So Much For Hard Times Of 1975 (5 September 1975)
In my article last week on the summer weather I mentioned that according to one source of information 1921 was the driest year this century, with a rainfall of only about half the norm.
I have special cause to remember that long warm summer, for my father was a coal miner and that year saw the first big strike of miners. It was three years after the end of the first world war and times were hard. In fact, between 1919 and 1939 there were never fewer than a million unemployed – out of a workforce that was smaller than it is today.
During the war the services of miners had been at a premium, both as coal-getters and as ready-made sappers for the Western Front. Now they were being treated as mere coal-dust again, or felt that they were.
Things came to a head in 1921. The coal owners proposed to reduce their wages and the miners began a strike that went on for months and months, just as they did in 1926, the year that saw the one-week General Strike. On both occasions it was only the threat of stark hunger that eventually drove them back to work – and at reduced wages.
Normally my father, in addition to his wage, had perks in the form of what was known as “collier coal.” Usually this was an inferior kind of unscreened, unwashed nutty slack, all the better coal having been taken off at the pithead. But it could be made to burn in an old-style grate by means of a draw tin and bellows, provided you put on a bucketful at a time.
Our cottage was one of a pair in an unpaved yard. The coal shed faced it about six or seven yards away. The fuel came loose in a horse-drawn cart, a ton at a time, and was shot into the space between. We then had to shovel it into the shed. I was not altogether inexperienced when I had to do much same sort of thing in the army 20 years later.
During the strike, in addition to other privations, our stock of collier coal ran out and there was no money for any other sort, though we did have a gas ring. This may be why today I have a coal fire, a gas oven, electric fires and, at a pinch, a primus stove and a bottled-gas appliance.
Actually, it was the gas ring and an allotment garden that saved us in 1921.
In that year I was aged 13 and my brother was 11½ – and when the coal ran out we had what we thought was a bright idea.
The pithead was across some fields about a mile away and as usual its most prominent feature was the waste tip – or “pit hill” as we called it. The beauty of the waste tip, if it had any, was that it was not all waste. By digging into the base you could find bits of coal here and there that had escaped the normal process. All that was needed was a little circumspection so that the watchman could turn a blind eye. Then Bob was your uncle.
Actually the tip was more than ordinarily dangerous. Year after year it never ceased to burn, mostly internally. Compared with that smell, the stench of the brickworks is as of attar of roses. You could smell it for miles. But more than that. One day a pit-top worker was going about his business on the tip when the crust gave way beneath him and he disappeared into the burning depths, never to be seen again – a horrible death, if ever there was one.
Today, no-one would know there had ever been a pit or a pit hill there at all. Some years ago the pit was closed by the Coal Board. Subsequently, all the pithead gear was removed and finally the pithill itself. Grass was sown all over the area and I hear it is a municipal golf course. So much for the hard times of 1975.
But back to the strike of 1921. My brother and I had a box on wheels. One day when dad was away on his allotment we took it across the fields to the back of the tip. A lot of other youngsters were there on the same game. So we got through the wire surround, attacked the tip with our bare hands, filled our box with black diamonds and pulled and pushed it home in triumph.
Our triumph was short-lived, as they say. Dad created. He said what we had done was downright stealing. He implied that others might do that, but not the sons of a chapel man. He then said he would have none of the stuff and ordered us to take it right back where it came from.
Mum always backed dad up to the hilt, as miners’ wives always do, strikes and all. So, crestfallen we began the long haul back.
On our way, other boys stared at us in astonishment as they bore their own booty homewards.
We also met the watchman. He just grinned. “I bet your dad’s given you a belting,” he said. Actually, dad never did apply his belt, though he often loosened it threateningly.
In the end his family survived better than most. So I suppose that, in a way, his Lord really was caring for His own!