Ten to fifteen minutes before going underground at the beginning of the shift, most workers would congregate on the pit top. For smokers this would be the last time for a drag, for the next seven-and-a-quarter hours. They would be puffing away as if it there was no tomorrow. Right up to entering the air doors they would be smoking. All smokers used to have a small tin in which they kept a few cigarettes and matches. Just before a smoker entered the air doors he would stub out his cigarette and put the tab end into his tin. It would then be placed it in a large wooden case just outside the air doors. At any one time there were numerous tins in the case.
All would be searched for smoking materials prior to the entry of the doors.
Once underground a smokers mind and body would switch off for the need of nicotine. As soon as they surfaced, their craving would begin again and they would retrieve their tin and begin smoking again. At no time did I ever have any knowledge of underground smoking. Many did try to make up the intake of nicotine by taking snuff, for snuff is of course ground tobacco.
Another way of nicotine intake is via chewing tobacco. Although chewing is a misnomer, one does not chew tobacco. A chewer keeps a plug between his lower teeth and gum and occasionally sucks it. The result is tobacco flavoured spittle a horrible and acquired taste. A chewer must keep spitting out the juice, for to swallow it or the tobacco, is devastating to the stomach. I have known men literally turn facially green and then have to go out of the pit ill, after accidentally swallowing chewing tobacco. Taking snuff or chewing tobacco is permitted underground.
One shift our team went underground and we were told that our face on the North East was not ready. It had not been turned round the last couple of shifts. We were instructed to go ‘fill’ the Ebor 23s. The 23s face was always a very rough face to work. It was nearing its end of its working area and we had been told that within a few weeks it would hit strata faults and the coal would run out. The face would have to close.
We spaced our selves along the face and began to ‘break in’. None of our team was happy with the situation or the working conditions, but there is little we could do about it. Both the old roof and the newly cut coal roof was ‘Bitting’ (breaking up) I managed to break in successfully and got me a few props and bars up to protect my back. I slowly began working forward, setting the few supports that I had and it came to a point that I had no supports left. I was continually shouting up the face for them to put some props on the belt, all to no avail. Nobody answered, even if they could have heard me above the noise of the workings. The supports would be forthcoming when they were available. Probably the pony driver had been held up.
I had two choices, stop shovelling coal until I had adequate supports to erect, or carry on and take risks. In the cold light of day the decision is easy, stop work. But to stop work when every one else is working means that they will finish their stint before you, and will feel obliged to come and help you off. Then you will lose face.
Like a fool I carried on working. I was reaching out shovelling coal under virgin roof when it caved in. It buried me, not completely, but buried I was. I could not move. I shouted for help but did not expect anyone to hear, because of the noise on the face.
No one can hear anyone else unless the conveyor stops. I was frightened, not because I was in pain, but because my cap lamp had been knocked off my head and I could not properly see, all appeared dark. The roof was ‘bitting’ and small chips of rock fell on to my body enhancing my fears of further imminent falls.
Miraculously Joe Dinsdale heard my shouts; come to think of it they probably were screams. He rode down the conveyor and extricated me, then rolled me on to the face conveyor. Riding down the belt, fully outstretched, I consciously felt myself for injuries. I was complete and did not hurt anywhere. I was feeling relieved.
On reaching the end of the conveyor it was stopped to allow me to get off it and enter the Main gate. I stood up and then immediately collapsed. My back could not stand my body weight. I could not stand up.
I felt no pain but I could not stand up. I had to be stretchered out of the pit. I spent the next three weeks in hospital. A further period of four weeks went by before I could resume work.
When I returned my piece of coal on the North East 1s was still there, and was still mine.