The Pensax Coalfield

The first clear reference to coal mining in Pensax comes in 1565, when the Dean & Chapter of Worcester Cathedral leased a coal mine to the City of Worcester Corporation. The Corporation needed to secure an alternative supply of fuel for their own use because of a local fuel crisis, it seems that firewood was in short supply. This venture continued for about ten years until around 1574, when it no longer appeared in the Corporation accounts.

Transport of coal to Worcester must have been a significant hurdle, for Pensax is some distance away from the nearest navigable river, which would have been the Severn, the nearest port being at Lower Mitton. There is no clear evidence to suggest that the nearby river Teme was ever navigable above Powick bridge, this being about mile and half upstream from its confluence with the Severn at Diglis near Worcester. Coal, pig iron and other raw materials were unloaded at the Powick wharf to supply mills and forges there.

In the 17th century mines at Pensax can be traced through a series of leases made by the Dean & Chapter of Worcester. In 1610 a Mr T. Vincent was allowed to extract coal on the Common. During 1634 the Bailiff of Pensax was instructed to stop all mining on the Common. In 1651 the Parliamentary Commissioners dismissed the coal in Menith Wood as “not being worth digging”.

It was during the early 18th century that the Clutton family first appeared as mine owners. Their mines were developed in the middle of the parish on the Pensax Court estate. The Cluttons did well financially from the mines for many years until around 1790 when they were leased to a Samuel Bray, who also leased farmland on the estate and at the nearby Bough’s farm in Stockton. Although being successful mine owners it did have mixed blessings for the Cluttons, for during 1754 the heir to the family fortune was thrown from his horse down a mineshaft and killed.

By the 18th century other mine owners began to appear in the records. In 1759 the Revd Thomas King began mining coal beneath his estate at Pen Hall. By 1783 this was being worked by Robert Cooke, who also farmed the land and had other business interests as a tallow chandler, soap maker and grocer. However this was to be short lived as Cooke was declared bankrupt in 1785, and the colliery doesn’t feature again until the mid 1800s.

Just north of Pen Hall is Stile House where in 1833 a John Bray was operating a mine that had been producing coal since at least 1808. South of Pen Hall, at Woodhouse, the Knott family had been working coal since 1790.

By 1800 virtually every estate in the parish had its own coal mine including St Clairs Field and Wigmore Meadow on the Old Hall estate, and the adjacent estates at Far Town and Stildon.

At the end of the 18th century the owners of coalfields to the south of the parish at neighbouring Mamble were eagerly awaiting the completion of the proposed Leominster – Stourport canal. None more than the Blount family of Mawley Hall who held 1000 shares in the venture. If successful, it would have opened up a vital link via the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal to more lucrative markets further afield especially around the towns of the West Midlands. Unfortunately the long awaited canal was only completed as far as Southnet Wharf, Marlbrook, near Mamble when the project ran out of money. Failure deprived the Pensax mine operators to anything but the traditional local market. Many attempts were made by local landowners to complete the canal, but by 1806 for several reasons the venture came to nothing. Later attempts were even made to construct a tramway to link up with the river Severn but they also came to nothing.

The Clutton-Brocks at Pensax Court must have been very frustrated by its failure, for they had invested money in obtaining a small number of shares in the enterprise. Looking for a wider market to sell their coal, they later constructed tub tramways to transport coal from the pit head from at least two of their mines on Pensax Common to Wharf House (then also known locally as railway farm). The route followed a steep incline down to a purpose built coal wharf near the now A443 at Stockton-on-Teme. One can only assume that from here the coal would have been loaded onto carts for road haulage destined for other outlets along the south Teme and Severn valley. This remained in operation until around 1840.

A section of the tramway route can still just be seen on old ordnance survey maps. It seems most likely the coal would have been transported in a series of iron tubs or buckets that ran on iron rails, possibly driven by a rope and pulley mechanism. There is a school of thought that horses could have been used to pull the tubs, but looking at the steepness of the incline from Pensax it’s difficult to imagine. There maybe an element of truth in this though, because the houses that now stand on the site were originally converted from barns thought to have been used to stable horses.

A section of rail thought to have come from the tramway was recovered from a field by the late George Morris who lived at nearby New House farm. David Poyner an authority on coal mining in the area took a sample away to be analysed but the result showed it not to be local.

The line of the route can still be traced on a good day, and a short section can also be seen on some old ordnance survey maps.

Some hop growers in this area of the Teme Valley must have taken advantage of the facility by using the coal to heat their hop kilns during the drying process.

By the middle of the 19th century less and less finance was being invested in the industry to open up new mines as existing mines were being worked out. However a few mines managed to survive into the early 20th century. One of the last mines to be worked out at Pensax was the Hollins mine which closed in December 1935.

The Jones family of Abberley Hall Estate at different periods over the years took control of several mines in Pensax and neighbouring Abberley. My grandparents, as residents of the estate, lived at nearby Shelsley and were proprietors of a bakery. They needed coal to heat the bread ovens. My father told me that as a teenager he was sent to collect coal by horse and cart on a regular basis from one of the Jones’ mines. This was during the early part of the 1900s. I am not sure which mine he referred to, but it seems there was a long track leading up to the mine from the approach road where, on occasions a queue of other carters would be awaiting their turn to collect coal. Being a resident of the Abberley estate he was allowed to jump the queue. This didn’t go down too well with the others waiting their turn. It meant he had to “run the gauntlet” when lumps of coal or any other item to hand would be thrown at him.

Compiled by Derek Marks, October 2012
Acknowledgements: Some items about the Tramway: Derek Jabbett