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Birchenwood Coal and Coke History

Birchenwood History

birchenwood coal and cokeBirchenwood was the largest industrial site that the Newchapel area has ever known, and provided employment for several thousand people in its heyday. It is almost certain that the village we live in today, and the surrounding area, was born as a result of the success of Birchenwood, and the first houses built, were to provide homes for the workers and their families.

During the excavation work for the first Harecastle tunnel, the wealth of coal underground was discovered and almost immediately the mining began, although not in the usual fashion. The chief engineer of the tunnel, James Brindley designed small branch canals that were used to access the coal and to transport it to the surface. Before long it became apparent that the whole area was rich with coal and Thomas Gilbert who represented the Duke of Bridgewater, was the first to start the ball rolling with mining. He had been the person who had sanctioned Brindley to build the canals, and now began to set up the collieries that would mine the area on a massive scale. Iron ore was also found to be in plentiful supply and in 1833 the first blast furnaces were built to produce pig iron.

During these early years all of the activities took place on land owned by Thomas Kinnersley but he had very little to do with the running of things. He employed a manager to take care of the business, Robert Heath the 1st, and following his death in 1849, his son Robert Heath the 2nd. In 1854, Heath left to open his own furnaces and mills in the Biddulph Valley, but would return some years later as outright owner. In fact the Heath family would be a major influence in the way of development in the area.

The iron and steel works were steadily expanded and by 1871 there was a new addition in the form of 78 beehive ovens for the production of coke. The growth of the business had been increasing at an alarming rate, but following the death of Kinnersley and the depression of the 1880's the future suddenly looked bleak. A few miles away, in the Biddulph Valley, Robert Heath was building a formidable empire, rapid expansion to become the world's largest producer of bar iron was his reward for sensible investment and shrewd purchasing of collieries, furnaces and iron and steel mills across Staffordshire. When he died in 1893, he left two sons who were more than capable of running the family concern which now included a large part of Clough Hall estate which owned the land that the Birchenwood site occupied. The demand for iron was on the decrease and the Heath brothers were struggling to keep their own furnaces in work but they were more than interested in events at Birchenwood and when the operating company closed the iron and steelworks, leaving the coal and coke as the only business, they stepped in and purchased the whole site.

1896 had seen 124 new beehive ovens replace the original set, and nearly all the coal mined was now used for coke which the Heath's were using in their ironworks so it was an ideal time to add the last piece of their industrial jigsaw. Over the next few years they would invest a staggering one million pounds in building what was to become the leading coke/by-products plants in the country. New ovens were added, a rail network built to link all of the sites, locomotives to transport the coal and coke, and houses for their employees were just some of things that contributed to a very prosperous partnership between the Heath's and Birchenwood. The industrial advances meant that there were now more uses for the by-products from the coking process and a special recovery plant with 84 ovens was built in 1909, this was followed by gas producers in 1910 and the replacement of the now outdated beehive ovens in 1912 with 72 of a new design by the German, Carl Still.

The achievements at the site did not go without recognition and on April 23rd 1913, King George V and Queen Mary visited the plant. They were shown the impressive new equipment that was turning 7000 tons of coal into 4500 tons of coke each week, and all the remaining by-products dealt with in the recovery ovens. However, Birchenwood would now begin a major uphill battle as the Great War came and once again the country was hit by rescession. In 1919 the Heath brothers formed an alliance with a Yorkshire ironworks Low Moor Ltd. and took a backseat in the running of the new venture. Things didn't improve and the decision to close the gas producers was made, and the workforce reduced accordingly. It merely delayed the obvious and in 1925 the announcement was made that Birchenwood was to close. At the last minute the Heath brothers cut short their early retirement and using their personal fortunes rescued the site from the recievers. It was to prove a disastrous decision. Barely three months after setting up the Kidsgrove Colliery Company, an explosion in No. 18 pit kills seven men and injures fourteen more. Coal output was already falling and the seams were becoming uneconomical to operate.

The general strike of 1926 heaped more pressure on the ageing brothers and 84 ovens that served the recovery plant were shut down. In 1928 the unthinkable happened and the Heath's were ruined. Their businesses covered all of the county and employed over 6000 people, but now everything was in the hands of administrators, but from the despair of the collapse, Birchenwood rose again, refusing to be killed off. The Biddulph Valley had seen an increase in coal output and because of the rail links built by the Heath family, it was taken the short journey to Birchenwood for coking. This proved crucial in the survival because the pits at Birchenwood had steadily been closing since 1927 and by 1931 the last one closed with the seam of coal less than twelve inches thick.

It continued to be a major coking plant for years to come, but even with new ovens and the most up to date methods it never enjoyed the success of previous years. By 1953 it was supplying 5,000,000 cubic feet of gas to the West Midlands Gas Board which it drew from the coking process but this was soon to be in trouble with the introduction of north sea gas. Once again it was relying solely on coking but this in itself was an outdated product and the ovens were finally allowed to cool in May 1973 and the plant closed. The last of the coke was shunted out on the 5th of July by the one remaining steam train left on the site. This was also the last time a steam train would be used for industrial work in Staffordshire so it was a fitting tribute that the honour should go to Birchenwood.

The site was sold to a demolition company who took just a few weeks to flatten it and left few traces of over 150 years of its existance. Much of the land has now been developed and the remainder turned into a country park.

(Taken from Source)