The Sheldons’ 200-year investment in Coleorton
The Sheldon family’s first tentative steps into coal mining were recounted in an earlier article. Here I am indebted to TREVOR STEWART, a local historian with a special interest in the history of mining in and around the village of Coleorton, Leicestershire, for giving us this wider insight into the extent of the Sheldons’ involvement in the industry in the area, which lasted for some 200 years.
IN 1533 William Sheldon (1500-1575) owned the chief rents of Overton Saucey in Leicestershire – which eventually became part of the parish of Coleorton – while his brother and successor Ralph became an extensive property owner in Overton Saucey in the last quarter of the century.
Mining was a precarious occupation back in Tudor times, with most mines employing a relatively primitive method of getting at the coal, known as Bell or Beehive Pits, in which a shaft was sunk to the depth at which the coal was found and miners excavated outwards.
The coal was transported to the surface by winch in much the same way that water might be lifted from a well and eventually the pit in cross section took on the shape of a bell or beehive.
The shafts were crudely sunk, typically without supports, with mining continuing outwards until the cavity became too dangerous to continue – or until the bell chamber collapsed. Bell pits often flooded due to the lack of drainage and this, together with the lack of supports and the inevitability of collapse, meant they had a limited lifespan.
At that point a new shaft was sunk, usually in close proximity, and the mining of the coal seam continued.
Mining teams typically consisted of a dozen or so men.
The remains of bell pits can often be seen to this day, clearly identified by the depressions left in the land surface when the underground bell chamber collapsed.
Records suggest that the Sheldons continued to own significant amounts of property and coal mines on their Coleorton estate for most of the 17th century. In addition to the mines, the manor also yielded substantial income from the leasing of farms and various other arable lands, fields, meadows and pastures.
In view of the dominance of the prominent and wealthy Beaumont and Willoughby at Coleorton and Newbold, it is surprising to discover that even there other pits existed outside their control.
Some of these were referred to with some annoyance by George Willoughby in a letter to Sir Francis Beaumont in 1570 in which he said: "Mr Sheldon’s and Mr Winter’s pits have done much hurt this year than ever they did before, and so I fear hereafter will yearly do hurt.
The Winter family owned the manor of Worthington for many years, so it is likely that some of the pits referred to lay in the Newbold area.
There is every indication that nearby Swannington was as an important centre as Coleorton, and might have been capable of an output of 8,000 tons of coal. If the pits of Sheldon and Winter at Coleorton and Worthington respectively were sufficiently important to cause George Willoughby concern, they must have had a significant output.
Indeed, the scale of 16th century mining in the area was quite considerable, with coal from Coleorton said to have been marketed over a wide area, covering some 200 villages, ten market towns and the county town of Leicester itself – in other words a substantial part of the county.
All this mining activity had its drawbacks, causing environmental concerns over the considerable damage being done to local roads by the many heavily-laden coal wagons. However the trade had its positive side too, encouraging infrastructure development across the region, with many routes out of the coalfield benefiting from the strengthening and building of bridges.
In the 17th century, apart from the Beaumonts, the Sheldons also continued to operate pits on their Coleorton (Overton Saucey) estate, generally leaving the business in the hands of their tenant farmers.
In 1638 another William Sheldon, having recently inherited the lands, leased one of the farms to Robert Wilkins of Coleorton. It included arable lands in three open fields and various closes, meadows and pastures known as Ferney Piece, Colepit Close, Partree Close, Birchin Close, Nether Close, New Close, and Lying Crofts, some of which contained coal pits.
In 1661, when Robert Wilkins’s son William renewed the lease for 99 years, he agreed to pay a fine of £60, an annual rent of £3 6s 8d and to allow Ralph Sheldon free access to any parts of the farm in order to dig coal pits and fell timber. The latter agreed however, to pay William 20 marks per annum to act as his mine bailiff, provided he would supervise the working and maintenance of the pits whenever they were in use.
Moreover, George Sheldon owned a pit on Thringstone Moor, lying between Coleorton Carr, Swannington Moor and Sir Edward Aston’s land and another pit in Overton Quatermarsh (later to become part of Coleorton) between Parson’s Close and a ‘great water pit’ developed jointly by Ralph Sheldon and Richard Beaumont.
The last record we have of the Sheldons in Coleorton was when a Messrs Richard Parrot and John Metcalfe were negotiating for the purchase of the manor of Overton Saucey in 1730. This was finalised with property changing hands for £3,400, when Parrot and Metcalfe became co-owners, with William Sheldon proving a mortgage of £2,000.
FOOTNOTE: Trevor Stewart has written in depth about the history of Coleorton and the development of coal mining in the area. He admits to it being a complex subject and that much of the available research data is conflicting. You can find out more about the history of the area at: http://www.coleorton.org.uk