Wet Earth Colliery, Clifton.


Wet Earth Colliery is of national and international importance primarily due to the activities of James Brindley, the eminent engineer. Brindley's solution to water problems at the colliery remains unique in the annals of coalmining history and provides us with an insight into the genius with which he was to approach other, better documented projects.

Poorly illustrated by contemporary historians, the rise and fall of Wet Earth Colliery is briefly described in the following notes.

The Irwell Valley Fault follows the course of the river Irwell in a north east to south west direction. The fault is a 3,000ft downthrow of strata with rocks known as the Permian Measures overlaying the coal measures north of the fault. Basically, on the southern (Clifton) bank of the river we find coal outcropping wheras on the northern (Ringley) bank, those same coal seams are almost 3,000 feet below the surface!

It is conceivable that at an early date, the coal outcropping to surface would have been discovered and mined on a small scale, possibly via bell-pits or drift mines. Quickly worked out, these crude attempts were of no use commercially and it was not until 1740 when John Heathcote, a gentleman landowner, sank the first "deep" mine on site, that major efforts were made to win coal.

Having employed an engineer to direct the the shaft sinking, Heathcote looked forward to prosperity, an expectation that was unfortunately thwarted by water which flooded the mine soon after completion. His choice of engineer was well thought out. Hailing from a strong mining background Matthew Fletcher was able to draw on the experience of his father who held extensive mining rights in Bolton, and his brother who worked collieries in the Atherton area. However even with this cumulative knowledge, Fletcher was unable to effect drainage andf in 1750 the up and coming James Brindley was called upon for advice.

Tales regarding the meeting between Heathcote, Brindley and Fletcher appear to have been romanticised over the years but nonetheless, in 1752 Brindley was credited with the construction of a weir at Ringley. From it he drove a passage some 800 yards long to a point opposite the colliery, albeit on the wrong side of the river. Working to an imaginative plan, Brindley led the water into an inverted siphon ("U" bend) under the river discharging the water onto the southern bank of the Irwell. The flowing water was then channelled along a stream bed to the colliery where it continued to a large chamber adjacent to the pit shaft itself. Here it drove a wooden water wheel which in turn operated pumps that eventually drained the workings. Both drive water and pumped water were taken away from the wheel chamber via a tailrace which discharged back to the river.

Granted a new lease of life, the colliery prospered and in 1790 Matthew Fletcher, now a landowner, began to extend Brindley's feeder stream to link with the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal in readiness for the latter opening to traffic in 1801. Access to a wider market generated expansion at Wet Earth and in 1804 the purchase of a steam engine was coupled with the sinking of a second shaft to signify a new era.

By 1860, control of the mining intersts had passed from the Fletcher family to Joseph and Josia Evans who had extensive holdings in the Haydock area. Along with their nephews, the Pilkington Brothers, they formed the Clifton and Kersley Coal Company and sank a third shaft. Initially it was used as a furnace ventilation shaft but in 1898 this dangerous practice was superceded when a ventilation fan was purchased and installed at the pit head.

Between 1880 and 1900 there was a strong investment in surface plant. Coal screening equipment and a railway yard were constructed to deal with increased production from deeper seams and in 1901 compressed air rope haulage was installed to replace the use of ponies below ground.

Between 1900 and 1917 many seams became exhausted and after the 1921 coal strike, only the Plodder seam re-opened. In 1928 economics finally signified the closure of Wet Earth Colliery and in 1929 the Clifton and Kersley Coal Company ceased to exist, having almalgamated with other local collieries to form the Manchester Collieries Limited.

Lying derelict, the colliery was amazingly saved from industrial re-development and in 1958 two engineers A G Banks and R B Schofield, were drawn to the site and wrote a book on the subject. The Wet Earth Exploration Society was formed in 1990 and a group of enthusiasts have since spent many years exploring both the site and the underground drainage tunnels.

Mark Wright.

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Early explorations of the tunnels!