The following week George O’ N. George L. and Tommy C. and myself reported to Lofthouse Colliery. It was to be our first taste of going underground. All students were issued with a pair of steel toe-capped boots, a pair of dark blue cover-alls, a hard miner’s helmet and a leather belt. We were then each allocated a locker for our outdoor clothes in the ‘clean area’ of the showers. After stripping, we walked naked, clutching only our towels, through the shower area to the dirty locker area. Our working clothes would be stored in the Dirty locker.
Dressed in our Pit wear attire we were led to the lamp room and issued with a lamp and instructed how to use it. The lead acid lamp is in the form of an electric battery, which is slung on your belt, with a flex that connects to the cap lamp. This lamp is designed to give about ten hours use between charging.
The instructor then led us to the man riding shaft. The winding gear in the man riding shaft is usually electric driven. We had been instructed that this shaft has greater controls incorporated in it and the speed at with the cage ascends or descend is governed, giving a safer smoother ride. The other shaft is usually steam driven. Greater speeds can be used at this shaft as coal is outputted and materials inputted. The faster the winding speed the greater the potential coal output.
All persons about to descend underground must first be searched thoroughly for ‘contraband’; this being matches or any smoking materials. (In all the years I worked in the mining industry I never ever saw or heard of any miner flouting the contraband rules. In this area all miners are very responsible persons)
Before one enters to the input pit shaft one must go through two ‘air doors’. These doors are needed to maintain a regular air flow underground and will be explained later.
The cage held twelve persons and I was in the second load. I did not feel afraid but was a little apprehensive. I knew I would not panic or do anything silly, but who knows. My turn to enter the cage came. We were packed in and the gates were closed. The banksman rang the winding station for the cage to descend and we were off.
The cage, although closed in at the sides has large open grill type gates back and front. Going down is not unlike being in a lift. It travels a little faster but on the whole it is quite smooth. The brick lined shaft flashed by. Water drained down the brick lined walls. It would collect at the bottom of the shaft into the ‘sump’ to be pumped out to the surface.
As we descended, my thoughts returned when I had first seen the shaft at Middleton. I had thought then, how can you brick lay a shaft as you dig it? It cannot be bricked before it is dug nor can it be safely dug then bricked. It is impossible to stick bricks under, instead of over other bricks as you dig. At college I had found out that the shaft is dug to a short depth, say 20 yards (18m). Circular H rings are then secured at the bottom. The virgin shaft is then bricked up from the lower ring to the higher one. The shaft is then excavated again.
Lights from the Black Bed seam flashed by, this was the seam being currently worked at Lofthouse. We were headed deeper to the Silkstone seam. This seam had been worked out of coal years ago and now was used only as an underground training seam.
At last the cage came to a controlled stop, we had arrived. I had expected to feel some emotion, elation, afraid, pleased, at least something but everything seemed normal, a bit of an anticlimax.
The pit bottom opened out into what can only be described as a large irregular shaped brick lined room. The walls were white lime washed. It was well lit by electric overhead lights and was about twelve feet high. To one side was a brick office type room for management use. Inset in one of the office walls was a sliding window. I had an idle thought, occasionally the office window will get dirty and someone will have to clean it; so being a window cleaner down the pit is not as silly at it sounds.
On the floor of the pit bottom large metal sheets had been laid. The sheets had become polished with the tramp of feet and the many turnings of wheeled tubs. Rails were laid across the area and three dark tunnels led off somewhere.
We had all been issued with a ‘check.’ This is a coin-like piece of metal with a number that is registered to the individual. The check is handed to the underground onsetter. It would be retrieved on leaving the pit and handed to the surface banksman. The system worked that if your check was down the pit you were, or in theory were, down the pit. It has happened when a miner has forgotten to retrieve his check and underground search parties have had to be made for him, whilst the miner is home in bed.
Our first day underground was to be just a general tour of the workings. After going through a series of
air doors we were shown the stables where the pit ponies were kept. The stable contained about thirty stalls for horses but only two were now in use. When this seam was working some thirty odd years ago, pit ponies were much in use. As ponies were still being used in most pits for the transportation of materials, we would be instructed in the handling of them.
As we walked down the main inward roadway of the Black Bed seam we were aware of a quite strong airflow; it was like a strong wind at a constant speed. The main heading was about twelve feet (4m) high and the floor was very uneven; at all times you had to watch your footing. Everywhere there was coal dust but this had been diluted with white limestone dust. We had been instructed that coal dust by itself is potentially very explosive, but in correct proportions the limestone neutralises it.
To one side of the roadway, rails had been laid and in between the rails lay a thick steel plaited rope, near the side wall was another length of rope. Rollers were placed at intervals to carry the rope and to prevent friction from the floor. We were told that it was called an endless rope haulage. In the past tubs of coal would have been lashed with chains to the rope and would have been hauled to the pit bottom for their extraction out of the pit.
The main roadway, we were told, was about four miles long. Every few hundred yards other roadways branched off at right angles to the main roadway, these were headings to old coal faces. When these faces were in operation the coal was, in general, hand hewed and loaded into tubs. The tubs would be brought by pony power to the main roadway, and then lashed, with chains, to the endless rope to be hauled to the pit bottom.
On the walk down the main roadway the instructor stopped our group and ordered everyone to turn off our lamps. Other than miners, very few people have ever experienced total darkness. Down a mine there is a complete absence of light, it is impossible to see anything. Usually if we are in darkness on the surface a chink of light can be seen, however small. Down the pit nothing can be detected.
Whilst our lights were off the instructor told us that in the event of a light failure it is possible to ‘feel’ your way, by use of the tub rails that line the floor of the roadway. Providing you know the general layout of the mine, the wind direction will help you to decide in which direction to feel your way out; other than that, and if you are quite safe, stay where you are. A search party will come to find you when you are missed as your ‘check’ is still down the pit, proving that you also are.
We were told to re-light our lamps and we continued on our tour.
One of the old coal faces had been preserved for instructional purposes. We were allowed to crawl under the face and see the coal seam. I had expected to feel claustrophobic but I was very surprised not to be. A more detailed description of the working of a coal face will be detailed later.
The first week we were instructed mainly in mine safety and what to do in any emergency.