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Plain Pit, Rainton Colliery, and the Two Explosions - Page 1

Taken From A Paper Written By Alan Vickers


I was born and lived approximately ¾ mile from the site of the former Plain Pit, near to Chilton Moor at Fence Houses – formerly within County Durham but now within the City of Sunderland. I had known from an early age that there had been two explosions that involved considerable loss of life but I knew little else about the pit other than that there was a former pit pond on the site and signs of an extensive railway system in the general area.

I always felt sorry for Plain Pit in that there was no memorial anywhere to those who died in the explosions and I vowed to find out as much as I could about the pit and its role as part of Rainton Colliery. This project is the result of my research.

A copy of part of the First Edition Ordnance Survey map for the area is included as part of the project.

Wherever possible National Grid References are given for the sites referred to, these relate to the 6 inch to 1 mile Ordnance Survey Sheets NZ34NW and NZ35SW for the area.

Background Information

Plain Pit (NGR NZ 322 487) was one part of the original Rainton Colliery which was opened in the mid 1770s. The pits were leased from the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral to ancestors of the Londonderry family and there is much useful material relating to Rainton Colliery included in the Londonderry Papers that have been deposited by the 9th Marquess of Londonderry in Durham County Records Office. An excellent catalogue of these papers is available.

There has been coal mining activity in the Rainton area for many years and there are documents dated 1683 which relate to leases from the Dean and Chapter to Sir John Duck of Mines at Rainton, Moorsley, Pittington, Moorhouse, etc, for 21 years at £22 per annum rent. Five years later, the leases of various lands in the area were assigned to Richard Wharton of Durham. 

Following the death of Richard Wharton the leases passed to his daughter, Jane Wharton, who, in 1700, acquired other leases by further assignments. Jane Wharton was by then the owner of many coal mining leases in the Rainton area. John Tempest (1679-1737) married Jane Wharton bringing to the family lands in the Houghton and Penshaw areas and, as a result, the wealth of the family must have been very considerable at this time.

Further lands and properties were added during the life of John Tempest II and also by John Tempest III.

In 1778 Rainton Colliery was owned by John Tempest III, Esq., of Wynyard and Brancepeth Castle, who sat as MP for the City of Durham from 1768. He died in 1794, and as his only son had predeceased him, his estates passed to Sir Henry Vane-Tempest, Bart, M.P. for Durham City from 1794 to 1800. The latter died in 1813 in his early 40s, leaving a 13 year old daughter, Lady Emily Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, who inherited the estates and Trustees were appointed to manage them until she became of age. Lady Frances Anne, after her marriage, became the Marchioness of Londonderry. 

Little is known about the early years of the pit, but it is probable that throughout its life, it closed and re-opened to suit the demands of the market. The coal from the pit was transported along the wagonway through Chilton Moor, Dubmire, Sedgeletch to the Jane Pit (a part of Newbottle Colliery at NZ 327 515). From here the waggons travelled on the railway owned by John Nesham and on to the staithes at Doghole Spouts at Low Lambton on the River Wear (NZ 317 541) where the coal was tipped into keels and taken down the river, there to be loaded into the holds of ships. At some period coal was also shipped from nearby staithes rented from John Nesham (possibly the Penshaw staithes at NZ 314 541). The Londonderry papers contain leases to Jane Wharton dated 1697-1703 for the wayleaves for the wagonway to the Jane Pit. Later, in 1737 and 1743 there were further leases made to John Tempest of wayleaves for a wagonway through Dubmire Moor, Hall Moor and Sedgeletch at Newbottle. 

The Houghton Parish registers contain a reference dated 27th March 1731 to ‘Mrs Wharton’s Waggon way’ and also a reference to ‘Renton Pitts’ from 1614. 

Early Coal Staithes

In 1831 a new railway line was constructed from Rainton Bridge to Seaham and from then on coals were shipped at Seaham instead of Sunderland, thereby cutting out the high cost of using the keels from the staithes at Penshaw.  The construction of this railway line together with its various features and also the construction of the port at Seaham Harbour have not been researched and therefore they do not form a part of this project.

Mention is also made in the Houghton Parish Registers, in March 1782, of  ‘Rainton Engine.’   It is possible that this may be a reference to a stationery engine used as a form of haulage on the wagonway but equally it could be a reference to cottages at either the Main Engine Pit or the Old Engine Pit, later referred to.  It is probable that a pumping engine was located at the nearby North Pit (NZ 332 487) as research has shown that there was only one production shaft there but the Coal Authority ‘Seam Plans’ show two shafts.
The sinking dates which are available from the published Borings and Sinkings - Northumberland and Durham Sections of Strata give the following :-


Bottom of Hutton seam

In existence
by August

Above Ordnance Datum


fm     ft      ins



Plain Pit

81     4    6 3/4



The shaft details for Plain Pit are available on the website of the Durham Mining Museum and these indicate the thickness of the five workable coal seams and the depths at which they occur:










Three Quarter




Five Quarter




Main Coal




Low Main










A slightly different depth of the shaft of 480 feet is quoted on this webpage.

There was only one shaft at the pit but the workings were connected to adjacent Rainton pits – e.g.
North Pit and Nicholson’s Pit (NZ 328 483).

The 1814 valuation of the pit.

In 1814 a valuation of the stock at Rainton pits and farms was carried out and the following pits were listed :

North Pit

Plain Pit 

Nicholson’s Pit

Dunwell Pit

Main Engine Pit

Old Engine Pit.

In the valuation, the underground equipment at Plain Pit included :-

80  hewer’s mauls,  97 shovels,  81 rakes, 98 crackets (low stools),  161 wedges,  35 sets of drills,  26 trams,  162 single rolley wagons,  4 cranes.

Railway sidings, excluding points included :

1023 rolley ways, 1440 tramways, 5463 straight tramways, 57 brattice lengths 6’ x 4’ high, 11 doors 4’ square.

The pit possessed a steam-powered Machine for Drawing Coals, with boiler, shaft frame, pulley wheels etc., valued at £1,327.  It also had a 21 foot diameter whim gin and a horse net.  There were four trams on the heap and a 20 - peck measuring tub for use in case of disputes with workmen or customers, and five heap lamps. 

Photo of a Whim Gin also showing a ‘Corf’ Basket.

Sir Henry’s heiress was still under-age at this time, but the trustees undertook major colliery developments.  The Main Coal seam was exhausted after some forty years’ working and by September 1817, Plain Pit and two of the other working pits at Rainton -  Hunter’s House (NZ 315 483) and Nicholson’s, had all been sunk through the Five Quarter, Main Coal, and Low Main seams to the Hutton seam.  The Hutton seam was some 4 to 4 1/2 feet in thickness and was an excellent quality house coal.  Some of its quality may be gauged from the fact that in the early 1820s it brought 22s 6d a ton against the 17s 6d for the Main Coal and Low Main seams.