I suppose like many other third and fourth generation mineworkers the
first time I set foot at a colliery was when my Granddad took me to the
pit to pick up his wages on a Friday morning, in my case the colliery was
Cortonwood. My Father also worked there.
The most vivid memory of that day, some forty years ago, was the bike
sheds that housed all makes and models of motorbikes. They were mainly
British bikes at that time, many with sidecars a, sadly, rare sight these
days but very popular in the mid sixties. To a small child this was a
mesmeric experience. My Granddad would sit me on whichever bike took my
fancy from a long line of what seemed like hundreds , explaining that he
knew the owner and that he wouldn’t mind. I would twist the throttle and
make motor- bike type noises bouncing up and down on the thick leather
seats. Curiously enough he probably did know the owner and although the
colliery employed over two thousand men they were a very tight-knit
community “ everyone knew everyone “ in those more socially interactive
Our next stop was the payroll office window, queuing up with the other
men, some with their wives who were there making sure that their men-folk
tipped up their brown wage packets in their entirety. We would then
travel, me being carried aloft on my Grandfathers broad shoulders, the
short distance to the pit canteen for a breakfast. I always remember my
Granddad would sit with the same group of friends, “ Cronies “, my Dad
called them ,they would always make a fuss of me and they were always
laughing, joking and telling stories, my Granddad “ holding court “ as my
Dad would put it.
As a footnote to this nostalgia……………..
Many years after, whilst drinking in my local, a man, must have been in
his seventies, dressed in an off-white jacket with snuff marked lapels, a
bedraggled shirt and tie, black trousers, immaculately polished black
brogues and topped off with a white trilby hat with a beige hat band and
feather, came up to me and shook my hand.
Please note ; ( Translation in brackets )
“ Tha dunt remember me dus tha ? “ , he growled as he squeezed my hand.
( You do not remember me, do you ? )
“ No I’m sorry I don’t……… “
“ I used to sit thee on me knee and feed thee beans and sausage “ ( I used
to sit you on my knee and feed you beans and sausage ), he said and then,
almost as an after thought,
“ I even changed thee nappy once when tha shit thee sen when tha got too
exited “ ( I once changed your nappy when you defecated in a state of
excitement ) he added.
At this announcement the group of lads I was with suddenly began to take
an interest, the old chap, not missing a trick, began playing to the crowd.
“ Ah! E were a dirty little bugger back then, his Granddad once told me he
shit himsen the first time they took stabilizes off his push bike…..” (
When he was a youngster his cleanliness was questionable. He also
defecated whilst riding his bicycle un-aided for the first time )
By this time my mates were falling about “ What else did he get up to,
when he got too exited “ ( Please give us other verbal ammunition so that
we may make his life a living nightmare ) one of them asked
“ None of your bloody business “ ( desist from this course of questioning
) I retorted as I pulled the old chap to one side,
“ Dunt tell them f*#*!!! owt “ ( Stop telling tales to gentlemen of
questionable character ) I pleaded
“ I’ll never ere last on it, I’ll get nappies in me locker and all sorts
“. ( These chaps will continue to rib me for the foreseeable future )
“ Oh tha works dawn pit then, thee Grandfather wunt be too happy, he
always wanted better for thee “ ( Your Grandfather would not be happy with
your choice of employment. His aspirations were much higher for you )
Then it dawned on me who it was, Tommy Smith, one of the Cronies.
“ Hello Mr. Smith, good to see ya “
“ Call me Tommy lad, tha makes me feel old……….did I ever tell thee about
that time when thee Grandfather braid Black Jack Blackburn we a pig “, (
Refer to me as Tommy I do not wish to appear old. Did I ever recount to
you the tall story of when your Grandfather assaulted Black Jack Blackburn
with a pig ? )
“ No Tommy “ I sighed “ Does tha want a drink? “ ( would you care to
partake of a beverage with me )
“ Get me a pint a mild and come and sit or ere we me ant lads “ ( I would
be delighted. You will be in for a long and expensive night )
I looked over and there were another three old timers all holding up their
glasses and putting in their orders , “ All right, all right I’ll just be
a minute “ ( Refer to above except replace I with We )
“ come on shek thee sen, we deing a thirst “. ( Hurry along there, we have
only got three more hours to drink as much as we can on your account )
As I look back now that was part of a mining heritage. As a young
mineworker it was almost compulsory for the old, ex-mineworkers, to take
your money at cards and take your dignity by telling tales to your peer
group. It was a kind of working class “ Right of Passage “.
The first time I went down a mine was when I was around eleven years old,
it was at Maltby Colliery …….. “ Maltby Mines A Million “ the sign at the
colliery entrance proclaimed I was suitably impressed. It is strange but I
don’t remember much more about the visit, save for being in the pit bottom
and looking round in awe. My dad told me, years after, that at that age I
shouldn’t have really gone down a working mine but it was an open day and
he had pulled some strings. I think he was trying to put me off ever
desiring to take up a job in the industry but it had the opposite affect.
The next time underground was on a school visit I was fifteen years old
and it is burnt into my memory because of one particular incident. When my Dad was asked to sign the consent form to allow me to go on the
visit he noticed it was organized by the Careers Officer and it was to his
old colliery, Cortonwood.
“ Get it owt of thee head now, tha not going to work at pit “ he said.“ But Dad all me mates are………….”
“ If all thee mates jumped off a cliff would tha want to “
“ No but…….. “
“ No but nowt tha not going to work dawnt pit “, he paused for a moment “
look I’ll sign this on one condition . I want thee to go up tut Training
Officer and tell him who tha are. Tha’ll not miss him he looks like
Captain Birdseye. Mal Davies they call him I used to work wi him, he’ll
look after thee. “
A week later we were in the pit yard and I was staring up at this huge,
redheaded, Captain Birdseye look-a-like “ Excuse me are you Mr. Davies “ I
“ Yes son, can I help you “, he replied
“ well “ I gulped, “ Me Dad said to introduce myself to you, my name’s
Gary Evans me Dads called Brian “ …….. there I had fulfilled my half of
the bargain but the Captain had other ideas.
“ He said tha were coming “ his Sunday best accent thrown to one side, “
stick close to me, I’ll look after thee “.
We walked into the locker room and it seemed a totally alien environment,
not at all like school changing rooms. To the left were row upon row off
aluminium lockers, two high, facing each other with a six foot gap between
them and to the right hand side white tiled shower bays, some individual,
The Captain explained “ There are two sides to the locker rooms. One side
tha strips off thee clean clothes then tha walks across tut other side and
puts thee overalls on. When tha comes art at pit tha does it in reverse “
,then, almost as an after thought, “ Tha gets a shower first………before put
in thee clean clothes on “
As we walked up the locker bays I so workmen in orange overalls and
Wellington Boots with hosepipes washing down these shower bays, almost
like slaughter-men washing down the tiles in an abattoir.
We approached the last row of lockers and The Captain stopped “ Ere we are
then , get stripped and come across tut other side “
There were murmurings, half our party were girls.
With a broad grin across his face “ Hard luck young Gary tha going to ave
to wait a little bit longer to see thee first naked woman “ . Spontaneous
laughter followed “ Come on ladies ya going to get five star treatment.
You lot get changed in private “
An awkward silence followed as The Captain disappeared with his charges
and we realized we were going to have to get changed in front of one
another then Mr. Mattson, Head of Year piped up “ He does know you pretty
well Evans, never seen a naked woman……….. “, he got his cheap laugh “ Oh I
dunt know, ask your lass “ I retorted, a smart-arse remark that would
prove anything but a cheap laugh in the rest of my time at school.
When we were changed we milled around waiting for our guide, I glanced
over at Mattson, he looked ridiculous, with his bright orange overalls,
white hard hat and thick black belt he resembled a giant Smurf, I almost
felt sorry for him, obviously a fish out of water, a levelling experience
for a Head Teacher. The Captain on the other hand looked like a Vietnam
Vet. A battered old 60’s hat, open – necked grey denim shirt and slightly
less orange overall trousers. Hanging from his belt was an inordinate
amount of gadgets and gizmos and you almost expected to see human ears
mixed among these trophies
“ Right then Gentlemen………and Ladies, its time for a spot of training. What
to do in an event of a fire underground “
“ Run like f*#*##!! “ I thought.
We were herded together and were shown into the Safety Office, in front of
us was a table on top of which were several silver metallic canisters.
“ Right then ladies and gentlemen these are called Self – Rescuers and are
your best friend in an underground fire “ the Captain raised one into the
air, like showing off a trophy.
“ In the event of a fire or suspected fire, if tha sees smoke or owt “ ,
his cabin crew – like dialect slipping, “ pull on this pin “ the lever
popped into the air like pulling a pin on a hand grenade .“ Then with a firm long pull, ease out the mask “
“ Tha must be used to long hard pulls Gary, never having a girlfriend “
added the Captain.
Something told me not to make a smart remark to the Captain, besides which
I had already used my one smart remark on Mattson and I wasn’t that witty
to come up with two with out planning.
“ First thing put the rubber mouth – piece in your mouth and then the
rubber nose clips on the soft part of your nose which prevents you
breathing in through your nose “
We all started to follow his instructions with varying degrees of speed
Removing his apparatus to enable him to continue with his instruction the
Captain went on ……. “ when this part of the procedure is secure, take the
straps and put them round your head, adjusting them until they are
comfortable. Under no circumstances remove the self rescuer until told to
do so by some one in authority. Now you make your way out of the mine “
By now, as I looked around, all the class were beginning to dribble saliva
from the bottom of the self – rescuers and onto their chins
“ Right “ said the Captain “ I want you to form a queue and crawl under
the length of this table, then back round and over the top of it “. I
looked across at him, he was serious “ This will give a simulation as to
what it may be like in event that you have to do this for real “ Then, as
we started to performed the exercise,
“ This apparatus will get hot…. DO NOT REMOVE IT. It will change deadly
Carbon Monoxide, produced in fires into Carbon Dioxide which we can
breathe for a short time. It will perform this function for approximately
two hours, even after two hours DO NOT REMOVE IT “
He put his hands on his hips. “ Right, when CAN we remove this apparatus ?
“ When told to do so by some one in authority Mr.Davies “ answered one
“ Cum art ere tha dead, tha dunt remove thee rescuer for ANY reason, not
even to answer stupid questions like that “
We all started laughing and saliva and snot went every ware.
“ O.k. ladies and gentlemen “ he said, returning to the Queens’ English, “
Form a line and remove your rescuers “
We all dutifully obeyed as “ Simon said “ and as I did so I glanced toward
the windows facing the offices and there was an audience of amused faces,
the Captain smirked.
“ You all look like proper Miners now “, he said as he viewed our reddened
snot besmirched faces, “ well nearly, come on let’s advance……..onward ! “
As we approached the mine shaft you could almost feel the apprehension
building in some of our party, this was the thing most of the students
were worried about, the Captain sensed this and decided to disarm our
fears. “ Right “ he boomed, back into his cabin crew mode….. “ This is
what is known as the cage. It is known as the cage because it resembles an
animals’ cage, a place of containment with a gate at either end of the
unit. Do not refer to it as a lift or elevator these are public
descriptions and will not define the experience you are about undertake “.
Now we were milling around waiting to embark “ Ar tha freetened o heights
young un “ asked the Banks-man [Note – A Banks-man is the mineworker who is charged with controlling
surface access to and from the cage as well as its’ movement, not only of
men but materials and mineral in some cases.]
“ A little bit sir “ replied one of the students “ Oh tha’s nowt to worry
about wi heights cock ……….. it’s depths that’ll kill thee. Cum on, on tha
We all started to shuffle gingerly on one by one, “ Move right tut back “
, instructed the Banks-man “ Cum on squeeze on, plenty more to get on “ he
grinned, tobacco juice dribbling down his chin and then, just when I
thought you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between any of us an eighteen
stone man mountain of a miner decided he was going to get on.
The technique that follows is a technique that all miners will recognize
and has caused many a crushed rib and aching testicles. This Colossus
looked at the first two people on the cage and I swear a smirk played
across his mouth as he shoved his shoulder into the chest of one of the
students and, as he pushed with all his might, he turned his back and
back-side into the midriff of the other student, all the while pumping his
thighs and shoving his body into the throng. One student let out what may
be described as a muffled yelp as the miners’ self-rescuer, fastened on
his belt, impacted into the students’ groin and the throng fell backwards.
“ Tha wern’t thinking o havin any kids were tha young un “ he laughed “
Right drop gates I’m on “
The Banks-man dropped the gates and there was a swaying as he retracted
the metal stepping plate. He sent his signal to the Winding House, there
was a short drop, a pause and the cage plunged like a stone, my heart was
in my mouth
“ He must be in a hurry it’s end o his shift. Hope he dunt leave it too
late to brake we’ll all end up two foot shorter “ laughed the eighteen
stoner as he broke wind, “ As tha shit thee sen ya dirty little bugger “
he said to the student with damaged reproductive organs “ Na then Mal tha
gunner ave to keep thee eye on this little f*##**!!!“
This first descent is like an explosion on the senses, the initial crush,
the sensation of freefall, the physical dis-comfort of your ears popping,
the absolute darkness and most evocative and invasive of all the smell.
It’s the smell that finishes you off, as your stomach is turning from the
drop it’s twisted by the smell of someone’s garlic either from their mouth
Just when you start to believe that your not going to die the cage starts
to slow down and as its’ speed is regulated to a crawl and you start
thinking about a future, the cage starts to bounce as though it’s on the
end of a bungee rope and your hand tightens its’ grip on the hand rail
once more, your knuckles turning white with the blood loss, is this normal
? should it be juddering like this ? will it stop in time ? then you see
the light as you park in the pit bottom and there’s another smiling
smart-arse peering at you through the gate “ Back up “ he growls “ I can’t
get gate up “ . The large gentleman shoves his frame back into the mass of
bodies, there’s a low level moan and then the gates go up and we can all
The primary mode of transport underground, apart from on foot, is by rope
haulage also known as a Paddy Mail. These are usually three or four
carriages long, sometimes these have a roof, sometimes not. They are
operated by a Mail Man using bare wire signalling systems and driven
remotely by an Engine Driver who reacts to the signals given.
For example : 1 to stop, 2 to move in-bye and 3 to move out-bye and then,
un-officially, 4 and 2 to move in-bye slowly and 4 and 3 to move out-bye
slowly. Often when the mail is stopped ( 1 ) it is followed by an 8 if it
has finished its’ current operation.
In our case the carriages were open. The Mail Man gives his in-bye signal
and the mail lurches forward in a series of jumps, as though a car being
driven by a novice who has no clutch control.
“ Dunt worry kids he’ll get hang or it in a minute “ , reassures the
Captain “ It’s his first time “. The Paddy surges forward in one long pull
and we’re off.
There is something exhilarating about riding in a convertible and when you
are careering forward into darkness it’s better than the rides at
Blackpool Pleasure Beach, then suddenly, when we were in full flow, the
Mail Man decides to stop, again there is no subtlety in the Drivers skills
and we stop almost instantly.
“ Right ladies and gentlemen I want you to turn of your cap-lamps “ ,
instructed the Captain, we all dutifully complied. It was pitch black,
then after a couple of minutes, the Captain said “ Now that you have
become adjusted to the darkness, I want you all to hold up your hands to
your faces “ . You could see nothing, there was no depth perception, just
a feeling your hand was there.
“ The dis-orientation you are experiencing is because there is no natural
light source underground and there is no artificial lights that your eyes
can adjust to. You are completely blind, stripped of one of your senses
and, in situations like these, your other senses are naturally enhanced in
order to compensate “. Then, just as we are absorbing this scientific
statement, there is a booming noise of the Mail Man breaking wind.
“ On the surface, you wouldn’t have heard that “ explains the Captain “ on
the surface it wouldn’t smell and, if you were to put your hands down his
trousers, I think you would find he has actually shit himself “ . They all
roared with laughter and the Mail surged forward.
As we got off they Paddy and started to walk forward the Captain explained
that we didn’t have far to walk until we reached the coal face and that we
were in the Tail Gate.
Coal faces’ are usually served by two roadways, in some instances there
may be more. The Main Gate or Intake, which provides the Face with fresh
air and houses the conveyor belt which removes the coal and the Tail Gate
or Return which predominantly supplies the face with materials and acts as
a return for used air for want of a better term. This air is usually hot,
as it picks up heat from the men and machinery, dusty, and, has a level of
contamination of methane gas, which is monitored constantly so as to
maintain safe working levels.
Men are removed from the area if the methane level exceeds two percent of
the general body of air. Explosive ranges are approximately between five
and fifteen percent.
Most mines in Great Britain will have experienced fires and explosions in
the past caused by excessive or poorly managed levels of Methane and
explosions are a miners worst nightmare, these being all too frequent in
the tragedy littered mining history.
As we approached the Coal Face the air was so full with dust you felt you
could reach out and grab a handful, the heat was almost un-bearable,
ninety degrees plus and the humidity would have given an equatorial rain
forest a run for its’ money. How could any one work in conditions like
this ? Then through the mire we could make out the hazy, distorted beams
of cap lamps.
“ Ere we are “ , exclaimed the Captain, “ The Tail Gate Rip “ , and as we
surveyed the scene we could see four scantily clad Mineworkers preparing
to carry a huge girder forward, stumbling and cursing, as they prepared to
lift it onto their shoulders.
“ Ar many o ya does it tek to carry a f*##**!!! arch forad “ observed the
“ Less than when tha were doing it Birdseye, ya glass backed bastard “
retorted one of the men. “ Am getting too f*##**!! old for this, let these
young-uns ave a go “.
“ After three then up. THREE!!“ . In one swift movement the girder was on
their shoulders and they began to walk forwards cursing at every step and
encouraging their work colleagues with remarks such as “ Art ha lifting ya
little t&*#, or swinging on it “. There was something admirable about Tail
Gate Rippers, they were a special breed working in these extreme
conditions day after day, dressed only in the minimum of clothing, usually
safety equipment and pit grey underpants. They were absolutely black with
coal dust which would clog on their skin as the sweat poured out of their
bodies . It was probably the worst job at the pit, a job I would later do,
by choice, in my mining career. It was this moment that hooked me, the
comradeship, the banter, the honour, I was lost to it forever.
“ O.k. girls and boys. This is the coal face “ , the Captain was pointing
with his wooden Deputies stick to a small three foot high, squarish hole
in the side of the roadway “. I thought it was another joke
“ Come up ere Gary and ave a look at thi future if tha dunt pass thi exams
I moved forward almost gingerly and bent down to peer into the hole, as I
did so the air velocity, dust and heat increased, I was almost blinded by
its’ intensity and then, as I wiped and shielded my eyes, I could see
faint lights in the distance and hear the roar of the coal cutting machine
and face conveyor or Panzer Chain as the Captain called it.
He went onto explain that this coal face was almost three hundred feet
long and thee coal would be around two foot six in thickness, men would
crawl along the face cutting the coal with two coal cutting machines (
Shearers ) and other miners would follow them advancing the powered
supports as they did so, which in turn allowed the waste to collapse
It seems an almost alien concept, men working some eight hundred feet
below ground on a coal face three foot high cutting out slices of coal
then allowing the entire roof to collapse behind and, sometimes, above, in
extreme temperatures, high, tropical levels of humidity, the visual
limitations of working in darkness and dust, not to mention the hard
physical graft, the constant dangers of normal mining operations of gas
explosions and gob fires, true working class heroes one and all.
As I reluctantly moved away from the access hole I knew one day that I
would join this band of brothers it was part of my heritage it was,
unfortunately as my father would have said, my destiny. The screams of one
of the girls brought me to my senses “ I don’t want to look, you can’t
make me go up to it “ , she cried “ O.k, o.k , calm down luv “ the captain
said “ You don’t have to go up. Does any one else not want to look up the
face? “ . Half a dozen hands went up, including Mattsuns’ “ I’d better
stay with these pupils back here “ he explained.
The walk away from the face was conducted in a kind of reverential
silence, it was a lot for us to absorb, a life defining moment for some of
us, but as the noise of the machinery faded into the background the
Captain piped up “ Right ladies and gentlemen we’re goin’ to walk tut pit
bottom, haulage will be tied up with supplies now and then they’ll ave to
get afters shift in. It’ll be quicker to walk “
We moved from the Tail Gate, through the air doors, doors that separated
Intake from Return roads, into the main arterial trunk road that carried
the coal via a conveyor to the pit bottom bunker and coal shaft. “ Only
two miles, a nice stroll in the park. Come on young Gary up ere wi me.
We’ll set pace “.
For the un-initiated trying to walk anywhere underground is an art form
and an acquired skill. For most of the time the only light guiding you is
your cap lamp, which, if you are smart you wear at a slight angle, this
prevents the light shining directly in someone’s eyes when you are trying
to talk to them as well as trying to illuminate both the roof and floor at
the same time as you are walking. The problems occur when you realize to
effectively walk underground you have to watch the roof and floor
simultaneously, if you don’t manage to acquire this skill you will be
constantly either banging your head on the distorted roof girders or
tripping up over the distorted haulage rails.
Coal mining is a constant battle against nature. a battle which nature
will always win. When ever you remove mineral from an area, nature and the
laws of physics react, they try to fill the void and pressure is applied
from all planes. Whatever you choose to try to resist these pressures, for
example roof supports, will be subjected to immense stresses and strains
and will distort and buckle, eventually yielding. The floor is also
subjected to these same pressures and “ floor blow “ occurs where the
floor shoves upwards buckling transport rails.
After about a mile of this tap tapping of people banging their heads , I
saw a couple of lights in the distance, “ Is that the pit bottom Mr.Davies
“, I asked hopefully, “ Na lad it’s just Dinters “.
Dinters are men charged with the task of trying to repair damage caused by
this type of pressure. In this case they dig out the floor, by around four
feet, and replace the rails and other ancillary equipment as they advance.
As we stood looking down on these men, I could see they were having their
snap ( food break ). “ Na then Mal. What we got ere ? “ said one of the
men “ Students from Wombwell High School, new generation, fresh blood “.
“ Listen to me lads “ said one of the Dinters in a somber tone, “ There’s
nowt darn ere for yor f##**!!!. Gerra job in an office or summat. For
sake dunt com darn ere “.
“ Listen to what he says “ said the other Dinter “ tek a good look at him
“ I did, he looked like a wrinkled old man in his sixties with grey hair
and a beer belly “ He’s only twenty – five…….young man f##**!!“ he started
“ Na then yor two. Can tha remember Brian Evans he were a Shot-firer when
yor worked on’t face “ .
“ That Bastard “ replied one of the men, “ He stopped my time when he
caught me going art a pit early “ said the other. I was shocked “ This is
his lad “ proclaimed the Captain and he pushed me into the dint.
One of the men held my hands behind my back in a bear hug and the other
thumped me in the stomach, hard, it winded me “ Tell him Guddy and Jed
said hello “ laughed one of the men. Everyone seemed to think it was funny
apart from me I couldn’t breathe, I thought I was going to pass out, the
“ I hope tha comes to work ere. There’s more were that came from “
“ Come on then lets F#*! off “ said the Captain “ Before Gary hurts em “
Then just as we moved away, I saw The Captain turn round, wink and nod at
them….The sly old Bastard it was a set up. If I had not seen that gesture
I may never have worked down the pit. This made me more determined than
When we arrived in the pit bottom we were all exhausted and slumped
against the white washed walls. “ Two minutes young Gary and tha can go
back to thee mother “ laughed the Captain.“ As tha enjoyed it ? “ he asked “ Yes thank you Mr. Davies. It’s been
brilliant “ . The Captain shook his head “ What we goin to do wi thee ? “
. I looked past him and saw Mr. Mattson dragging his boot across the floor
as though he was trying to wipe something off the bottom “ What’s up wi
thee Mr. Mattson “ asked the Captain , “ Oh nothing Mr. Davies “ said the
Head Teacher “ I think I’ve trodden in some dog muck “.
The Captain roared with laughter and, putting his arms round my shoulder,
proclaimed, “ There’s no dogs down here Mr. Mattson “
Mattson looked up from his toils “ Then what………….” , his voice tailed off
has he realized what. “ OH MY GOD !!!........ THE BLOODY ANIMALS “.
© Glen Evans 2007