Chris Matthews with Clare Hartwell, Model Villages of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield (Nottinghamshire County Council, 2022)

This isn’t a book about council housing – in many ways, the housing built by the mining companies of the Nottinghamshire coalfield might be considered its antithesis excepting a certain commitment to quality and a similarity of design – but it offers an insight into some significant housing history in well-informed and accessible form.

Fifty major collieries were developed in Nottinghamshire between 1860 and 1970. Those opened in the interwar period in particular were, in Matthews’ words, ‘spectacular in size, modernity, technology, workforce, housing, amenities and investment’. These newer mines were intended as a break from the archaism of some older collieries, the squalor of many pit villages and the troubled industrial relations they spawned. But first the mining companies had to attract a workforce and more than a third of initial investment went on housing (tied to employment) and local amenities to do so. Matthews captures well the ambiguity of the mine owners’ motivations and conduct:

Discipline, and therefore output, could easily be imposed on a workforce who stood not only to lose their job but also their house. The positive incentive for good behaviour was also strong: committed miners enjoyed the fruits of good housing, pay, social activities, opportunities for promotion and often the personal support of management.

You will choose your own language and perspective on this but it was the case that Nottinghamshire miners did develop a distinct union politics generally at odds with the greater militancy of the national union. The ‘non-political’ Nottingham Miners’ Industrial Union was formed during the miners’ lockout in 1926 and, more recently, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in 1985 after most Notts miners had refused to join the year-long strike called by the National Union of Mineworkers the previous year. (If you watched the recent BBC TV drama, Sherwood, you will have seen this split’s difficult legacy played out.)

This more moderate stance was clearly welcome to those who owned and operated the mines and they took steps to actively encourage it. As the book records, the Stanton Coal and Iron Company built a rival church in Bilsthorpe in 1932 to counter the radicalising influence of a local rector urging the workforce to rejoin the national union.

The 1920s plan from the Industrial Housing Assocation for Blidworth colliery village. From J. T. Walters, The Building of Twelve Thousand Houses (Ernest Benn, 1927). Courtesy University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections

The layout of all the model villages generally reflected the local social hierarchy with larger houses in better locations provided to white-collar workers and engineers and a big house, further from the village but closer to the mine, for the colliery manager. Humbler but nevertheless high standard housing of its time served the mines’ manual workforce.

The first new mine to be opened was at Annesley nine miles north-west of Nottingham in 1865; its plain red-brick terraced and semi-detached housing laid out in a grid-form. Amenity standards were improved by the 1870 Housing Act and layouts evolved by the end of the century as Garden City ideals became influential with its curving streetscapes and culs-de-sac. Arts and crafts touches were also apparent in the homes of the more ambitious schemes.

Bestwood Village, part of the later 19th-century second wave of model villages © Chris Matthews

The second wave of new pits and model villages occurred from the 1890s around Warsop and Mansfield and the largest and most significant in the interwar period in the so-called Dukeries after the large landed estates that dominated the area. Local aristocrats were sometimes fearful of the effect of the new mines on their verdant doorsteps. Earl Manvers was able to somewhat mitigate the visual impact of the new Thoresby pit opened in 1925 but, before the government bought them out in the 1938 Coal Act, they were very grateful for the royalties.

Some 6000 houses were built in the twelve model villages covered, 5000 of these in the interwar period. One of the largest providers of housing was the Bolsover Colliery Company who employed Percy Bond Houfton – well known for pre-war model villages Creswell (Derbyshire) and Woodlands (South Yorkshire). Houfton also won national recognition when his workers’ cottages designed for Sheffield City Council’s Flower Estate won first prize in the Letchworth Cheap Cottages Exhibition. In all, the Company’s housing accommodated some 40,000 mining employees.

1920s parlour houses for undermanagers and clerks built by the Industrial Housing Association on Hucknall Road, Newstead © Chris Matthews

Another large builder was the Industrial Housing Association, founded in 1922 as a non-profit organisation by a cooperative of colliery directors and financed by governments loans and grants. Sir John Tudor Walters (of the famous report that shaped so much interwar council housing) was appointed a director, tasked with overseeing the overall design and construction of the new villages. The Association, commissioned by a number of companies, built 12,000 houses in the 1920s.

Ty Trist Colliery, Tredegar © Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

The Second World War and the first majority Labour government changed much, not least by the nationalisation of the mining industry that took effect on the 1st of January 1947. The new National Coal Board would continue to operate existing villages and build new housing. The latter tended to follow the lines of the housing increasingly built by local councils in mining villages and elsewhere, including in the early post-war period many of the permanent prefabricated housing types of the day.

Finally, it’s worth noting – as the book does – the impact of CLASP. Nottinghamshire County Council embarked on a large-scale programme of school and library construction after the war, many built in mining areas where the land was prone to subsidence. The solution, devised by County Architect Donald Gibson with colleagues Dan Lacey and Henry Swain, was a form of system building using a pin-jointed steel frame that rode on a raft foundation, thus obviating the need for large and expensive foundations. The Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme, to give it its full name, was marketed to local authorities more widely in 1957.

All this is covered in more detail and beautifully illustrated with a plethora of colour and black and white images in the book and linked more explicitly to the villages studied. Chris Matthews, its chief author also responsible for many of the contemporary photographs, also did an excellent job of designing the book in attractive and usable style – a shout-here for sources and explanations of highlighted specialist terms that appear on the same page as the relevant references.

At peak in 1961, 56,000 people were employed in Nottinghamshire’s 39 pits. Thoresby Colliery, the last working mine in the area, closed in 2015. The industry is now to be classed as heritage though one with a significant (though fast declining) physical presence and perhaps a greater psychological legacy, at least for the older generation.

The book itself was supported by the Miner2Major project established to highlight the natural and cultural landscape of the Sherwood Forest. It is available for free download or free from larger libraries in the district. A set of leaflets covering nine of the villages with useful maps to aid exploration is also available for free download.


For another example of planning for a new coalfield, see my posts on the East Kent coalfield and Aylesham.