It is a long time ago now but I have never forgotten it. As a young man, I worked down a coal-mine and being a bit ambitious to get on, I had attended Evening Classes and qualified as a Fireman or Deputy. At this time I was only an assistant Fireman, or Shot- Firer. Now, 1 must explain to those not familiar with coal-mining, the Fireman, or Deputy, is in charge of a District of a Mine. Among his many duties, the safety of the Mine, is one of his most important jobs. He must see to the safety of the roof and he must make tests for gas and inspect the air-ventilation. My job was to assist in these duties.
One Saturday afternoon, after we had finished our last rounds for the week-end, my Fireman said, as we went up the pit, “Will you do the inspection of the Old Workings, first thing on Monday morning?” Although this was put in the form of a request, it was really an order. The Old Workings were nearer the Pit-bottom than our District and I would go there before I came on to the District.
The Old Workings, as they were called, was a place where the coal had been long ago, worked out, but a road was roughly maintained, as an Air-road, ending in an Air- shaft at the far end, which went up, about fifty yards, to a higher level. I did not care much for this duty. The Old Workings was a lonely and rather eerie place, with its bro ken roof timbers and crooked and saging sides. Under foot, it was almost like the sands of the desert, with thick dust, about two inches deep in the middle where one walked and thickening to five or six inches, at the sides. There should really have been two of us on this inspection but the calls for cheap coal production were very pressing in those days.
On Monday morning, it must have been about seven-thirty when I entered the Old Workings, carrying my oil safety lamp in one hand and a short stick in the other. My Tommy-tin hung on my belt and my water-bottle was slung across my shoulder with a thin rope. I had left my jacket, as was the custom, near the Pit-botton and I wore a waistcoat, with my pocket watch in the pocket. As I walked in, I thought, I don’t know why they bother to keep open this old Air-road. It was only a subsidiary Air-road and not vitally necessary, but duty is duty and has to be done.
I had many times done this inspection before but this morning, I had a feeling of extra distaste for the job. I put this down to that Monday morning feeling and to the merry time I had had at the Club the night before. I had drunk more than usual but I had not been drunk by any means.
I walked in, carefully inspecting the roof by holding up my lamp and tapping here and there, with my stick. I was careful where I placed my feet, there was pieces of rock, stone dnd rotting timber, strewn about the road. If I fell, it could be serious. The least of which was my light would be out and I would be left in complete and utter darkness. I was careful, it was about half a mile in, and I had to come back again this way.
I must have travelled in about four hundred yards, when I heard a stone fall, some distance behind me. And then - a cracking and breaking of timber, followed by a tremendous crash.
“My God, a fall!” I said to myself and hurried back to see how bad it was. I was soon met by a cloud of dust, so dense, I could not see and had to stop. 1 put my scarf over my nose and mouth and in a few minutes there was a blob of mud on the outside of the scarf. I waited until the dust had settled somewhat and then cautiously approached the fall. This was necessary, because a fall has a tendency to spread.
I searched all round the fall and on the top, as far as I could get but there was no open ing, the roadway was completely blocked and I was trapped. I wondered, how far has it fallen up? 1 tested the air, by allowing some dust to trickle slowly through my finers but there was no sign of any air coming through the fall. This was a sign, the fall must be quite extensive. Then I tested for gas, by holding my lamp in various places and watching the flame for the tell-tale blue fringe but there was no signs of gas.
Then, taking off my waist-coat, to keep my watch safe, 1 set to work to try and dig myself out, working with my hands. It was heart-breaking work. As fast as I got the beginnings of a passage through the fallen stones, rock and rubble, more tumbled down and filled it up.
After a long time, I stopped for a drink of water and looked at my watch. It was eleven o’clock, that was three and a half hours I had been in the Old Workings. It was no use to continue working on the fall, I was only tiring myself out and risking killing myself, by- having no timber with which to shore-up the passage-way. It had become very hot. For some time I had thought it was my own bodily heat but now I realised, the air was getting very stale. I put on my waist-coat, Tommy-tin and water-bottle and moved towards the Air-shaft. The air was better near the shaft. There must have been some back-current of air coming down the shaft.
I examined all round the shaft, although I had done it many times before. There was no possibility of climbing the shaft. It was just like the inside of a brick chimney, about seven feet wide. I knew, occasionally men passed near the top of the shaft, or worked on repair work, near the top. So, without much hope, I shouted,“Hello-o-o, is there any-one there?”. The sound echoed round and round in the shaft and after a minute or so pause, I shouted again. For a quarter of an hour, I kept this up, but with no other result than the echo of my own voice.
By this time, it was twelve noon and I left tired and a little dispirited. I retired back from the shaft a little distance and finding a short, flat board, I leaned it against a prop and sat down on the floor, with my back against the board. Not having eaten anything since before six o’clock that morning, 1 opened my tommy-tin and took out a fried bacon sandwich and commenced to eat. I had six of these sandwiches but 1 thought, it might be a long time before I am released, I had better only eat two of the sandwiches and con serve my drinking water. My bottle had been full, with two pints and that was all I would get.
I sat and considered the position. I might not be missed until the end of the shift, at half past two, or a little later. The Fireman would have fired all the shots needed and while he and some of the other men might expect to see me, they would not be surprised if I did not appear. My job took me all round the District and every-one would think I was elsewhere, helping to sort out some difficulty that could have arisen. So, it was very likely, I would not be missed until the Fireman reached the Pit-bottom and did not find me. Then, they would search and discover the fall but they would not know how far it extended. Possibly, some-one would remember the Air-shaft and send a rope down for me, but how soon, was any ones guess.
I munched my two sandwiches and drank sparingly of my water. With my back against the board and my head on the prop, I closed my eyes. Did I go to sleep? I can never decide, because I felt a tug at my sleeve and opening my eyes, I saw an incredibly ragged boy, in shirt and trousers, his skin black with coal-dust. To say I was astonished to see so young a boy down a pit would be a rank understatement.
1 said, “Who are you?”. He looked at me with some surprise in his eyes and replied, “I’m Jimmie”, as though I ought to have known. “How old are you?”, I asked. “Oh, I’m nine but I’m very strong”, and he extended his puny, little arm. “Are you the new Meester? I’ll show you the way.”
“Where to?”, I asked. “To the coal-face, of course”, he replied with the sort of patience the young often show towards the old. I had noticed the boy staring at my lamp. He said “That’s a new kind o’ lamp. I’ve ne’er sin one like it befoor?” “Yes,” I replied, “it is the new safety lamp”. I then noticed, he had no lamp, so I asked, “Where is your lamp?”. “Oh”, he replied, airily, “I don’t need any lamp o’ my own. We’ve some Davy lamps but they dumt give as good a leet as that. This way Meester”.
I stood up, with my lamp in my hand and followed the boy a short distance along the road, until he stopped and stooped down near a hole in the side. About three feet high and five feet wide, which I had never seen before. “In here”, he said and crawled in on hands and feet. I followed him, as best I could, on hands and knees. He had to keep waiting for me, as he could travel much faster than I.
We must have gone in about a hundred yards under this low roof, when I heard a noise in front of us. “Keep well in to the side Meester”, warned the Boy, “it’s Billie coming out wi’ his box”.
We stopped for Billie to pass us and in the light of my lamp, I was amazed to see, he was down on his hands and feet, with a belt fastened round his waist and a chain running backwards, from the belt, under his body and between his legs and fastened to a box. with no wheels, which had to be dragged over the rough floor. The box was full of loose coal, about one cwt., I should say, and he was straining forward, like a horse pulling a load up a hill. He was dressed much the same as the boy at my side, in ragged shirt and trousers and he wore clogs on his feet but without any socks, or stockings that I could see.
I had seen one of these gus and chain, as they were called before but only in a museum. They had not been in use for over a hundred years, as far as I knew but here it was again. I thought, “Am I dreaming?” But it was all so real.
The Boy, Jimmie, touched my arm and we moved on and in a short time, I could heai
the sound of a pick being used on the coal-face.
“This is mi fayther’s place, in front on us”, said Jimmie and we arrived at the coal-face.
A short, broad-set man was on his kness, bent forward, picking away at the coal-face. He was naked to the waist and only wore a pair of cotton drawers, his naked body glistened with sweat, in the dim light. He heard us and turned round to look at us.
“This is th’ Meester, fayther”, said Jimmie.
“How do”, said the man, as he turned and sat on the floor, with one leg under him.
I returned his greeting and the man looked at me with some curiosity. He seemed to take in my clothes and my lamp in his gaze. He seemed to know there was something different about me but he soon knew that I understood coal-mining.
“What a bloody awful way to make a living, deawn ’ere”, he said with a grin. “Yes”,
I agreed, “coal-mining is a tough job”.
Will tha have a chew?”, he asked, as he offered me a length of thin twist tobacco, which he had taken from an improvised pocket in his drawers. I did not chew tobacco.
I thanked him and refused. I knew afterwards this had convinced him that I was different, because almost every-one I saw, even the young boys, all chewed tobacco.
“How long have you been in this place?”, I asked, and quite naturally, he replied, “Oh, e’er since the big explosion. A long time”. Then turning back to the coal-face, he said, “Well, I must get on. It’s a hard place to mek a living and I’ve a family to keep. Pleased to have met thi’,” and he commenced to use the pick on the coal-face again.
The Boy, Jimmie touched my arm and we crawled away to the next place on the coalface. There to my great surprise, a woman was working along-side the man. She wore a ragged, voluminous skirt, with just a chemise on above the waist. As we came in, she had obviously been using the pick on the coal-face, as she was just putting it down and picking up a spade to fill loose coal into a box.
They stopped work as we entered the place and they both stared at me. Jimmie again explained,. I was the new meester, as he called me. They both greeted me, on their hands and knees, as indeed, we all had to be, under a roof only three feet high.
I asked the man, how they were going on? He replied, “Quite weel, thanks”. I asked “How is the coal?” He replied, “Hard and there’s a lot o’ dirt to pick out. That’s why I’ve to have mi sister to help me”, he explained. I asked, if there were many women working down the pit? He replied, “Oh aye, quite a few”. They then both went on with their work. Just as we were leaving the place, a boy entered pulling an empty box, on a chain behind him, but we moved on to the next place.
Here, a man and a young teen-age boy, were working at the coal-face and Jimmie introduced us, as usual. The first thing I noticed, in this place, there was very little timber erected under the roof and my safety training came upper-most. I said to the man, “It is not very safe in here, you need a prop setting, there and there”, and I indicated various places, in which props ought to have been set, according to our present day ideas of safety.
“We’re short o’ timber”, replied the man.
“But, can’t you get any props?”, I asked.
“There hasn’t been any theer for weeks neaw”, said the man.