Working Underground

Joe Kenyon

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.

Coal seams are usually on the incline, a slight gradient of about one in 20. Banks were organised to commence from the upside of a level. It was easier to push an empty tub up the incline than it would be to push a full tub. It was also easier to slide along the plates, holding onto the back of the full tub and let it go down the gate at its own speed. (The plates were the steel rails which came in six-foot or nine-foot lengths, and were nailed to wooden sleepers.) With the gates or roadways being so low, two feet six inches, the alternative was to crawl for about three hundred yards or more, which can be very tiresome, especially over rough ground.

As a trammer, I had to wear clogs to be able to ‘slide’ the plates. Beside the iron on the outer edge of the clog, there was also an inner iron. Inside the inner iron, I would nail a piece of tin which I had cut to size. Whenever I was taking a tub down the gate, I would grab hold of the handles – there were two at each end – give the tub a push-start onto the incline of the gate track, then quickly put my clogs on the plates, with one foot at an angle, so I could push my tin piece against the plate and keep some control over the speed of the tub as it hurtled down the gate. I kept my head well down below the level of the tub. A slight raising of the head in a moment of forgetfulness could result in a swift scalping. The easiest way to get an empty tub up the gate was to lean low into the back of it and push it with your head, resting your hands on the buffers. To protect my head and hair, I wore a bannicker – a small hat cut from an old trilby and fashioned to fit on top of the head without slipping. Some trammers just wore their day caps, but a bannicker was more comfortable and less sweaty.

The end of the shift was welcome, especially when your muscles and bones ached like hell. When I got home, I had my dinner and then before I started to drop off, I would go into the kitchen (a bath or a shower would have been heaven), strip off to my waist and wash my head, arms and chest from the kitchen sink. Then while I leaned over the sink, my dear Ma would ever so gently and tenderly wash my back, using a flannel or a piece of lint, wiping around or gently swabbing the cuts and scabs down my spine. Sometimes, when I went to the pictures, I would forget myself and carelessly drop down onto the seat. I would curse and grunt as I felt the sudden pain of the sores on my back. There were times when, without thinking, I’d shuffle my back on a chair, especially if it was itching. Sometimes blood would trickle out as I opened up the sores. I’d then have to change my vest and shirt and have my back cleaned. If I didn’t do it right away, they’d stick to my back and it would be much harder, and sometimes painful, getting them off without starting the bleeding again. When they did get stuck, the best way of getting the vest and shirt off was to dab over the cuts with a piece of lint soaked in warm water until they were softened, and then very slowly peel off the vest and shirt so as not to re-open the wounds. Even lying down in bed was painful.

One day my mate had a laker – a day off work. It was a Wednesday, and quite common for colliers to have a laker on Wednesday, especially if they’d been having a rough time of it for a shift or two. Normally a man wasn’t allowed to work in a bank on his own, but the deputy allowed me to go in. I’d filled a couple of tubs, taken them down the gate and fetched up a couple of empties. I filled my third tub, went down the gate with it, speeding along for about a hundred yards, when – scrunch – the tub got fast. I shoved with my back to the tub, with my feet spragged against a sleeper, but it wouldn’t shift. I tried pulling it back, shaking and cursing it, but it was stuck, and it was staying stuck.

There was nothing else for me to do but crawl back up the gate into the face, and fill another tub – I had a couple of spare ones – whip down the gate, letting the tub scurry down at its own speed, holding on by the handles, all tensed up waiting for the inevitable crunch as it hit the immovable tub. BANG! It stopped dead. I could feel my bones flying about the gate. Bells rang, lights flashed. I flopped down for some ten minutes, lying on the floor and cursing from here to eternity. Eventually I got up, and dragged at the second tub. Thankfully it wasn’t stuck. I took it back the way I’d come and rammed it again against the fast tub with all my strength. Again, I pulled back the tub and rammed it again, but it would not budge. Pulled it back again and rammed again, and again. By now I was sobbing and bleeding and my back was badly cut.

I crawled my way back up the face. I had it in mind what I was going to do. I got into the face, took my hammer and then wildly and stupidly set about skittling the face timber out, pulling down a few rocks and stones from the roof. Filled a third, empty tub with it, then tugging and pushing, got it onto the gate track, gave it a massive push and shouted: Gerron! Knock the fucking hole in!

Having got that off my chest, I had a good swig of water, got dressed, took hold of my pick and shovel, then made my way through the gob and into the next bank.

‘Hey up Jooer, what tha doing coming through there?’

‘Going home,’ I said. ‘Can I put mi tackle on your tub?’

‘Tha can tek this tub darn if tha likes, we’ve got a spare.’

I put my pick and shovel on the tub, making sure it was well below the level of the rib sides, and off I went.

I made my way to the pit bottom, and the onsetter, the bloke in charge of sending the chair up the shaft, said: ‘Where’s tha going?’

‘Home,’ I said.

‘As tha got a note from’t deputy?’

‘No, I ent seen him.’

‘Well I can’t let thi up then.’

‘Tha’d better,’ I said, ‘I’m badly. If tha dunt let me art, tha’ll be in bother.’

I got out of the pit, walked across the pit yard, and without knocking, entered the manager’s office and slung the pick and shovel onto the manager’s desk. ‘Go and get thi own fucking coal.’ The Manager was called Cookie by the lads. He jumped up, and yelled: ‘What the hell’s up wi thi, Jooer?’

‘There’s a couple a tubs fast in 428s’ – the number of the bank where I was working – ‘there’s a couple a tubs fast, and they can fucking stop there for all I care. Tha’ll not get me in that gate again for all the tea in China. I’m leaving and I want mi cards.’

On the Wednesday, the day I packed it in, I told my mother that I was finishing at the pit. ‘I won’t go back there at any price,’ I said. Meantime, I was stripping to the waist and as I pulled my shirt off, she gasped: ‘Good God, what have you done to your back? Come here, let me clean it for you.’

I’d been talking to our neighbour, Mr Roach. Their Brian had gone down south to Slough, near London, and he was doing well. Mr Roach told me there was a great new industrial estate being built and there were plenty of jobs.

‘When are you going then?’ Ma asked.

‘Sunday morning,’ I replied.

On Sunday morning, after breakfast, I stuffed a few things in the saddlebag on my bike, said goodbye to my family and off I went.

I arrived in slough near about 11 o’clock that night. I looked in wonder at the dozens of multi-coloured neon lights surrounding the factories. Horlicks was the first one I spotted: I could see the lights before I got into Slough. Eventually I ended up in Farnham Road and recognised a few illuminated trade names – Aspro and Echo margarine, which stank something horrid when you passed the place; Fine Tubes and 4711, the perfume factory – that was an improvement. I finished up in a café crowded with lads and lasses, some in their early twenties, some a bit older. They were mostly on night shift waiting to start work at midnight at Weston’s biscuit factory. One of them, a lad from Bolton, offered to take me to his digs. They had room for another lodger and they would take me in. I liked the house very much. It was one of the new semi-detached private houses being built at that time to accommodate the influx of workers from Scotland, Wales and the North of England.

Mrs Clatworthy, the landlady, a pleasant, good-looking woman of about thirty, told me that D.M. Davies, a furniture-makers, were ‘setting on’. I went along, saw one of the foremen and asked for a job. He wanted to know if I had any tools. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’ve only just come down from Barnsley, but I’ll pay for some if I can draw them from the stores.’ Mrs Clatworthy had tipped me off about this. ‘Okay, I’ll set you on and you can start now,’ the foreman said. ‘I’ll give you a note for some tools and you can pay for them out of your wages.’

I got a light hammer, two wood chisels, a tenon saw and a veneering knife. I was then shown to a bench, where a young chap from Maidenhead was working. We both had to trim and fix the base of Ultra wireless cases to the frame. We each had to do 200 cases a day, 100 in the morning and 100 in the afternoon. After I’d been on the job for a couple of weeks, I made some alterations to the jig in which we placed the bases for fixing to the case. After this adjustment I found that I could easily do 400 cases a day without any increase in effort. Without thinking about the consequences, I just went on happily banging out 400 a day. One day, three men in white coats walked past me a couple of times. ‘They’re coming to take me away,’ I thought. One of them asked how I managed to get so many cases done at this pace. I showed them how I’d changed the jig, and in effect, doubled production. One of them remarked to the others that the modification meant they’d only need one chap at this bench. Oh dear, I thought, now I am creating unemployment, I’ll never be forgiven!

Working at DMD’s was a pleasure. All the scabs and sores on my back had gone. I worked at my own speed; I could do an extra hour in the evening and work Sunday morning. I also got a pay rise from 9d an hour to 11d. It was very handy working extra in the evening because I could do odd repair jobs as favours for the girls who worked in the polishing shop. Some of them would come to me in distress because they had botched up too many jobs that day and didn’t want the foreman to know. I could have settled in Slough permanently, but somehow I never felt at home. In mid-August, the factory closed for a week’s holiday. I packed a few things, got on my bike and went back to see the family, taking presents for my parents and the kids. I wanted to see my Dad as well: he had been discharged from the sanatorium after a bout of tuberculosis and returned home.

If you left Barnsley and got a job down in the South, you were regarded as doing very well. To me, it was a myth; life in Slough seemed unreal. If you said ‘good morning’ to strangers, you were looked at with great suspicion. It was thought that you were a bit touched. Mention the words ‘trade union’ at work and people backed off as though you had the plague. But now I was on holiday and I was at home. One evening in the Village Club, I was just about to order a pint when Old Cookie, the pit manager, hailed me, saying: ‘I’ll pay for that.’ And then later those boring words: ‘I hear you are doing well for yourself these days.’ I said I’d much prefer to be in Barnsley.

‘We’ve done away with tramming,’ Cookie told me, ‘we’ve got long-wall faces, 120 yards long, and the colliers – they’re called fillers now – shovel the coal onto a conveyor belt running along the face. The money’s not bad either. I’ve always like thi, in spite of thi cussedness.’

I decided to work as a filler. I went back to Slough on the Sunday by train – there were things I couldn’t bring back on the bike. The charge-hand at DMD’s tried to talk me out of leaving. Then he fetched the manager, who asked me if I wouldn’t change my mind. He also offered me another three pence an hour on my wage. I apologised, told him I was needed at home, and went back to the pit.

Pit work is a dirty, dangerous job, a job you wanted to leave but wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Killings and accidents were common, part of a life you learned to live with. Every working day, two or more miners were killed, somewhere in the industry, and many more were maimed and crippled. Not counting those who went down and suffered because of pneumoconiosis and other lung diseases. Very few families were not touched by a death or serious accident at some time or other. Even our own village had its quota of men and young lads with broken backs, a leg or arm missing, hands crushed and useless. Fighting for compensation while you were off work was always a tough battle with the Compensation Doctor, who was also employed by the company.

When a chap was killed, not only his family, but his mates and, indeed, the whole village grieved for him, and for his widow and family. Out of respect for the man and his family, work stopped for the day. Every workman and boy had a shilling deducted from his wage, to be given to the grieving family. Collections were taken around the village. If the accident or death was caused by the negligence of the employer, the odds of winning compensation were stacked against you. The company used every ruse and dodge, even lying, or bribing witnesses to lie: anything to prevent the widow from getting compensation.

When I went back to the pit, and started work as a filler on a ‘long-wall face’, it was a damn site easier and more pleasant than tramming. The coal-face had already been undercut by a coal-cutting machine which travelled along the face and cut a five-inch band of stone and coal to a depth of five feet. The coal-cutter was a clumsy chunk of steel about nine feet long, two feet wide and two feet high. It was a noisy, grinding hell of a machine and choked the cutting team with dust. After the coal was undercut, and the conveyor belt moved up, a shotfirer would insert explosives in the face. The blast, if he was good at his job, would be just sufficient to fracture the coal and make it easier for the filler to shovel it onto the belt. At the end of the face, the belt would go round a return drum (known as the ‘gear-head’) and then spill the coal into waiting coal tubs.

Like I said, filling coal onto a belt was a lot less painful than tramming, but it was still bloody hard graft. The height at the face was three feet, and when you’d slung 17 tons of coal at a mad pace on your knees all shift, you weren’t fresh as a daisy. Indeed, there were times when it really got rough: the roof may have been fractured and unsafe, the cutter may not have done his job well, the borer might have drilled the holes at the wrong angle and the wrong depth, or too far apart, or the shotfirer mightn’t have stemmed the shots well enough.

I’d been filling for a year when the pit explosion happened. It was 3 a.m. on the morning of 6 August 1936; 58 men were killed outright. Many were smashed almost beyond recognition. It all happened within a matter of seconds. The explosion (some accounts say there were two) was so fierce that its effects could be seen a long way from the spot at which it took place – nearly two miles along an underground roadway 1000 feet down. There was one survivor, an engine driver, and he was found bruised and battered, lying 1800 yards from the centre of the blast. He died later in hospital. The mutilated bodies lay in groups of three or four; some lay singly a few yards apart from each other. When SOS messages were sent out to neighbouring pits, hundreds of miners rushed to help. They stood in queues at the pithead, waiting to be called. Silent crowds of men, women and children stood around waiting. Four men had amazing luck. Half an hour before the explosion, they unexpectedly finished their work and left the pit. One of them returned as a member of a rescue team. ‘It is impossible for anyone to escape,’ he declared on his return to the surface.

All that day, and the days that followed, the crowds waited, and the rain fell ceaselessly. On their way from the pithead, the rescue workers walked grimly past the waiting crowd. Many were longing to call out for news, but no one did. One of the unbearable things about a pit disaster is the intensity of the waiting: more dread than patience – lest the question asked should bring an answer that snuffs out that last flicker of hope.

Doctor ‘Jimmy’ Henderson, the local village doctor, was among the rescue workers, and on emerging from the pit after five hours, said that it was hopeless. Most of the dead he had seen had been torn to pieces by the force of the blast; others were lying about in attitudes of suffocation brought about by carbon-monoxide poisoning. ‘All along the roadways,’ he reported, ‘there were piles of rubble and stone where the roof had collapsed. Coal tubs had been hurled about and smashed, all this and the gas-filled air, made it impossible to get to the men.’

From the first day, ambulances stood by, but no bodies came up. The crowd of relatives and neighbours grew so large that the area had to be roped off to allow free passage for the rescue workers through the black mud to the pithead. And behind that rope, the crowd stood, hour by hour, day by day, until the waiting turned into grieving – no crying – as the rescuers began to bring the bodies up. The local school nearby was taken over and prepared to receive them. More than forty nurses were drafted in to help the doctors. Yet all this death and suffering was regarded by the law as an ‘act of God’ and no compensation was payable.

A year after the explosion, my Dad was killed on the pit top: the door of a wagon filled with rocks and stone burst open just as he was passing it. The stones, several tons of them, fell on my Dad, breaking his spine in two places. He died the next day. Because of the misleading evidence given by the pit bosses, my Dad’s death was adjudged to be ‘death by misadventure’ rather than by accident. My mother was denied compensation. At the time, the Sunday People offered insurance cover to its regular readers. Death by accident warranted generous compensation, but even though we’d always taken the paper they refused to pay up because of the misadventure finding. After my Dad was killed, I spent three years studying mining science and, later, another year on a special study of the Coal Mines Acts and Regulations. After nationalisation, I won the right to become an accident-site observer. I had an eagle eye for anything that would support a claim for compensation. Many years later I discovered that one of the men who had testified at the inquiry into my Dad’s case, and who died within a few months of giving evidence, had taken his own life.