About two months after my injury, I stepped out of the cage to begin a shift. The under manager, Mr Kinsey, came out of his office and said to me. “Jack you’ve got your Shotfirer’s ticket haven’t you?”
“Yes” I replied.
“Go back to the surface and collect forty dets. (detonators) I need you firing today. I’m short of staff”
“What about my filling money” I said. He realised that a coal filler, on a successful face earned bonuses and good wages. More than a shotfirer who was on Staff pay and was fixed.
“Don’t worry, you wont lose any money. I’ll have it made up.”
I was satisfied with this, I about turned and headed for the surface and the explosive stores. Someone else, ‘on the market’, would be sent to fill my piece of coal off but the piece would still remain mine. Market workers were a pool of spare workers who stood in for absent workers.
On surfacing I went to the explosives store. The attendant there had been informed prior of my arrival. I signed for forty detonators, and was further issued with a length of two core cable, a battery and key and a pricker. I then went to the lamp room to get a safety lamp and lighter key. On returning underground again I was instructed to go and ‘fire’ the right hand face of the South East threes.
This was to be the first time that I had fired a shot properly. I had studied what to do in theory. I had seen it done in practice, but I’d never done it for real. The method of preparing and shot firing a hole according to regulations is:
The shot firer is presented with bored holes in the coal face at regular six feet (2m) intervals, six feet in depth. The hole must be cleaned out of any loose coal dust with a six foot long scraper. The hole is then checked with a break finder to detect any breaks within it. Any breaks in the hole that are detected, should not be fired. A new hole should be bored.
On deciding which hole is to be fired the area must be cleared. Sentries must be posted at least twenty five yards (8m) away at either side of the hole, around a corner or behind protective cover.
A test for gases must be made at the site of the hole to be fired and at least twenty five yards on either side of the hole.
The explosive can then be prepared by using a pricker to make a hole in the soft pill of explosive.
A detonator complete with attached seven foot (2.1m) long wires is withdrawn from your case. It is placed in the hole of the pill of explosive. A half hitch is wrapped round the pill with the detonator wires. The required number of pills of explosive and the detonator primed one is then placed in the hole and pushed to the far end with a wooden rammer. Non combustible material, like clay, is rammed home behind the explosive. The hole is then fully stemmed.
The cable ends are then coupled up to the two detonator wires that are protruding from the hole. The cable is reeled out at least twenty yards. A check of your sentries and a final test for gas is made.
The other ends of the cable are coupled to your battery exploder. The battery key is placed in the exploder and “Fire” is shouted. Turn the key sharply and the charger will create an electrical circuit that fires the detonator.
After the explosive explodes the area of the fired shot is examined. If all is in order a further hole can be prepared and the above sequence can again be carried out. Apart from multi-shot firing, another situation entirely, only one shot may be stemmed and fired at any one time.
As can be surmised by the above instructions the procedure for firing one shot is time consuming. A shotfirer is usually required to fire forty shots a day. To carry out the proper procedure it would take him all day to fire his quota. Whilst shot firing is in progress all work on that face must stop. (A shotfirer who held up a face from working all day would soon be without a job)
Now I will tell you exactly what happened in those days when firing shots in coal at the coal face.
All the holes, in the region of forty, are all stemmed with detonator prepared explosives. Little stemming is used; it takes time, an ‘extra’ pill of powder used in lieu. The first detonator leads are coupled up to a six foot (2m) length of cable. The cable is coupled up to the charger. Keeping your back to the explosion and your body well into the face side the battery key is turned. The explosion blasts conically outwards; providing the firer is outside of that cone the blast will have no effect on him. The cable and key is left coupled to the charger and the next detonator is coupled prior to a repeat of the above sequence. The whole forty shots can be fired this way one after the other all within a short period of time.
This cutting of corners of the shot firing regulations was completely unlawful, but was necessary, if the coal face was to be prepared on time. The extraction of coal was the ends to the means. All management, from above and below the colliery manager knew of such actions by the shotfirer’s, but of course could not officially sanction such acts.
The shotfirer’s start work only two hours before the coal fillers; it would be impossible for a shotfirer to do his job according to the regulations and complete his task. There would be no time for the coal filler to follow him and in turn complete his job. A blind eye was turned by one and all.
The total time to fire his quota of detonators was about an hour or less. From the time of his last detonator fired, to the end of the shift the Shotfirer’s time was his own.
Shot firing was the easiest job in the pit it could also be classed, at times, as the most dangerous job in the pit but I certainly did not think of that. I completed my first firing shift before the age of nineteen. After that first shift, I was to fill in more often as time went by.
A little story that happened whilst I was shot firing will explain the urgency to get the job done in time:
As has been stated after charging a hole, very little stemming of the hole is used, more than likely nothing was rammed up behind the explosive. An extra pill was often used to make up the deficiency.
One time having prepared all my holes I was busy firing them. I coupled up one prepared hole. Unbeknown to me the detonator wires had become snagged to my boot lace. As I crawled forward the detonator wires were pulled out of the hole. The pill of explosive lay on the floor 6 feet from me. I twisted the key of the charger and the shot exploded. I had my back away from the charge and was crouched forward. The resulting explosion left my backside peppered with small chipping’s of coal.
At the time I thought I was hurt more than I was. I had to get help from my other shot firing companion, Sid, on the other side of the face. He gave me first aid and had to fire the rest of my shots as I was in no position to do so. I could not report my injuries to the medical attendant, questions would have been asked. I did not even report the accident to my doctor. I had the next few days off due to a heavy cold.
I was very lucky that a more serious injury did not result in my foolhardiness. I took greater care in the immediate future shift, but again soon became complacent…