Coal mining was a significant industry in the area, and was central to its prominence during the industrial revolution. The Wigan, Manchester and Oldham Coalfields formed part of the Lancashire coalfield, which was considered to be the centre for coal production during the 18th century. It also led the way in innovative technology, including the use of steam engines and the development of the first canals. This innovation together with the availability of coal helped to create the perfect conditions for industrialisation.
The Romans were probably the first to use coal in Lancashire and small scale coal mining would have taken place during the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries). The first pit in the area was possibly dug in 1619. However, coal was not exploited on a large scale in the area until the 18th century when a shaft was sunk on the Hey Estate.
The way coal was mined changed over the years. At the turn of the 19th century coal was still being mined by hand using picks and shovels and by candle light. During Victorian times, a collier was allocated a piece of the coal face and either undercut the coal with a pick or blasted it down. Later they used hammers and wedges to get the coal.
The mining of coal changed as demand continued to rise. The rising demand for coal in the area was due to the growing local textile industry and increased domestic use, along with the development of the steam engine and improved transport connections. This resulted in larger, deeper mines. Further improvements to technology in the 2nd half of the 19th century made it possible to mine the deeper coal seams such as those in Leigh and Abram.
The availability of coal and improved transport routes attracted new industries to the area, often located along the canal. This in turn increased demand for coal locally, with 20 million tonnes of coal produced by 100,000 Lancashire mines at the start of the 20th century. The industry was therefore a large local employer, becoming the second largest employer in Leigh and employing 31,932 miners in the Wigan borough in 1912.