The face workers, the elite, spent the shift on their knees in 4'6" of height, shovelling coal onto a conveyer belt.
When people asked what I did during the war, I used to say that I was in the underground movement, which was literally true. Early in war-time, many coal miners, who were not required to do so, joined the armed forces to see the world, to get out of the mines or from patriotism. This caused a shortage of miners, which the then Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, remedied by decreeing that every tenth conscript should go down the mines. With the express purpose of avoiding this alarming prospect, I volunteered for the Navy who suggested the Fleet Air Arm. After passing all the physical and intelligence tests, I was accepted as a potential navigator, given the King’s shilling and told to join the Air Training Corps until I was called up. At a final interview with three officers I was asked, “Do you have any further questions?” I replied, “How much longer are we gallivanting about?” This brought on a lecture on having to be able to take orders in order to give them. For some deep reason – perhaps, I didn’t want to join the ATC or didn’t want to leave me mam – I gave back the shilling. The fact is that I never joined anything – even the cubs.
So it was ironic when the call up to the mines arrived and I reported on Boxing Day 1944 to Cramlington, having caught the 6.30am train from North Shields. This was a disused colliery where we were issued with helmet, boots and overalls and underwent a month’s training, which consisted of illustrated lectures showing the latest, most up-to-date collieries in Ashington, gymnasium in the local church hall and trips down the old mine. We were lowered gently down the shaft, about 5 at a time, in a very large bucket. At the bottom we put harnesses on the pit ponies (gallowers) and hitched them to empty coal tubs in which we could ride about. I was very nervous of these gallowers who were probably even more worried. We also practised “dregging up”. A dreg was a heavy poker about 2 feet long with a ring for a handle that had to be pushed through the spokes of the coal tubs to stop them. The wheels and axles of the tubs were solid without any sort of bearings.
I was assigned to the Eccles colliery at Backworth; that was one of three belonging to the Backworth Coal Co. Ltd. – the other 2 were called the Maude and Algernon, presumably after children of the coal owners. The Maude was right beside the Eccles, sharing the same yard and canteen, while the Algernon was near Shiremoor. The new recruits spent the first 2 weeks working on the surface, mostly prising steel half girders out of railway trucks where they were partially buried in snow. This was February and very cold indeed. When not working, we would warm ourselves by one of the fires here and there in the yard. One day while sitting out of the way by a fire near the rails, a truck let fall a load of coal dust turning us at a stroke into Kentucky Minstrels. We were not able to use the pit baths then so I travelled home on the train and, while walking through North Shields with helmet and black face, heard a small boy shout, “A bloody German!” We thought it would be warmer underground and were impatient to go down the pit.
It was certainly drier, but even colder at the bottom of the shaft where I did most of my time. The air for the whole mine was drawn down the shaft, which meant a constant gale. In winter it was freezing despite a large fire at the surface to prevent the shaft icing up; in summer it was quite pleasant and you could not carry enough water to satisfy your thirst.
Before descending you had to collect your battery and lamp, plus a brass token that had to be returned to the office when you came up again so that you wouldn’t be left and forgotten down the pit.
The two cages for lowering and raising coal, men and gallowers down the half mile of shaft were 3-deck affairs like 3 steel superimposed coffins, designed to take 6 tubs. On the top deck you bent your head, but on the lower ones you had to crouch. From time to time the men would be searched by the on-setter (in charge of the cages) for forbidden cigarettes or matches. The cage would then be dropped at high speed which I found quite thrilling. Sometimes at night, if one of the inmates flashed his lamp at the winding engineman he would just take off the brake and the cage would go down like a stone to gasps from the men, especially if they had been on the booze. When carrying coal the cages moved like lightning.
The Eccles mine was much more primitive than the Ashington models seen in training films. There was no sophisticated machinery for moving or controlling coal tubs, or electric bells for signalling. Signals to the men in charge of the motors running the endless ropes or the conveyor belts were given by pulling hard on a wire that raised a great hammer hundreds of yards away and dropped it on a metal plate. One clang for STOP and two for GO. Increasing numbers of hits conveyed other messages.
Most of my time was spent as a dregger-up at the shaft bottom. This was a huge arched tunnel of whitewashed brick, from which lesser tunnels ran; it was well lit and no lamp or helmet was needed. Essential equipment consisted of an arse-flap that fitted on to your belt, and a pair of crude mittens made out of pieces of conveyor belting. As sets of full tubs of coal arrived from the coal face fixed by a heavy metal clip to endless ropes, they had to be unclipped, unhooked from each other, then pushed to the area in front of the cages to be marshalled into sets of six. The empty tubs (chummins) coming back down the shaft had to be re-directed to the faces. On Mondays, the tubs were very stiff and it was necessary to push them every inch with your back to the tub where the arse-flap was essential. Sometimes the lads would think it a huge joke to manipulate the clip so that 6 tubs were propelled by the endless rope at great speed for you to stop. You just had to lay out 6 dregs and try to push 2 dregs into the first, third and fifth tubs rather like a cowboy, quick on the draw. If it was impossible to stop them, they could crash into stationary ones to cause chaos with tubs off the rails and spilt coal everywhere.
Later I spent some time near the coalface dragging pit props or helping to repair conveyor belts. There was a walk of over half a mile to the face up and down hill through airtight doors and, if the pump wasn’t working, across streams. The work here wasn’t as arduous and it was easy, but absolutely forbidden, to fall asleep. The face workers, the elite, spent the shift on their knees in 4’6″ of height shovelling coal on to a conveyor belt – what a way to earn a living.
I was crawling along the face once and had just passed a miner when I heard an almighty crash behind. Part of the roof had collapsed. The miner shouted to get the Hell out of it, so I scrabbled as fast as possible hindered by the battery on my belt hitting the roof beams. On reaching comparative safety at the far end of the face, I wondered why the miner wasn’t behind. I crawled back to find him calmly contemplating the fall. That was the only time I was in any danger.
I worked day and night shifts in alternate weeks, doing 5 day shifts from 10 am to 5.00 pm and 6 night shifts from 2.00 am to 9.00 am. If you missed a night shift you were docked the pay for half a shift, but to miss a day shift cost one and a half day’s pay. The night shifts were awful because I used to catch the last train from North Shields to Backworth at about 12.15 am, when everyone else was going to bed and then I had to sit in the canteen for an hour before starting work. It was very tempting to miss a night shift and I was guilty of it most of the time. I can’t remember the exact figures, but I think that, after travelling expenses, I pocketed 6 shillings for the shift. Absenteeism was fairly common and was hardly surprising considering the rotten job.
On night shift I was always calculating how many hours of sleep I could manage, to try to fit in the pictures or a dance – it was interesting to note that I was livelier after 6 hours of sleep than after 8 hours.
What about the miners? They were normally very good-humoured and invariably good to me. They chewed baccy while their conversation covered beer, women and horses. At first I had difficulty in understanding some of what they said – despite being only 6 miles from home. Most of their leisure time was spent in their clubs drinking Federation beer at a ridiculously low price, but occasionally some would descend on North Shields, which they considered to be a pit of iniquity, to seek out the seediest pubs such as the Northumberland Arms by the ferry landing. They had unquenchable thirsts and on the few occasions when I accompanied them, they seemed to be always pointing to 3 enormous looking pints and saying, “Come on, they’re yours”.
On 1 January 1947 the mines were nationalised. I didn’t notice any difference except that the NCB published a not very interesting monthly magazine. There may have been a small pay rise but I can’t remember.
On 11 January 1948 came the blessed day of demobilisation and on 21 January I recommenced work in the Tax Office in North Shields. What heaven, despite reduced wages, to be in a clean environment again, surrounded by attractive girls.
So after 3 years down the mines, what did I feel about the whole experience? The advantages were that I lived at home, earned quite good wages (£5 4s when I left), received extra rations of food, was very fit and learned to work hard. The disadvantages were lack of daylight, permanently dirt-ingrained rough hands with painful cuts and wicklows and the dreadful night shifts.
Photograph from b3tarev3 collection (flickr)