The Auckland Coalfield


The common factor to the area is coal.  The Auckland Coalfield forms the southern part of the Great Northern Coalfield that dominated the counties of Durham and Northumberland.  The western part of the Auckland Coalfield is where the coal seams reach the surface and the river Gaunless and its tributaries flow through the area.  Coal is relatively near the surface although some seams are particularly thin and it had been worked for centuries using simple bell pit technology.  But the cost of transportation using pack horses and carts was expensive so the full potential of the area had not been materialised.

In 1825, the  industrial revolution swept into the district following the opening up of the Auckland Coalfield by the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company with the construction of its famous railway line which ran from Stockton to Darlington then onto Shildon and Witton Park.  The coal from the Phoenix Pit (Witton Park Colliery) could now be transported to Darlington, the port at Stockton and beyond.  Other land owners and entrepreneurs wanted to get in on the act.  Lord Strathmore and the Rev. Luke Prattman wished to see the development of their mineral interests in the Gaunless Valley notably at Norwood Colliery, located to the east of modern day High Lands and pits at Butterknowle and Copley.  They petitioned for a railway to serve their interests and the result was construction of the Haggerleases Branch Railway.  It was laid along a route following the river valley and it was opened for goods traffic in 1830.  Initially horse draw power rather than engines was used.  Horses pulled the coal waggons (called chaldrons) along iron rails.  At West Auckland, the track joined the existing line which served Witton Park Colliery.  The St. Helen’s Colliery was also connected to the Witton Park Branch further to the east.  This railway was an incline or rather 2 inclines and used stationary engines at Etherley and Brussleton to haul coal wagons up the sides of the valley to and from the collieries to the sidings at Shildon and thereon to Darlington and beyond.  From 1856 following the construction of Shildon Tunnel, steam locomotives were used when the new railway line from Shildon to Bishop Auckland was opened.

As a result of this improvement in transportation large scale investment took place:

  • Pease and Partners sank the St. Helen’s Colliery and built coke works
  • Bolckow and Vaughan, developed Witton Park iron works and West Auckland Colliery and associated coking plant before concentrating on their later interests at Middlesbrough
  • Durham County Coal Company established pits in the Evenwood area – Norwood Colliery located at Ramshaw to the north of the Haggerleases Branch Railway, Evenwood Colliery located to the south and Cragg Wood Colliery (later called Storey Lodge Colliery) further to the west along the valley
  • Henry Stobart Co. Ltd. owned the Jane Pit at Witton Park, the George Pit at Escomb and expanded its interest into the Gaunless Valley from Toft Hill to Cockfield. In particular, a series of drift mines on Railey Fell ran into a bankhead at West Tees Colliery at the north end of Ramshaw.
  • Thrushwood and Tees Hetton pits were sunk to the east of Evenwood
  • There were workings to the west of Toft Hill towards Wind Mill, Morley and Carterthorne

The development of railways throughout the north east, around Bishop Auckland and particularly the South Durham and Lancashire Union Company’s line over to Cumberland and Lancashire opened up the coalfield.  This railway line struck off from the Haggerleases Branch just beyond Spring Gardens and took the higher land to gain height to cross the river Gaunless at the Gaunless (Lands) viaduct, traverse Cockfield fell to Cockfield Fell station then onto Barnard Castle over Stainmore to Tebay and beyond.  Its purpose was to transport Durham coal to the iron and steel works at Millom, Cumberland and was opened for traffic in 1863.  Other mining enterprises in the Gaunless Valley included:

  • Woodland Collieries Co. Ltd. at Cow Close, Cowley, Woodland, Crake Scar and New Copley to the west of the district
  • Butterknowle Colliery Co. Ltd. at Diamond, Quarry, West Hutton and Salterburn, near Butterknowle
  • Lowson Bros. at the Black Horse, north of Wackerfield
  • Summerson at Millfield Grange to the north of Cockfield
  • H. Turnbull at Seven Sisters south of Cockfield
  • Teasdale’s at Old Copley
  • George Lowson at Pit Close near Windmill
  • J. Mein at Morley and Carterthorne collieries
  • George Bradford at West Carterthorne on Railey Fell
  • Beehive ovens (early coke works) were built at various collieries along the Gaunless Valley – Norwood Colliery at Ramshaw, East Butterknowle, Butterknowle Colliery and later plants were developed at Woodland, Crake Scar and New Copley Collieries.

The larger concerns were linked into the rail network:

  • The North Bitchburn Coal Company (NBCC) purchased Storey Lodge Colliery, Evenwood and Thrushwood Collieries and in 1892 commenced a major undertaking, the sinking of Randolph Colliery at Evenwood. In 1893 coal was drawn from the Brockwell seam and in 1895 the erection of 60 “Coppee” coke ovens was commenced.  A second battery consisting of a further 20 ovens was completed by January 1897.  By 1899, Randolph secured a daily output of 800 tons of coal and 500 men and boys were employed.  In 1911 new by product coke ovens were built at Randolph.   The colliery and coke works was linked to the Haggerleases Branch Line by an incline with a stationary engine at the bank top at Copeland.
  • The NBCC sank a new winning at Cockfield to prove the Brockwell seam. The Mostyn Pit, later regarded as Gordon House Colliery was located high above the railway and a set of screens was built on the lower land near the Haggerleases Branch Line.
  • A 5 mile railway line linked Woodland Colliery and the coking plant at Crake Scar with the Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle Line (South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway) near the Gaunless Viaduct.
  • The New Copley Colliery and coke ovens also under the ownership of Woodland and Crake Scar Collieries and later the Cargo Fleet Iron Co. Ltd. joined the Barnard Castle line at Cockfield Fell Station
  • The Carterthorne Collieries to the west of Toft Hill linked into the Barnard Castle Branch Line at Evenwood Station.

Men of the Gaunless Valley villages were mainly employed in coal mining and associated industries.  Pease and Partners, Bolckow and Vaughan, the North Bitchburn Coal Co., H. Stobart and Co. and the Cargo Fleet Iron Co. Ltd.[1] were the major employers in the area.

Coal was king and the railways were essential for transportation.


The Auckland Coalfield source: Handy Colliery Guide

The Auckland Coalfield
source: Handy Colliery Guide

St. Helen's Colliery

St. Helen’s Colliery

West Auckland Colliery pitman

West Auckland Colliery pitmen

Randolph Colliery Evenwood

Randolph Colliery Evenwood

Gordon House Colliery  viewed from Front Street Cockfield

Gordon House Colliery
viewed from Front Street

Cockfield Fell station with New Copley coke works in the bacground

Cockfield Fell station with New Copley coke works in the background

Butterknowle Colliery probably Marsfield screens

Butterknowle Colliery
probably Marsfield screens

Woodland cokemen

Woodland cokemen

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