Kirby in Ashfield was once an important centre of coal mining and railways in west Nottinghamshire, with three active coal mines and several railway junctions. The former Mansfield and Pinxton Railway opened in 1819, connecting the Cromford Canal with Mansfield, passing through Kirby in Ashfield. The Erewash Valley line was joined here by the later Midland Railway line from Nottingham. The Great Central Railway main line passed to the south-west side of the town and had a double junction with the Great Northern Railway Leen Valley Extension line to Langwith Junction and the Mansfield Railway to Clipstone. British Rail rerouted lines in the area in 1972 to eliminate level crossings and the Robin Hood Line opened in 1993, utilising the routes of several earlier railways.
This relatively small area thus has a rich industrial and historic past.
Organised by the East Midlands Group of the Railway and Canal Historical Society and was held on Saturday, 11th May 2019 in Kirby in Ashfield.
The conference programme:
09:30 Registration and coffee
10:00 Coal Mining Link with the Mansfield and Pinxton Railway.
11:15 Josiah Jessop and Early Railways
12:00 EMIAC Business Meeting
14:00 Site visit to Portland Park
16:30 Close of conference.
Image courtesy of East Midlands Group of the Railway and Canal Historical Society.
Dr David Amos
Coal was the main driving force for development of the railways in this area and only in recent years has rail transport of coal declined. Coal has been mined in the Pinxton area since at least 1632, most probably where a coal seam out-cropped, when the Cokes began carrying coal for the estate.
With completion of the Cromford Canal, and its branch to Pinxton, came the benefits of cheap transport for the coal industry. The Mansfield and Pinxton Railway (MPR) was borne out of the desire of the coalmasters of the Erewash area and Mansfield to have the Pinxton arm of the canal extended to Mansfield. In the absence of any interest from the canal company, a number of businessmen started drawing-up a proposal in 1813 to construct a railway and in early 1817 had obtained enough subscribers to finance a survey. Later that year, Parliament approved the Bill and Josias Jessop appointed Engineer of the Railway. He used the fish-belly edge rail developed by his father set at a gauge of 4ft 4½in and mounted on stone blocks; the line ran from Pinxton Wharf to Mansfield. When the railway was opened in 1819, the first load of coal from Pinxton Colliery was ceremoniously burnt in the Market Place.
The following year the Butterley Company opened up extensive mining operations to access the Top Hard coal seam between Kirkby and Annesley; seven pits were sunk, three of them alongside the MPR. In 1822 the first shipment of Portland coal left Pinxton Wharf from where it would have been taken to the Codnor Park Ironworks. The Butterley Company built a tramway from the pits to their new wharf on the Cromford Canal at Jacksdale and then into the iron works. In their early years the Portland pits were producing about 50,000 tons annually; this had risen to around 120,000 tons by the 1860s.
Although schemes had been proposed for extending the MPR, none left the drawing board until the Leicester and Swannington Railway opened in 1832. This caused great concern amongst the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalmasters who now wanted a railway from their collieries to Leicester. More schemes were proposed but came to nothing. Eventually the Midland Railway Company proposed a route between Sheffield, Nottingham and London with a Nottingham to Mansfield branch line that was accepted by all in 1846. The line to Kirkby opened in 1848 and to Mansfield in 1849; the old MPR line was re-laid to standard gauge reducing the severe curvatures and levelling out the line for locomotives. At the same time work started on the Kirkby to Pinxton line.
In 1888-90 the Butterley Company sunk a new pit at Kirby, known as Summit being at the highest point of the MPR; it was the start of the big pits. Two shafts were sunk to the Top Hard seam and later deepened to the Blackshale seam. In 1894 the New Hucknall Company opened the Bentinck Colliery. As the industry developed, other pits were opened and existing pits were joined together underground to improve the efficiency of coal handling. During the 1950s drifts were dug to allow the coal to be raised to the surface by conveyor belt instead of shaft winding. Newer power stations being developed requiring ever increasing quantities of coal saw the introduction of the Merry-Go-Round trains for transporting coal between pit and power station. The latest design of 70-ton capacity wagons were filled at the pit and discharged at the power station whilst on the move. Despite all these improvements in handling efficiency, the pits started closing and the plans for a super pit at Kirby Summit were abandoned in 1968. The last pit to close was Thoresby in 2015.
William Jessop (1744-1814), who has been called the father of Civil Engineering, was apprenticed to John Smeaton for seven years. He continued working for him for a further seven years before venturing out as a Consulting Engineer in his own right. He became the go to man for those wishing to promote canals.
Josias Jessop (1781-1826), the second son of William, began his career at he age of 17 years when he carried out several experiments on a railway at Brinsley, Notts owned by Joseph Wilkes; accompanied the Committee of the Grand Junction Canal Co to see some railways before they began theirs at Blisworth; assisted Benjamin Outram (1764-1805) to survey the line of a railway from Merthyr Tydfil to Newport and assisted his father in 1799 to survey a proposed line of canal that resulted in the Surrey Iron Railway.
In 1801 he acted as assistant engineer to his father on the West India Docks project. William had also been involved with the planning the Port of Bristol and became its consulting engineer in 1803. Having completed his Journeyman training in 1804, Josias was made resident engineer of the floating harbour at Bristol until its completion in 1811.
By 1812 the Butterley Company was a partnership between the Wright family and William Jessop following the death of Benjamin Outram in 1805. William's third son, also William, was apprenticed under the iron master William Brunton, who was in charge of the Butterley works. Between them, the Jessops and Brunton invented the cast-iron fish-belly edge rail first used on the Belvoir Railway in 1813.
In 1817 Josias was appointed engineer for MPR for which he chose to use the edge rail developed by his father. Josias was also involved in the Butterley private line to the Codnor Iron Works. Seven years later Josias landed his biggest contract so far – the Cromford and High Peak Railway. On 21st June 1826 he was appointed Consulting Engineer for the Railway with George Stephenson, son of Robert, as Principal Engineer. Tragically at a critical moment in his career, Josias died on 30th September.
Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.