The Geography of the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent)




| Index - Subsidence in Stoke-on-Trent |

Evidence of Subsidence in Stoke-on-Trent
Important copyhold case:
'Hilton v Earl Granville'
Staffordshire Advertiser 3rd August 1844


A condensed copy of the report from the Staffordshire Advertiser (3.8.1844) - the headings have been added for ease of reading and were not part of the original report.


Background to the case: 
"A large model of the town of Shelton was produced, and there was a formidable array of papers and books... 

The plaintiff (said Mr Kelly, on his behalf) was a person in humble circumstances. He possessed two houses, one of which he occupied and the other he let to a tenant. He succeeded to these two houses, his father before him having possessed them from about 1797, when he, in common with a number of other persons constituting a building society, built these and other houses in the neighbourhood. The defendant, who was a nobleman of high character, was the lessee, under the Crown, of very extensive coal mines, where another article, which had lately become of considerable commercial importance, iron stone, was likewise found, running, not merely under the street containing the houses belonging to the plaintiff, but running under the whole of the extensive and populous townships of Hanley and Shelton, and under the whole of the manor of Newcastle under Lyme of which these townships formed a part. The defendant ... appeared also supported by the Crown, as Duchess of Lancaster, whose officers and whose funds conducted this defence. The plaintiff appealed to the jury, and he, Mr Kelly, was sure he would not appeal in vain for justice in this case. He desired no more than that they should hold the scales of justice even. 

Iron stone mining and the subsidence: 
Somewhere in about the year 1833, Lord Granville began to search for iron stone, and in the course of the working it was found that the foundations of several houses in the neighbourhood, and particularly in the three streets which some of the jury had seen -Union Street and two others parallel with it were weakened. The houses began to give way, and cracks appeared in them. 
The very surface of the street itself instead of being a regular inclined plane, descending according to the natural form of that part of the surface of the earth, became sunk in various place, so as to present a sort of undulating surface in consequence of the sinking of the earth beneath. During the first three or four years which succeeded the first appearance of this mischief. House after house began to crack and sink. Some of them actually tumbled down in ruins, and at length these houses belonging to Mr Hilton, the plaintiff, were approached somewhere about three or four years ago. Mr Hilton claimed damages for the injury done to his property by means of Lord Granville working the mines too near the surface of the earth, and so weakening, or, in fact, destroying the foundations of the house, Lord Granville admitting, for the purpose of this course, that by reason of the mode in which he had worked the mines the property of the plaintiff had been injured... 


Lord Granville's claim to mine without paying compensation : 
The right which Lord Granville here claimed was a right to work and excavate his mines of coal and iron stone without restriction, without control, without qualification, as near to the surface of the earth as he thought proper and without making any compensation in respect of the injury done to the property or the entire destruction of it. This devastation would extend under the 
whole of these townships until not one single building within them on the surface of the earth could be pronounced secure even for people to sleep in. These townships contained twenty thousand inhabitants. There were two churches, 9 or 10 chapels, the county Infirmary built at an expense of twenty or thirty thousand pounds, several schools, 20 large manufactories, residences 
of great value and great splendour, besides about four thousand houses of the middle and labouring classes. All these buildings existed upon the very surface which covered these very mines ... 

The questions in the case: 
The jury could not give a verdict for the defendant establishing the right claimed unless they were satisfied in fact that it had originally a lawful beginning. There might have been some injury done here and there to a house, until somewhere about 1825 or 1826, and then, in consequence of mining these mines too near the surface. some injury was done to some houses in Joiner Square. Upon that occasion a memorial was said to have been sent to Lord Granville, pointing out the mischievous nature of the mode in which he worked his mines, the distressing effects produced by that working, and, still more, the important and widespread consequences which would result if that mode of working was persevered in. Lord Granville, however, did think proper to persevere  
the memorial was disregarded. As long as Lord Granville had worked these coal mines for the purpose of obtaining coal and worked them carefully, leaving support for the superincumbent buildings and services, no serious injury ever could have been done to any body... 

In 1833, from its being discovered that the ore could be smelted and that iron could be obtained from it, and from the great change that took place in the iron trade at that time, it was found to be highly profitable to work these mines for the express purpose of obtaining iron stone. Now, whereas, you could work coal so as to render the use of the mines extremely profitable to the owner, and yet leave sufficient coal behind to support the buildings above, that was not the case with regard to ironstone. If you searched for ironstone, you must take it all, leaving no support, or an insufficient support, to render it worth while or profitable so to work the mines. 

In 1833 the injury became so great that they were obliged to make common cause. What would the proceedings of this one day cost? What man was there throughout these townships of Hanley and Shelton, or the manor of Newcastle, whose property had been injured, who, if he had sold every thing he possessed even to his very shirt, could have borne the expenses on this day? Not one. They were all men like Mr Hilton, the plaintive, whose father, after the toils of a long life, had contrived to scrape together about Rl50, which he invested in a building society. Suppose they (the jury) were possessed of dwelling houses, constituting their whole property..., could it be believed that they would take them subject to the condition that the owner of the mine, under those houses, should be at liberty whenever he thought proper for his own profit, and not for 
theirs, so to work the mines as totally to destroy their houses and their property without any notice to them, and without making the smallest compensation? 

Evidence of the witnesses
Mr Samuel Wood, examined by Mr Kelly: "I live at Hanley; I was 71 the 15th of July; I know Mr Hilton's houses in Union-street, Shelton; they formerly belonged to his father; the houses were built in l 797, by a building club, of which Hilton was a member; ... Mr Hilton, the plaintiff's father, lived in No.1; he then removed to No. 2, and afterwards returned to No. 1 again; he lived in one or other of the houses from the time they were built till his death; the one he did not live in he let. 

Cross-examined by Sir T Wilde: "The place where the houses were built was formerly an open field... One part of the field where the houses were built was called the Thistly Field, and the other was called the Pear-tree Field. I know Bryan's Wood Field; it adjoins part of the Pear-tree Field; I remember one pit in Bryan's Wood Field before these houses were built;... there were pits lower down than where these houses were built; I have lived in Hanley 65 or 66 years; I was a copyholder, but am not now; I am a colour maker, and I live in Edmund-street now; when these houses were built I lived in Shelton, the adjoining township; I was a member of the Building Society, and got a house in Union-street...; there are three streets running in the same direction - 
Union-street, Queen-street, and Wood-street; the members of the society paid monthly; they drew lots for the numbers, and as the houses were built, each man, according to the number he drew, was entitled to the house that corresponded with that number; the Building Society built two of the streets, Union-street and Wood-street; I parted with my house about four or five years ago; we paid 10s 6d a month; from the commencement to the finish was better than ten years; I continued a member of the society until the end; I think there were 28 members; I do not know whether it was 26 or 28 houses that the society built; there one or two double chances; Mr Hilton was a crate-maker. 

James Goostry, examined by Mr Kelly: "I have lived in Shelton all my life... It was down towards the bottom of Queen St that I first observed an appearance of injury. From about three years ago I have observed various houses in the three streets cracked, and some have fallen altogether. I should say from 60 to 70 houses are damaged, and of those I should say from 50 to 60 are uninhabited at this time. Some of them are altogether in ruins - a mere pile of bricks. Others have their walls standing but cracked. In some of the houses, at a greater distance from the centre, merely some cracks appear. I have seen in Hilton's house, and in some others also, cracks through which you could see the light. The doors will not shut, and the floors are apparently separating from the walls. The pits are bricked round when they have ceased to be worked; they are not covered over, but merely bricked round about two or three yards above the surface; I have known Mr Hilton's house for 40 years; there is a well to one of the houses; I am not aware of the depth of it, but it is considerable, and that well used to supply the neighbourhood with water; it was not used solely 
for Hilton's house, but for the accommodation of other buildings in the neighbourhood; the water has been taken from that well by means of this mining; there is no water in that well now; it disappeared when I observed the injury to the houses... 

The judge's summing up
The Lord Chief Justice, in summing up, observed that as no evidence had been given on the part of the defendant either as to the existence of the custom or usage, their verdict must be for the plaintiff; but ... the question arose whether the plaintiff had shown to their satisfaction that the injury which had been done had been occasioned in consequence of the negligent and improper working of these mines. Now two witnesses had been called for the plaintiff; but ... there 
was no evidence of negligence and improper working, and, therefore, what the plaintiff must rely on was the admission made by Lord Granville... It seemed to him that the plaintiff must prove... a negligent and careless mode of working the mines, without leaving proper and sufficient support. 
Whether there had been any evidence to enable them to find the affirmative of that, it was for them (the jury) to determine... 

The Jury, after considering for some time, retired into a private room. On their return into the Court, they gave a verdict for the plaintiff on all the issues, with nominal damages. 

Sir Thos Wilde then tendered a bill of exceptions to his Lordship's direction to the jury, with a view, if necessary, of having the question decided by the House of Lords." 


The case reappears in the Staffordshire Advertiser on 26.6.1847, in another case. (Hilton had by  now died). 

The jury decided that: 
1) The damage to the houses was done by Earl Granville's workings 
2) Hilton had a right to the enjoyment of his foundations without hindrance or disturbance. 
3) Earl Granville had a right, according to custom, to work the mines as he pleased, without  making compensation for damage done. 

The plaintiff was awarded 30 damages. 

Commenting on the case. the Advertiser quotes direct from the Morning Herald:  What the legal effect of this will be it is difficult to say... But the verdict may bear the construction  that he may work as he will, provided he do not disturb the foundations of the copyholders'  houses; pretty much the same as saying, 'You must keep at a proper distance, or leave supports;  if you do any damage any more foundations you will have to pay "compensation".' 

The case was still rumbling on in May 1858, when it was discussed in Parliament. 

questions/comments/contributions? email: Steve Birks