Although you might not think so from the look of the area today, the peaceful marsh-side area at the bottom of Marshlands Roads, near The Harp public house, was once the largest industrial site in the region. This was where the region’s Industrial Revolution started. There were coal mines, as well as other industrial activities, with over 300 people employed in the 1920s. The first steam engine anywhere in Wirral and west Cheshire was sited here during the early Industrial Revolution and later the great engineer, George Stephenson, visited the site. It saw the earliest large-scale employment, and the first use of steam engines in Wirral and West Cheshire was here.
The first colliery, Ness Colliery, owned by the Stanley family of Hooton, opened in 1759, soon employed almost 200 people, and had its heyday in the 1770s and 1780s. Another mine operated in adjacent Little Neston, owned by the Cottingham family, 1819 to 1849. There was bitter rivalry between the mine owners – one of them was happy to deliberately flood his neighbour’s pit and blow up his tunnels! This ended up in court (see below a summary of the two cases). Both mines had closed by 1855, when silting of the Dee Estuary had made it difficult to move coal in bulk.
Operations restarted as Neston Colliery in 1874, using a newly built railway. The business went through several hands before closing permanently in 1927. At its peak, in 1921, the final business – Wirral Colliery – employed about 350 people. All the collieries struggled to be profitable against strong regional competition, ultimately forcing this chapter of Neston’s story to close.
Denhall Quay was built in 1791 and was used to ship coal to North Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man as well as inland via the newly built canals. It also imported roofing slate and limestone – the latter was turned into lime for building and for use as fertiliser. Other industries here included coke and charcoal making, brick and tile making and, in the 1860s, metal smelting.
Working and living conditions were horrendous: until the 1850s children aged just nine were employed, and some miners worked 100 hours per week. The work was dangerous, with many deaths recorded. Rock falls and flooding presented risks, as did poisonous and explosive gases. Later, there were railway accidents.
Extraordinarily, underground canals were built beneath the Dee Estuary and man-powered boats were used to bring the coal from distant faces to the pit shaft. At the end of a hard shift miners went back to their homes – usually one-room shacks: in 1847 Ness was described as ‘the most miserable mass of hovels on the Wirral’.
The Harp has several photos on its walls from the mines’ later days.
There is a Neston Collieries Trail to tell visitors more about the extraordinary story of the Neston mines.
Thomas Cottingham vs. Sir Thomas Stanley
The 1821 and 1822 court cases
Thomas Cottingham (Little Neston colliery) brought two court cases at Chester assizes against Sir Thomas Stanley (Ness Colliery). The first, in 1821, related to the use of the underground canal, of navigation, which had been built under Cottingham’s land, the lease having expired in 1819. There was much argument over where the township boundary lay but the case was found in favour of Cottingham and he was awarded £100 damages for trespass.
The second case, in 1822, was more serious. Cottingham sued Stanley for trespass and wilful damage to his mine. His claim was for £10,000, representing lost sales and a punitive element for Stanley’s malicious intent.
Two days after the end of the first court case, Stanley’s men were seen to bring up equipment, boats and horses, through No.6 pit. Tall boards were erected on the surface to prevent Cottingham from seeing what was going on and Stanley’s men also hid their faces. Explosions were heard and Cottingham found that his tunnel leading from his pit No 21 leading to the navigation, had been wrecked. In court, Robert Johnson, Stanley’s agent, did not deny that Stanley’s men had destroyed the tunnel, but justified the damage done as being part of a scheme to manage the ventilation of Ness Colliery and “to prevent Cottingham’s men from destroying the canal”.
The judge’s view was that there was no malevolence involved and Stanley acted on his agent’s “best intended” advice. The jury found in favour of Cottingham and awarded him just £2000, adding that no motive of malice could be attributed to Stanley.
This article is based on research by Anthony Annakin-Smith.