Our corner man, George Cullen, was a great character, good laugh. It was hard to take any offence at him, but the other four of us in the team had a problem with him. If any of us took sweets down the pit we had to hide them.
Whilst we were ‘filling’ down the face George, more often than not, would come out of his corner piece and rifle our jackets that were hung up in the tailgate, and acquire any sweets or goodies. Whenever he was taken to task about this he would deny it, blaming the tail gate pony driver, the shotfirer, the deputy, anyone and everyone, but himself, was at fault. In the cold light of day this is stealing, but it wasn’t like that, it was just one of the ‘done’ things. One day I decided to teach George a lesson.
I bought a bar of chocolate and, at home, carefully unwrapped it. One of the blocks of chocolate I carefully hollowed out and refilled the hole with snuff. I resurfaced the block with molten chocolate and the block looked normal. In the tail gate whilst getting ready and putting on our kneepads I unwrapped the chocolate bar and gave everyone a piece and, in the hearing of George, remarked that I had saved a couple of pieces for myself for later, on completion of my shift.
At the end of the shift, in front of the others, I searched for the chocolate. As expected, it had gone and I outwardly cursed the thief. Of course George said. “It wasn’t me, you know me better than that, and it probably was the pony driver.”
I laughed and said. “I hope he enjoyed it because I had filled the hollowed out piece of chocolate with shit.” George could not admit to being taken in, nor could he berate me for my dirty trick. I left other tainted traps for George, but from that day they were never again sprung.
It was the first day back to work after our annual two week summer holiday. Most face workers dread that first day back. In normal practice if a face progresses forward daily, the roofing weight is all directed towards the past workings, the ‘gob’. Before the weight can affect the new face, a new face six feet further, has been created. The faster a face progresses forward the less weight problems arise.
On return to work after a break, the weight on the face is directly over where you are working. It is ‘rough’. It is a very dangerous time for all concerned. Anyone who says he is not scared or apprehensive at this time, is fooling himself not me.
It was to be my first real taste of ‘weight’. I’d had other lesser experiences of ‘rough’. The roof creaks and the floor ‘blows’ and the weight is ‘on’ but all that is taken in one’s stride. Providing roof supports are correctly set and you take care, one should get along. It’s called ‘watching your back’ I think the term explains itself.
This day, the team crawled on to the face. The weight was on heavier than I had ever experienced it. I had started to crawl on to the face with my shovel blade the wrong way round, and I realised that I would not be able turn it over. I had to return back to the tail gate before I could right way the shovel; the width of the shovel blade is less than sixteen inches. (40cm). We could not complete the ‘filling off ‘ of the face that shift. It was left to the afternoon men. Their work in turn would have to be done by the night shift
Another time I remember ‘the weight being on’ the two foot (61cm) props that were normally supplied by the pony driver were too long. Our four man team had a wood bow saw that was shared. We had to take turns in using it. Every 2 foot prop had to be sawn down before it could be set.
I was about to set a prop and I measured the distance between roof and floor, with my arm. I placed my left elbow to the floor and extended my arm to the roof, fingers outstretched. I placed the width of two fingers of my other hand to the top of my outstretched fingers and they reached the roof. Measure that and it comes to about 20 inches, (51cm) that is the height we were working in. On another occasion, by the time I had sawn a prop, cut it slightly too short and fitted it, the roof weight just tightened to it.
When I think about these bygone times I think how foolhardy we were. It is quite scary now but then it was normal and we were well paid for the normality. We had been brought up with tales of the really old colliers who, without machinery, had to ‘hand get’ all coal hewn. The seams were thinner than ours and they didn’t have adequate light or ventilation. Things were really scary then; those old hands were real colliers.