Saltom Pit

The remains of Saltom Pit, just above the waterline at the base of the Whitehaven cliffs, is one of the most important mining archeology sites in the country. At a seminar held in 2006, Andrew Davidson of English Heritage described the site as 'the Ironbridge of mining', relating it in importance to the world's first ever iron bridge built in Shropshire, now a World Heritage Site and recognised as one of the great symbols of the Industrial Revolution.

The site has been a constant presence for the local communities for the last 300 years, as a working pit with a small settlement and latterly as a place for local people to play, fish, explore the beach and swim in the sea. Saltom Pit was the first under-sea coal mine in England.  For over 100 years it led the way in mining technology and innovation.  Men, women and children worked below the sea bed to dig a labyrinth of tunnels stretching 2km from shore – a submarine city.  Now only ruins of the winding-engine house remain. 

Saltom was planned as the first under-sea coal mine in England.  Miners dug the shaft by hand from 1729-31.  The aim was to get as close to sea level as possible.  The mouth of the shaft is just 6m above sea level.  A huge sea-wall was built to protect the workings from the advancing sea. There are few accounts from the people who worked in the mines in the 1700s.  Most would not be able to read or write and it is likely that they had little time or energy for anything other than their demanding jobs.

Saltom Pit With Cottage
Saltom Pit With Cottage

During one of Carlisle Spedding’s trips into Saltom Pit ‘when he walked in the tunnels the distance of a mile, he came at length to a place where the water was obstructed by rubbish and he passed this place, casting himself, hot and covered with sweat, up to the chest in the water, nor in that freezing temperature did he change his soaking clothes for an hour; he was affected for two weeks after with intermittent pains, weariness and other symptoms of having caught cold.’

Official records of disasters were kept only for incidents where more than ten miners were killed.  Even if deaths were recorded elsewhere, often there are no details of how they occurred.  One exception was a mention in a letter from Carlisle Spedding to Sir James Lowther that Jos Gredale and his nephew died from the effects of the damp air.  Falling down the pit shaft often happened.  Children were ‘worth’ less to the mine owners than an adult.  When miners were lowered down the shaft in baskets, adults took the safest places so children were more likely to fall.

In 1819 H. Jackson wrote in his diary of an explosion in Saltom Pit where several people died.  He mentions afterdamp which is the toxic mixture of gases left in a mine following an explosion caused by firedamp.  Indeed, he wrote that it was the smell of afterdamp that convinced him that there were no survivors and delayed further searching until the mine had been ventilated.  So, even if miners survived an explosion, they often suffocated from lack of oxygen.

In the 1700s deep undersea mining was mysterious and dangerous. An unknown science.  Carlisle Spedding, the mining engineer for Saltom pit, faced problems of sea water, Fire Damp (Methane) and roof falls.  He met these with innovative technology. To fight explosive Fire Damp and suffocating Choke Damp, he invented a way to keep air moving in the mine.  His  'air coursing' mechanism was a series of doors in the tunnels. The doors forced air through all parts of the mine.

He built stone dams where the fire damp was worst. Pipes behind the dams brought the gas to the surface.  It was burned to boil the water for the steam winding engine.  In 1733 flint-mills were introduced to give illumination without naked flames.  This reduced the risk of explosions. The risk of sea water flooding the mine was always present. Speeding installed massive Newcomer Pumping engines to prevent the mine flooding. Roof collapses were common so the miners left pillars of coal to support tunnel rooves. As each pillar was mined away, a bit more of the roof would collapse.

Spedding’s greatest challenge was how to get fresh air to the miners at the furthest coal faces.  Inland mines could dig ventilation shafts – clearly not an option for England’s first under-sea coal mine. He used a combination of methods to get oxygen round Saltom.pit.  He called his methods 'Air Coursing'.

Firstly he designed the mineshaft in an oval shape ten foot by eight foot . It was divided into two sections: One for 'drawing' the other for 'coursing' ventilation.   Fires were also lit at the base of the main shaft to speed up the flow of air. As the workings extended Spedding installed a series of doors called traps.   By carefully controlling which doors were open and which were closed, he could force the air flow to reach the furthest coal faces.

The only problem was – when coal wagons went through the doors, someone had to close them again. To an 18th Century businessman the answer was logical: Small children, some as young as six, could be paid pennies a day to sit by the door and shut them behind the wagons. These children were called “trappers”. Today we would use automatic doors – but they didn’t exist then, and child labour was cheap and plentiful in towns like Whitehaven.

Between 1824 and 1834 the following deaths in Saltom Pit are mentioned:

  • Peter Andrew              age   9
  • John Reeling               age   9
  • Charles Bent               age 13
  • Edward McGraw        age 14
  • Moses Westmorland   age 14

When Saltom was built, almost every mine in the country employed children. Children were paid a fraction of an adult’s wage. To keep profits up, any job which could be done by a child was given to a child. In 1842 the government commissioned a report on the employment of children.  In the report children described their work in their own words.  The youngest, sometimes as young as 5, were trappers working alone and often in total darkness.  They opened and closed the trap-doors that were part of the ventilation system.

George Bentley, who entered mining at the age of 7, described walking a mile and a half to work 14 hours for a shilling a day.   He was described as being ‘half starved’.  Girls were treated just as harshly as boys.  Ester Craven, aged 14, told of how she often regretted starting work in the mines but that she became used to it and thought nothing of being beaten by the getters (worked at the coal face ‘getting’ the coal).  Sarah Gooder, aged 8, told the Commission that she was a trapper.  ‘It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared.  I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past.  I never go to sleep.’

These children experienced nothing that we would call childhood but merely struggled for survival.  Saltom Pit was opened more than 100 years before this report so it is possible that conditions for children were even worse then. Following the report, the government banned child labour underground.  Six years later Saltom Pit stopped bringing coal to the surface – it was too inefficient.

In the 1600s coal was gathered mainly from shallow mine workings. By the 1700s  the search for coal had forced men women and children deeper below the earth.Ventilation was difficult and a new hazard confronted them: An invisible flammable gas that seeped from the coal seams and filled the workings. The smallest flame from a candle would cause a terrible explosion and loss of life. Gasses had not yet been discovered, so they called this invisible enemy "Fire Damp".  We now know that it was methane. Mine owners and engineers tried many ways to minimise the risk from Fire Damp.

In 1731 Lowther bought the Newcomen Atmospheric steam engine to pump water from his deepening mine. It was housed in in a building close to the pit head. The pump could raise thousands of gallons a day from the tunnels and enabled the mine to extend further under the sea bed. Newcomen engines were reliable and safe (working at low pressures ) and coal from the mine was readily available to heat the boilers. In 1732 a bigger boiler was added and the two pumps worked in tandem, John Spedding, the agent for Sir James Lowther, wrote in January that year my brother(Carlisle Spedding) hopes to get the new engine completed in a few days and to apply it to work in the two uppermost lifts of pumps while the old engine raises the water from thence to the top in the two uppermost lifts.

The lowering of Fire baskets into the mine shaft was popular and burning coal at the bottom of a pit was used to increase ventilation. 'Firemen' were employed to enter the mine and ignite pockets or  gas with a candle on a long pole. These fireman were often called 'Penitents' because they looked like Monks. They wore  a water soaked thick linen cloak and cowl to protect them from the fiery explosions they set. Stone dams were constructed to seal off parts of the mine where the gas was  known to be highly concentrated and pipes were laid from there to the surface where the gas was ignited and burnt.  Saltom pit was one of the first pits to pipe  'Fire Damp'.  They offered it to Whitehaven town for street-lighting – but the town refused.

Carlisle Spedding was one of the first mining engineers to experiment with using gunpowder underground. He first used "black powder" in the sinking of Saltom pit in 1731. Miners drilled holes using a hammer and chisel. They filled the holes with powder and lit short hollow fuses – then took cover!

This work was dangerous and required skill and confidence. "Black Powder" contained Saltpeter, Charcoal and Sulphur. It cannot be a coincidence that as Spedding gained experience in this new field, the demand for underground blasting grew.

In 1764 Cumbria developed into major supplier of black blasting powder for the whole country. Old Sedgwick, near Kendal, was the earliest gunpowder works in the area. It supplied the mines and quarries of  North England with blasting powder.  Where Spedding gained his knowledge of blasting is unclear. What is clear is that Spedding was always willing to try new methods. Methods that meant coal could be mined faster than ever before. 

Almost all coal burned in Dublin came from Lowther's Whitehaven mines.  But in the 1600s and 1700s the Lowther's monopoly was being threatened. The nearby harbour at Parton had been improved in the 1670s & was starting to ship coal out.

Sir James Lowther responded by increasing production.  He ordered the sinking of Saltom Pit in 1729 and developing undersea mining. He also planned to build his own harbour in Saltom Bay to avoid paying Whitehaven Harbour dues.  Coal would go direct from the pit-head to the waiting ships.

Lowther's Saltom workers built a pier and staith in Saltom Bay. They completed the construction in 1732, but Saltom’s exposed site made it too dangerous to use. Colliery records show just two shipments of coal - in November 1735 and June 1736. By 1738 the pier had been almost abandoned after storm damage. Today all that remain are the holes in the rocks for the pier supports. Until 1848, coal from Saltom was trammed through a tunnel to Ravenhill pit for lifting to the cliff top.

Saltom Pit
Saltom Pit


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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