I love an evocative placename, and they hardly get more redolent than Fiery Holes, a lost settlement that lives on only in the name of the pub on its site, now more famous as the gathering point for the Black Country’s pony-and-trap drivers. The site is just to the West of Moxley, itself only a small Black Country village that’s now little more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop on the New Road near Darlaston. It’s a very typical Black Country village though, right in the heart of the mineral seams – in fact, one David Rose in the nineteenth century operated not only a colliery on his Victoria and Albert site in Moxley, but an ironstone mine and ironworks, fireclay pit and brickworks, producing 20,000 tons of pig iron in 1852.
The OS first edition shows Fiery Holes as a group of houses and some sort of industrial working, surrounded by acres of rough ground dotted with old shafts, pits, quarries and other industrial detritus. By the time this map was published in 1887, the principle collieries in the area were the Bradley Row, Bradley Lodge with all the Moxley works in the village and a disused brickworks near Bradley & Moxley GWR station constituting the local industry. However, the Black Country became what it was way before this first Survey – none other than John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson founded the Bradley Ironworks at Fiery Holes in around 1766 at the junction of Bradley Lane and Great Bridge Road, the beginnings of a massive venture which saw him labelled the father of the South Staffordshire iron industry.
100 years later and there’s scant evidence of Wilkinson on the ground, the land having been dug up for other ventures, railways and so on. Still though, the collieries keep on mining the ten yard seam of Black Country coal for some years yet, and it’s from this that Fiery Holes gets its name. Whether your seam of coal is 30 feet or 30 inches wide, getting to it has always had its difficulties. Wilkinson most likely brought in a Newcomen engine to deal with one of the problems – the high midland water table and its attendant mine-flooding tendencies.
Another issue is how you then get the coal out, and here is where the Black Country is a particularly important case study. As one of the first areas to embark on mass, industrial-scale mineral extraction, lots of mistakes were made – the methods used to extract the apparently limitless coal were often wasteful and inefficient, meaning that the Black Country was also one of the first coal mining areas in the UK to become unprofitable to work in the late nineteenth century. Geology was as much an infant science as its application in mining, and mistakes learnt here were used to benefit other parts of the country later.
The thickness of the famous South Staffs seam caused problems in itself – efficient techniques from Shropshire were not applicable, so miners had to use the “pillar and stall” method, which extracted about half the coal as saleable lump coal, leaving the remainder as working platforms, supporting pillars and other “slack”. And the mineral content of the Black Country coal played its part – a high sulphur content meant that spontaneous seam fires broke out regularly, when the underground gases reacted with some sort of combustion. These are still a hazard in modern mining – a mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania has been smouldering since 1962! Nothing much could be done, and nothing much was done – the miners just abandoned that area to the fire (including wasting lots of perfectly good coal) and moved elsewhere.
One of the worst affected areas for these fires was – you’ve guessed it – the area between Bradley, Bilston and Moxley that became known as Fiery Holes. Smoke and steam would escape from the ground as in the wonderful pictures below, leaving the ground warm to walk on, and I’m guessing with a pretty unpleasant aroma.
The picture at the top of this post shows the Fiery Holes site in 1959, yet more of the Black Country’s post-industrial – and in particular, post-extraction – derelict landscape. Years to come would see the short road named Belmont Street; the inter-war semis of Harrowby Street, Lodge Road and Jubilee Road come to surround the site to the North; the eventual conversion of Wilkinson’s land into a playing field; the demolition of the few houses to make way for the Traveller’s Rest pub; the closure of the GWR line and its subsequent re-opening as the Midland Metro; and just recently the demolition of the 1930s housing to make way for 231 new homes (interestingly, by the same group that are building in Coalpool). That’s the thing about the Black Country landscape – old and storied as it is, it’s always changing.