To describe a ‘piece’ of coal:
A side of a face of coal is over eighty yards long. That would mean that it would take seven men to shovel the eighty plus yards of coal on to the conveyor belt each shift. Each man would be responsible for about twelve yards of the hewing and shovelling; the tailgate corner man taking slightly less.
All the coal face workers, including me, who had a claim to a piece of coal, drew numbers out of a hat. From that point on the corresponding piece to that number was yours and unless you could not do the work, was yours for the rest of that faces life. I drew the third piece from the right hand tailgate.
My new work mates quizzed me how I had come to get a regular piece of coal, having only just completed face training. I don’t think initially they liked the idea but there was nothing they could do about it. All of my new associates, soon to become mates, were hardened colliers. All of them were at around ten years older than I, with their resulting experience.
The first shift I walked up the tailgate with my new face workers. They will all recognise themselves except one.
To name them:-
GEORGE CULLEN – he was in the corner piece. A man who tended to open his mouth without thinking, but one whom you new exactly where you stood with him. He would not go behind your back about anything. He would be the first one to tell you to your face of any complaint. He took a lot of understanding but I grew to like him.
HARRY DINSDALE – first piece from the corner. One of the most likeable men down Middleton pit or anywhere that I ever met. He was a deep thinker would never do you a wrong and he was the brains of the face. Whatever he suggested, he never demanded, went. We all agreed his way was usually the best. He was tragically killed later in a coal face incident.
MYSELF – second piece.
JOE DINSDALE. Brother of Harry also a likeable person. Said little but turned out to be a great boozing companion.
JEFF TAYLOR, or it could be Geoff I never did get to know – fourth and last piece from the tailgate. Jeff was the older brother of the diesel driver who squashed the ‘faeces’ pie into my face at the loader end, a good bloke to be in trouble with. Although not educated he was nobody’s mug. You knew where you were with him.
I liked and respected all of my new team workers.
There were two others on the team but they got to their pieces via the Loader gate. The time came for us all to crawl on to the face to begin our ‘stints’ of coal. I was determined to do well and show the others that I was worthy of my place in the team.
On the roof of the face the deputy had chalked an arrow at Twelve yard intervals to denote pieces; I found my chalked arrow and proceeded to ‘Break in’. To break in means to hack and shovel a way into the broken coal face. The face conveyor is a bottom loader. The coal is thrown on to the bottom of the belt to be scraped off at the face loader end. The return belt travels along the roof of the face. At the start of breaking in one has to shovel over the belt until a space is made into the coal. Timbers are then erected under the virgin roof and progression forward can be made.
I hacked away as fast as I could at the coal before me. My shovel and pick whirred at speed. No one could possibly go faster that I. I would prove to them what a good worker I was and prove to be a worthy place in the team. I kept looking forward of me and below me to see how they were going on. They seemed to be shovelling slower in comparison to me. I thought I was doing well. The sweat was pouring off me I was becoming exhausted. I had never worked so hard in all my life.
As I looked back I saw Harry had completed his twelve yards. He had ‘filled’ off before me and I had three yards to go. I still had a yard to go when Joe also filled off. Jeff also completed his stint before me. I was disgusted with myself. I had worked really hard and as fast as I could. How could I hope to keep up with them? I had suffered a loss of face.
When discussing my poor showing they said that I had not done too badly, for they were old hands at the job. Nevertheless from that day on I was in a race with to fill off before them, they did not know they were participants in a race but I did.
I had been working for some weeks, before I realised how Harry always managed to fill off before anyone else, even though he always looked to be going slow. Every time he took a shovel of coal it was a full shovel. I probably shovelled half as many times again than Harry but my shovel would be only partially full compared to his.
When I realised this fact I gradually became more adept at filling coal. It took a while but before long I could hold my own with all the others, except Harry. He always ‘beat me off’ at filling his piece. In all the time I worked there I only ever beat him off once, even then it was only because his stint had been in the ‘rough’; more about the Rough later.
Slowly I became an accepted member of the team and I was proud to be in such company.
Ours was a new face with few problems, and were a good team, helping each other out when needed, we made good wages. The year was 1955 and I was earning over Twenty Five Pounds a week without the occasional Saturday working, a small fortune in those days. Both Brenda and I were now seriously saving up to get married.
I took and passed a Shotfirer/Deputy course during my face training period.