Carlisle Spedding

Carlisle Spedding was principal colliery steward to the Lowther family from about 1730 until his death in 1755. He was responsible for their mining interests, centred on Whitehaven in West Cumberland. His work frequently took him underground, where he was exposed to the inflammable gases found in mines. Carlisle was one of a line of Spedding's which served the Lowther family so diligently for almost a century, but he was by far the most important and successful member of that family.

Born on September 10th 1695 to Edward and Sarah Spedding at Akebank Whitehaven. Carlisle was the youngest of 4 sons and his father Edward was a farmer, but not a successful one and his debt made life hard for the Spedding family. Educated in the basics in Whitehaven, Carlisle was destined for a life at sea but, following the intervention of his older brother John - who was employed by Sir John Lowther - Carlisle became his assistant in the mining business at age 15. From that time during 1710, until his death in 1755, Carlisle was the most loyal, industrious and successful servant to his Lowther masters.

In 1712 Carlisle began working for his other brother John who was Lord Lonsdale's Agent in the Whitehaven pits. At that time most mines in Whitehaven were sunk to 20 fathoms (120ft) to the thick main band seam, however there were frequent problems with flooding and gas (methane). At the age of 18 the young Carlisle was sent under an assumed name to work in the collieries of the North East to gain experience, and learn all aspects of deep mining, the use of blasting powder and the building of wagon ways, returning to Whitehaven when his true identity was revealed following an accident underground in which Carlisle was burnt. Lord Lonsdale sent doctors from Newcastle to tend to his burns and so his true identity and purpose was discovered Carlisle fleed the North East to return with new skills and ideas for his employer.

His earliest achievement took place when he was in his twenties. He was sought by another firm of engineers, due to his success, and offered double his £20 per year wage. Unfortunately for them, Carlisle couldn't turn his back on his beloved Whitehaven, or his future wife, Sarah.

Carlisle's new found skills began to transform coal mining in and around Whitehaven, in 1715 he began work to install a Newcomen Engine 16 inch diameter and 8ft in length at Stone Pit, located at the bottom of Monkwray Brow to drain water and aid ventilation, completed the following year at a cost of £85, though the wooden pipes were prone to leaks and not ideal. At the same time Carlisle was sought by rival engineers and offered double his wages, but Carlisle wouldn’t turn his back on Whitehaven or his future wife Sarah Towerson.

In 1716 Carlisle married Sarah and purchased a house on Irish Street. The Newcomen engine was so successful in its work that Carlisle realising that he needed to extend the coal mining efforts in Whitehaven began making plans to sink a pit going out under the sea, the first of its kind in England the initial site was from where King Pit would later stand. Using his skills and knowledge from existing pits Carlisle estimated that the coal band would be found at a depth of 105 fathoms (630ft) under the sea.

Saltom Pit was sunk in 1729, approximately 20 yards from the high water mark of the Irish Sea. Trial sinkings of Saltom found coal at 80 fathoms (480ft). Lowther then gave his permission to sink the pit. Carlisle employed sinkers from Northumberland and Scotland to sink the the shaft, installed horse ginns and build stone sheds to store tools and a water cistern (wc).

Carlisle further innovated coal mining with the use of an oval shaft 8ft by 10ft divided down the centre allowing the dual operations of drawing of coal on one side and the ventilation and pumping of the workings on the other. Carlisle planned that the day to day ventilation would be controlled by door traps that would cause the air to be directed around the workings. At a depth of 42 fathoms the sinkers encountered a thin band of coal emitting a rush of gas, lighting from the candles of the workers. Carlisle further investigated this and instructed the sinkers to work without light because of the danger of fire. He then went about installing a piping method to drain the gas from the pit to the surface where it was said to burn day and night.

A small harbour and short wooden wagon way was constructed for direct shipment of the coals to Ireland which completed the sinking of Saltom late in 1731, the sinkers received a bonus payment of £6-0s-0d and ale for their accomplishments. In 1731 Carlisle installed a larger Newcomen Engine to prevent the continuing ingress of water and the use of air coursing to clear the mine of the gas. At this time the temperature’s recorded below ground were 33C on the coalface and 29C on the roadways. Because of this it was common practice for both men and women to work stripped to the waist. Humidity was high and they often worked in deep water.

Carlisle manned the pit with local families, men women and children working long hours. By 1733, 861 tons of coals had been exported to Ireland, and the commencement of a drawing shaft at Ravenhill began to enable coal from Saltom to be raised to the wagon road.

In 1737, both Carlisle and his son James were badly affected by the underground gas following a rescue attempt at Corporal Pit on 5th August in which 23 were killed this included 8 men who had gone in as a rescue team. The injured were treated by Dr William Brownrigg with salad oil, this began a lifelong friendship with Carlisle and they both worked to further the safety underground of the miners, Dr Brownrigg had a laboratory built to study the gas and its effects on miners, Carlisle had the fireamp gas piped to the laboratory close to Pedlar Pit and Carlisle invented a device to be used underground for lighting and detecting methane. The Flint Mill.

The Spedding Wheel, or Flint Mill was invented by Carlisle Spedding, around the middle of the 18th century. It was designed to provide miners with a safer light than candles in an attempt to avoid setting off explosions. The flint mill consists of an iron frame containing two shafts geared together. In turning the handle on the end of one shaft, a steel disc on the other is made to spin rapidly. A flint would be held in contact with this spinning wheel creating a shower of sparks. The flint mill was not popular. It gave off a poor light and was expensive to use, requiring a boy to be employed to operate it while the men worked. It was also not entirely safe, and the sparks it gave off could sometimes ignite explosive 'firedamp' gas. Its use in mines did not last into the 19th century.

During his lifetime he was responsible for the sinking of Thwaite, King, Duke, Kells, Ravenhill, Fish, Fox, Arrowthwaite, Parker, Newton, Country, Moss, Hind, Carr, Pearson, Pedlar, Taylor, Fox, Daniel, Jackson, Hunter, Watson, Harras, and Green Pits - all in the Whitehaven area.

From the time of the Corporal Pit explosion Carlisle's health was in decline, although he still was overseeing the growing number of pits in the area with new workings at Thwaite and Parker Pits. In 1750 Carlisle began drawing up plans for a new church in Whitehaven (St James on High Street).

Carlisle's work was not always exclusively for the benefit of coal mining, in 1752 a group of trustee's were set up with the aim of constructing a new church in Whitehaven. Carlisle was given the task of design. In 1753, this new church for the people of Whitehaven was consecrated by the Bishop of Carlisle. St. James' Church is very plain on the exterior and is said to have the finest Georgian interior in the county. St. James' Church still overlooks the town which Carlisle served so well. From its lofty position on High Street the Church of St. James continues to serve the people of Whitehaven as it has always done for over 200 years, bearing testimony to the wide variety of skills possessed by this unique and very gifted man.

In 1755, Carlisle was killed in one of his own pits by an underground gas leak and is buried in the Holy Trinity Gardens, in Whitehaven.

Carlisle Spedding
Carlisle Spedding


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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