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AB15 Coal Cutter exhibit, Pleasley Pit. Picture Source: Paul Fillingham.

Stage 12

Coal Cutter

There were two main methods for mining coal:

  1. Bord and Pillar
  2. Longwall

Bord and Pillar (sometimes referred to as Stall and Pillar) extracted coal in a chess-board pattern, with the white areas being bords or stalls, and the black areas being retained as pillars of coal to support the roof. Sometimes the pillars were extracted whilst retreating away from a coalface. On occasions, the remains of bord and pillar work have been uncovered by opencast mining.

‘Winning the coal’ by manual methods (‘stinting’) in the early 20th century.

Longwall coalface working, advanced (moved forward) in a continuous line, which was often several hundred meters long. The coal was won by manual methods using picks, hammers, wedges, and loaded with shovels or forks. This process was known as ‘stinting’.

A process called ‘hand-holing’ was used to undercut the coal, which was ‘spragged’ and then large wedges were driven into the coal seam with large hammers in an attempt to bring it down in large lumps. Sometimes, the coalface was bored along its length and explosives used to bring the coal down.

Hand-holing the coal seam by manual method.

A longwall coalface was spilt into smaller sections called stalls. These were operated by butties (mining contractors) working to contracts (piece rates). Colliers and hewers worked a section of the stall called a stint. The length of the stint depended on the thickness of the coal seam. In some coalfields seams were narrow, under a metre thickness, but in other coalfields like South Staffordshire and Warwickshire the seams were over 3 metres thick.

Jib coal cutter in the 1930’s.

The first coal cutters were introduced into British collieries in the 1890’s, these were horizontal disc cutters. Later, jib-style coal cutters were used, mechanising the labour intensive job of hand-holing.

The introduction of face conveyors (stint belts) in the 1930’s, also greatly simplified the process of transporting coal from the coalface.

The combination of coal cutters and stint belts, resulted in specialised shifts and 24 hour operations at the coalface.

  1. Prep Shift: Cutting the coal, boring and firing
  2. Production Shift: Coal filling (by hand, shovel or fork) and erecting coalface supports
  3. Laying up Shift: Move forward the stint belt, ripping, packing and drawing supports from the waste.


Meco-Moore power loading coal-cutting machine.

One of the first power loading coal cutters was the Meco-Moore, which operated in the East Midlands coalfields in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

The British coalface was fully mechanised in the late 1950’s and 1960’s by means of armoured flexible conveyors (known as panzers), hydraulic coalface supports (chocks) and power loading coal cutters (known as shearers and trepanners) – all based on German technology.

Shearer cutting coal at Markham Colliery, Derbyshire, in 1990.

The three-shift cycle, greatly speeded up coal production, and coalfaces were set up as ‘panels’ (not to be confused with the electrical switchgear  panels).

Video caption

A modern longwall coalface would be 200 to 250 meters long, with the armoured face conveyor running the entire length, discharging coal onto a stage loader, which then transferred it to a gate conveyor to make its way to the pit bottom via a network of underground conveyors.

The roof of the coalface was supported by chocks – one every metre – and these advanced, as the coal was cut and the armoured face conveyor moved forward.

Layout of a modern advancing longwall coalface.

At either end of the coalface and at right angles to it were the access roadways, known as gates, which extended as the coalface advanced by a process known as ripping. Some coalfaces could go a distance of a mile or more whilst in production.

Anthony Kirby on S5’s coalface at Thoresby Colliery in 2014.

The opposite of longwall advancing coalfaces, were retreat ones. In this process the gates were driven out to the boundary, the coalface set up and then retreated back. This method of mining eliminated ripping and gate maintenance, and needed less miners to operate it.

From the late 1980’s there was a big move to retreat mining at British collieries, which was a more economic way of producing coal. The last coalface (S5’s) to operate in the Nottinghamshire coalfield at Thoresby Colliery in 2015 was mined using the retreat method.