Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Buddle, Johnlocked

  • A. J. Heesom

Buddle, John (1773–1843), mining engineer, was born at Kyo, near Lanchester, Durham, on 15 September 1773, the fourth of six children and the only son of John Buddle (1743–1806) and Anne Reay, a farmer's daughter. His father is said to have been a schoolmaster (though he was never licensed), but by 1777 was described as a coal viewer (or mining engineer), and it is clear that he was taking an interest in local mining matters from the 1760s. By 1792 the father's reputation was such that he was appointed viewer to Wallsend colliery, on the Tyne, as well as viewer to the bishop of Durham, and subsequently also to the dean and chapter. John Buddle himself recorded that he was 'initiated into the mysteries of pit work when not quite six years old' (Buddle to Londonderry, 14 June 1842, Durham RO, NCB1/JB/2556). He seems to have had little formal schooling, but to have been educated by his father, as well as receiving from him his mining training. Having served as his father's assistant at Wallsend, by 1801 Buddle was receiving salaries and fees for colliery viewing independent of his father, and on the latter's death in 1806 he was already established as a distinguished viewer in his own right. Within a few years he himself was described as having a good many apprentices. Throughout his life he remained a practical colliery worker, and told a House of Commons committee in 1836 that he knew his native county 'better underground than above', and as late as his sixty-sixth year he spent, on one occasion, eight hours underground. He prided himself on being 'a good pitman' (Buddle to Londonderry, 27 June 1832, Durham RO, D/LO/C142) and expressed regret when managerial functions increasingly drew him away from his underground work. Those he appointed to subsidiary positions had first to meet the criterion of being sound in pit work, and he consistently preferred those with long experience underground to college-trained engineers, whom he despised.

As a viewer Buddle was employed by numerous collieries on the rivers Tyne and Wear, and by 1808 was commanding £1200 in salaries for this work. Later in his career he added collieries in the newly developed south Durham coalfield to his viewing brief, and in 1837 he was appointed to the post once held by his father, as viewer to the bishop of Durham. In addition he was in demand as check-viewer at many north-east collieries, including the powerful Hetton and Lambton enterprises, which rivalled those of his long-term employer, the third marquess of Londonderry. Buddle was also employed further afield, as check-viewer to Lord Elgin in Scotland, as well as to Sir Josiah Guest in Wales, and his opinions on mining matters were sought from as far away as Portugal, South America, Russia, and Nova Scotia.

More than any other, perhaps, Buddle was responsible for converting the old style colliery viewer into the more modern mining engineer; when it was put to him by a House of Commons committee that he was not an engineer, he firmly replied, 'I believe I am', citing his membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1832) as a proof of his claim. His engineering work was wide-ranging. He advised on railway working, for instance on the Stanhope and Tyne Railway; and in 1832 he surveyed the route for the proposed Durham Junction Railway, commenting that the work 'was the sort of thing which I have at my fingers' ends' (Buddle to Londonderry, 23 Sept 1832, Durham RO, D/LO/C142). One of the earliest steam locomotives in British North America was named the John Buddle, in recognition of the advice he had provided to railway builders in Nova Scotia. In 1808 he advised the Thames Archway Company on their (unsuccessful) attempt to construct a tunnel from Limehouse to Rotherhithe. He investigated the mineral wells at Harrogate, and devised a central heating scheme for the new theatre in Newcastle in 1836. As well as his most famous engineering project, the planning and construction of Seaham harbour for Lord Londonderry, he was also consulted by Sir Matthew White Ridley over improvements to Blyth harbour, and by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners on improvements to Warkworth.

Buddle's chief engineering contributions, however, naturally focused on underground mine working. In 1810 he devised a system of underground ventilation, known as double or compound ventilation, which improved on James Spedding's system of 'coursing the air'. Buddle's system produced fresher air underground and reduced the hazards from ventilating furnaces; it was first employed at Wallsend, and then extended to other collieries under his control, such as Percy Main, Hebburn, and Heaton. Within a few years it was in general use throughout the north-east. Another innovation, also pioneered at Wallsend's A pit, was the panel system of underground working, where solid barriers of coal were left in order to divide the workings into districts, within which the pillars of coal could be worked, thus considerably increasing productivity. Although this 'pillar and stall' system was later replaced by the 'longwall' method of working a seam along its length, for many years Buddle's method of operation remained the preferred working method in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham. As well as devising new working methods himself, he was ready and willing to adapt the innovations of others: he helped to test and disseminate John Curr's flat ropes and shaft conductors; T. Y. Hall's tub-and-slide system for raising coals in the shaft; Chapman's locomotive; and perhaps most notably the Davy lamp, the necessity for which he had advocated in a paper to a Sunderland society for the prevention of accidents in mines, following a disastrous explosion at Felling in 1813. Another disaster, the fatal inundation of Heaton colliery, for which Buddle was viewer, led him to call for a permanent deposit of mining records.

As well as his viewing work, Buddle was both a coal owner, and a manager of collieries. As owner, he had investments in Benwell, Heaton, Sheriff Hill, Backworth, and Elswick collieries, among others, and he held a quarter share in the Stella Coal Company. On the whole his partners looked to him for his technical expertise, while he claimed that he made little profit in the fluctuating fortunes of the early nineteenth-century coal trade. Nevertheless, with these and other investments in land, shipping, railways, and banking, he was said to have left £150,000 at his death (Flinn, 63–4). He managed Wallsend colliery for the Russells of Brancepeth (for whom he also acted as consultant at Washington and North Hetton), and was in charge of Tanfield Moor colliery for William Morton Pitt, a Dorset landowner. But his chief managerial function, and one that absorbed the whole of his later career, was as general manager and agent to the third marquess of Londonderry, a post to which he was appointed in 1819 (when the future marquess inherited the Vane-Tempest colliery empire on marriage), and which he retained until his death. Buddle not only supervised for Londonderry both his extensive mining interests and the construction of the town and port of Seaham (devised to avoid the costs of shipping at Sunderland), but he also represented the Londonderry collieries on the powerful committee of the north-east coal owners who sought to regulate the quantity and price of coal on the London market.

As in all his dealings, Buddle sought a fair and honest regulation of the coal trade, designed to provide a steady income through stable prices. He was usually critical of his own employer and others who aimed for short-term gains through a ‘fighting’ trade of unrestricted competition. However, by the end of his life, with the expansion of the coalfields and the coming of the railways, Buddle recognized that the days of a regulated trade were numbered, and it survived him by only a year. Buddle also managed the estate property, and spent much energy on Londonderry's difficult financial concerns. The two men had a sometimes tempestuous relationship, with Buddle's frank expostulations at his employer's lack of fiscal prudence provoking quarrels and suspicion. Nevertheless, Buddle was strictly loyal to his employer and his concerns, to the extent of foregoing his salary in times of financial difficulty; indeed he even lent Londonderry over £5000, telling him, 'I have always been ready to assist a friend' (Buddle to Londonderry, 27 June 1832, Durham RO, D/LO/C142), and he paid for the Lord Seaham, the first collier trading out of the new port of Seaham. After Londonderry had secured Buddle's appointment as a magistrate in 1842 (following long delays because of a disinclination to appoint colliery agents to the bench), the marquess described his employee as a man of 'high intellectual endowments, high character, and complete independence' (Londonderry to Rowland Burdon, 1 Nov 1842, Durham RO, D/LO/C142).

As a coal owner and manager Buddle had mixed relationships with his colliers. During the strike of 1831 he reported that plans existed to murder him, and his effigy was burnt by the strikers outside his own house. On another occasion, however, his workmen chaired him, and he was 'obliged to abscond to avoid the honour of being drawn in grand procession from Wallsend to Newcastle'; as he wryly commented at the time, 'so much for popular odium, or popular favour' (Buddle to Londonderry, 23 June 1831, Durham RO, D/LO/C142). He knew many pitmen personally, and while throughout his life he totally opposed trade union activity among them (retaining a network of spies within the collieries when strikes threatened) he nevertheless exercised a largely paternal attitude and was willing to listen to individual grievances. Though generally a believer in the practical training of pitmen, rather than in schooling—'the labour of the pen is already more plentiful than that of the pick' (Durham RO, NCB1/JB/1788)—he was unfairly blamed for disrupting the proposal to exclude children under thirteen from pit work; in fact his role was that of go-between for the northern coal owners and Lord Ashley, while the latter thought he was a negotiator.

By religious affiliation Buddle was a Unitarian, and in politics he described himself as a reforming tory, being naturally conservative in disposition yet seeing the inevitable nature (and indeed desirability) of the first Reform Act. He never married, but was cared for by his unmarried sister, Ann. He lived frugally; a visitor reported that 'a man of his great reputation and wealth slept in a room carpetless and nearly bare of furniture, and showed that whatever fortunes he was instrumental in making for others, he cared little for luxury himself' (Hiskey, 44). As well as a wide circle of engineering and scientific friends, including Thomas Sopwith (1803–1879) and William Buckland (1784–1856), Buddle had a large social acquaintance, including many of the north-east aristocracy, as well as the writer Harriet Martineau. He was a keen musician and concert-goer, an accomplished cellist, and leader of a chamber group in Newcastle from 1825.

Although by the end of Buddle's life a deep rift had opened between him and Londonderry, it was as a result of the two men's riding over 'our collieries' (Londonderry to Nathaniel Hindhaugh, 11 Oct 1843, Durham RO, D/LO/C326) in bad weather that Buddle became ill; he died at his home, Wallsend House, Wallsend, on 10 October 1843. He was buried at St James's Church, Benwell, Newcastle; the building had been erected on land he himself had given to the church, and a bust and memorial plaque were erected there in his honour.


  • C. E. Hiskey, ‘John Buddle (1773–1843): agent and entrepreneur in the north-east coal trade’, MLitt diss., U. Durham, 1978
  • W. Fordyce, The history and antiquities of the county palatine of Durham, 2 vols. (1857)
  • R. Welford, Men of mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed, 3 vols. (1895)
  • M. W. Flinn and D. S. Stoker, The industrial revolution: 1700–1830 (1984), vol. 2 of The history of the British coal industry (1984–93)
  • R. Church, A. Hall, and J. Kanefsky, Victorian pre-eminence: 1830–1913 (1986), vol. 3 of The history of the British coal industry (1984–93)
  • Durham RO, National Coal Board MSS
  • Durham RO, Londonderry MSS
  • ‘Select committee on the South Durham Railway Bill’, Parl. papers (1836), 27
  • M. Dunn, ‘History of the viewers’, 1811, Northumbd RO
  • parish register, Lanchester, co. Durham


  • Durham RO, corresp. relating to Lord Londonderry's mines
  • Durham RO, corresp., diaries, and papers
  • Lambton estate office, Lambton Park, Chester le Street, co. Durham, reports and corresp. relating to the earl of Durham's estate
  • Northumbd RO, memoranda and reports
  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, reports on collieries
  • U. Durham L., reports on Blenkinsopp colliery
  • Durham RO, Londonderry MSS
  • Northumbd RO, coal trade MSS


  • bust, St James's Church, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • portrait, Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne

Wealth at Death

under £1500: will, 1844

left £150,000: Flinn and Stoker, Industrial revolution, 63–4

Northumberland Record Office
Durham Record Office