An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire
Part 77 (of 83 parts) - History of Clock Face Colliery Part 1 (1890 - 1929)
Clock Face Colliery was initially under the ownership of Bold Hall Estate Co. Ltd. who registered their company on July 20th 1893 with a capital of £200,000. Their directors included two millers, a ship owner, a sugar refiner, a colliery proprietor plus industrialist and benefactor Colonel David Gamble. The latter is remembered for donating the Gamble Institute, where Central Library is housed, to the people of St.Helens.
Although established primarily to exploit the minerals on former Bold Hall land, the company's industrial remit also included:
Pit sinking could be as perilous an occupation as mining and Andrew Neary was fatally injured in July 1896 when water was accidentally tipped onto him. Then the Liverpool Mercury of October 11th 1899, reported how sinker Charles Booth had also lost his life. During the previous year, John Davies of Neill's Row, Bold, sued the Bold Hall Estate Co. for £300 damages after losing virtually all of his sight. This was after gelignite cartridges had exploded in the pit sinker's face. During the court hearing, it was revealed by John Nolan of Sutton Moss that he and his fellow workers at Clock Face had been forced by the company to contract out of the Employers' Liability Act. The company argued that Davies had caused the accident and had also contracted himself out of the Act, so was not entitled to any compensation. The jury were not impressed by the unsympathetic treatment of Davies and awarded him £200.
On March 23rd 1900, the Manchester Times described how 250 men had been involved in the sinking and construction of shafts over the 'past four or five years' but had now been discharged. They said that the high prices of fuel and iron had also contributed to the suspension of operations at Clock Face as well as the problems with water.
In 1904 the Wigan Coal and Iron Company took over the colliery and invested in powerful pumps that pumped out 400 gallons of water per minute from the pits. The pumps were housed in a dedicated building where an attendant maintained and kept them clean and reported variations in operating cycle. Now Clock Face was able to develop as a business and they converted no. 1 shaft into a pumping pit that coped with over 700,000 gallons of water per day. Of this 500,000 gallons were sold to St.Helens Corporation for use as drinking water. Three ponds on the colliery site stored the water which had a number of uses, including the washing of newly-mined coal.
The above photograph of Clock Face Colliery was taken c.1905 and looks across Gorsey Lane, with Burtonwood being to the left. The original headgear is over no. 2 shaft and a very basic chute arrangement delivers coal to the rail wagons underneath. The locomotive in the centre is the typical design that continued working in St.Helens Collieries for many years. The original no. 3 shaft is shown to the right, and behind it is the Boiler House which generated steam for winding engines and other services.
The above undated photograph is of the machinery that drove the pump at Clock Face, which played a crucial role and was manufactured by Musgrave & Sons of Bolton. The company closed in 1926, so it is likely that this was part of the original 1904 pump installation. The attendants, however, were so dedicated to their work in keeping the equipment spotlessly clean, that it is not easy to say if the equipment is new, or had been in service for many years.
An undated photograph of the Musgrave & Sons engine within the pump house at Clock Face Colliery
Getting Clock Face Colliery fit for purpose cost the life of sinker George Macintosh, who suffered a dreadful death on April 13th 1906. The 27-year-old from Clock Face Road lost his life while fixing steel wire rope down a shaft. This was intended to support pipes that were needed to pump out water. Macintosh was 200 yards from the surface in a small sinking tub with three other men when rope suddenly came loose. It fell some distance down the shaft and cut off Macintosh's head and left arm. These fell 300 yards to the bottom of the pit, leaving his torso in the tub with the three shocked men. Fellow sinker Michael Mahon was badly injured, although carpenter Alfred Roby of Leach Lane and sinker George Thompson were uninjured. At Macintosh's inquest it was revealed that he'd decided to save a little time in uncoiling the rope down from the top of the pit, instead of from the pit bottom up.
In an article published in the Liverpool Daily Post on December 7th 1906, it was stated that rapid progress had recently been made at Clock Face and it was expected that coal would shortly be reached. Coal mining operations began in 1907 and as well providing employment for mineworkers, opportunities also existed for those who provided goods and services, such as pubs, shopkeepers and builders. Many of the pit sinkers had stayed at the Clock Face Inn and on February 4th 1908, licensee James Naylor successfully applied to a St.Helens licensing hearing for permission to build a new, larger house. This, he argued, was needed to serve the expanding population of the district, which until very recently had been mainly agricultural. The 200 miners and surface workers that were presently employed at Clock Face Colliery required accommodation and so a large number of houses were being built. At the licence hearing it was stated that the colliery had plans to expand its workforce to between 1000 to 1500 employees, so a considerable expansion of the village was anticipated.
Also in 1908 John O’Brien became an undermanager at Clock Face Colliery and he held that position for many years. His early education was at Rainhill Convent Schools and he then studied the scientific side of mining, as well as theoretical and applied mechanics. In 1906 O’Brien became the first colliery worker to receive a second-class Home Office certificate for competence in mining and 18 months later he was awarded a first-class certificate. For several years he was secretary of the Lancashire and Cheshire Mines Rescue Workers Association and in recognition of his local work in the Association, he was awarded the medallion and certificate of Clock Face Rescue Committee. Away from the mine O’Brien represented West Sutton Ward on St.Helens Town Council from 1920 until 1947. In 1934 he became the first Clock Face man (albeit living in Forest Road, Sutton Manor) as well as the first Catholic to be appointed Mayor of St.Helens.
The above photograph shows the Clock Face Colliery Rescue team taken just before the war. The establishment of mine rescue teams nationwide was as a result of the Coal Mines Act of 1911, together with some additional provisions made in 1912. The Act came into force as a result of public anguish over recent mine disasters, with two having taken place within the Wigan area. The Maypole Colliery tragedy in Abram, Wigan in August of 1908 was caused by an underground gas explosion and led to the deaths of 75 men and boys.
Members of the Clock Face Colliery Rescue Team plus two drivers - contributed by Terry Callaghan
Then on December 21st 1910 at the Pretoria mine of the Hulton Colliery Company, just outside of Bolton / Atherton, a massive explosion killed 344 men and boys. Neither of these two collieries were owned by the Wigan Coal & Iron Company, the owner of Clock Face Colliery, but they did make a significant contribution. Their six-man Rescue team from the nearby Westhoughton Colliery were highly praised for their rescue efforts in the Pretoria mine, working long eight hour shifts under very difficult conditions. There is no doubt that this had a significant role in the establishment of a rescue team at Clock Face, so soon after the Pretoria explosion.
The Coal Mines Act made it compulsory for mine owners to establish Rescue Teams at their own collieries. Alternatively, they could contribute to the cost of a central rescue station within a maximum distance of 10 miles from the colliery. Mine owners were also legally responsible for the supply and maintenance of all rescue equipment, as well as arranging regular first aid and rescue training. At Clock Face, the Wigan Coal & Iron Company needed no prompting to set up their own station. This was despite St Helens electing to have a central rescue station and with Clock Face being well within the 10 mile limit. The above photograph demonstrates a very well presented brigade of six proud members, together with their drivers.
In the Pretoria mine disaster a number of the dead had not been injured by the explosion, but had slowly succumbed to a lack of oxygen. With explosive gas being an important issue in many mine accidents, for any rescue brigade to have any success it was necessary to provide them with portable breathing equipment that would maximise their manoeuvrability in difficult situations.
The Proto Rebreather Apparatus became the standard kit for brigade use and was fitted over the wearer's head. It then rested on his shoulders and was held in place by straps around the waist. The oxygen supply was around two hours depending on the cylinder numbers and size, and whilst the unit allowed freedom of movement it was considered bulky, heavy, and in confined spaces within a mine, rather unpleasant to wear. In the photographs the important use of goggles is seen together with electric hand lights, good boots and knee pads. These are particularly important when crawling around in low, confined spaces.
Other Home Office directions relative to the application of the Act at each Colliery Rescue Station were: a) Provision and maintenance of two or more small birds or mice for the testing of the presence of carbon monoxide gas. Most readers would be familiar with the long established practice of mines using canaries. b) Two electric hand lamps always ready for use and capable of providing its designed light standard for 4 hours. c) One set of oxygen reviving equipment. d) A safety lamp for each member of the brigade capable of testing for the presence of gas. e) An ambulance box provided by the St John Ambulance Association, or similar boxes, together with antiseptic solution and fresh drinking water.
The training of rescue teams at Clock Face, as at other collieries, was ongoing and would have closely simulated the conditions faced underground. So special buildings were set up and sulphur fumes and smoke were injected into a totally-dark room. Obstacles were placed in their way, temperatures were elevated and there was even inclined floors, to simulate a fault dip or incline tunnel. In all these conditions they had to communicate as a team, erect roof supports, clear roof falls, install temporary ventilation measures such as brattice cloth, treat the injured and get personnel out safely on stretchers. So when we look at the Clock Face Rescue Team in this photo, do spare a thought for the history of the establishment in the first place, but also for the physical and psychological demands that the work placed on each member.
Like all pits, Clock Face Colliery had its share of industrial disputes. Some were national strikes, others were regional or localised disputes, such as in 1910. Then the near-200 men at Clock Face struck for quite a number of months from February, over revised working conditions and a pay dispute. The miners were offered 2 shillings a ton but they demanded 2s 4d, in line with what they claimed was the going rate at neighbouring pits. In September 1910, men employed at the Wigan Coal and Iron Company's thirteen other pits, voted 2:1 to go out on strike in sympathy. However the result of the ballot was just short of the required 2/3rd majority, that authorised a walk out.
On November 1st 1911, St Helens County Court considered a case brought by Lot Kitts of Clock Face Colliery, which had implications for miners at other pits. Kitts was a check weighman, an individual who was hired by miners to check the findings of the colliery’s own weighman, who they didn't trust. This was at a time when hewers were paid by the weight of the coal they had extracted. The weighing took place via a weighbridge situated outside a wooden cabin that housed the actual mechanical scale. Each box of coal was positioned on the weighbridge, which was connected to the scales inside by levers. The weighman was able to determine the total load on the bridge by sliding a weight along the graduated lever until it was in a balanced horizontal position. He would then subtract the weight of the box to give the weight of the actual coal inside it.
After a strike the Wigan Coal & Iron Company and the men at Clock Face had agreed on a pay rate of 2 shillings a ton, with a guaranteed minimum of 7 shillings a day for all workers. Those miners who didn’t earn more than 7 shillings argued that they had no need for a checkweigher, so wouldn’t pay Lot Kitts. He argued that they had all agreed to pay him, so Kitts sued the refuseniks. Judge Shand ruled that he was fully entitled to receive payment from all the miners, whether they needed his services or not. This photo (above) shows the Check Weighbridge at Douglas Bank Colliery in Wigan in 1890. It provides a good illustration of the efficient organisation, with the weighman inside and the extra people required to quickly get the boxes on and off the weighbridge.
One of Clock Face Colliery's earliest managers was a Mr. Hewlett and James Whittall was in charge from about 1907 to 1911. James lived at 440 Clock Face Road and at Red Villas in Clock Face. His great-grandson Ernie Bate has a painted portrait of his ancestor hanging in his home. Ernie writes:
Portrait of James Whittall the manager of Clock Face Colliery c.1907 to 1911 - contributed by Ernie Bate
Harold Joshua Whitehead (1884-1965) took over as manager at Clock Face Colliery between 1911 to 1917, before transferring to become manager of Abram Colliery, Bickershaw and later Garswood Hall Colliery. H. J. Whitehead presided over the opening of Clock Face Institute on January 9th 1914. This was undertaken by the Earl of Crawford, chairman of the Wigan Coal and Iron Co., who was also known as Lord Wigan. The new club cost £2000 and contained a large meeting room 50' x 22', large billiards room and games room plus dressing rooms and baths for football and cricket teams. Newspapers reported how it was part of a scheme for a 'model village' that the company was creating with the Institute in between football and cricket grounds and surrounded by new colliery houses.
Harold Whitehead the manager of Clock Face Colliery during World War 1 - contributed by Brian Legg
By the time of the opening, 42 homes had been built, with 20 more under construction and 122 miners' houses were created in total. The Earl of Crawford announced at the opening of the Institute that plans were in hand for a school house, which would be as good and as well equipped as any in the county. He also claimed that no money had been spared to ensure that the pit was "suitable for the safety and convenience of those engaged in it." The 27th Earl added that with the housing that his company was providing, they were hoping to attract the "very best class of Lancashire artisan".
An unusual prosecution took place on March 10th 1914 when mine inspector George Fillingham found himself in court. He’d accompanied the manager Harold Whitehead on an inspection down the pit then realised he had his pipe in his pocket. Fillingham ran back to the cage and went straight up the pit but the damage had been done. The Wigan Coal & Iron Company had a rule that all who breached their 'no smoking materials' ban had to be prosecuted. However the magistrates dismissed the case on payment of 6 shillings costs. Fillingham was actually appointed by the miners who had been empowered by a 1911 Act to have a representative who would inspect the mine workings on their behalf.
Many miners at Clock Face Colliery went to war and 22 failed to come home. Eight others were honoured for their bravery during the first world war, being awarded either the Distinguished Conduct Medal or the Military Medal. A plaque was created to honour the fallen and those miners who achieved military distinctions. The brass plaque was originally at the colliery but is now in the Clock Face Miners Recreation Club in Crawford Street.
Left: An old Clock Face Colliery tally; Right: Plaque in Clock Face Miners Recreation Club
Like most pits, there were many accidents and inquests into mining fatalities were often held at the Clock Face Inn. On January 21st 1915 Peter Brookfield of 37 Hall Street, Clock Face died as a result of a chain breaking and striking him a violent blow to his neck. The 18-years-old haulage hand collapsed in the arms of a colleague, saying "Give me a drink; I am choking". In September 1917 the Wigan Coal & Iron Company opened Clock Face Colliery School on a site near to the mine, which cost them over £5000. The four foundation managers with responsibility for the new school included William Sword, manager of Clock Face Colliery, and John Pickett, one of his colliery undermanagers.
Some Clock Face workers took a long time to succumb to their injuries. Evan Davies of 27 Rolling Mill Lane, Sutton was run over in October 1917 by the boxes of coal that he was lowering down a brow. However he didn't die until June 2nd 1918. In the last week of January 1919, four fatal accidents occurred at Clock Face, including Garratt Murray, who died from a roof fall.
Contemporary newspaper reports could be vague about the precise causes of death, as accidents often happened suddenly within poorly-lit workplaces. Witnesses and experts attending inquests often surmised as to what they thought had happened. When Head Foreman Alfred Davies (1881-1923) was found dead under a girder in no.3 pit at Clock Face in 1923, the St.Helens Reporter's account (20/4/1923) of his inquest reported comments made by the inspector of mines and by fellow mineworker Walter Jones:
The miners’ houses, that the Wigan Coal & Iron Co. had built, cost 6s 6d a week to rent. Although mineworkers were supposed to vacate them after leaving the colliery's employment, the company didn't usually enforce its rule. However they did give notice to quit in the case of William Roscoe, who after the 1921 lock out, lost his job at Clock Face Colliery and was asked to vacate his home. The Wigan Coal & Iron Co. said they required the house at 84 Crawford Street for a fireman who was lodging 1½ mile away in a house with nine others. Roscoe was now an insurance agent but had been the district president of the Miners’ Federation during the strike. During a hearing in St.Helens County Court on February 7th 1923, it was alleged that the colliery company were being vindictive. Judge Dowdall seemed to agree and refused to make an order to turn Roscoe and his family out, saying that the Wigan Coal & Iron Co. would first have to find them alternative accommodation.
G. B. Tristram was listed as manager in the 1923 edition of the Wigan Coal and Iron Co's Colliery Year book. This also revealed that Clock Face's nos. 1 and 2 pits had 475 workers (underground and surface) with no.3 pit having 819 workers underground and 204 on the surface.
The above picture of Clock Face colliery, acquired from the archives of the former Wigan & District Mining & Technical College, is labelled 'Photographed in the 1920s'. However, it was probably taken during the 1926 lock out, due to a lack of mining activity. Note the empty, seemingly abandoned coal wagons without workers, in the background of the picture.
Headgear, screens building & winding house (right) of no. 1 downcast pit of Clock Face Colliery during the 1920s
That is with the exception of two men who are putting on sheeting and installing windows into the 'screens' building. They are stood on what appears to be a single plank without rails or protective helmets. Occupational health and safety during the 1920s was not what it is today! A rare day with no production was an ideal time to perform such tasks. When mining operations were underway, the whole building would shake from the vibrating screens and shakers, which is not good for new glass. The top photograph also shows rope coming out of the winding house on the right of the picture. Ebor Rowley from Leach Lane, who was a member of St.Nicholas church choir, was for many years a winder at the colliery until its closure. Like other winders in pits, Ebor would sit alone responding to the shaft signals.
The screening process was an important part of mining and it's worth describing its function and the processes and technologies employed at Clock Face in some detail. Screening or sorting was required because the material that came up the shafts in the 'tubs' (skips in Parkside and from 1986 in Sutton Manor) was not just coal. It also included rock, plus discarded items used in maintaining miners' safety, eg. timber, steel bars and brattice cloth used in ventilation. The coal also varied in size and type and burning efficiency.
In the early days of mining, coal was extracted from the seam by hand, with miners 'hewing' the coal with a pick. The hewer would then fill a container (initially a basket, then a box on wheels) and his 'drawer' would take it to the shaft for winding. With this simple system, the miner was able to ensure a better segregation of coal to non-coal items before the delivery to the surface. Little screening was required, apart from sorting the type and size of coal. As mining developed and more mechanised methods of coal extraction were introduced, the boxes or tubs now contained items other than pure coal. These needed to be removed as the colliery's customers would not be happy with a coal delivery that included rock or other non-combustible items.
Pictured from Gorsey Lane with Sutton Manor to the right. No. 2 pit's headgear on the left of picture is being dismantled, ready for replacement with steel headgear of similar design to no. 1 pit on the right which is integrated with new screen building.
It was also necessary to remove the aforementioned redundant items, such as timber and brattice cloth, so they could be recycled or disposed of. In the early days, these products were crudely extracted before they got into wagons or coal sacks. This hand separation work was mainly carried out by women and it was slow, tiring work. Developments in the efficiency of underground extraction, the opening of multiple coal seams and improved winding speeds and techniques led to greater volumes being wound and so improved screening methods were needed.
Consequently engineering companies that served the mining industry began designing and manufacturing mechanised devices to greatly improve the efficiency of screening. The introduction of a full screening system also required the design of new buildings to house this equipment and these changes also affected the existing winding headgear designs. In the new system, screening was both a vertical and horizontal separation process. Coal could, for example, be segregated into different sizes by dropping through certain sized holes onto a conveyor underneath (vertical). Or scrap items could be manually taken off a conveyor and placed in a bin alongside (horizontal).
The letterhead of John Wood & Sons Ltd. who designed and made the screens at Clock Face Colliery
Both the horizontal and vertical separations ended via chutes into rail wagons underneath. When all these drops in levels are added together, it can be appreciated that the original surface stopping level for the cages in the shaft now had to be much higher. Coupled with the introduction of overwind safety devices into the headgear, to stop the possibility of the cage going over the pulleys, these changes required complete new headgears to be installed or existing ones modified. Clock Face Colliery covered all of these issues during the 1920s, illustrated in the following pictures.
The above photograph again taken from inside the colliery yard looking towards Gorsey Lane, shows the exterior of the completed screens building integrated with the downcast no. 1 pit's new headgear. The building was very large with many levels inside. Full coal wagons can be seen under the building ready to be despatched via the rail line to the left, which joins the Widnes line south of Clock Face. An example of the loading chute from the scrap bin can be seen at the front right of the picture.
Clock Face Colliery pictured in John Wood & Son catalogue - From the Graham Isherwood Collection
The screens building was a significant investment for the Wigan Coal and Iron Company and John Wood & Sons supplied the screening equipment. They included the photographs below in their catalogue which demonstrate the different stages of screening at Clock Face.
The upper part of the first photo above shows the tippler housing into which tubs discharged their coal, with two lines of shaker conveyors below. The inclined steel shakers are thrown forwards and backwards by an eccentric drive shaft and rod system. Hole perforations in the bottom plate begin a sizing process, and the end of the shaker feeds a motorised continuous 'slat' conveyor travelling to the left.
Two photos taken inside the Clock Face Colliery screens building - From the Graham Isherwood Collection
The second photograph on the right shows the next stage with the slat conveyors taking the coal through a hand screening area. Women would generally stand alongside these conveyors to remove unwanted items, dropping them into a hopper between the 2nd and 3rd conveyors. Note the steps and platform used to cross from one position to another, and the shovels that were used in the removal process as well as to keep the floor clean. The small amount of coal on the conveyors suggest that the photographs were taken at the installation period during trials of the various stages of screening.
The above photograph is further along the same process, with the slat conveyor on top. When in operation, coal was delivered to the inclined perforated 'troughs' and then onto another slat conveyor. The perforations are small in size and are likely to have been used to capture the last of the 'slack' or very small coal. Note the rake leaning onto the bunker which was used to remove unwanted items or to clear build ups in the passage of coal. The slat conveyors at this point are now sloping downwards, suggesting that this particular line is getting close to its final delivery into a hopper/ bunker.
Inside the screens building pictured in John Wood & Son's catalogue - From the Graham Isherwood Collection
The above sectional drawing of the Clock Face screens building shows an internal cross section looking towards Burtonwood. At the top level are full tubs having exited the cage and now travelling down to the tipplers on the left and into which they will tip their load to begin the screening process. The empty tubs having returned to their position on the right are able to re-enter the two decks of each cage. At ground level, rail wagons can be seen under the respective-sized coal discharges, in this case nuts, cobbles and large coal.
Sectional drawing of the Clock Face screens building - From the Graham Isherwood Collection
The strikes in the 1920s caused considerable hardship to the families of miners. Just days before the 1926 national strike and lock out, the St.Helens Reporter, in an article entitled 'Who Picks the Coal? - Dangerous Practice at Clock Face', described how serious damage had been caused to the colliery dirt heap by one hundred and fifty people who'd been helping themselves to coal. The article reported that it had been the custom for some months for local people to regularly visit the heap and 'purloin some of the coal which they found there'. The practice had continued despite the death of a man, which the newspaper described as a 'raider', who some weeks earlier had been buried alive whilst taking coal.
Fortunately on the morning of 29th March 1926 when 150 pickers were 'busily engaged raking and scratching among the dirt for coal', no one lost their life. However, the railway line which carried 100 ton trains at the top of the heap, began to sink and so the colliery management called the police. P.C. Johnson arrived but was single-handed and quite unable to arrest so many pilferers on his own. He did take the names of three men who were subsequently fined 5 shillings each at St.Helens Police Court.
St.Helens Reporter 16/4/1926 and women picking coal at Clock Face during the 1926 lock out - note small boy on left
There were happier times during the lock out. There was very good weather throughout the summer and in June it was reported that Clock Face colliers were gathering nightly at a coppice, playing their mouth organs and listening to a nightingale sing. Word soon spread and 400 people from the village turned up late one night, although the bashful nightingale refused to perform! The manager at Clock Face Colliery at this time was a man called Twist.
Men preparing food for the soup kitchen at Clock Face in September 1926 during the miners' lockout
The above photograph is believed to have been taken during the 1926 lock out. Dick Latham of Gorsey Lane is second from the left in the front row of pitmen that are facing the camera. To Dick's left and just behind him with head turned, is David Mercer, also of Gorsey Lane. Can you name any other miners? Note some very youthful faces amongst them.
Clock Face Colliery miners thought to have been taken during the 1926 lock out - contributed by Alan Mercer
There were exciting times ahead during the 1930s with the building of a baths complex, which also housed a lamp room, rescue station & first-aid room, cycle shed, offices and a canteen. You can read about this and much, much more in the second and final part of this comprehensive history of Clock Face Colliery.