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The main coalfield lies in a ten mile square area centred on Ashby-de-la-Zouch, extending across the county boundary. There were probably small pits on Swannington Common before the Norman Conquest, as the coal was regarded as a common asset of the free men of the village. Documentary references begin in the 13th century at Swannington and Worthington. There were mines at Staunton Harold in the early 14th century, and by the 1420s the nearby village of Overton Saucy was sufficiently well-known as a supplier of coal to be renamed “Coal Overton”, later shortened to “Coleorton”.
A large opencast mine at Coleorton – the “Lounge” Site – operating from 1988-1994 produced a wealth of evidence of earlier mining activities, particularly from the late 15th century, when well-organised pillar and stall mines were being accessed by timber-lined shafts at depths of 30 metres or more below the surface. There was also much evidence from the 16th century, and some items from more recent times. Hundreds of finds from this site are stored by the Leicestershire County Council Museums Service, mainly at Snibston Discovery Museum.
On the western side of the coalfield mines at Swadlincote are mentioned in 1294, and Leicester Abbey had mines at Oakthorpe probably in the 14th century, but certainly by 1477. By this date there were probably also mines in the Derbyshire villages of Stanton and Newhall.
Through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries mines were developed to gradually greater depths in the Swannington-Coleorton and Oakthorpe-Donisthorpe-Measham areas.
In the early 19th century the Earl of Moira developed mines, an ironworks and a new settlement called Moira on the southern part of Ashby Wolds, served by the Ashby Canal. Between the 1820s and the end of the century, gradually deeper mines were sunk to concealed reserves south of the Eastern Basin, as far as Desford.
During the 19th and 20th centuries most collieries set up an adjacent brick and tile works, and a network of railways evolved to link them to the national railway system. Ashby Wolds, an area of former open common land between the Leicestershire and Derbyshire mines, became in addition a major centre of sanitary ware manufacture.
The history of the coalfield from 1200-1900 has been covered in considerable detail by Colin Owen, but the stories of the coalfield in the 20th century and the complex story of the small pits, fireclay mines and potteries on Ashby Wolds have not yet been the subject of a comprehensive history.1
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the area developed a pattern of settlement which is still obvious to this day, with scattered terraces of housing in and around the collieries, and ribbon development along roads from village to village. The Burton and Ashby Light Railway, an electric tramway system, was constructed through Woodville and Swadlincote.
20th century developments were mainly concerned with linking existing mines underground and improving surface handling facilities. Most of the 19th century mines survived into the 1960s, before the rapid abandonment of deep mines in the 1970s and 1980s.
There is considerable evidence of coal mining in the form of earthworks around Coleorton, where five areas of pits have been scheduled as Ancient Monuments, with features probably dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries. A Newcomen engine house survives (sadly much modified in recent times) at Moira, and there is a late 19th century wider house at Calcutta Colliery in Swannington.
The buildings at Snibston, which are mainly of mid-late 20th century date, but include some elements from the mid 19th century, form one of the best surviving groups of deep coal mine buildings still existing in the UK, and are accessible to the public as part of the Snibston Museum site.
The Nottinghamshire coalfield has been traced across the boundary in Leicestershire and in the 1980s it was proposed to sink new ‘super’ mines in the Vale of Belvoir. A mix of economic and political pressure meant that only one, at Asfordby, was allowed in 1986. This was at the southern edge of the coalfield and had significant geological and mining problems. In 1989, a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the British Coal Corporation noted “we have been puzzled by the history of the Asfordby new mine project” and concluded that it “has always been marginal in financial terms”.2
A bibliography of papers and books on (mainly) geological aspects of the Leicestershire coalfield, produced by the British Geological Survey, is available on the web.3
When the coal industry was nationalised in 1947, there were 20 collieries in Leicestershire; now there are none. The last three pits to close were Donisthorpe (1990), Bagworth (1991) & Asfordby (1997)
- Owen, C. The Leicestershire and South Derbyshire Coalfield 1200-1900 (Ashbourne: Moorland, 1984).
- Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the British Coal Corporation – Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry by Command of Her Majesty January 1989.
Some pages from the Geoff Hayes collection in NMRS records:
- The geology of the Leicestershire Coalfield
- An introduction to the Leicestershire Collieries
- The Swannington Incline
- Marquis Colliery
- Minorca Colliery
Collieries after Nationalisation in 1947
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