The Bell Pits and Gin Pits in the Gorse Field are included in our Coal Mining guided tours.
North West Leicestershire District Council’s Hello Heritage 2020 Swannington the Gorse Field and Gin Pit video made by Pudding Bag Productions includes demonstration of the
The earliest form of coal mining in Swannington would have involved digging out the surface coal. Miners would have followed coal seams into hills, making tunnels known as adits. The further the adit went the more likely the roof would collapse. The alternative was to dig down to the coal, the bell pit.
Bell pit coal mining was probably the type of mining that took place in 1204 (some sources state 1205) at the time of the first documented reference to coal mining in Swannington. A King John charter confirmed the gift from Philip, son of Eilnod, to Rudolf, son of Gerbold, of a piece of ground worth two shillings per annum “in Swannington where cole is gotten“.
A family would dig a new bell pit each year, down as far as about 30 feet (nine metres). When coal was reached the shaft was opened out to mine the coal, thereby forming a rough hand bell shape.
It was a tough life with few comforts and safety features. Imagine sitting on a piece of branch at the bottom of a rope, then someone sat on your lap facing you. It would not be comfortable going down the shaft. You would both use your feet to protect the other person’s back from bashing into stones sticking out from the shaft walls.
Mother and older children would mine the coal with picks. Younger children would fill the baskets with coal. The man at the top would use his strength to turn the winch handle and bring the coal and his family up to the surface.
By about 1500 technology had advanced to enable deeper coal mining to take place. The gin pit (name derived from engine) enabled deeper mining to take place, perhaps as deep as 150 feet (45 metres). Horse power made the difference.
The replica horse gin is on the site of a former gin pit. The site was identified in 2002 and had to be cleared of brambles. A snowy day helped the Trust confirm this as a circle of snow melted before the rest of the grass area. The original horse circle would have used stone to stop the horses trampling it into mud.
The horse gin and “original” headstock were made by Trust volunteers in 2003-4. The horse and handler statues were made at Moira Furnace by Sculptura in 2006, the £2,750 cost was financed by a National Forest Landscapes Project grant. Their Chief Executive, Sophie Churchill “launched” the statues on the 2nd April 2006.
Many thanks to Larry South for the drone photos of the replica gin pit. The view from above helps put it into context.
The 2004 headstock timbers rotted and had to be dismantled in 2017. They were used as a pattern for the new headstock. Although oak of the correct length was purchased, it took months of autumn 2018 Friday mornings in the workshop to cut the joints – proof that oak really is a hard wood!
Our Mill Maintenance volunteers usually work inside or on the mill’s fantail platform. So it was quite a change for them to be able to enjoy the glories of the Gorse Field while building the front and back frames of the headstocks. The mild January and February of 2019 helped.
The oak timbers were heavy so it took eight members of the Mill Maintenance and Land Management teams to lift them into position. They could lean against the scaffolding until the cross pieces were added to stabilise the headstocks. The wheel was heavy to lift, must have been all the new paint!
Now that the headstock is up it looks great. Many thanks to the volunteers who worked so hard on this project. It really helps when explaining the coal mining history to visitors.
Many thanks to Bill Pemberton for these January 2017 photos of the horse gin. The horse seems to really like the snow.