John Yates
The imprint of human energy
With a really big project like Chatterley Whitfield Colliery there is pressure to do nothing until
you can do everything, but success will come one step at a time.
ChatterleyWhitfield is the
most complete sur viving
large colliery from the peak
years of the English coal
industry.
Chatterley Whitfield Colliery in Stoke-on-Trent is an
extraordinary historic place. It highlights two major
conservation issues. The first is about principle. Should
we conserve big industrial sites of outstanding national
significance, bearing in mind that large-scale industry
is this island’s most influential contribution so far to
human history? The second is about process. How do
we conserve the significance of a site, when what is
unique is its completeness?
Chatterley Whitfield colliery is the most complete
surviving large colliery from the peak years of the
English coal industry – the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. It survived because it was already a museum
in the 1980s, when its contemporaries and competitors
were swept away. A national survey of coal-mining
sites under English Heritage’s Monuments Protection
Programme showed that this was the best big mine
in England. As a result the site and some structures
were scheduled as an ancient monument, while the
more useable buildings became Grade II* and II listed
historic buildings.
Situated on the north-eastern edge of Stoke-on-
Trent, surface outcrops of coal had been worked here
on a small scale in the medieval and post-medieval
periods, then more systematically mined in the 18th
century. By the 1840s the present site had at least three
shafts, one with a steam engine. The 1860s saw rapid
expansion following railway connection. In 1873 the
nearby Chatterley Iron Company bought the mine and
deepened one shaft to 440 yards (c400m).
The North Staffordshire coalfield was notoriously
gassy, and a further shaft was sunk for ventilation
following a serious explosion in 1881. Two years later
longwall working was introduced – a mining technique
that became almost universal in the 20th century.
Ownership passed to a separate company in 1891,
bringing an innovative management regime that would
keep the pit in the forefront of mining technology for
several decades. By the early 1900s electricity was well
established underground, together with compressed-air
coal cutting.Two further shafts were sunk between 1913
and 1917, the deepest to about 700 yards (c630m). By
1932 underground haulage was entirely mechanised –
no more pit ponies until the museum years.
In 1937 Chatterley Whitfield was the first colliery in
England to produce over one million tons in a year. At
this time it employed almost 4,000 people. The 1930s
also saw much improved workers’ welfare facilities,
with a model installation of pit-head baths, canteen and
medical centre built under the auspices of the Miners’
Welfare Fund in their art deco style. Nationalisation
in 1947 led to a further period of investment above
and below ground in the early 1950s, then production
slowly declined until closure in 1976.
The site reopened as a museum in 1978, backed by the
National Coal Board and Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
The expectation was that this would be the National
Coal Mining Museum. Former miners took visitors
underground, into workings drained and ventilated by
links to the then still operational Wolstanton colliery
across the city. However,Wolstanton closed in 1985, and
the museum could not sustain pumping and ventilating
costs. Thanks to the then current job-creation schemes,
a convincing and comprehensive mock mine was built
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Miners’ lockers at
ChatterleyWhitfield colliery
(Photo: Boris Baggs,
©English Heritage)
closure of the museum, apart from urgent holding
repairs as a part of the first phase of the current
project.
This is still a dauntingly powerful and evocative
place, carrying the imprint of all that human energy,
of lives and deaths. The peeling walls of the baths can
still echo in the mind with the singing of the miners
in the serried rows of showers, the clatter of those
thousands of locker doors – a clean locker and a dirty
locker for every man. We can imagine the ceaseless
cacophony of the machinery, the Hesketh Winder
spinning those great wheels to lift a cage of loaded
mine cars every two minutes to rattle off round the
circuit to the screens and waiting wagons. It is much
harder to imagine those miles of flooded tunnels deep
below, each roadway (‘cruts’ they called them here) as
familiar to the miners as the streets above. Then there
is another more distant echo. Like all pits, for some in
the surrounding community Chatterley Whitfield is an
industrial war grave.
The surrounding landscape gives a clue to the huge
scale of the underground workings. The waste tips that
filled the valley and rose to twin summits were once
the largest in Europe. The visual drama of the tips was
reduced by a smoothing off in the 1980s, but their size
can still impress. The surrounding early-20th-century
cottage estates that grew with the pit in its peak years
are still almost intact, and include the nucleus of a
model village started by the company. However, the
earlier terrace housing – a fascinating and rare grid
of dual access streets and paths at Fegg Hayes – is
seriously threatened by demolition.
When the museum closed, the council’s first ambition
was to clear the site. Eventually, after five years of
diplomacy and reflection, the time was ripe for an
initiative. In 1999 the Chatterley Whitfield Partnership
was formed by English Heritage, Stoke-on-Trent City
Council, JoanWalley MP and AdvantageWest Midlands
(the regional development agency). Its purpose is to
promote the regeneration of the site in order to secure
its long-term future, regenerate the local economy, and
improve amenities for local people.
Funding of £2.3 million was obtained for the first
phase. This comprised emergency works, information
gathering, master planning and top-priority repairs.
The scale of the challenge is indicated by the figures
for studies alone: £300,000 for the condition survey,
£200,000 for a basic metric survey, £36,000 for a
conservation plan and £75,000 for the master plan.
Meanwhile, English Partnerships accepted the site
into its National Coalfields Programme, a centrally
funded reclamation and regeneration scheme. The
final recommendations were submitted to the ODPM
in 2005, and grant funding of £8 million approved
later that year. However, most of this will be spent on
further land reclamation, to deal with a failing culvert
beneath the main tip. Unlike the 1980s reclamation,
the opportunity will now be taken to emphasise
the industrial history of the landscape, rather than
erasing it.
in a railway cutting, accessed by one of the shafts, and
opened in 1987. But visitor numbers declined from a
peak of 70,000 to 40,000 a year, council support ebbed
away, and in 1993 the museum closed and its trust
went into liquidation.
In 1994 the museum collection was largely sold
and dispersed (sending shivers down the spines of the
museum world), and ownership of the site reverted
to Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Since then, two
feasibility studies have failed to establish a viable future
for the site. The joke now is that the first pit to produce
a million tons of coal is becoming the first to produce a
million sheets of paper.
The site now comprises 34 buildings and structures
in about 18 acres, surrounded by a partially reclaimed
landscape of tips and stacking grounds. The many
miles of underground workings are entirely flooded.
The buildings include four shafts with headstocks
and winders (one large steam winder, two electric
winders, and an early haulage engine introduced by
the museum). The heapstead (the buildings and works
around the mineshaft) and mine car circuit of the
Hesketh shaft survive intact – a roller coaster for coal.
An impressive main power house contains appropriate
compressors (steam and electric) reinstated by the
museum. The complete ventilation fan installation
survives.
The boiler house is roofless and ruinous, but still
retains its unrivalled range of 10 Lancashire boilers
and associated plant, together with its brick chimney,
slightly shortened by the late Fred Dibnah to 200 feet
(60m). Large fitting shops and stores reflect the scale
of mechanisation, while the pithead baths and canteens
attest to the 20th century political concern for miners’
welfare.
The only significant loss from this complex is
the screens building, apparently demolished by the
museum to make way for the mock mine, which has
itself recently been demolished following a collapse.
The structures are now in poor condition (except for
the newly regenerated former offices and weighbridge
house), having had virtually no maintenance from the
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CONTEXT 109 : MAY 2009
The study concluded that the total repair costs
for buildings within the site were in the order of
£35  million, with total development costs likely to be
over £70 million. Undeterred, the commitment by
English Partnership to the restoration and conversion
of the three buildings at the entrance to the site has
given a kick start to development within the main
colliery site. An ERDF grant of £1.6 million and
English Partnerships funding of £2.6 million brought
these buildings into use for offices, and upgraded the
entrance road into the site.
This early pump priming, and the success of the main
offices, which are now 85 per cent occupied, changed
the perception of the site and its potential, particularly
to the funding community. Over the past year a
further £1 million has been spent. The weighbridge
building has been refurbished and now operates as
the main security office for the site. Mine workings,
including three previously untreated mineshafts, have
been stabilised by grouting.
Condition surveys have been undertaken on a
number of buildings with a view to informing the next
steps in development, and to identify buildings which
might be attractive to private sector investment. This
planning is currently under way. A condition survey of
the Hesketh Heapstead and tub halls – the jewel in the
crown in heritage terms – has identified full repair costs
of up to £6 million on this structure alone. English
Heritage has committed to further grant of £3 million
if there is an agreed way forward.
The involvement of local communities in the project
has led to the formation of a voluntary group, the
Friends of Chatterley Whitfield. This lively and expert
group provides guides for visiting parties, and has
rescued and safeguarded historic equipment from
the now-demolished 1980s mock mine. The group
is hoping to restore the magnificent Hesketh Steam
Winder, but the discovery of more asbestos has put
this on hold.
What kind of ownership and management structure
should be set up for a site of such national significance?
Local government and voluntary ownership has failed
here, so is it time for a national organisation to bite the
bullet? It looks inevitable that the range of uses will
include a historic site visitor operation. If so, on what
scale and run by whom? Arising from this, how should
the local and specialist communities be involved in
the decision taking on the site, and in its subsequent
operation?
Turning now to use, some of the buildings and
structures – such as the headgear – are essentially
monuments, whose future role really should be to
tell their remarkable story, but most can be used and
adapted for new purposes. There is room here already
for imaginative new development if that helps the
place thrive, so should some demolition be thinkable
in so complete a historic place? What can happen here
now to generate enough revenue to sustain the site’s
inevitably high recurrent costs?
The local context was challenging even before the
ChatterleyWhitfield in
its heyday. Photo from
the National Monuments
Records, the public archive
of English Heritage (Crown
copyright).
A conveyor and waste tip
at Chatterley Whitfield
(Photo: Boris Baggs,
©English Heritage)
current economic problems, as the coalition of six towns
that is Stoke-on-Trent struggles for life. ‘It were pits or
pots when I left school’ – the pits are gone, and now
the pots are going too. So how can economic prosperity
come to this urban fringe site without drawing life away
from already struggling historic town centres?
Then there are the technical issues of conserving
the buildings. How does one approach the repair
philosophy of buildings intended for short lives, such
as the workshops with half-brick wall panels in steel
frames? Is the design and specification more important
than the actual fabric? Is this comparable with the
conservation of working historic ships and transport
artefacts, rather than with most historic structures? How
can modern energy requirements be incorporated into
buildings which were designed with no consideration
for such issues because of the abundance of fuel on
their doorsteps?
The presentation of the site brings other issues:
should it at least in part be conserved in its present
decayed and partially overgrown state? Should the
landscape conserve the scars of industry?
It is too early to learn from Chatterley Whitfield, but
in retrospect should this perhaps have been a soft-start
project like Dean Clough, Halifax, rather than a big
bang? With a really big project there is a great deal of
pressure to do nothing until you can do everything
– pressures from funding bodies, from risk-averse
corporatism, even from professionalism. The result
can be paralysis and an over-reliance on strategy, while
decay continues. At a place like this the public interest
strategy is already explicit in its national designation. A
strategic decision has been taken that it should survive.
So let us hope that the partnership can get on with it,
one step at a time, and expect the destination to change
before it gets there.
John Yates is a past
chair of the IHBC
and an English
Heritage inspector.
He was the initial
director of the
Chatterley Whitfield
Regeneration Project
in 1999 –2000. This
article is written
in his personal
capacity, and does
not necessarily set out
the current policies
and priorities of the
Chatterley Whitfield
Partnership and its
members.
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