Coal, Black Gold from the Past

In normal circumstances, coal means instant warmth – just add firelighters and strike a match. However, in this day and age, coal is becoming the black gold of the past.

With the advent of nuclear power stations, pipelines bringing North Sea Oil and Gas to many parts of the country and, more recently, renewable energy from wind, hydro, tidal and wave power, no wonder coal is about to become as fossilised as the dinosaurs. Pardon the pun but this is what’s happening.

Coal was the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution and hundreds of years before that, around 1184, this black gold was dug out of the ground by Cistercian monks who lived at Newbattle Abbey.

These monks were granted the right to pan salt at Prestonpans and, in 1210 they were given permission to mine coal at nearby Prestongrange. They used this fuel to evaporate the sea water and carted it back to Newbattle, where it was used to keep the great, cold, stone monastery warm.

It was the monks who built the small harbour from where they exported salt and coal. It has been suggested that the monks were not good tenants as they fell behind with their rent and were replaced by other tenants. Thanks to these early tycoons new industries sprouted up. The harbour was expanded to accommodate larger ships which would export bricks, ceramics, glass and soap. All these industries were dependent on coal for their survival.

In 1829, a huge, deep shaft was sunk at Prestongrange and connected up with a profitable seam which ran for over a mile under the Firth of Forth.

In 1909, John Morrison bought the colliery from the then Lord Lothian (the Achison family) and the harbour, then called Achison Haven, was renamed Morrison’s Haven and is still known by that name today.

In 1947, the pit was nationalised and the surrounding area prospered for the next 18 years, until the pit was forced to close due to continuous flooding.

Since 1993, the site, formerly part of the Scottish Mining Museum (indeed their original location) has been run by East Lothian District Council as Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum, coming under the aegis of East Lothian Council Museums Service. The present Visitors’ Centre was once the canteen for the adjoining brickworks, which flourished when clay was a by product of the the coal mining.

The Visitor Centre today tells the story of the different industries which once flourished at Prestongrange. Old photographs, objects and illustrations indicate a busy place with lots of people.

Beam EngineThe museum is also the home of a huge Cornish Beam Engine built by J. E. Mare in 1863 but later given a new beam by Harvey & Co of Cornwall and shipped to East Lothian in 1874. This engine arrived at Morrison’s Haven in pieces and was assembled on site, where it remains to this day. The beam itself is all of 30 feet in length and weighed in at 30 tonnes. The pump rod, which is made of oregon pine, weighed 100 tonnes and the engine could pump 650 gallons of water every minute.

When visiting the area, don’t forget to examine the nearby circular foundations which once supported the beehive shaped kilns. The kilns, when fired, generated enough heat to bake all the specialised items such as pipes and chimney pots.

A short walk will take you to the seashore and if you look carefully at the mown grassy area, imagine it to be the sea, for this was where the old timber jetties once stood and where many a tall ship docked after returning from exotic trips.

In the early 1650s a fort was built here to defend the harbour entrance. Much later, a Customs House was erected. A careful check on the sea shore uncovers some circular foundations, which took the weight from the groaning jetties piled high with coal and bricks.

I stood silently for a few moments to digest what I could see and imagine from days gone by, for the area has a special corner in my heart. I imagined a snorting ‘pug’ shunting fully laden wagons of coal towards the quayside where the tall ships were filled up to the gunwales before they set sail.

Back in the present, my eyes scanned further afield and took in the tall chimneys of Cockenzie power station. Then I moved on, searching for that tell-tale wisp of smoke spiralling upwards into the cold East Lothian air – and wondered if Mither was putting another lump of black gold on the fire.

One thought on “Coal, Black Gold from the Past”

  1. Great story,my husband was a miner when he was very young.This was very interesting.I will definitely be visiting this sight regularly.

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