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Coal and Peat

From at least medieval times, the residents of virtually every village in the Yorkshire Dales would have had what were called turbary rights on the moorland above where they lived. This meant that they had the right to cut peat for fuel. This was a particularly valuable right where woodland was diminishing and where rights of access to collect firewood were strictly controlled. In early summer, families would cut the peat into manageable blocks using special tools. It was then stacked to allow it to dry and finally carried down to the house using a horse drawn cart or sledge. Many farmhouses used to have a specially built peat house to store it in. All the tools involved can be seen on display at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. The peat pots where the peat was dug are now often filled with water although when in use they would have been carefully drained to maintain access to the working face or ‘bench’. Peat cutting sites can usually be identified by place names such as Burnsall Peat Pits in Wharfedale and Ten End Peat Ground in Sleddale near Hawes. Peat Gate leading out of Feetham in Swaledale was the route that local people took when hauling the peat down to the village.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, large amounts of peat were used in lead smelt mills. The Peat Store at Blakethwaite in Swaledale is a fine example with its arched open sides that allowed air to circulate and so help dry the peat blocks. The peat needed to fuel the ore-hearths at the nearby smelt mill was cut and dried on the moorland above. Once dried it was sent down to the store on a peat slide that ran down the side of the valley west of the smelt mill chimney. The 119 metre long Peat Store at Old Gang lead smelt mill reputedly held three year’s fuel supply. It originally had a heather-thatched roof.

Locally dug coal has also been used as a fuel from the earliest times. Coal was found when Gargrave Roman villa was excavated, possibly from sources on Bordley Moor about 4 miles away. Rylstone parish registers record coal being mined there throughout the medieval period. Such small coal mines are found throughout the Dales wherever the thin coal seams of the Yoredale and Millstone Grit Series outcrop. Coal was probably dug for domestic use at Lousegill long before its commercial exploitation in the 18th century. Spoilheaps and trackways are still clearly visible, but few above ground buildings were needed and so leave scant archaeological remains. The coal was generally poor quality and shaley and people often mixed it with peat to help it go further. Travellers in the 18th century were uncomplimentary about the poor domestic fires produced. It was also used in lime kilns where the poor quality and slow burn was less of a problem. Domestic scale coal extraction has left few traces, but some of the larger coal fields in the Dales were producing on a more industrial scale for many hundreds of years. The coal mines on Preston, Grinton and Redmire Moors flourished from the 16th century onwards. They eventually covered a huge area, with spoil heaps from shallow shafts scattered over some 2.5 square miles of moorland.

The Tan Hill area was supplying coal to Richmond Castle in 1384 and was still working as late as 1934. There are hundreds of grassed over shallow shafts there but by the 19th century, mining was mainly from deeper shafts with horse power used for pumping and winding operations. During the 18th and 19th centuries, much coal from here and other larger coal fields was converted into coke using primitive beehive ovens, such as the well-preserved but remote example on Fountains Fell. The coke, locally known as ‘cinders’, was cleaner and lighter to transport and was in demand for lead smelt mills, particularly for slag hearths. The Fountains Fell example is unusual in that it supplied coke for the 18th century zinc industry based near Malham.

At Threshfield Colliery, the 19th century developer built a washery to clean up the coal produced so that it could be used to fuel industrial lime kilns in a nearby quarry. The base for the colliery winding engine and washery are still visible. The route of a narrow-gauge tramway which linked the mine with the limestone quarry and its kilns at Skyrethorns and the main Grassington railway can also still be traced.

The arrival of the Leeds-Liverpool canal at Gargrave in 1777 saw the beginning of the end for most of the small-scale coal mines of the Dales. The coal brought in from the deep pits of Lancashire and West Yorkshire was of a far superior quality and relatively cheap. Hauliers queued into the village to load up with coal, which was then carried by horse and cart far into the Dales. Coal is still sold from one of the old canal warehouses in Gargrave although today [2004] it is carried there by road. By the late 19th century, railways had penetrated even further and in Wensleydale, huge stockpiles of coal both for sale and to fuel the trains themselves were to be found at stations such as Hawes and Aysgarth.

Sources

Gill, Harry M (1988) The History of Gargrave. The Ecclesiastical Parish of Gargrave Vol 2 Sheffield: Sheffield City Polytechnic

Gill, M C (1994) The Wharfedale Mines (British Mining No 49) Keighley: Northern Mine Research Society

Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1997) Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales Otley: Smith Settle [Chapter 9 – ‘Peat’]

Hudson, Philip J (1998) Coal Mining in Lunesdale Settle: Hudson History of Settle

Raistrick, Arthur (1991) Arthur Raistrick’s Yorkshire Dales Clapham: Dalesman [‘Pennine Peat Pits’ pp52-55]

White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [Chapter 8 – ‘Legacies of Industry’]