One day when I was on dust sampling duties, I was near the coaling pit bottom. A diesel driver and his mate and a few from the pit bottom workers were going for their snap, as I had done many times before, I decided to join them for mine. We all collected in a small bricked office.
As always, the talk amongst the lads was many and varied. A diesel driver Harry related that at the weekend his next door neighbour had died in bed. He had been asked by the Funeral director in attendance to help carry the body downstairs. He described being at the head of the body whist his mate was at the feet going down backwards. As they passed a bend in the stairs the body had to be twisted, this caused residual air in the body to be expelled out of the mouth. Harry described as “It moaned into my face.” He said that he almost dropped the body in fright.
With the telling of the body story, ghost tales in general were discussed.
One chilling tale that I remembered most was:
It was around 1926 and the general strike was at its height. Most industries had closed down, as had the pits. The strike at the Bell Hill pit, near Leeds, had been going on for over two months. No workers went underground, except for a deputy who, once a day, descended to check water levels in the sumps and to pump water out as necessary. One particular day having done his tasks, the deputy needed to relieve himself of bodily waste. Going out of the pit bottom he backed into a stall, a small opening cut into the rock side, and dropped his trousers. Just as he began to defecate a hand clapped on his bare behind. With a scream he pulled up his strides and raced back to the pit bottom. He rang the bell to get himself out of the pit.
On reaching the surface he, obviously in distress, was asked what the problem was. He managed to gasp that there was someone, or something down the pit. He was assured that no one, other than himself, had been down. The banksman should know he rang them all down and out. The deputy was insistent and pointed to a bloody hand print on his behind. A search party was organised but the deputy refused to join it. On searching, where the deputy had described, they found a man. All the front of his face, his arms and body was covered in blood and gore. His clothing was in shreds. By the time he was stretchered out of the pit he was dead.
The upshot of the story goes that just across the road from the Bell Hill pit [Rothwell Haigh, Beeston Pit] is the Wood Lane Insane Asylum. (It is still there*) The man had escaped from the asylum and entered the pit shaft area. He is supposed to have slid down the cage guide ropes, hence the blood and gore. On reaching the bottom he crawled out of the pit bottom to the place where he had touched the deputy. The deputy’s hair is supposed to have turned white overnight and he refused ever to go down a pit again.
The Bell Hill pit in the story was only a few miles from Middleton. Their extreme workings would probably extend to our far workings.
I was sixteen and a half and very impressionable. In the cold light of day the story probably never happened it’s too full of holes, but alone, down a dark pit, tales take on a life of their own. On hearing the story I have to admit a chill went up my spine. Whilst I was with others it was not so bad. After snap time was finished I had to carry on with my dust sampling duties.
I had to sample a part of the pit known as the old workings. It was a two mile long roadway that led to the ‘New pit’. Why it was called that I know not because the new pit was last worked at about the turn of the century. The roadway, to the new pit, was kept open because every second day the new pit shaft sump had to be visited to inspect the water pumps. These continually drain out collected water. The New Pit was at a slightly higher level than our seam. If the pumps were stopped and the roadway was closed, the water would eventually flood down into our present workings.
I went to seek out John H. the deputy of the district I was about to travel. I had to inform him that I was to walk the road to the New Pit and that it would take me about an hour. I was required to report, in and out, whenever I travelled into ‘out of way’ places.
I began my dust sampling a little slower than normal. My mind was not on my job. I was conjuring up all sorts of terrors. I could not get rid of the tales I had just heard. It was cold and quite windy in the roadway to the new pit. I was feeling very lonely and I did not want to go any further. The wind blew up a piece of scrap paper behind me, it made me start. My spirit jumped out of me and probably hit the roof. I was going no further.
It was easy to fake the dust samples for the whole journey it would be impossible to prove I had not completed the task. Without moving from the spot I just sat down and forged the samples from the dust around me. Half an hour later I informed John H. that I had completed my tasks and was out of his area.
I went out of the pit to Ben’s office to prepare my samples for sending to the area laboratories. The samples would take two weeks for us to get the results. Any samples that were below a certain standard would be highlighted and the offending area of the pit would be designated for stone dusting.
That night my mind could not rest I had failed in my duty. What if there was an explosion made worse by my actions? What if men were killed because of me? I could not think of a way out and I could not tell Ben W. that I had been afraid to walk down a perfectly safe roadway. This was the first time in my life that I’d had such a terrible worry on my shoulders.
For two days I wrestled with my conscience trying to find a way out, then I concocted a plan. I went to see the Safety Officer as I usually did for instructions as to any duties that he wished me to carry out. Sometimes I could suggest where I might be gainfully employed. I said that whilst dust sampling the new pit road, the area looked a little dark, indicating a build up of coal dust; it didn’t really. I suggested that I take any spare worker from the pit bottom, there were always a couple, and stone dust the offending area. Because he had nothing more important for me to do that day, Ben agreed.
I went to see John H. and asked him if he had any spare workers. I spoke of the Safety Officer’s instructions and John said that he had two I could use. One of them went to the stables and booked a pony out, whilst the other lad and I began loading chariots with bags of stone dust. On the arrival of the pony, we hitched up the chariot and proceeded to the new pit roadway. We gave the whole gate a really thorough dusting. A heavy weight lifted from my shoulders, I had wriggled out of my dilemma and learnt a great lesson of life
Coincidentally enough on the return of one of the samples, a few weeks later, it showed that a small area was a little over the permitted level of coal dust. It would have had to have been stone dusted anyway.
* This has since been demolished and a housing estate stands on the site now