The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names


Railways and Coal Mines


A talk by Rosemary Bailey


This article was published in the April 2016 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society


At one of our committee meetings when it was decided that the theme for the Annual Gathering 2015 would be The Railway I offered to do a talk on trains in coal mines because (I thought) my great great grandfather was an engine driver in a coal min. However when I checked the records he actually drove an engine at a steel works. I still had to do the talk though!

On the 1881 census my 2x great grandfather Thomas Saul is listed as living in Rounds Green in the Black Country and is an engine driver at a steel works. Prior to that he had been listed as an engineer on censuses. However between at least 1871 and 1873 he was also publican of the Engine Tavern, another tenuous link to railways! His father, also Thomas, was baptised in Claydon, Oxfordshire in 1790. Thomas senior was an engineer who employed one boy (1861 census). His father was Peter Saul,  wheelwright, who first crops up in Banbury in 1777 marrying his first wife, Elizabeth Sallis who died in 1787. Peter and his third wife Hannah (Hanton) moved a few miles north of Banbury to the village of Claydon where three children were baptised between 1790 and 1794 before moving to Oldbury in the Black Country sometime between 1794 and 1797.

William, son of Thomas the engine driver, was employed as a stationary engine driver in the 1881 census so may have worked at a coal mine.

Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution led to a huge increase in demand for coal and consequently an improvement in the technology in producing it. For example in 1700 annual output was under 3 million tons but by 1850s it was over 70 million tons a year.

Improving methods of haulage was key – although problematical, since a characteristic of the coal industry for centuries was that it consisted of large number small mines. As late as 1880 there were 3300 mines in the country. Investment into haulage was likely to be low in these small mines.

Waggonways and Canals

Prior to the development of steam locomotives, coal was carried by waggon ways and on canals.

Waggonways had wooden rails along which horses, or sometimes people, drew waggons. The earliest known use of a waggon way to haul coal is the Wollaton Waggonway near Nottingham which was used between 1605 and 1620 when the coal ran out.  After this date waggon ways at coal mines were also built underground and in both cases ponies, men, women and children were used to pull the waggons or tubs on narrow gauge rails. The 1842 Coal Mine Act prohibited children and women from working underground.

The canal system was vastly improved during the Industrial Revolution since a reliable method was needed to move all kinds of  material in bulk. A wagon and four horses could move 1 ton of goods
12-18 miles a day depending on state of roads. However on a canal four horses could pull 100 tons of goods 24 miles. Canals were used to carry coal long distances but also mines close to a canal sometimes had short canal spurs built to them so they could connect with the main canals. Coal was also carried by sea.

Newcomen’s Atmospheric Engine

The first time anything was moved using steam power in a coal mine was in 1712 when Newcomen’s atmospheric engine was used to pump water out of mines. This was one of the first times the steam had been used to produce useful work and was key in the future development of the steam engine. The first Newcomen engines was installed in Conygree Coal works near Dudley, in the Black Country, where my family lived 100 years later. They were used throughout Britain and Europe for the next 200 years. Newcomen engines were very inefficient  and it was estimated that 3/4 of the energy was being used to heat the piston and cylinder rather than going towards pumping water.

James Watt’s improvements to Newcomen Engine

While working at the University of Glasgow in 1765 James Watt introduced a separate condenser, which radically improved the power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of steam engines. He also surrounded the cylinder with a hot water jacket to reduce heat loss further. For various technical reasons it wasn’t till 1776 that the first engines were used a commercially. The first engine was used for pumping water in Bloomfield Colliery in Tipton, again in the Black Country.

Eventually Watt adapted his engine to produce rotary motion, greatly broadening its use beyond pumping water and allowing it to produce motive power.  During the 1780s this type of engine was in use commercially and it is likely it was in use in coal mines to wind up men and spoil in some kind of container however I can’t find anything about dates etc.

Early Steam Locomotives

Steam locomotives were first developed for use in coal mines, iron works and other industries rather than for carrying passengers.

Essentially Watt’s engines utilised steam at slightly above atmospheric pressure. It was Richard Trevithick who developed the first high-pressure steam engine. He also built the first full-scale working railway steam locomotive. On 21 February 1804 the world's first locomotive-hauled railway journey took place. However during the journey some of the cast iron plates of the waggon way broke under the locomotive as they were intended only to support the lighter load of horse-drawn wagons so the test run was deemed unsuccessful.

Middleton Pit

In 1812 the Middleton Railway became the first commercial railway to successfully use steam locomotives using a twin cylinder engine, possibly called the Salamanca, developed by Mathew Murray.

At the time the first steam locomotive ran It was thought that the iron rails wouldn’t provide enough traction so the track on one side was re-laid with a toothed rail, and the locomotive had a wheel with a pinion to mesh with it. Three other locomotives were built for the mine, and steam locomotion was used there for 20 years before a series of boiler explosions causing fatalities led to the return of the horse. The first member of the public to be killed by a locomotive may have been a 13-year-old boy named John Bruce killed in February 1813 whilst running alongside the tracks.

 Killingworth Locomotives

Killingworth was home to a number of pits including the world-famous Killingworth Colliery. George Stephenson became mine engineer there in 1812 and immediately improved the haulage of the coal from the mine using fixed engines. After he had seen an locomotive engine of the same type as used in Middleton Colliery he persuaded his mine’s owners to invest in a ‘travelling engine’ to haul coal on the Killingworth waggon way. This engine was Blucher, named after a Prussian General. The locomotive could haul 30 tons of coal up a hill at 4 mph.


The transition from horse drawn wagons on a wagon way to a fully steam-powered railway was gradual, steam powered railways often used horses when the steam locomotives were unavailable and as late as 1830 a 13 mile railway in the US was opened that used horses alone.

The history of the railway is bound up in the history of the coal mines,  and it wasn’t till 1830 that the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened, and the first steam passenger service, primarily locomotive hauled, began. After that, large scale railway construction started in Britain, then spread throughout the world, beginning the Railway Age.




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