A Visit to a Pit – 23rd January 1879

(From the Colliery Guardian 7th. February 1879)

Some time ago an opportunity (which I had long sought) was afforded to me of visiting the workings of a coalmine, under the escort of a manager. I at once agreed to accompany him and, enveloped in a blanket suit, and equipped with a lantern, started for the pit’s mouth, “a darksome and dismal place” such as Dante pictures from the entrance of his Inferno. I gazed up to see if the warning, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” inscribed above.

Nothing, however, met my eye but the slender rope which was to bear us to the bottom of the apparently bottomless pit. I had only time to notice the grimy faces of the banksmen who were pushing the trams of coal off the cage which had just reached the top when, as we stepped into it, the signal sounded, and with a jerk and a rattle, we started down the dark abyss. Almost before the gasp for breath at the actual experience of the nightmare horror of falling down the precipice was over, a slight jolt indicated our arrival at the bottom of the shaft. A train of empty trams was just starting in the direction we wished to take, so we jumped into the last one and set off up an incline, which is so adjusted that one horse may with equal ease draw a number of empty trams up to the coal face, or the same number full down to the shaft.

I soon discovered that these boxes about three feet by two feet however adapted for the transport of coal do not form a very comfortable conveyance for two men, as it is necessary to keep one’s head low to avoid collision with the cross timbers in the roof of the road. So I shrank into as small a compass as possible and tried to amuse myself in inspecting, by the lamp’s light, the strata of chalk and stone through which we were passing. Circumstances, however, did not favour a careful examination, as the ordinary motion was like that of a bathing machine on a rock beach, while at frequent intervals we got off the line, whereupon the jolting became excruciating. We managed at length to call the attention of the guard (a barefooted urchin in the tram) who, with a shrill whistle, stopped the train.

In this away we journeyed about half a mile, till we reached the terminus; then we had to jump out and walk. It was a new branch, and here and there we came upon a pool of water which the dim lamp-light made visible, and which I had to avoid as best I could; so, picking my way, followed my guide, admiring the curiosities in the sides of the road, till a tremendous blow on the head warned me to stoop as I walked, as the road not being constructed for the convenience of visitors 6ft high. After passing a group of miners who were enveloped in powder smoke caused by a charge which they had just fired, we made our way to the part of the mine where coal was being worked.

With some difficulty, I scrambled down a steep passage about three feet high and with the same width which led from the road to where some hewers were at work. At a few yards distance the glimmering of a candle, which was stuck, as usual in the miner’s cap, though the whole scene a weirdness that I have seldom seen surpassed. Against the jet-black background of coal, an immense white figure stood out naked to the waist, with a broad chest and huge arms, welding a pick which was brought down with a dull echoing thud, and succeeded by a heavy crash as a rush of coal followed each blow.

He wanted me to try his tool, but I had to confess that my muscles were no better fitted for his work than my heavy clothing. He showed me also a hole in the coal that he had just drilled for blasting, and proceeded to tamp in the charge; he then filled a straw with powder and thrust it in through the hole and nothing remained but to light the fuse and retire to a safe distance. The shot echoes strangely through the narrow, rocky passages, and can, I am told, be heard at a great distance.

In one part of the mine, several men are working from different directions towards the same meeting point, and though between them interposes a mass of solid rock, 80 yards in substance, each party knows when the other fired a shot.

For some time I wondered how the coal was got up from this working into the trams on the road above, till I saw a boy filling a small basket on wheels. This he then dragged up the slope (which I, though unimpeded, had scrambled down with difficulty) with the greatest apparent ease, his bare feet clinging firmly to the rough ladder which was fixed between the rails, so true it is that use is second nature.

In the course of our wanderings, we lighted upon another brawny and half-naked collier, who was blasting and hewing the solid rock in search of an erratic vein of coal which, through a “fault” in the strata at this point, had for a time eluded the skill of manager and men; thus illustrating the uncertainty of mining as wells as the irregularities of the geological formation.

While my companion and the bailiff were scrutinising the rock and speculating as to the direction where the coal would again be met, I got into a conversation with the hewer aforesaid, who told me that a belief had seized the more superstitious among the workmen that this particular spot was haunted. They declared that, after work was stopped, they had heard the sound of a pick in this weird neighbourhood. Some of them were afraid to venture near the place lest they should be accosted by an intruder from a still deeper pit, at full work. My informant added that for his part he wished he could meet with the satanic stranger, who would, perhaps, find therein of coal for him, declaring that he would accost him with, “Come on, mate, thou’lt sledge and I”ll turn!” thus kindly giving up to the outsider the hardest part of the work, as turning the drill is obviously easier than wielding the hammer which drives it in.

When I had satisfied my curiosity as to the methods of working, we retraced our steps towards the bottom of the shaft. On the way, I noticed a very curious and perfect fossil of a tree trunk, about half of which stood out from the side of the road. It was apparently about one foot in diameter, perfectly smooth and round, of a dull grey colour. The sight of it brought very vividly before my imagination a scene of may epochs remote from the present, when these coal seams, now buried hundreds of yards below the surface, composed a luxuriant forest waving in the sunlight, which has been pent up through long years in these gloomy depths, yet ready at man’s bidding to burst into light and heat once more. So marvellously does Nature obey the Great Creator’s mandate, and gather “the fragments that nothing be lost!”

A little further on we had to squeeze ourselves against the rock to allow a train of empty trams to pass. the driver stopped to make a strange complaint; his horse was so fresh that he was compelled to run in order to keep pace with it. It was a powerful grey, which had I learned, been down the pit for seven years, and during that time had never seen daylight. I was surprised to find that horse thrive so well under such unwonted conditions, but was told that the reason is the even temperature and the absence of rain. Their stables were, I noticed, all that could be wished, though, of course, cut out of the rick. They were close to the bottom of the shaft, and my visit was now at an end.

After seeing then thus at work, and realising as I had never done before, their hardships and dangers, I could not but feel great sympathy for the toiling race who procure for us the means of defying the winter’s severity by the cheerful fireside. One point especially struck me, that though in the midst of almost exhaustless supplies of fuel, they cannot enjoy the comfort of any warm food during the day’s long work, having to put up with their can of cold coffee and ‘Tommy as they call their bread and cheese. Some of them, indeed, in desperation, toast the cheese at their candle flame, but it is “a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance” unless the appetite is far from fastidious.

Then through the winter months, the poor fellows do not see the cheering sunlight save on one day – literally Sunday in their case – it being, of course, dark when they go to work at six in the morning, and twilight at least when they come out of the pit at four in the afternoon. Add to this the cramped attitude in which much of their work in the narrow seams has to be done – the damp to which those employed in sinking and opening new workings are exposed, which, with the sudden change from the warm air of the mine to perhaps keen frost or drenching rain when they come up from work, makes them particularly liable to chills and rheumatism, and when the account has been taken off the chances of the roof giving way and crushing them, and the stones striking them while blasting (dangers which are increased by their temerity and carelessness), enough has been said to show that the collier’s life is an unusually hard and risky one. But these perils are as nothing to those terrible calamities caused by firedamp and other explosive gasses, from which the colliery I visited is happily free, but which in most mines cause the poor miner to go to his work daily with his life in his hand, and should prevent our grudging good wages to brighten the home of these poor toilers, whose working hours are surrounded by so much gloom, hardship an peril.

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