miners went down for, but, after a geological break known as the Bentley Faults, the coal re-appears further north to form the Cannock Chase Coalfield.

On maps it is shown as a triangle, with Brereton, Essington and Pelsall at its points. Robert Plot, writing in 1686, says that the seams under Cannock Chase could be up to 40 fathoms (240 feet) thick.

Of course, coal is never evenly and equally spread over an area. That would be far too easy. Faults in the Earth’s surface lift it up to the surface in some places, and plunge it down hundreds of feet in others. Think of it as the chocolate layer in an unsuccessful cake, which has come out of the oven all wrong.

For obvious reasons it was the coal on the surface that attracted the earliest attention, and once its warming and combustible qualities were appreciated, coal began to supplant timber as the most popular fuel in the area. For the landowners it was a valuable addition to their income, and they leased the deposits to speculative miners.

As early as 1369 the Bishop of Lichfield, who owned much of the Chase, was granting permission to two miners – John Haywoode and John Mogg – to dig out what was called “stone or marble coal” in Cannock Wood.

The annual fee – 20 shillings (£1) in the first year and 30 shillings (£1.50) in subsequent years – was hardly cheap, but the profits were clearly there to be had.

From the earliest times miners recognized that not all coal was the same and had different uses, be it for domestic fires or for fuelling furnaces. Some coal burned brighter and hotter, some produced more smoke.

The commonest terms they used were pit coal, stone coal and sea coal. The latter term probably originated in London, where they associated the stuff with shipments by sea from Newcastle.

There was also the hardest of all – known as “cannel” coal – so hard that it could be treated like ivory and carved into ornaments or, says Robert Plot, used to pave the nave of Lichfield Cathedral.

Beaudesert Park was where the richest pickings could be had, and by Tudor times the terrain was littered with “bell pits”. Miners tunnelled downwards as far as they dared to go, hollowing out the foot of the mine into the rough shape of a church bell, and hauled the coal up to the top.

Years of practice (and hard won experience) told them when to stop cutting laterally. They got out – with any luck – before the roof came down, and moved on to another pit. The method was wasteful, but there seemed to be no safe alternative.

Our current search for oil mirrors very closely the development of the Cannock Chase coal industry. First remove the easy stuff, then, when supplies dwindle and demand grows, go deeper.

It was around the turn of the 17th century that the mining at Beaudesert became more sophisticated, but also decidedly more dangerous.

In 1600 a professional miner by the name of William Wilkins was brought across from Leicestershire to plan a more coherent assault upon the coal under the park. Wilkins’ pits would be deeper – close to 100 ft – but close enough together to allow miners to tunnel in between them.

Like any well-paid expert, of course, William Wilkins did not do the digging himself, but directed a local team of four men from the safety of the surface. His strategy was to sink three pits, and then drive a head from the first to the second, and the second to the third. Timber was carried down the pit to support the roof, and horses were on hand to draw up the coal and the earth.

It was during the excavation of the third pit at Beaudesert that Wilkins and his team faced what would be the key challenge to all mining for the next 400 years. At around 50 ft they encountered the water table and the mine began to flood.

A century and more later, men like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt would be designing pumping engines to deal with exactly this problem. In 1600 they had no such technology.

The only solution in those days was the “sough”. The idea was to drive another tunnel sideways into the hillside at as low a point as possible. The shaft was angled to rise just a little, so that, when it reached the mine proper, the water would drain out of it.

The whole of William Wilkins operation cost a little under £40 in wages and materials. But once completed the three pits could easily have been producing more than £8 a week in coal for the three or four years of their useful life. The elaborate preparations were well worth the effort.

And thus the exploitation of Cannock Chase’s natural resources began in earnest. They would continue for the next four centuries.