Swannington is a special village with an industrial history. Set in the heart of the National Forest, it was once the centre for all the early coal mining activities of North West Leicestershire. The first manorial rights were granted in 1278 to Sir John Talbot, who controlled the 13th century coal workings. In 1520 the manor passed to William Wyggeston, a prominent Leicester business man, who eventually set up various trusts in order to preserve Swannington’s village status. Expansion of Swannington began in the early 1700s when new deep coal seams were worked, leading to an influx of miners and their families from Shropshire. A map published in 1779 clearly indicates the working of 37 mines in the Swannington district. In addition several abattoirs and tanyards operated in the village. Shoemaking was a thriving separate industry. Swannington achieved prominence in 1829/32 with the opening of the Leicester & Swannington Railway which was promoted by local mine owners William Stenson and John Ellis in conjunction with George Stephenson.
Organised by Leicestershire Industrial History Society and held on Saturday 10th October 2015 in Swannington.
The conference programme:
09:15 Registration with tea/coffee
10:00 Recent developments at Califat Colliery excavation
10:30 Latest additions to Hough Mill
11:30 The Coleorton Railway
12:00 Leicester and Swannington Railway today
12:30 Open forum and EMIAC Business Meeting
13:45 Site visits:
either Hough Mill and Califat colliery site (car).
or a walk across the trackbed of Jessop's tramways. Visit Califat colliery and Hough Mill. Return via trackbed of Coleorton Railway. About 2 miles.
or Drive to Gorse Field; visit Hough Mill and Califat colliery and a section of Jessop's tramway. About 1 mile of walking.
All images courtesy of LIHS.
The Gorse Field, part of the ancient village common, displays evidence of coal mining activities over several centuries; first by quarrying where the seam outcropped at the surface, subsequently by adit mining and then by bell pitting into the coal seams. This was purchased for conservation by Swannington Heritage Trust in 1986.
The Califat Colliery was part of the former common. Discovery of a haystack boiler in 1967 indicates that a Newcomen pumping engine had once been installed here. Acquired in 1993 the Trust, with a small team of LIHS members, has been excavating and interpreting two engine houses. All that remains of the pumping engine house are the large blocks that once supported an inverted beam engine.
Excavation and interpretation of a second engine house and boiler house is work-in-progress, which started in 2006 when a programme of tree planting had exposed an underground tunnel. Excavation of the boiler house revealed two cradles into which the boilers sat, one of which was larger than the other.
In the adjacent engine house a massive brick plinth running the length of the building was found. This had four pairs of holding-down bolt holes along its length, each descending to crow holes near its base to firmly hold an engine, of which no remains have been found.
Once the structures had been recorded and assessed, they were stabilised by the addition of sacrificial layers of brickwork and voids back-filled with gravel. Work continues excavating an adjoining brick structure and interpreting the function of the original tunnel and of a second found.
Thringstone Smock Mill was built in the early 19th century on a finger of land between Swannington and Coleorton; in 1936 the land transferred to Swannington. It was built and operated by John Griffin (1758-1833) and his son John (1792-1874). When Susannah Griffin died in 1877, the mill and house were sold to John Hough, land steward to the Coleorton Hall estate. The last commercial use of the mill was for production of animal feed during the World War 1, after which it was left to deteriorate.
North West Leicester District Council compulsory purchased the mill from the Hough Trust in 1989 with the condition it was renamed as Hough Smock Mill. Swannington Heritage Trust purchased the mill in 1994 and started its restoration with the help of Lottery funding. A new cap was installed in 1999 and a new fantail in 2009.
A new brake wheel 10 feet in diameter was constructed by the Trust from four-year-old seasoned oak; the three layers comprising the wheel being held together by about 100 ¾ inch bolts. New cast iron teeth were made in a number of sections for ease of assembly.
On completion the new brake wheel weighing some 1¾ tons was dismantled in 2012 for transfer to the mill. Each of the 32 items was winched up into the cap and the wheel reassembled on the windshaft.
Work on a new wallower started the following year, again using seasoned oak. Construction of the main structure of the wheel was similar to that of the brake wheel but with the addition of a metal band on each side of the wheel for strength. Individual gear teeth cut from hornbeam were fitted into slots around the rim of the wallower.
As before the completed wheel was dismantled and taken to the mill to be reassembled around the upright drive shaft.
To allow the windshaft to be regularly turned by hand to prevent it bowing under the weight of the brake wheel, the wallower has been left in a lowered position out-of-mesh with the brake wheel.
The Coleorton Railway (CR) is an enigma line extending a couple of miles northwards from the Swannington incline. When the Leicester and Swannington Railway (L&SR) was planned it did not extend to the mines on Sir George Beaumont's Coleorton estates.
Construction was completed in 1835 with tunnels at Peggs Green and Newbold having portals similar to those at Glenfield and an office and weighbridge. However it failed to reach the newly developed Smoile Colliery - its raison d'être. Instead it ended a quarter of a mile away on the south side of the Cloud Hill Plateway belonging to the Ashby Canal Company. Coal was in fact carried from the mine on the plateway before being transferred to CR wagons.
With the opening of the L&SR, the canal companies started a price-cutting war that had the effect of reducing the price of coal in Leicester by half. Consequently Smoile coal couldn't be sold at a profit which limited further developments.
By the end of the 1830s coal prices had recovered and Smoile coal was shipped over the rails to Leicester in modest tonnages. Also the L&SR helped by lending money to the CR and Ashby Canal companies to lay a combination track on the Cloud Hill branch from Newbold to Cloud Hill Quarry to allow both standard gauge wagons and plateway wagons to run through to the quarry. This was in use by 1840-41.
Account books indicate that slack coal was regularly delivered to Cloud Hill with lime carried on the return journey. There were coal shipments from Smoile, Peggs Green and, from 1851, California collieries. By 1875 however traffic had dwindled to less than the pre-1840 level.
Opened in 1832 to transport coal from the pits in the Swannington area to Leicester, the route of the Leicester and Swannington Railway (L&SR) can be traced on maps and satellite images for most of its length. Construction of the line faced three obstacles: the rising incline away from the pits, the falling incline at Bagworth and the high ground between Glenfield and Leicester. When the Midland Railway acquired the track as part of the Leicester-Coalville line in 1848 they built the Thornton Deviation line to by-pass the Bagworth incline.
Although coal mining ceased at the end of the 19th century, the Swannington incline remained in operation until 1948 to keep the steam-powered Calcutta pumping station supplied with coal to ensure neighbouring mines didn't flood.
About half of the original line is still an operational railway used by freight traffic serving Bardon Quarry. Of the remainder about half is public footpaths; the mile-long Glenfield tunnel is closed to the public and the rest is in private ownership.
The foundations of the winding house at the top of the 1 in 17 Swannington incline have been stabilised and interpreted and short section of track installed. This and most of the incline is open to the public.
It is possible to walk the complete length of the Bagworth incline. Near the top of it are the remains of the incline operator's house; this last remaining building of the LS&R was given Grade II listed status but sadly has been allowed to fall into disrepair and is now a pile of bricks.
The former Stag and Castle pub, now a private residence, was one of the original stops on the line. Nearby on the footpath can be seen a set of stone steps almost certainly the original stone sleepers used to support the LS&R rails.
An industrial unit now stands on the site of Ratby station but the former 'booking office', the Railway Inn, still exists. Nearby can be seen a length of the original fish-belly rail.
Leicestershire County Council now owns the Glenfield Tunnel, the third major civil engineering works on the L&SR; both entrances have been bricked-up. LIHS are allowed to open it a few days a year for visitors; currently access is to the first air shaft. All of the 13 air shafts used to construct and ventilate the tunnel still survive; some are in private gardens but others can be seen from the road side.
A public park now occupies the site of the West Bridge station. A branch line from the station crossed the River Soar and the canal to access the canal wharf. The pillars that carried the line across the river still exist; remains of the track can be seen near the road bridge over the canal. The railway was carried over the canal by a lifting bridge to allow canal traffic to pass beneath. This bridge has been preserved and is currently  outside the former Snibston Discovery Park Museum in Coalville but its future is in doubt.
The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:
- Swannington Heritage Trust - www.swannington-heritage.co.uk
- Coleorton Railway - newbold.g-forbes.co.uk/page19.html
Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.
Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.