Fig 1: Shirland Colliery, Derbyshire, in the 1960’s – Photo Credit – Coal Authority
Digging Deeper: Shirland Colliery – The Archives and Beyond.
Shirland Colliery – A Brief History
Fifty-five years ago, in May 1965, Shirland Colliery in Derbyshire (Fig. 1) closed after one-hundred years. Situated on the old exposed Derbyshire coalfield between Alfreton and Clay Cross, twin-shafts were sunk in 1864/65 by Beavon and Bailey to the Blackshale seam at a depth of 156 yards.
From 1875-77 it was owned by the South Yorkshire Miners Association (SYMA), being one of the few British collieries in history to be run by a trade union. However, the venture failed and following a period of temporary ownership it was brought by the influential Blackwell Colliery Company in 1888 (Fig. 2) J. E. Williams in ‘The Derbyshire Miners’ (1962), gives an account of the union’s attempts at running the colliery, p.146-149. In 1944 the Blackwell Company merged with the nearby New Hucknall Company (Huthwaite) to form the New Hucknall and Blackwell Colliery Company, for a brief period one of the biggest colliery concerns in Britain.
Fig 2: Blackwell Colliery Company details – 1935 Colliery Year Book
NCB Days at Shirland
At nationalisation, Shirland Colliery went into the National Coal Board (NCB) East Midlands No. 4 Area, whose HQ was a Huthwaite, Nottinghamshire. Shirland was never a big pit in production and manpower terms, the highest ever production achieved was 295,770 tons in 1957 with the highest ever manpower of 530 being achieved in 1959.
In the 1961 ‘Guide to the Collieries’, Shirland is the No.2 Group of collieries in the NCB East Midlands No. 4 Area (Fig. 3) Other collieries in the No. 2 Group were Alfreton, Blackwell A Winning, Blackwell B Winning, New Hucknall & Wingfield Manor. Seams being worked were the Deep Soft, Deep Hard and Three-Quarters with a workforce of 523 – 432 underground and 91 on the surface. Colliery Manager at the time was Bob Haworth who later became Manager at Bentinck Colliery.
Fig 3: Collieries in the Alfreton catchment area in 1961. Source: 1961 Guide to the Coalfields.
Within five years of Shirland’s closure, all Derbyshire collieries in the Ilkeston, Heanor, Ripley, Alfreton corridor had closed leaving a rump of collieries to the east and north-east of Chesterfield. This would form the basis of the NCB North Derbyshire Area, which was formed in the NCB reorganisation of 1967. Many Derbyshire miners became known as ‘industrial gypsies’, travelling from pit to pit in a short period of time (Fig. 4). Some moved to the Nottinghamshire Coalfield which involved a daily round trip of anything from a ten to thirty miles. A few others took the offer of a long-term transfer to the NCB North Nottinghamshire Area under the ‘Pick your Pit’ scheme
Fig 4: Last miners out of Shirland Colliery – May 1965. Photo Credit – Coal Authority.
Legacies and Memories
The Shirland Colliery site was redeveloped by Derbyshire County Council in 1972 and the area became a golf course. In 2015 a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the closure took place at Shirland and in 2017 a Shirland Pit information board was erected at the side of the A61 road in the village (Fig. 5)
Legacies which remind us that Shirland was a coalmining community are the Miners Welfare Institute and the Shirland Welfare Brass Band, both of which still exist in the early twenty-first century. http://shirland-welfare-band.co.uk/index.html
Fig 5: Shirland Colliery information Board.
Digging Deeper: The Archives and Beyond.
Derbyshire Records Office
Some important records relating to the history of Shirland Colliery can be found at the Derbyshire Records Office (DRO) at Matlock (Fig. 6). These arrived there via donations from individuals or as special collections such as the records of the North Derbyshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) which were deposited at the DRO following the closure of the Chesterfield Miners Offices in 2015.
Over the last decade some coal collections, both large and small, have been deposited at both public and university archives in the East Midlands, with some official collections having been sorted and details put on-line. Others remain uncatalogued, a victim of austerity measures since 2010. During 2020/21, the DRO are running a project called ‘Mine the Seams’, a joint initiative with the Warwickshire Records Office (WRO) to catalogue and conserve the NCB records of the North Derbyshire Area and Warwickshire Coalfield
Fig 6: Derbyshire Records Office, Matlock. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
Coal Collections: Beyond the Archives
Due to the rapid contraction of the remainder of the coal-industry from the early 1980’s onwards, not all coalmining documentation went into official archives. Some documentation and memorabilia ended up with local history societies, at local libraries and museums or heritage centres. In the last decade some of the museums and heritage centres have closed, significantly the Snibston Discovery Centre at Coalville closed in 2016, again mainly because of austerity measures.
Other coal documentation became part of private individual collections, usually in the hands of former coal-industry workers with a vested interest. In many cases when a colliery closed, the workforce was taken off the books in a very short space of time with virtually no plans being made to review what important historical documentation existed there. A notable exception to this was at Bilsthorpe, where a group of local people rescued a large collection of coal artefacts and documentation from Bilsthorpe Colliery when it closed in 1997. The collection now forms the Bilsthorpe Heritage Museum.
A small number of people used their own initiative to try and save important coal documentation and artefacts, usually relating to the colliery they worked at. This was done by both official and unofficial means! As the last generation of mineworkers reach the twilight of their lives, many of these collections are being lost or in danger of being lost. Luckily, every so often, one of these collections come to light, as was the case with the Tony Whelan collection (Fig. 7) which was found in a shed at Underwood eighteen months after his death.
Fig 7: Historical Coal mining Entertainer, David Coleman (left) and Coal mining Historian and former Senior Mining Surveyor, Bob Bradley (right), sort through the coal collection belonging to the late Tony Whelan, Personnel Officer at Sutton Colliery. Photo by MuBuMiner.
The Shirland Colliery collection
Shirland Colliery Signing on Book
The small Shirland Colliery collection consisted of a Blackwell Colliery Co. signing on book dating from 1888 to 1960 (Fig. 8) plus several other important pieces of documentation relating to the early days of the NCB. They were in the ownership of a local history society following the run-down to closure of a local museum with a strong coalmining base.
With the signing on book covering a seventy-two-year period, it gave a good account of coalmining occupations and how they changed over the years. Old occupations include Holers, Corporals, Hewer’s, Contractors (Butties) and Trammers. The first mention of a ‘Coal Cutter’ is in 1898, this would have been a Disc coal cutting machine to undercut the coal, an early mechanisation process at the coalface. Later jobs in the 1940’s included strippers and packers (coal face), Stall Officers, haulage hands, and new trainees. In the Spring 1944 the first ‘Bevin Boys’ were signed on at Shirland Colliery as part of the war effort (Fig. 9).
Fig 8: Shirland Colliery signing-on book 1888 – 1960, Blackwell Colliery Co. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
Fig 9: Bevin Boys signed on at Shirland Colliery in 1944 – Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
Strikes and Lockouts
Major events in the coal-industry could also be identified in the Shirland signing on book, especially the strikes and lockouts of 1893, 1912, 1921 and 1926.
The 1893 Miners Lockout lasted from 30th June to 17th November 1893. Prior to this the miners had been on a three-day week for most of 1893 due to a depression in the coal trade. The coal-owners wanted a twenty-five per cent cut in coal getting rates, the newly formed Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) resisted and the miners were locked out. At Shirland, the last signing on, James Turner, a Getter, was on 17th April 1893, with the gap in the book until the next signing on at the colliery, Henry Ratcliffe, a Corporal, on 18th November 1893 (Fig. 10). By 21st November 1893 all the workforce was signed back on at the colliery.
Fig 10: Shirland Colliery signing on book shows the effects of the 1893 Miners Lockout. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
On behalf of the People – NCB Documents
Interestingly, nationalisation of the British coalmining industry on 1st January 1947, known as ‘Vesting Day’, is noted by a line being drawn across the page! (Fig. 11). No new book to celebrate the start of a new era in the British coalmining industry, in fact the same Blackwell Colliery Co. book was used until 1960! It would be interesting to see how ‘Vesting Day’ was celebrated at Shirland Colliery.
Fig 11: Shirland Colliery signing-on book. Vesting Day (1st January 1947) is noted by simply drawing a line across the page! Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
NCB documentation from the 1950’s / early 1960’s, include a 1961 signing on form (Fig. 12) for a Colliery Deputy showing the main terms and conditions of employment plus deductions payable. These same standard forms were still in use in the early 1970’s when the author started his employment at the NCB at Annesley Colliery in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield.
Fig 12: NCB signing on form from Shirland Colliery – 1961. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
Other NCB documentation in the Shirland Colliery collection include enrolment forms for the Mineworkers Pension Scheme (MPS) and the Midland and District Miners Fatal Accident Relief Society (MDMFARS) – Fig 13.
The MPS commenced in 1952 and initially was a voluntary scheme. It became an earning related scheme in April 1975 and finished when the last remains of the British deep coalmining industry was re-privatised in 1995.
The MDMFARS is a friendly society founded in 1883 and provided benefits for Midland’s based miners in the event of a fatality at work or death by industrial disease; it still exists today. In the post coal era, it deals mainly with benefits to widows through deaths of former miners caused by industrial diseases. Interestingly, no Shirland Colliery beneficiaries appear on the Annuities paid for the year ending 31st December 2018. This is probably because very few widows of former Shirland miners, or indeed Shirland miners themselves, are still alive today.
Fig 13: NCB documentation from the Shirland Colliery collection. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
Coal Collections: The Archives and Beyond.
Historic coal collections such as the Shirland Colliery one, even though small, are of extreme importance in order to document the history of the British coalmining industry. There are perhaps as many, if not more, of these type of collections in former coalfield communities as there is documentation in official archives.
In recent times, more of these collections seem to be appearing, often found in sheds or lofts, and brought to the attention of interested parties usually following the death of a former miner or mining historian. However, it is feared that much important coal documentation is also being lost as its importance is not recognised, or in some cases people from the next generation simply not realising its importance or not being interested.
Time is at a premium to try and locate as many of these coal collections as possible as the last generation of British miners with a direct link to the industry rapidly reach state-retirement age. A prominent Records Officer at one of the main coal archives recently suggested there is probably only a maximum of ten years to save the history of British coal mining!
Fig. 14: Part of a ‘Community Coal Collection’ – Photo Credit – MuBuMiner.
Derbyshire Records Office: www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/record-office /
Guide to the Coalfields (1961), Colliery Guardian.
Healey Hero Website: www.healeyhero.co.uk
Midland and District Miners Fatal Accident Relief Society, Annual Report 2018.
Neil’s Local History and Mining Site: www.oldminer.co.uk/shirland.html
1935 Colliery Years Book and Coal Trade Directory
Shirland Colliery collection – Signing on book and NCB documents belonging to the Pinxton and South Normanton Local History Society.
Shirland Miners Welfare Brass Band: http://shirland-welfare-band.co.uk/index.html
Williams, J.E. The Derbyshire Miners: A Study in Industrial and Social History, 1962.