The occasional shot firing job had now become permanent, although not staff. The lack of qualified suitable persons to be employed at Middleton left a gap that had to be filled.
I started work at the same time as the ‘staff’ shot firer’s at five o’clock. I had been working permanently for about three months. My wage was made up to the average wages earned by the coal fillers of the North East. My piece of coal still remained mine and I could return to it at any time I so desired. My pay was on average of six pounds a week more than the staff shot firer’s and about three more than a deputy. The other staff men were not happy with this state of affairs. I was assured that they did not blame me; I had every right to claim the extra money. Neither could they could really blame management. They would be quite willing to employ any suitable qualified applicant.
I was approached by the pit president of NACODS, (National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputy’s and Shot firer’s) Walter Tuke. He put to me the salient points. His members could not, and would not, tolerate my getting more money than his members, who were doing exactly the same work as I. Would I be prepared to join the staff and become a permanent? I had previously considered the option. I would be losing money but I would have a staff position and eventually be promoted to a Deputy. I agreed. I enjoyed shot firing and my aim was to become an Overman or the next pit Safety officer.
The manager was aware of the NACODS grievances relating to my employment as a shotfirer. When Walter saw him, the manager explained that he could not place me on staff until I attained the age of twenty two, which was the accepted lower age limit. Walter officially informed the manager that if the problem was not solved, then he would have a NACODS Strike on his hands.
The following Monday on my lamp, had been left a message to see the manager at the end of the shift. At the meeting with the manager, he said that he had special permission from Area and was able to offer me a permanent staff position. Would I accept? Of course my answer was yes. From that day, just a few months after my nineteenth birthday, I became staff.
By taking the staff job my pay decreased, I had expected that but then I realised that I would have to pay superannuation. This money was going into a kind of pension scheme and so it was in a sense being saved. Another setback was that I would have to work at least one, maybe two Saturdays a month, without extra pay. None of this bothered me because I felt as if I had hung up my shovel for good.
The first Saturday that I worked I was instructed to go to Ebor 9s, I was to take charge of the face. Although the face was not working that day, I was the Deputy. My brief was to help get the face ready for Monday morning. There was a problem in the right tailgate with the coal cutting machine. On arrival at the gate the coal cutting machine was indeed stuck fast. The roof weight had lowered on to it.
Luckily the team that had been sent to move the machine was headed by a very experienced machine man. Without him I would not have known where to start. He asked me what I wanted done. I deferred to him and asked his advice. He suggested that holes were bored at strategic point and that I fire them. I agreed. I think I would have agreed with anything he said. He was a very experienced miner.
We, sorry, the team, succeeded in the task. Before long the machine had been freed and turned round. I left them ‘gibbing’ in. They knew what they were doing; I would only get in their way. I had ‘my’ district to inspect. I was a very important man, or so I thought.
There were two shot firer’s to a district. At one period my mate was Sid Clarkson. He was an old hand at the game. Sid and I worked together and would help out the other if the need arose. He had been the one who gave me first aid when I had my mishap when the detonator came out of the hole.
When we had finished we would meet in the gate. Sometimes if a shotfirer had any detonators left he may be required to travel to another face, where extra shots may need firing. This extra work could mean a couple of miles extra walk. We reasoned, as most did, that if they cannot find us they can’t send us.
Often Sid and I would go for a walk. More often than not we walked up a road that few people went. We would go well up the gate and turn off our lights. By being in the dark we could see anyone approaching, they in turn could not see us. Miners have a cap lamp that throws a wide angle light. Officials and staff have a spotlight that focuses at a point.
If a light was approaching our position we would be able to determine who the wearer was. If it was a miner no explanations would be necessary. If it was the manager or such then we had a ready prepared excuse. Sid was just showing me my way round these extreme workings etc. Every one knew what the story was.
Sleeping down a pit carries a heavy fine or even is a dismissible offence. Having said that, in those days, anyone who says that they have never slept or nodded down a pit, must have a halo above their head. One particular day Sid and I went well up an old gate. We propped some wood bars against the rock side for back support. We ate our snap then turned the lights off. Sid did not normally go to sleep. I nodded.
Suddenly in the distance I could see a light heading our way. It was a spotlight. I’d better warn Sid. He obviously had not seen it. Was he asleep? It was so unlike him.
“S….” I tried to speak. Nothing was coming from my mouth.
“S….” I tried again. I not only could not speak I could not move a muscle. However much I tried I could not move or speak. Is this what its like to be dead I thought. I was aware of all around but I could not move an inch. The light was getting nearer, it was a spotlight. We were definitely going to be caught sleeping and I could not do anything about it.
Suddenly Sid turned on his light and said “Jack! Are we going?”
I awoke suddenly. I was back to normal. There was no light coming up the roadway nor had there been.
“Its time to go” said Sid.
“How long have we been here,” I said, it felt as if we had only been here a few minutes. “About an hour,” replied he. “You were really going strong in your sleep, constantly grunting as though you were trying to say something and you didn’t seem to be able to breathe properly. That is why I woke you up.”
“I was trying to say speak, I wanted to tell you something. I was trying to say Sid.” I replied and went on to explain the past events. I had been asleep all the time and had been dreaming the events in reality.
One shift I had completed my tasks. The face phone rang; it was the under manager, Mr Kinsey. Had I got any detonators left? I had, and was instructed to go to the old Ebor 17s, a few shots needed firing. Another shotfirer, not Sid, who had also finished, said he would have a walk with me. Ebor 17s had been a face, but the coal had been exhausted. Recovery men were dismantling the main machinery for it to be transported to other areas of the mine.
On reaching 17s the recovery men were boring holes above a face conveyor machine. The roof had settled on it. It was held fast and could not be extradited. While waiting for the borers to prepare the holes, my mate and I decided to have a bite of snap. We walked down the road, away from the face about fifty yards.
As soon as we got our snap tins out, hordes of mice came out of the holes. There are always mice down a pit. They come down in various ways, usually with materials. Once a pair take up residence breeding soon begins. There is only a certain amount of food for them, horse droppings and feed, the occasional half eaten sandwich that has been thrown away. The mouse population is, of course, governed by the amount of food within that district.
A novel way of catching them is to place an empty bottle or one that is half filled with water, almost upright, making sure a pathway to the neck of the bottle can be reached by the mouse. A few crumbs of bread are deposited into the bottle. A mouse will smell the food and scamper into the bottle opening. When they have eaten the bread, the sides are too slippery for the mouse to climb out. They either starve to death or are drowned. I have seen many such bottle traps in old gates where numbers of mice have drowned or starved.
When a district has been ‘worked out’ of coal then it is left. The mice are still there but the food supply is not. Normally the mice are shy creatures and scuttle out of the way when one is around. This day, because they were very hungry, they gathered around openly showing themselves. As we shone our lamps at them hundreds of beady little eyes reflected back of us; a little eerie.
We decided to have a little fun at their expense. I reeled out my long shot firing cable, wired up a detonator and then the exploder. Then I took half a slice of bread and moulded it round the Det. I laid it to the ground and retired to the exploder. There was a mass of mice bodies all trying to get a feed of the bread. They were very hungry; they must have thought that all their birthdays had come at once. At just the right time I twisted the key and the detonator exploded, mincing dozens of mice bodies.
Both I and my shot firing companion had a real good laugh at the spectacle. I had heard this trick has been done many times in the past by other shot firer’s but it was a first for me. On thinking about it afterwards I was not proud of myself. I knew that they were ‘only’ mice, but… More important I had used a detonator illegally, the consequences were potentially dangerous.
This is the first time I have told the story and I do so without any sense of gratification. I did wrong and I openly admit it.