Tramming was one of the most painful and soul-destroying jobs in a pit. Only pits like the two in our village employed trammers. Other, better maintained pits in adjacent areas had high, wide roadways and used pit-ponies to pull the tubs from the coal-face to the haulage, but our pits used muscle and blood. A trammer had to be fit, strong, broad in the back and short, in his late teens or early twenties, and, I might add, weak in the head.
At the age of 15, I joined a Health and Strength Club – the subs were sixpence a week. The club was run by its members in an old chapel hall. I spent three hours a day during the week and three hours on Saturday and Sunday as well doing work-outs. I liked to wrestle and lift weights. I also punched the ball a bit. I developed a strong back and good muscles in my arms and legs. I was all of five feet four and, when I started tramming a few years later, in the mid-Thirties, it was a doddle.
A trammer’s job was to push a ‘tram’ – an empty coal tub – up the gate and into the bank. The ‘bank’ was a short coal-face about ten yards wide and usually worked by two men, the filler and the trammer. The older, less agile man worked at the face all shift, filling the tubs; the young mate fetched the tubs into the bank, helped with the filling and then whizzed down the gate, taking the full tub into a main road, known as the ‘level’, from which it was hauled by winch into the pit bottom in loads of twenty tubs at a time.
The ‘gate’, as it was known, was a kind of tunnel leading up to the bank, or face. It was always just high enough and wide enough to allow a tub to scrape through. If a tub got fast – stuck between the roof and the floor – there was no way you could get past it to the front. If you wanted to get out, you had to crawl back up the gate, anything up to two or three hundred yards, into the bank, then crawl through the gob, the wasteland left after the coal had been got out, and into the next bank and down their gate.
A tub, or coal tub, is a miniature wagon made to hold an estimated eight cwt of coal. Some tubs were made of metal and others of wood. It was the wooden ones which mostly got stuck, because some were an inch higher than the metal ones. They were much heavier to push as well. Tubs measured two feet six inches wide, two feet six inches high and about three feet six inches long, and they only just scraped through. The slightest movement of the side, or roof or floor, and the tub got fast. Because the gates were so inadequate, ventilation was very poor: it was hot and steamy work. The coal-face was a yard and three inches high, which left 12 inches for the filler to manoeuvre his shovel-load of coal into the tub. You could make a bit more space by lifting the tub off the rail track at one end and onto the floor.
If everything went okay and there were no hold-ups because of tubs getting fast, we could fill about six tons of coal, six hard-gotten tons. We were paid two shillings and two pence per ton, with some time stop-pages if the weighman thought the tub was on the heavy side and that a bit of stone had been added.
In addition to what we could earn by the ton, we were paid a graduated rate for tramming, depending on the distance. For the first 40 yards, we got nothing. For the next 25 yards we were paid a penny a tub, and then for every 30 yards an extra three half-pence. That meant that a trammer would have to fetch and push a tub for an average of 28 journeys a shift (14 times up and 14 times down) for eight shillings and one penny. There were other jobs, too: trimming, timbering, fetching materials and moving the rail track nearer to the face as we advanced. These helped to make up the wage a bit, but they were hard-fought gains which the boss begrudged paying for, and there was nothing extra for heaving your guts out on a tub that was fast. Dividing the total earnings at the end of a good day, a trammer and his mate could make up to about 12 shillings a shift. But good days were few and far between. Sometimes, when the going was rough and dangerous, we had to fall back on the ‘mini’, or minimum wage of eight shillings and 11 pence a shift. This was negotiated by the Union after much trouble and strife.
Sometimes it was the trammer who suffered most, towing his rop out, shredding his back when a lousy tub got fast and wouldn’t move: nowt paid for this. When a tub got fast, stuck between the floor and the roof, it was reported to the deputy, a pit official in charge of the district. He reported it to the manager, who then gave orders to the nightshift deputy to send a dinter in. A dinter was usually an elderly man, on a low day-wage, who worked regular nights. He was usually past doing heavy work but useful for odd repair jobs that had been reported from the day-shift. One of these was to go into the bank gate where a tub was fast. His job was to lower the rail track an inch or two to allow the tub to go free. Pit-owners were very grudging about paying for this work. They would have the repair man skip jobs and make do. Spending time and money on this kind of work was costly.
The ground in a pit was always on the move. Sometimes the floor would lift, sometimes because of rising gas, sometimes because of the pressure of the roof pressing the sides and forcing it upwards. The dinter would crawl up the gate where a mark had been left, or where the tub was still fast. Using his pick, he would dig and scrape out the floor under the sleepers so as to lower the track. A makeshift solution, but the absolute maximum allowed by the boss, who wasn’t given enough money to pay for a good and lasting job. It was always easier and less costly to let the trammer pay in sweat, blood and sometimes tears.
The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.