A Cheerful Bantering Lot Who Look After Their Own (19 April 1973)
Surprisingly to me one of the first reactions I had to this series was from people interested by my piece about colliers and collieries. Then the Lofthouse incident happened and brought further requests. So here goes – just for you.
First I should say that when I first heard the name of Lofthouse on a radio news-flash I was puzzled. Then I realised they meant the place about six miles away which we all knew as Loftus. If, two months ago, anyone had asked me the name of that place my first impulse would have been to pronounce and spell it as Loftus. Only then might I have recalled its legal name.
And those television reporters, instead of talking about tunnels, should have been talking about roads and gates (off-shoots from roads) and gobs and holes. But they had a rotten job to do and they did it well in their laymen’s terms.
I was very interested by their references to doors. In “our” pit there were doors which were used for ventilation purposes. They were in twin pieces and were just high and wide enough to allow the coal-carrying corves – trucks not a lot larger than those at brickworks – to bang their way through, after which they closed again.
If you yourself wanted to get through and did not dive low enough you gave your head a nasty crack. I have had one or two. If the Lofthouse doors were like that then a good deal of the clearing trouble is explained.
The area is in the northern reaches of a coalfield that goes all the way down into South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. In the south the seams are deeper and thicker, which makes them easier to work and more amenable to mechanisation and, incidentally, to televising.
Our main seam at 400 feet was no depth at all as coalmines go. There were two other seams nearer the surface and running from the same shaft. These had been practically worked out. It was also possible to get through into two neighbouring collieries if you knew the way. The seam being worked at Lofthouse was at 700-plus feet, which is moderate.
The area is a warren of old pits and day-holes (shafts driven horizontally into hillsides). It would be surprising rather than otherwise if they were all known today, but the effects on motor roads and buildings are often all too evident.
Gomersal, where work has been stopped following the Lofthouse incident, is a good ten miles away. There used to be many pits between.
I am interested nowadays by television pictures of colliers going to work in helmets and with electric lamps attached. In my days, so to speak, they wore cloth caps, but they must have taken them off or had them knocked off at the coal face because you could always tell a coal-getter by the innumerable small dark-blue scars on his forehead and shoulders and especially on his head, if he was bald. The same applied to his hurrier, whose job was to fill the corve, run it out of the hole to the gate and return with an empty.
For illumination all carried Davy lamps. They did not want electrics. Davy lamps warned of gas by going dim. Electrics gave no such sign. My father showed this to me by holding up his lamp inside a “cave” in the roof. That was how he tested all his underground district. Others had canaries, which toppled over if there was gas about.
Old colliers viewed the proposed introduction of coal-cutting machines, conveyor belts and the like with the gravest suspicion, partly because of the risk of continuous sparking and partly because no-one knew what continuous vibration might do. Most accidents resulted from rock-falls, often quite small, but nevertheless deadly to individuals – and more men have been killed individually from that cause than have died as groups from explosions and the like.
My biggest surprise was finding that except at the coal face the prevailing colour was not black, but a dull amber. My father said this came from the dust that was distributed all over the place to damp down any untoward explosions.
Some time ago on television I saw dust being blown into a day hole in the Forest of Dean. It was said to be an experiment against explosions. If so, it was the method of injection that was the experiment. It was certainly not the principle. That is at least 50 years old, as I well know.
Mechanisation also came up against the piece-work factor. A coal-getter and his hurrier were often father and son. Having been allotted a hole they had to continue working it whether it turned out to be good or bad. They chalked their “motty” on each corve they filled and this was credited to them at the pithead. Would men work as hard under a corporate system as they did in a family hole?
But despite silicosis, “miners’ nystagmus” (my father’s complaint), gas, rockfall and all the rest of it, the colliers were a cheerful, bantering lot. At about 5.30 of a morning the village rang with the sound of their laughter and their clogs as they headed for the pit to be down by 6.00. No other knocker-up was needed for the softies who worked “i’ t’min” and who considered themselves so superior because they didn’t start until 7.00 and came home slightly tidier and cleaner – a situation altered by the introduction of pit-head baths in the 1930s.
For the colliers had pride. The only other class of men in the world they thought might be their equals were the deep-sea fishermen. As we have seen at Lofthouse, they look after their own. And as we have also seen since, they don’t let even their own union’s NEC push them around. By the same token, when they strike they mean it. And so do their wives.