WILLIAM GILL is an offshoot of Arkengarthdale in the northern Pennines and is the shallow valley leading to the source of Arkle Beck. It’s a place only the lonely visit because it’s right in the middle of one of those vast empty boglands which fester unobtrusively among the high moors. Crossing William Gill a couple of months ago, on a walk to Tan Hill, I spotted what appeared to be a single length of railway line poking mournfully into the sky on the crown of the moor. Subsequent research has cast a guttering light on something that might be vaguely interesting. Boots on, here we go . . .
William Gill is a strange name for a topographical feature. Did you know there have been three famous Manxmen called William Gill? No, I didn’t either. William Gill is also the name of a British explorer, an American boxer, a Canadian artist and a 19th Century photographer from Colchester.
This William Gill – our William Gill – wiggles pleasantly from the old Tan Hill turnpike road south-west through Arkengarthdale Moor towards Stonesdale Moor. Unlike its human namesakes it is famous for nothing, and outside grouse-shooting circles it remains unknown, unloved and bereft of praise.
I have decided to venture into its depths because, according to the 1851 census, seven men lived in this inhospitable place. They were colliers – coal miners, pit fellas. And their place of work was William Gill Colliery, one of the many shallow pits dotting these moors.
Please don’t be misled by the word “colliery”. It conjures up all sorts of images from flat caps, mufflers and whippets to towering headframes, steam shunters and picket lines. These moorland collieries were shallow scrapings which had changed little since mediaeval times. They were powered by horses and the coal was won by hardy men who died young. These were small pits in wild places – shallow pits drenched with bog-water and producing poor, shaly coal. They were worked from the 13th Century through to the early 20th Century – and they have virtually disappeared from the face of the earth.
I spend a pleasant hour or so wandering up a dirt road that follows Arkle Beck into William Gill. Evidence of grouse shooting is everywhere – lines of butts; spent cartridges; old tracks widened by mechanical diggers in a particularly unsympathetic manner in order to increase profit yields, and this in a national park where the public are encouraged to respect the environment. Still, the guns are silent today and I have the place to myself.
At the very top of the gill, beyond the end of the ugliest track, I spy the railway line poking into the sky. I’m expecting to make a discovery up here. I’ve been examining satellite images on the Bing Maps website and have spotted what appears to be the remains of a horse whim.
Horse whim? Come on, keep up. We’ve visited horse whims before, but this one promises to be the best example yet. A horse whim was a capstan powered by a horse. The horse walked round in a circle, turning the capstan, and the capstan hauled kibbles (rounded buckets) of coal or other minerals from the depths of a vertical shaft.
Shafts powered by horse whims were also known as gin pits (gin being a corruption of engine), whim pits, windy pits (windy from winding) and horse-winding pits. They were largely superseded by stationary steam engines but survived in remote and less-prosperous mining areas into the late 19th Century.
So I clamber up the side of a heathery spoil heap and find my horse whim. Glimpsed from space, this one. How cool is that? Boldly going, I stumble upon the main colliery shaft right on the edge of the horse whim circle. It has been capped off with metal sheets and bars for safety purposes, but otherwise it’s in fine condition – a circular, stone-lined shaft about two metres in diameter and plunging down into a scary darkness where the sound of dripping water echoes chillingly.
I do what everyone does when confronted by a deep and dangerous hole and lob a stone in. The stone falls for three seconds before slapping into water. How deep is that? Twenty metres, thirty metres? And how deep is the water at the bottom? Questions that remain unanswered.
But it’s the horse whim I’ve climbed up here to see, and this really is the most complete example I have chanced upon in the northern Pennines. The two retaining walls that held the capstan cross-beams are still standing and the circular layout of the structure can be clearly observed. Everything else has vanished – but nothing lasts for long in this extremely harsh environment.
From what I can glean, William Gill Colliery was worked from 1779 to 1893. Records are scant, but according to the Durham Mining Museum website the owner and manager during its final years was one Joseph Caygill. He was preceded by William Caygill. That’s about it. Dead end for now.
I find stuff like this fascinating. People lived and worked up here for more than a hundred years, yet nearly all trace of their lives and labours has disappeared from written record – if it ever existed in the first place – or been swallowed by hungry moors. What was once a scene of grimy and impoverished industry, where men slept in turf-roof hovels and spent their waking hours in filth and darkness, is now the preserve of the bird-shooting wealthy with their Range Rover Sports and expensive guns. How did that happen?
All that’s left up here are two walls, a hole in the ground, and a length of iron rail pointing somewhat poignantly towards heaven. History marches on and in doing so has almost wiped the slate clean.
I take my leave of William Gill Colliery and tramp across the moor to Lad Gill, passing some flooded trial shafts which lurk like black holes in the heather. At Lad Gill is another tiny colliery, this one possessing a ruined workshop, or bothy, and a fine heap of slack stretching across the moor. There’s a word you don’t hear nowadays – slack, as in coal slack.
I tramp pensively down William Gill to the van. Days like this always end the same way. They begin with hope and expectancy, climax in wonder and sometimes euphoria, then sink into a dismal sullenness on the road home as history drags at my heels like a wet sack.
It’s the futility of past lives that gets to me. The prospect of the ceaseless grind in order to earn a few pennies to keep starvation from the door. The horror – horror by our standards, anyway – of living in draughty, damp, depressing hovels and spending your working life immersed in filth and darkness with nothing to show at the end except a few spidery words in a parish register. God, that’s depressing. And once so commonplace.
So I amuse myself with mental probings into the origins of the word “slack”, and how that once-famous parody of an old music-hall song – quoted with hilarity by older generations – would probably prompt little more than blank looks nowadays. I’ll try it anyway. Don’t go down the mine, dad, there’s plenty of slack in your pants.
Thank you. I’ll close the coal-house door as I leave.
Graham Vitty kindly sent me this picture to attach to the post. It adds a face and some fascinating detail to the story of William Gill colliery.
He says: “I am very interested in William Gill as my Great Grandfather William Preston was born there and worked in the mine with his father, my Great Great Grandfather Preston, who was married to one of William Caygill’s daughters. Both Williams and family moved down to Whaw between 1861 and 1871 and worked at Great Punchard and some Lead Mining also. You can see all this on the 1841 census onwards. William Snr married Mary Caygill in 1831 at Gretna Green – nothing is new in theses modern times!!!”
The picture shows William Preston Jnr in his elder days in, Graham thinks, the back yard of his Whaw cottage.