Coal mining has been carried out in the Whitehaven area since around 1256. Land and mineral rights used to belong the Priory of St Bees but were transferred to secular owners in 1539 following its dissolution.
The first of these owners, Sir Thomas Chaloner, granted leases of land in 1560 for digging coal. Such workings were small-scale and near the surface, using adits and bell pits. But the Lowther family later developed and dominated the coal industry in Whitehaven from the mid-17th century to the early 20th century.
In three hundred years over seventy pits were sunk in the Whitehaven and district area. During this period some five hundred or more people were killed in pit disasters and mining accidents. The largest local disaster was in 1910 at Wellington Pit where 136 miners lost their lives. In 1947 at William Pit there was another disaster of similar proportions when 104 men were killed. Four separate explosions over the period 1922–1931 at Haig Pit together killed 83. Haig was to become the last pit to operate in Whitehaven.
Haig Colliery was a coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria, in north-west England. The mine was in operation for almost 70 years and produced anthracitic coal which is most useful for coking coal. The workings of the mine spread westwards out under the Irish Sea and mining was undertaken at over 4 miles (6.4 km) out under the sea bed.
The mine was sunk in 1914 with production not starting until 1916. Even then, full production did not start until 1925. The mine was named after Douglas Haig, the First World War commander. This followed a typical pattern of naming pits after famous figures of the day in Cumbria (Ladysmith after the battle and Wellington after the former Prime Minister).
The colliery was connected to Wellington Colliery in 1922 and the two mines worked in conjunction with each other until Wellington closed in 1932. In the almost 70 years that Haig was in production, it brought 48,000,000 tonnes (47,000,000 long tons; 53,000,000 short tons) of coal to the surface.
The collieries around Whitehaven, and Haig in particular, were noted for their prevalence to Firedamp (Methane). Between 1922 and 1931, 79 men died as a result of three explosions (in 1922, 1928 and 1931).
The 5 September 1922 explosion was caused by a pocket of gas being ignited. The day before, gas had been reported in the Six Quarters Seam of the mine, and the deputy in charge, William Weightman, descended to assess the situation with a shot-firer. Weightman approved the shot-firer to go ahead and deploy his shot which ignited the gas in that area of the mine. Just before 9:00 am, the banksman of the mine noted a cloud of dust rising up No. 4 shaft and Mines rescue were called out. In all, 39 men died in the explosion with all bodies being recovered by 10 September. Identification of the bodies was difficult because of damage to the miners faces; one had to be identified by his belt and trousers because his face was so disfigured.
An explosion occurred on 13 December 1927 which killed four men. On 9 February 1928, efforts were made to go in and check on the state of the mine, the 800 miners of the interconnected Wellington Mine had gone back to work on 3 January 1928, but the 1,100 miners at Haig were still unable to return to work. The check of the mine was also used as an effort to recover the body of Harold Horrocks who had not been recovered since the 13 December accident. A body of 24 men entered the mine to assess the damage and various trips back to the surface for sustenance and to re-fill breathing apparatus were undertaken throughout the day and night. Sometime after 11:00 pm, three explosions rocked the area, each more violent than the last. 11 survivors managed to navigate the 3 miles (4.8 km) in the dark to the bottom of the shafts where another rescue party was sent down the mine. The canaries that the rescue party carried with them soon died and when the second rescue party reached where the last explosion occurred they found the roof completely collapsed and extensive damage. As there was evidence of another fire, the area was sealed off (and has remained so since) which meant that the 13 people in the initial party and the body of Harold Horrocks were never recovered. As the area was sealed off, a definitive reason for the ignition point for the explosions was never conclusively reached.
The third disaster occurred on 29 January 1931 when an explosion hit the mine just after 8:15 pm. Of the 169 men who were working underground, 45 were in the same area as the 1928 explosion. This incident ended with 27 fatalities.
The mine closed in early 1986 with the loss of 3,500 jobs. The shafts were capped and the surface was cleared, albeit with some buildings and the pit head gear surviving above one of the shafts. Closure of the mine represented the last deep coal mine in Cumbria; however, coal was still won in the area, but mostly via open-cast mining such as that at the Lakeland Colliery (north of Workington) whose output was railed to Workington Docks by railway transport.
Some of the surface buildings survived and along with the two steam powered engines, the surface site was preserved as the Haig Colliery Mining Museum. This had a major refurbishment in 2015 and closed in 2016.
In 2014, plans were announced to mine the coal under the sea near to Haig Colliery again. West Cumbria Mining have proposed plans to start mining for the coal which will be used to provide coking coal. Whilst there are some modest estimates about possible reserves, a note in the Haig Colliery Mining Museum stated that there is the possibility of the mine supplying 1,000,000 tonnes per year for the next 800 years. The proposed name for the new venture is Woodhouse Colliery.