Brindley, Wet Earth Colliery, nr Manchester

Brindley, Wet Earth Colliery, nr Manchester

I am writing this because I have seen two of Martin Zero’s videos on the excellent work by James Brindley, which revolves around the construction undertaken in the 1750s to resolve both flooding issues as well as give an abundant working water supply to the mines around the Irwell Valley at Ringley, north of Manchester. A work for which Brindley is famously noted as being the man who sent water uphill. On this I too did some research about this for the first time in the 1970s and that was for a particular reason.

The site of Brindley’s weir at Ringley. The present weir is 2 feet higher. Source: Martin Zero

You see, James Brindley, the famous canal engineer, began some of his work not building canals but things connected particularly with mines. Such as pumps and drainage channels. Even when he continued to build canals he incorporated mines into his later work at Harecastle where boats were in fact able to venture into the mine workings and bring out coal. By the way this isn’t an in depth investigation in to the work Brindley had done in the 1750s. There’s plenty of other sources for that and this post is more of a top up to what’s already known.

The work done by Brindley at certain mines involve what were in fact very early examples of his canals as well as his tunnelling skills, necessary for building the early long canal tunnels he was famous for. In fact the birth of the UK’s once vast canal system (excluding earlier isolated attempts such as the Fossdyke, the Exeter Canal, the Lea/Lee and the Wey) can be attributed to Brindley because it was he who wanted to see a network built across the industrial heart of England.

Its recognised that Brindley built the Bridgewater Canal for Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater, to transport coal from the Duke’s mines at Worsley right down to Manchester itself. The mines at Worsley were without doubt Britain’s biggest (and possibly in the world) to be worked entirely by boats.

There were six levels, eventually totalling a length of forty six miles, and each of these were worked by boats, collecting coal for the face and transporting it to the surface. These boats were brought up the different levels by way of inclined planes – it was a vast and amazing system – if somewhat claustrophobic. These subterranean canals were initially built by John Massey as early as 1729, however it was Brindley who first expanded the system to any considerable extent. Of course since Brindley’s day the Worsley mines continued to be expanded and were still hard at work until the late 19th century.

There too was an attempt to build a system of underground canals in the Irwell Valley although the history of these is harder to trace. If one has a certain amount of water that doesn’t drain away one of the simplest answers in those days was to build a sough, a boat level, or a standing level as these are sometimes called. Like a certain Peter K Roberts, I also did a substantial work on boat levels. These were both an efficient means of transporting coal or other minerals out of the mine as well as being able to effectively drain it of excess water.

Course of the leat or feeder canal built by Brindley. The Irwell is well down below on the left. Source: Google Streets

The boat levels in the Irwell valley were however an afterthought. The main project for Brindley was to build an effective water supply system in order to pump out the mines at Gal Pit, other wise known as Wet Yard pit – or what was later known as Wet Earth colliery. This he did by use of clever hydraulics. Whether this is the first ever use of this type of system I do not know, but its brilliant because it was unprecedented, few had attempted such a venture except miners and those were for plain tunnels or adits, not a job of sending water underneath a river or something like that!

It has often been discussed why Brindley chose such a method, instead of simply building a sough, a leat, or a small supply canal from Ringley Weir to Wet Earth and that no one seems to know even these days. There isnt anything that positively shows why this was done.

The other thing that grabs my curiosity is why did Brindley also not build a canal (or a leat as it didn’t have to be navigable) but it could have followed a similar course as his sump system, namely from Ringley Weir down south over the land and then across the Irwell on an aqueduct? That would have been a quicker and more simpler system and also easier to maintain.

The entrance to Brindley’s sump that ran under the River Irwell at Giant’s Seat. Source: Martin Zero

Well the answer to that I really dont know either. But perhaps there was a method to the madness behind it. Mines are places that are generally out of the pubic consciousness – except for the pit head, the surface buildings, which are sort of like factories, industrial areas and probably were the accepted norm or the necessary evil in those early days of the industrial era where even women and children worked in the depths of the earth.

But building a network of water drainage canals, pumps, and the rest of it, perhaps it wasn’t an idea that was liked or accepted by the landowners. Building canals proved to be a headache too as no-one wanted these coming their way. It was bad enough that someone wanted to dig under their land but to build across it too, that would have been a no-no.

No doubt its why a canal wasn’t even built. However one of the clues to why this particular system of underground tunnels was built comes via the mine’s owner, Mr Heathcote himself. He warned Brindley of the immense problems of the area, including the ground conditions, the strata and how it was aligned, the faults in the earth and the rest of it.

What it seems is much of the land to the west including the river itself was sited in soft shale, poor for any sort of construction let alone a canal or a tunnel. According to early reports Brindley drove the first part of his tunnel through this soft shale taking the shortest distance possible to reach the area where hard sandstone could be found. The tunnel from the weir to the start of the sandstone was lined with brick, thereafter it was mostly unlined. At Giants Seat the tunnel became what would be a vertical shaft downwards to a depth of 53 feet below the land. From the bottom a 220 foot long vertical tunnel was driven under the river. At the far end another shaft was built upwards. This shaft was considerably taller in order to compensate for the fall from Ringley Weir. From this shaft the water ran along a leat to a waterwheel – which pumped out the water in the mines.

As a result of this work Brindley became known as ‘the man who made water run uphill.’

Most of the maps seen on Brindley’s scheme at Wet Earth are clearly based on Dr. C. T. G. Boucher’s map of 1968. This one is from 1973.

As the above drawings show the system devised by Brindley was ingenious. Its main purpose was the delivery of water from Ringley Weir to Wet Earth to deliver water power for a pumping wheel.

As others have noted the main tunnels could be cleaned out by way of diverting water down other short tunnels and back into the river. But what of the inverted sump – could that have been cleaned out too? Especially as it wasn’t possible to get down there to clean it manually. This is something I haven’t seen discussed. But it could indeed have been done. How it would have worked is that the entire system would be in fact reversed.

I would think that was done on a frequent basis – once a month on a Sunday maybe? What would happen is the flow from Ringley would be halted and all the necessary penstocks (sluices) closed. These could be shut from above ground easily which meant the whole system could be controlled without anyone having to enter the tunnels. The closing of these would include that which stopped water going down the siphon as well as those on the leat to stop water reversing backwards. In this case the act of closing the penstocks this way would be to prevent water escaping from the siphon itself or the upwards shaft on the other side of the river.

The penstock controlling the entry to the siphon would then be opened and the water would shoot out of the siphon in reverse (under pressure of the head of water from the upwards shaft) and find its way down the drainage tunnels into the River Irwell. Of course it didn’t meant the siphon itself underneath the river was cleared of water because that would have been impossible. But it could easily be flushed vigorously in the opposite direction to clear it of any debris or silt.

Brindley was well versed in the knowledge of mines, water wheels and mills because this is where he was born and brought up near Macclesfield. Brindley developed an interest in water and how it could be managed, mainly by first building models of mills which actually worked. Later he became an apprentice to Abraham Bennett, a local millwright. As early books tell us, Brindley was in fact very slow to learn but soon he gained an immense knowledge of these engineering matters. He set up base at Leek where he eventually became an acknowledged, sought after, engineer building all manner of things, mills, waterwheels, mine tunnels and of course canals. Its said he too built canals in the Irwell valley for the mines there, although the history of those is extremely scant.

Fletcher’s Canal, which is mentioned in the videos as well as many other sources as being part of the Wet Earth colliery estate, wasn’t built until the 1790s. The original watercourse was a simple leat. There wasn’t even a navigable surface waterway to begin with. The Manchester Bolton and Bury Canal too came along later. These were not part of Brindley’s work.

Brindley, possibly Heathcote and Matthew Fletcher built underground canals to serve other local mines as part of this new system. These underground canals soon put pressure on the need for interconnecting waterways and Fletcher’s canal came about as a means of connecting some of the mines’ canals – ultimately Fletcher’s was linked to the later constructed Manchester Bolton & Bury canal.

What it means is there was too a network of underground canals linked to the surface canals, a sort of miniature Worsley. Not as vast as the system at Worsley of course but probably three or so miles of underground canal, which is quite a lot. As I have mentioned the history of these is almost non existent however its known two of these mines – the Doe and the Botany Bay – were most definitely worked by boats that were used to bring the coal out.

In terms of the former, its not known exactly who but it seems it could have been Brindley who built a canal of about 1000 yards from his fabled wheel-pit to the mine itself in 1756 – the year the tunnel system and inverted siphon from Ringley Weir were completed. The proper name for this canal was the Doe level. It existed almost entirely within the 9 foot seam of coal that was available in the area. Proof for its existence is that its marked on maps dated during the 1860s as an ‘old boat level.’

Larger example of the type of boat used on Fletcher’s canal/in the mines. Credit: Hugh Potter

The other subterranean canal at Botany Bay came about because of Matthew Fletcher. He was the one who adapted Brindley’s feeder stream to become a proper canal and from this he also built two levels into the Botany Bay mine, where coal could be brought out directly by boat. The total extent of that level is said to have been two miles in length. This worked until possibly 1892.

There is also evidence of another boat level which goes from Brindley’s downcast shaft to other nearby collieries. Its not known who built that one. This discovery was made by mine explorers in the 1990s. There was little chance of finding more on this because a stopper was put on the proceedings – and further exploration of the workings was banned – as is described later.

We do know boats were used in these mines because there are smaller remnants of the long thin boats (colloquially known as starvationers) on the bed of Fletcher’s canal. These, loaded with coal, were taken further down Fletcher’s canal and transferred to larger barges to be taken away via the Manchester Bolton and Bury.

One interesting aspect of these particular mines in the Irwell valley is they were worked mainly by women and children. One woman describes herself having begun work in the mine at the age of seven. She was a ‘drawer.’ That is one who pulls a cart or a wagon or even a boat (pushing that rather than pulling however) laden with coal out of the mines. She tells us the boatmen on the canal were often wanting to pay her to ‘show her breeches’ (eg show her legs or even strip naked.) It also follows that many of these women and children were beaten up by men for not doing their jobs properly. Clearly there was a certain amount of subordination enforced by the mines’ menfolk.

A woman describes her work in these very wet mines: ‘The pit is very wet where I work, and the water comes over our clog-tops always, and I have seen it up to my thighs: it rains in the roof terribly; my clothes are wet through almost all day long.’

The artist LS Lowry (the guy who inspired Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs) lived nearby and drew several aspects of the colliery. Source: Pinterest

One of the biggest problems with Wet Earth when I did my research back in about 1977 was so little was known about Brindley’s job here or how the whole thing actually was built. Most of the stuff at the time rested on a book by Banks and Schofield published in 1968 as well as other rudimentary sources. Even that comprehensive 1968 work, was as we now know, not complete.

Much of the knowledge we have now actually comes from the 1990s when an intrepid group of explorers set up a serious attempt to clear out the mines and detail, record, every single everything they could find. Much work was done to excavate sludge and determine the extent of these mines and their fascinating tunnels. Here’s a video of those early explorations on You Tube.

Brindley at Wet Earth Colliery: An Engineering Study – by Banks & Schofield.

The reason for this was there were doubts about the excellent work done by Banks and Schofield (later published as Brindley at Wet Earth Colliery: An Engineering Study in 1968.) There were questions about certain alignments and tunnels and the group set out to answer these doubts. And it was from there a huge enthusiasm began to discover for once and all exactly what had been built here and how Brindley had pulled off his fantastic achievement.

It was Alan Davies, Museum Officer at Salford Mining Museum, who formed the Wet Earth Colliery Exploration Group. At first it was supported wholeheartedly by the local council. They even contributed by helping to restore the wheel chamber and install a metal spiral staircase down into the main chamber.

The group consisted of a large band of mine enthusiasts, historians and professionals and the work they did was exemplary. That was before the local council slapped a ban on proceedings.

A lot of answers could have been found as well as the extent as to which underground canals were built in the Irwell Valley and even who these were built by – whether it was Brindley, Fletcher or others. However that was not to be.

An article written by the Manchester newspaper in 1997 shows the council had ordered an end to the excavation works. Despite indications things would be able to continue after the council’s investigations had been conducted, no such thing happened. All the tunnels and entrances have now been sealed up. Some of these a special access was gained as can be seen in Martin Zero’s videos.

In terms of Martin Zero’s excellent videos, the first one is here, the second here, and there will be a third instalment soon. Many of his other videos are also fantastic gems. Look out for the one on Standedge tunnel, also the secret trap door in the Rochdale canal!