The waterwheel was the electric drill of the middle ages – you could hang any tool on the end of it.  While molinologists can’t be said to see all millers as jolly or dusty, they have often given privileged attention to the mechanics of grinding, simply because it was commonly the only job a water mill could get in its old age.  However, many mills began life in more demanding work, such as raising water from mines.  Until about 1720 there was no economic alternative for this.  By this time the Tyne was exporting over a million tons of coal each year and a colliery might have to lift as much water as coal, done, for the most part, by what appears in 17th century documents as a “coalmiln”.

chain pumpA rag or chain pump as drawn in the 16th century by Georgius Agricola (in De Re Metallica)

The suction lift pump was not in use until after 1700, and until then water was raised using disks set on a chain and drawn through a standpipe, the so called “rag-pump” (known in the north as a chain-engine) driven by a “rag” or star-wheel. However, the reach of the chain-engine was limited and because by the 1660s Tyne collieries were commonly 80 yards deep a triple shaft system had arisen.  Water was raised in three stages, often seam by seam, by three chain-engines each in its own water pit; the two lower ones powered, as in a windmill, by immense vertical drive-shafts from the waterwheel, above.

In a new colliery, where the terrain allowed, the mill wheels might be set one below the other; a system for maximising power extraction known to the Romans.  In 1670 there was a cascade of three wheels at Ravensworth, the third one underground, and at Lumley of three and of two.  In old ones, as in Stella Freehold Colliery on the Blaydon Burn, an early High Mill draining an upper seam was supplemented by a Low Mill as in time pits were deepened; here the mill stream was divided proportionally between the two wheels for the later engines.  The availability after 1700 of effective and affordable suction lift pumps ended this cumbersome and inefficient system; the shafts were replaced by a rocker-beam or ‘bob’ which lifted reciprocating batteries of pumps set on either side of the pit, the “bob-gin”.

The new pumps were to end the era of the coalmill, because they made possible the Newcomen engine, which could simply replace a set of pumps at one end of the bob.  There was no instant victory however, for the new prime mover, as it was expensive and took a decade to equal the coalmill’s power output.  The new engine first saw service where there were difficulties over water.  Arbury estate, which saw the famous Griff engine of 1715, is not on a river and had limited supplies of water.  The coalmills at Ravensworth, which tapped the Black Burn by means of the long Trench leat, and at Lumley, which had the combined Moor and Herrington Burns, were still at work in the 1740s.

suction pumpA bank of three water powered  suction pumps drawn in the 16th century by Georgius Agricola  (in De Re Metallica)

Some of the hydraulic installations competed successfully with the heat engine.  The Bobgins near Causey Arch, set up for the Beckley Colliery of 1727, later served Andrewshouse Pits and seem to have lasted out the 18th century.  Many, when replaced by heat engines, were set to other work; the Close House corn mill used the Ravensworth coalmills’ leat and Lumley’s mill ponds similarly gave rise to Lumley Forge.  Those of Stella Freehold Colliery had a particularly long and varied life.

However, the history of most coalmills is obscure, partly because surveys of 17th century collieries are rare.  Happily for us, in the early century disputes over the water that the mills used were frequent.  Litigation reveals both the Allerdeans Mill of 1617, a miracle of water collection which served the great Wickham Grand Lease Colliery and whose site is now entirely built over, and the Norwood engine of a rival colliery which made opportunist use of Allerdean’s run-off.  The former was never replaced by a Newcomen engine and the latter not until the 1740s, which was subsequently used for a long-lived forge1.
Nevertheless a major cause of ignorance is that the history of coal and that of water mills have not been brought together.  A viewer’s report on Lumley Colliery throws light on the Forge mill; New Lambton Mill upstream was probably in origin a coalmill, and its date, which molinologists may know, would illuminate the chronology of the Bournmoor pits.  On the Herrington Burn, higher still, Penshaw Mill is less likely to have been a coalmill, but if it were it would serve to date the forerunners of Lambton A and B Pits, which appear on an undated plan of Lambton Colliery, and thus date the plan itself 2.  A pooling of information would be useful.

Yet ideally more than a chronological perspective of individual mills is needed; historically what matters is the overall exploitation of their sources of power.  The whole of Lumley Park Burn and of Herrington Burn below Penshaw Forge were under the control of the Lambton Family.  This fact is important in the development of Wear Coal, and contrasts with that of the Tyne, where ownerships and water-rights on the Ouseburn, Derwent, Team, Blaydon Burn and the like were much more complicated and shaped industrial growth there.  Levine and Wrightson assessed the process of industrialisation in Wickham by the proportion of the population the coal trade emplyed3.  Technological progress, however, is judged by the amount of energy available to each worker.  Estimates of the power abstracted from the Team, Derwent, Black Burn, Dunston Hill, Clock Burn, Snipe’s Dean Gill and Leap Mill Burn for all the enterprises they served would tell us much more.  Hopefully, they may one day prove possible to rough out.

  1. For a full account and sources see: Clavering, E.. (1995). The Coal Mills of Northeast England: The Use of Waterwheels for draining Coal Mines, 1600 – 1750. Technology and Culture. 36 (2).  University of Chicago Press.
  2. DCRO Lumley D/X/P41; Lambton D/X/1050/18
  3. Levine, D & Wrightson, K.. (1991). The Making of an Industrial Society: Wickham, 1560-1765.  OUP.

Eric Clavering.
From: Northumbrian Mills No 5, January 1998

Wear Coalmills, known and suspected

Colliery Mill Name Date Power Source Site
Pelton Flatts   1693 ?
HURRATON   <1640 ?
LUMLEY (beam <1700) c1630 Lumley Park Bn +
LUMLEY (2-story 1675) 1654 Lumley Park Bn +
LUMLEY (3-story 1675 1654 Lumley Park Bn +
LUMLEY (chain) ?1675 Lumley Park Bn +
LUMLEY Bobgin <1700 Lumley Park Bn +
LAMBTON Lambton Engine <1640 Lambton Gill +
Lambton Crow Bank <1640 gill A
Lambton ?Floater’s 1697 Moor Burn +
Lambton ?New Lambton ?1720s Moor Burn +
Lambton ?Penshaw Forge ?1720s Herrington Burn A
Rainton ?Malleygill ?1717 gill
South Biddick South Biddick <1680 Biddick Gill A
Newbottle ?New Mill ?1697 Herrington Burn +?
Low Lambton Low L Engine >1730 ? A
Barmston ?Forge >1640 Barmston Burn ? A

Tyne Coalmills – Known and Suspected

Colliery Mill Name Date Power Source Site
Axwell Damhead >1600 Derwent +
BENSHAM Jackson’s Close 1680s ? A
Benwell   <1625 ?  
Blackburn   >1700 Black Burn?
Brinkburn   ?>1650 ?
Byker   >1680 ?
Byremoor, Busty Bank Leap Mill 1712 Leap Mill Burn +
Carr Hill   c1700 Swan Pool? A
Chopwell   <1654 ?
CHOW DENE   <1625 Dene Gill +?
Clockburn Clockburn >1640 Clock Burn +
Denton   late C17 Denton Burn
DUNSTON   c1650 Dunston Hill A
Elswick   early C17 ?  
FARNACRES Norwood 1620s Allerdeans +
Felling   c1700 ?
Fenham   >1650 ?  
Gateshead Bensham High Team early C17 Team +
Gateshead Bensham Low Team early C17 Team +
Colliery Mill Name Date Power Source Site
Gateshead G L Rock late C16 Tyne +
HEATON Low >1680 ?
Heworth   c1700 ? +?
Jesmond   early C17 Ouseburn +?
RAVENSWORTH Ravensworth 1670 Black Burn +
Redheugh   <1650 ?
Riding Field Clockburn >1640 Clock Burn +
Saltwellside   >1650 ?
SCOTSWOOD   1680s Denton Burn?
STELLA FREEHOLD High ?1630s Blaydon Burn +
STELLA FREEHOLD Low c1670 Blaydon Burn ?+
Stella G Lease   <1650 ?
Swalwell   >1660 Derwent A
TANFIELD   >1720 Causey Burn ?
Town Fields   >1700 ?
Town Moor   >1650 ?  
West Gibside ? Paper Mill >1650 gill +
WICKHAM   1452 ?
Wickham G L Gin Close late C16 Wickham Hill +?
WICKHAM G L Allerdeans 1617 Dunston Hill +
Wickham G Lease Bishop’s Mill >1680 Derwent +
WINLATON Selby’s 1635 Winlaton Hill +
WINLATON Selby’s 1639 Derwent +
Winlaton   >1635 Blaydon Burn?

? indicates uncertainties

Colliery:                                                                           Site:
NAME = Documented                                                   +  =  Known
Name =  Undocumented but must have existed     –   =  Unknown
Name =  Suspected                                                        A  =  Area Know

De Re Metallica (Georgius Agricola)

The illustrations above  are taken from De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola.  This was the first comprehensive book on mining ever to be based on actual observation and field research.  Written in 1556 and lavishly illustrated using woodcuts the book provides a fascinating view of life, as well as mining methodology,  in the 16th century.  The plates contains a number of examples of the use of water power in mining.  The book was translated into English in 1912 by Herbert Clark Hoover (former US President) and his wife Lou Henry.