The Dirty History of Coal Mining in Heywood

‘The heights and depths principally cultivated in Heywood appear to be those of factory chimneys and coal pits.’ (Edwin Waugh, Sketches of Lancashire Life, 1857)
The growth of Heywood from village to town was driven by the cotton industry, but there was always a need for coal and so Heywood - sitting over part of the extensive Lancashire Coalfield - also has a small-scale coal-mining tradition.

The origins of local mining can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I, who in 1580 granted John Blackwall the right to mine coal in the Cheesden Valley to the north of Heywood. Some landlords around this time allowed their tenants to dig coal for domestic use.

During the 17th century the small communities known as ‘folds’ were allowed to have their own mines, and the many Folds in the valleys around Heywood were dotted with small pits. These early miners dug for coal seams lying close to the surface, but another method was to cut sloping tunnels into hillsides and drag the coal out in baskets. Deeper shafts were dug with the onset of increased industrialisation.

There were at least 20 pits/tunnels along the Cheesden Valley, and an outcrop of the Holcombe Brook seam can still be seen at Cheesden Pasture today. The valley seams, exposed in the rock faces carved by the brook, were narrow and accessed by horizontal tunnelling, known as ‘drift mining’. Wind Hill Pit, which operated off Ashworth Road until the 20th century, was typical of these smaller mines. A tramway from the pit crossed the road, dropped down a hill, traversed a small bridge and terminated at Deeply Hill to supply the cotton mills there. Each trip moved about 500lbs of coal, and the tram wagons made up to 22 trips a day. Wind Hill Pit was closed after flooding.

A Collier’s Life 
As was the case with the cotton mills, there was a huge disparity between the living conditions of the mine owners and the workers. Simon Dearden (1715-95) was Lord of the Manor of Rochdale and his family had mining interests at Bamford, Hooley Clough, Siddal Moor and Rooley Moor. Life was good for the Deardens, but working conditions for the miners were appalling. They often worked bent double in cramped spaces, and the passageways were usually too low for even children to stand upright. Some coal seams were no thicker than 50 cm, so men had to work lying on their backs, using a pick to cut above and below themselves.

Link to the list of coal mines and pits in and around Heywood
How many coal mines and pits were there in and around Heywood? Read here. 

Conditions were also wet, as recalled by one Heywood man who started work at Ridd Pit, opposite School Lane at Ashworth, as a 12-year-old in the 19th century:
‘It was probably about six or seven in the morning when he went down in the cage with the pitmen… He said it was like going down a waterfall and, when the men got out at the bottom of the shaft, the water was up to their knees and, as a child, it was up to his chest. He was so terrified by this and the total darkness that he couldn’t carry on and returned to the surface never to go down a pit again.’
Miners at 'Tramping Cat', Ashworth Colliery, 1895. (Haynes)

Loading coal at Tramping Cat. (Haynes)

Most colliers lived on the north side of Heywood, where the majority of mines were located, but there were also small pockets of mining families in the town. Some who worked for the Gregge-owned mine in Hopwood lived in communal housing at ‘Knowls View’, off Manchester Road near the 'Starkey Arms'.

There is little indication that women worked down the mines, although there is a brief mention in a 1888 book of two local women employed in ‘dragging coal tubs’. There were, of course, plenty of children in the industry. They usually began working coalmines around the age of eight, although some started as early as four or five years old. Their jobs included dragging or pushing wagons or baskets along the tunnels, or opening and closing ventilation doors - often in complete darkness.

A young child ('trapper') sits ready to open and close the air door.

Following the damning findings of an 1842 report into child labour, new laws were passed that outlawed the employment of boys under the age of ten in mines. Girls were not allowed to work in mines at all. However, older children could still work up to 16 hours per day in the mines. Not all mine owners respected the new laws, however.

Mine of Constant Sorrow
The threat of a roof collapse or flooding was constant, and accidents were frequent and often fatal. The Heywood Coal Company owned two collieries in the town during the mid-19th century, including one at Captain Fold, beside Roeacre Brook off Chadwick Lane. A series of tragedies led to the closure of this pit, starting with the death of miner James Heighton, who in 1844 fell more than 60 feet to the bottom of a pit shaft. Four years later an explosion of firedamp (flammable gasses, usually methane) killed 33-year-old Edmund Jackson. The threat of such incidents was taken seriously, as seen when two Heywood miners were jailed in 1858 for using naked lights in a mine instead of the safer Davy lamps.

Cramped conditions in thin coal seams.

Another tragedy occurred in May 1852 when water from the River Roch burst through a barrier and flooded the Captain Fold Colliery. 30 miners were in the pit at the time but most escaped unhurt after being alerted by the noise of the onrushing water. However, three men were still trapped underground. Rescue efforts began immediately as the course of the water was diverted, but it took four hours to pump the water from the mine. One of the men was trapped in an air pocket and after a few hours he was brought out alive. His brother, 13-year-old Daniel Heywood, was not so lucky and died along with 25-year-old Robert Kershaw.

With the dangers of the nearby Roch now apparent, the colliery was permanently closed soon afterwards. The former shaft is now in a water-filled hollow and covered by a concrete marker.

An even worse accident took place that same year at the Birtle Pit near Elbut Lane, overlooking Ashworth Valley. This mine was accessed via a 50-metre vertical shaft. One day a collier dug through to old flooded workings and water rushed into the pit. 15 workers were in the mine at the time, and seven were drowned, including a 12-year-old boy whose body was washed down the ‘sough’, a drainage channel emptying into the valley.* Four of the dead were teenagers. The bodies were laid out at the Pack Horse pub for identification.

The same mine flooded again in 1884, this time causing the death of nine colliers. Their bodies were never recovered and the pit was sealed and closed.

There were fatalities at Ashworth Colliery in 1865 when the two Lord brothers and the two Howarth brothers were trapped after a roof collapsed while they were removing a pillar of coal. Their workmates struggled for two hours to free them but John Lord and Thomas Howarth were both dead, while Richard Howarth was ‘so seriously injured that there is no hope of recovery’.

John Ashworth of Norden was trapped underground in knee-deep in water for 40 hours in Close Barn Pit, Birtle Dene, following another roof collapse in 1886. There were numerous other local mining deaths over time, including the following people:
  • J Marsden, Pilsworth, 1851, entangled in pumping gear
  • James Booth, Wolstenholme Fold, 1859, roof collapse
  • Patrick O’Connor (age 13), 1859, Birtle, crushed by a wagon
  • J Clegg, Birtle Bank, 1861, hit by falling bucket in the shaft
  • WH Sykes (age 11), Ashworth, 1862, crushed by tub-wagon
  • James Turner, Pilsworth, 1863, suffocated by blackdamp (gas)# after descending into an old shaft without lowering a light to check it was safe.
  • Robert Brierley, Ashworth, 1863, explosion
  • Samuel Ogden, Pilsworth, 1864, suffocated by blackdamp coming from old workings
  • William Lever, 1867, Cob House, Birtle, fell down shaft
  • William Aitchinson (boy), Ashworth, 1873, crushed by tub-wagon
  • Abraham Smith, 1874, Birtle, accidental explosion of gunpowder
  • James Ashworth, 1878, Knowl, roof collapse
  • William Turner, 1893, Gristlehurst, piece of roof coal (a 10kg piece of roof coal fell on his neck, injuring his spine)

There was more tragedy even after most of the mines had closed. During the General Strike of 1926, men from Heywood and Bury used to dig for coal at Birtle Dene, and one of them was killed when the tunnel they had carved into the hillside collapsed.

Decline of the Mines
The decline of the local textile industry, coupled with improvements in coal transport, led to the demise of mining around Heywood. When the Ashworth Colliery closed in 1898, about 80 people lost their jobs.

The abandonment plans below show just how extensive mining in that area was. Some shafts were up to 130 metres deep, and tunnels were often only 50 cm high! Pillars of coal were left in place between tunnels to support the roof. Some were removed as the mine closed, but others were left in place to support surface structures such as Ashworth Hall and St James’ Church. There are similar underground networks around other former collieries in Heywood. This has led to occasional collapses in the 20th century, such as one near the town end of Bamford Road that resulted in a row of terraced houses subsiding there.

Extent of shafts near Ridd Pit. (Heywood Living Memories #44)

Despite the closure of most local mines, coal continued to be the primary fuel used for heating homes in Heywood until well into the 20th century, and the remains of the derelict collieries were scavenged in times of hardship. During the 1930s children were often sent to places like Ridd Pit, Birtle or Hooley Clough to pick out nuggets of coal from the shale tips there. Better quality coal could be scavenged at the end of the day when workers cleared the coke furnaces at Heywood Gasworks at Hooley Bridge, where a small cart could be filled with coke for sixpence.

Drift mining continued at Bamford Closes, Red Lumb, until 1950, and nearby mines at Rooley Moor and Syke also remained open. However, by 2007 only two pits on the entire Lancashire Coalfield were still working, down from the thousands of the 19th century. During the remainder of the 20th century the reminders of this harsh industry, such as the chimney at Ridd Pit, slowly disappeared from the Heywood landscape. Old pit shafts were filled and capped with concrete markers, and these (along with the occasional name such as Coal Pits Farm and Mine Street) are now some of the very few physical indications that Heywood also has a coal mining history. There is (or maybe was, at least until the 1980s) also remains of old pit workings and a pit road at Four Acre Mill, the highest of the old Cheesden Mills.

The mines are gone, but the dirty history of mining in Heywood is not forgotten.


An excellent overview of conditions inside a mine can be seen in this video about an old mine shaft that was discovered during construction of the M66 in 1976:

* A Sough, or Day Eye, was a drainage channel for water inside mines. They ran to outlets in hillsides which needed to be lower than the bottom of the mine.
#  Blackdamp is a mixture of unbreathable gases left after oxygen is removed from the air, typically consists of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapour.
   Related pages   

  • Owen Ashmore, The Industrial Archaeology of North-West England, Manchester University Press, 1982. 
  • The Coal Authority, 'Interactive Map Viewer'. (website)
  • Captain Fold Pit Disaster’, Heywood Advertiser, 1 June 2005 
  • Coalmining History Resource Centre, Coalmining Accidents and Deaths
  • ‘Owd Alf’, ‘Ashworth Mines’, Heywood Living Memories, Heywood Memories Society, vol.48, Summer 2002. 
  • Edith Bertwistle, ‘More About the Collieries’, Heywood Living Memories, Heywood Memories Society, vol.45, Autumn 2001. 
  • Hannah Haynes, Heywood, Chalford Publishing, 1997. 
  • Cliff Lever, ‘More Snippets from a Heywood Childhood’, Heywood Living Memories, Heywood Memories Society, vol.2, October 1990. 
  • William Robertson, Old & New Rochdale and its People, Kessinger People, 1888. 
  • Rochdale Council, ‘History of Industry in Heywood’, (from Heywood Town Guide, 1950s). 
  • AV Sandiford and TE Ashworth, The Forgotten Valley, Bury and District Local History Society, 1981. 
  • John Slawson, ‘Coal Mining in Heywood’, Heywood Living Memories, Heywood Memories Society, vol.4, Summer 1991. 
  • Unnamed author, ‘Ashworth Undermined’, Heywood Living Memories, Heywood Memories Society, vol.44, Summer 2001.


A coal pit on the Hopwood Hall Estate was known locally as Nancy Coalpit. A wagon road took coal from the pit to the canal and the railway at Hopwood. Lady Hopwood insisted all the coal from her pit was washed before it was sold. She would spot any chimney omitting dirty smoke whist collecting rents around Hopwood in her pony and trap.

The unknown author you mentioned of Ashworth Valley Undermined is Eric Haworth.