Wirral Life October 2017 - Page 72

W HISTORY L HARD TIMES AND THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND BY ANDREW WOOD In the early 19th century, one commentator who had visited the Denhall coal mine near Ness, said that it was the most miserable and desolate place he had ever seen. Not only men but whole families, including small children, went underground for a few pence a day. Not surprisingly, they also lived in squalid cottages which were alive with vermin and insects. Of all the people who worked in the coliery at Denhall, Wirral’s first coal mine, the man who comes closest to fame is one Henry Lyon, but we will leave his story until later. Some small scale extraction of coal in Wirral was recorded from as early as the 17th century, but commercial mining did not begin until the 1700’s. Ness was nothing more than a small farming hamlet until the Stanleys of Hooton opened the Denna (Denhall) Colliery in 1760, to extract coal from a seam which ran out under the Dee towards Flintshire. (It was the same seam that was mined from a colliery at Point of Air on the Welsh side of the Dee.) The Denhall shaft was located a few metres from Denhall Quay, one of a succession of quays built as the Dee silted up, and coal was shipped from the quay to Chester and Liverpool. About two hundred yards (180 metres) north of the pit was the miners’ pub, the ‘Harp Inn’, which still offers a refreshing pint and a fine view over the Dee (and never a coal blackened face to be seen). Working conditions even towards the end of the pit’s life were bad, but in the early years they were truly appalling, scarcely better than slave labour. Boys began work there as early as seven years of age, and everything was done using hands or feet. The Stanley family, the owners of the mine, living in the elegant splendour of Hooton Hall, six miles (9.6 km) away, probably knew little and cared less about the lives of the miners scraping out a miserable living on the bleak shore of the Dee. The coal seam was thin and, in this “History of the Hundred of Wirral”, William Mortimer describe how the poor quality coal was hauled to the bottom of the shaft in small boats along underground canals. Each boat carried four hundredweight (0.2 ton) of coal in baskets. Four or five of the boats would be roped together and then propelled along by a man lying on his back on the coal in the first boat. He would push with his feet against the tunnel roof, a method similar to that used to propel narrowboats through tunnels on the canals, known as ‘legging’. Denhall colliery was closed round about 1855 when it became impossible to extract any more coal using such primitive and dangerous methods. Perhaps at this point we should return to Henry Lyon. In 1764, he had married 21 year old Mary Kidd who came from Hawarden, and they moved into Smith’s Cottage (which still exists) near the road to Denhall, in Neston Road, Ness. Henry worked at Denhall Colliery, although he also worked as the village blacksmith. The small house was one of a number of similar cottages that belonged to the Stanleys. It was a hard life and Henry no doubt suffered from ill health like most of the miners, although least some of his working time was spent above ground. Even men of twenty were bent by the backbreaking work within a few years of starting work. They had to crouch in muddy, icy water and hack at the sides of the flooded levels. Others died, poisoned by pockets of methane or killed by rock falls underground. Henry 72 wirrallife.com and Mary’s daughter, Amy, was born on Friday 26th April 1765. Her prospects were not good, her life promised to be poor and short. Two months after she was baptised, he father died suddenly. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary and St Helen, the parish church of Neston. No cause of death is recorded for Henry Lyon and his grave is unmarked. Of course, the life expectancy of men who worked as miners was short, although deaths from respiratory diseases could be agonising and long drawn out. But there is no record of an accident at Denhall, or of an epidemic of any kind, in the spring or summer of 1765. Mary did not receive a pension or compensation from the mine, which might have been the case if Henry had died at work there. The Lyons’ baby daughter seemed destined for a cruel and meagre life, backbreaking labour by the age of ten, a hard marriage and an early death. With nothing to keep her in Ness, Mary took her daughter back to her family in Hawarden, where the air was clean and the living conditions not so desperately poor. In time Amy, who preferred to be known as Emma, rose far above her humble beginnings. Having moved to London, she met Charles Francis Greville, who installed her in his London home and provided her with music and drawing lessons. Greville unloaded Emma on his elderly widower uncle, Sir William Hamilton, in return for Hamilton making Greville his heir. Emma duly married Sir William who was the British envoy to Naples from 1764 to 1800. In due time she achieved lasting notoriety as the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Mining began again, not far away from Denhall, at a new location in Little Neston in the middle of the 19th century. There is evidence that when William Lever built his soap works at Port Sunlight in 1888 at least some of the coal for the works was brought by rail from Little Neston. The coal owners were two brothers by the name of Platt, and the manager of the colliery was J S Taylor. Despite the fact that there were plenty of men who had worked at Denhall, they preferred to bring in skilled miners from North Wales, Lancashire and even Yorkshire rather than recruit locally. This influx from other mining areas probably accounts for the fact that Neston developed a dialect noticeably different from the rest of