Monday morning came all too soon. My mother woke me at a quarter past five to a mug of tea and a fried egg sandwich. My ‘snap’ was waiting in a tin. Father just happened to be on days also this week; he worked the 3 shifts about, days, afternoons and nights. I escorted him on the walk to the pit where we arrived there about quarter to Six, him going to the ‘lamp room’ after directing me to the screens.
My first impressions of the pit yard were what a dirty, dusty, muddy, dull place it was. Everything was a mucky black and grey. I was certain I had made a mistake and would not like it here.
Climbing the steps to a first floor large ‘gantry’ type building l saw that all around was covered in stone and coal dust. I felt filthy just by being in the place. Even though there was no machinery in operation, the air still seemed thick with dust. It was the dirtiest place I had ever been in.
Down the centre of the large room lay a steel conveyor with giant hoppers at each side and a walk way in between. The room was empty of others save for a youth about the same age as myself.
“Is this the screens?” I asked of the youth.
The youth nodded in reply and said, “Are you just starting today as well? I’ve been told to wait here for Joe Garvey. I’m Tommy Clapton, what’s yours?”
“Jack, Jack Gale” I replied. Just then a steam generated hooter sounded, to signal the beginning of the six o’clock shift. Almost before it had finished a group of about twelve to fourteen persons entered, some young, some old and some that seemed very old. I saw that the only mid-aged man had only one arm.
“You two, over here” The one armed man shouted.
As we both joined him he said” I’m Joe, You’ll be Tommy and you Jack. Is that right?” We both nodded in reply. “Jack I know your father, he’s okay, don’t let him down. I’m in charge of the screens. Both of you do as you are told and we’ll all get on okay”.
With that he pulled a long handled lever and the steel conveyor trundled into action, moving quite slowly.
He then turned a switch that started the ‘Shaker’. This machine was a series of giant riddles, which were situated slightly higher than the conveyor. The riddles moved to and fro. The noise was as loud as I had ever heard in my life, it was deafening.
Coal and rock, after having been washed and riddled to separate all the dust and smaller pieces, fell on to the conveyor. The other workers spaced themselves out on either side of the conveyor and were beginning to sift for pieces of rock, or other debris, that was mixed among the coal.
As they picked it out, they discarded it overhead and behind them into the giant hoppers. I realised that at the end of the conveyor was a metal slide that deposited the sifted coal into the railway wagons below. I had noticed the wagons earlier when climbing the screen steps. The rock hoppers operated to a similar way, only the discarded debris would eventually find its way to the many spoil tips that surrounded the colliery.
“You go on that side,” he ordered Tommy,” and you stay this side,” indicating me. “Do what they are doing.”
The trouble with the screen job, I soon learned, was that it was boring. The high lights of the day were when little or no coal came down the conveyor.
Because the pit machinery was old, and great demands were put on it, periodically some part of it would breakdown; then the coal output of the colliery stopped. This happened at least once or twice a day, usually for only a few minutes, but sometimes the stoppages could last for an hour or more. When a stoppage occurred the workers tended to gather in small groups and all manner of discussions began, mostly about pit gossip. The younger lads congregated together and the older men formed their own groups.
I noted that they were very few mid- aged persons among the screen workers. I learned that the younger ones were only employed there prior to going on underground training, and the older ones were men who were too old or physically handicapped to work underground.
Most of the older screen hands were old colliers, many suffering from ‘lung’ – Pneumoconiosis or Silicosis were diseases that affected breathing, due to the very dusty atmosphere underground, especially at the coal face. At least three of the older men had fingers missing due to underground pit accidents and one walked with a pronounced limp; I later learned that he wore an artificial limb, the result of an underground accident.
On later enquiring about Joe Gs missing arm, I was told that he too had been the victim of an underground accident. The story was:
Joe was part of a coal cutting machine team. At a time when the team was engaged in ‘turning the machine round’, ready for a return cut. He accidentally had his arm sheared off with the fast revolving cutting blades. The tale went on that Joe was brought to the surface on a stretcher minus his arm.
When the pit ambulance room attendant enquired where the missing arm was, no one really knew. His mates had been in such a rush to stretcher him to the surface, to the waiting ambulance that no one had thought that it was important. It had not been brought out of the pit with Joe. An immediate order was made to locate the arm and to bring it to the surface.
It later transpired that the arm had been thrown into the ‘gob’ by an unthinking worker. The gob is the void which is created after the coal has been withdrawn. All rubbish and rock waste is discarded into it, then all supports in the gob are withdrawn, allowing the roof to fall in.
All manner of panic surrounded the face, for although the person who threw the arm into the gob was found, he could not remember the exact spot where he had thrown it. Coal faces can be over a hundred yards long. Coal production on that face had to be stopped and for the rest of the following shift, work ceased until the arm was located.
The arm was found and wrapped up in an old piece of sacking, with the fingers and part of the hand protruding, as the sacking was not long enough. A collier carried the limb out of the pit, under his own arm in full view of all. It is said that when the hospital took charge of the arm it was immediately disposed of via the incinerator; so much for Joe’s arm.
The working day, because everything was new to me, passed rather quickly. At exactly two thirty, Joe Garvey told us that those who were under eighteen could go, their shift was up. The over eighteen’s had another half hour to go and in a lot of cases, overtime if they wanted it.
I was walking home in my ‘muck,’ for there were no pit head baths at this time, they were not to be installed for at least another three years. It seemed quite normal for me to walk the streets of Middleton covered in coal dust and dried sweat. No one gave me a second glance for Leeds had once boasted a number of collieries.
On my journey I began to reckon how many hours I would be working. Six till half past two, less half hour for ‘snap’ was, eight hours, multiplied by five shifts, reckoned up at forty hours a week. That was more than my father had said. Sometime later at home, I put the times to my father and got the reply. “Thirty seven and a half hours only applies to underground workers. Anyway you will be working four hours a week less than your old job and there is very little travelling to work time, and no tram fares.” I supposed he was right and had to agree. Anyway, at the end of the week my wages would double, I consoled.
Mid-shift sandwiches, ‘Bait’ or ‘Snap’, as it was usually called, was taken from about 10 o’clock onwards. Joe G. would tell three or four of us at a time, to go for their snap. Usually it would be taken in a small ante room to the rear of the screens. There was a canteen in the pit grounds but it sold no hot food other than sandwiches and tea. Coffee was a rich mans luxury and wasn’t even on the bill of fare. A few cold sandwiches or pork pies were on offer but the canteen was mainly used by colliers who had just finished a shift, or needed a bite to eat because they were, or had been, working overtime.
On the second day of working Tommy, a lad called Eddie and one called John and myself were ordered to go for our snap. Eddie was a likeable lad who, it turned out, was just eighteen years old. He informed our small group that the following week he was to go on his underground training and because he was eighteen or over he would only have to ‘do’ three weeks training. I didn’t know whether to envy him being able to begin working underground so soon. On first appearances I took to Eddie; I soon realised that if I ever was at a loss as to what to do and needed advice, Eddie was the one to see. I felt he would not put me far wrong.
I had still not really likened to the idea of working underground. The thought still frightened me somewhat. Did I suffer from claustrophobia? Would I be able to work in very dark surroundings? I know we would be issued with a lamp but would it be enough? I had already heard of tales of old colliers who had been killed down the pit and whose spirits still haunted the underground galleries. I still was unsure if I believed in ghosts and I did not relish the idea of knowing for certain that they did exist.
The other youth John C. was sixteen and a half. Although slightly shorter than me he was squat and built like the proverbial brick WC. He had thick curly ginger hair and his neck was as wide as his head; he looked as if he easily outweighed any of the other lads and older men of the screens. Although his IQ was obviously limited he made up with it with his mouth. I took an instant dislike of him.
As the four of us were eating, Johnny said to both Tommy and me, “You realise that you will have to be initiated before you can be accepted by the screen team?”
Being unsure as to what initiation meant and not wishing to appear ignorant I said nothing.
“What’s initiation? and when will it take place?” asked Tommy.
“You’ll know when we come for you” laughed Johnny.
Tommy relayed to me that he had been told by the training officer that it would be six to eight weeks before he and I would go on underground training. I was a little relieved for the confirmation that Benny Wilkie had told me at interview. At least it would give me time to reconcile to underground work.
Johnny interrupted by stating “I go in four weeks time, I can’t wait, I’ll show ‘em how to shovel coal”. The way he said it I believed he could do it as well. John seemed to ooze confidence; I secretly wished he would go tomorrow. Although I disliked him, I grudgingly admired his self confidence, something I lacked a little of.
At about ten o’clock, on the Wednesday of my first week at work, coal suddenly stopped coming down from the shaker. Joe G. stopped the steel conveyor and said to one of the older men, “Colin, go up to the pit bank and see what’s up. Take Jack and Tommy with you; show them around up there if you have time.”
Colin beckoned the two of us to follow him. We went out of a side door which led to some steel stairs. As we were climbing the steps I noticed that a steel roof supporting ‘H’ girder was erected directly across our stairway path. On the girder someone had chalked, in capital letters, ‘DUCK’ on it. A further wag had added in lower case, ‘Donald’ before it. I was busy looking around my new surroundings and on reading ‘Donald DUCK’ wondered why anyone would want to write that on a girder. As I climbed the steps I hit my head on the girder. Feeling my scalp, a little blood formed on my fingers. Now I realised why it said ‘DUCK’, it was a low beam warning. I quickly recovered myself pretending not to have hurt myself.
Colin asked, “Are you all right?”
I shrugged, “Yeah I hardly touched it.” But secretly my ego hurt more than my head.
The steps led up to the pit bank. The bank was situated three floors from the ground. When Colin asked the ‘bank’ foreman what the problem was, he was given the reply that a main underground conveyor belt machine had broken down. It was estimated that it would take about two hours for repairs to be completed.
At this news Colin began to explain to Tommy and me, the workings of the pit bank:
Rails on which Tubs run on were laid from the front of the pit shaft in a large circuit, with a few diversions, around the pit bank space. The rails eventually led to the rear of the shaft, they continued through and were fixed in the ‘cage’. The shaft was surrounded by a Five Foot (1.5m) high steel safety fence, with raisable gates at the front and back.
Two tubs of coal are raised to the surface in the cage as it is called. Each tub contained about a quarter of a ton of coal. The safety gates are raised automatically by the cage. At the rear gate of the cage, empty tubs on rails are pushed on to the cage by two workers. The full tubs are ejected at the front, being replaced by empties.
When the full tubs have been replaced, the ‘banksman’ signals that the cage can begin the descent of the shaft for the process to be repeated. There are two cages whilst one is rising the other is descending. The banksman is the only person allowed to operate the cage signals and is in charge of the pit bank.
The full tubs are then pushed round to the ‘Tippler’. The tippler is a round cage type device that is closed in at the sides but open at the top. The tippler is electrically rotated a full 360 degree circle. The coal falls out and the empty tub is then fed to a parking space, ready to be forwarded back down the pit.
The coal from the tippler is directed down a series of slides into what is called the ‘washer’. The washer is a large rotating drum where a series of high pressure water jets clean the coal of dust and other small impurities. The water is drained off and the slurry saved for drying out. The resulting coal dust is still valued and used in industrial blow furnaces. The coal is then fed onto the shaker and thence to the screens.
Colin took Tommy and me over to the it shaft. Both of us looked over the gates down the shaft. It was a large round hole about Eighteen feet wide. The sides were brick lined. I wondered, did they have to dig the shaft out and then brick lay the sides? Obviously they couldn’t do it the other way round, then how did they do it? We could not see the bottom of the shaft, it was in total darkness.
Besides the Two steel ropes that hauled the two cages up and down there were eight guide ropes. Four for each cage ensured that each corner of the cage remained exactly in its position in relation to the shaft. We were told that it was well over six hundred yards (550m+) deep to the Ebor Seam of coal. There were other seams of coal but the Ebor seam was the one that the pit was currently working.
“Does tha still fancy working down there then?” Colin asked.
Both of us nodded affirmatively, “Yeah of course, can’t wait”, I replied, but secretively I felt very anxious at the thought of it.
“Come on then we’ll get back” added Colin.
Back down at the screens on hearing of the probable two hour delay, Joe G. instructed all workers to have their snap. Joe then left, telling one of the older men that he was going to the canteen for a mug of tea.
As was usual during a break all the younger lads gathered together, as did the older ones in their own group. The discussions, arguments and wishful dreams put forward were many and varied. A lot of talk among the young was about what they would do when they eventually got down the pit.
John C. as usual tried, and in a lot of cases succeeded in commanding attention. John had two young followers who looked up to him and would usually be at his side
John said “I think now is the time to initiate the new uns”. It was said in a light hearted manner as he looked to his two mates. They immediately nodded agreement and glanced first at me and then at Tommy waiting for John’s choice.
To pre-empt the decision I, who had been expecting this would come around sometime, laughingly said, ” The first one that comes near me gets this wrapped round his neck,” and with that I picked up a piece of pit timber that was handy. I tried to appear to be joking but at the same time I wanted them to think twice before tackling me. I made it obvious that I would take nothing lightly.
John realising that I would not be one to come quietly, commanded, “Take Tommy first” and with that the three surrounded and grabbed Tommy. The scuffle that followed was playful and humorous, even to the older workers who were watching but probably not to the receiver, Tommy, although even he was laughing and seemingly taking it in good part. The rest of the youth of the screens joined in. I hung back a little but not too far back, because I wanted to be one of them, but not too constructively.
Before Tommy knew it he was trussed up with his arms behind his back. His trousers were pulled down and removed, displaying the fact that he did not wear underpants. He was then manhandled on to the unmoving conveyor belt. A rope was produced and a noose was placed around his neck. The other end was thrown over a steel roof carrying girder and held. Someone then set off the conveyor Tommy had to start walking in the opposite direction of travel in order to maintain his balance. Another youth had a small bucket of axle grease and was stirring it with a stick. He then menaced that he was to smear Tommy’s private parts with the grease. Everybody, including myself was laughing.
The episode at first glance looked dangerous. If Tommy lost his footing it appeared that he would be in danger of being hanged. He would be unable to regain his feet because of the moving conveyor and his bound hands. I looked over to the person who was holding the other end of the rope to see that it was Eddie. It was being held loosely. I was relieved that if a problem occurred Eddie would certainly let the end go and avert any serious result. Just as the lad holding the grease laden stick began daubing Tommy’s privates the conveyor stopped moving.
A loud shout ordered, “Eh! Stop that yer silly buggers, ave yer no more sense?” All eyes turned to the command. It was Joe the foreman, he had stopped the conveyor. “Enough’s enough”, he pronounced, “untie him”. And with that the episode ended. No recrimination were made or given by Joe, he seemed to accept it as normal screen behaviour.