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Sketches of Collier Life

James Dronsfield
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The following “Sketches of Collier life” were written by James Dronsfield, the Oldham blacksmith and co-operator, and published in Ouselwood - Or a Gathering of Old Chums, which was published in 1921 - twenty five years after Dronsfield’s death. He was a great friend of Sam Bamford, Edwin Waugh, Ben Brierley and other great figures of Lancashire working class culture. These sketches form a fascinating first-hand glimpse of mining life in one of Lancahire’s oldest mining areas.


THE mining population in the vicinity of Oldham,.in days gone by, had not the advantages of education as compared with those employed in other tranches of traie. The children were taken down the pits at a very early age, to earn their daily bread, many not even having had the opportunity of attending the old "granny schools,” which were valuable institutions in their day, where the young idea graduated from the ABC through the "Reading Made Easy,” and learned to spell hard words in the "Old London Spelling Book.” There were some of the miners’ children, but the exceptions were few, who attended night schools, and got a smattering of education with studying by the flickering light of a "halfpenny dip,” paying a penny a night to the teacher. Some also took advantage of the Sunday schools, by which, combined with the diligence of self culture, they qualified themselves to take a leading part in the business of coal-mining, and became underground-managers. Some of the managers of collieries at this •day ranked high in their profession, and it was in a great measure owing to their sound practical experience that colliery accidents were of such rare occurrence. It was my lot, about 1850, to associate occasionally .with working miners, and I have many times been delighted with their quaint stories in connection with their employment. "They were always in the merriest mood of a "reckoning Saturday,” when they had made "full stints,” and money was plentiful. It was a sight never to be forgotten *0 see a few mates sitting round a table dividing their hard earnings. The money was spread abroad in loose change, and so much would be put on one side for oil, candles, sharpening picks, &c., and it would sometimes be a difficult task to divide out every man’s portion with fairation,” as some little matter of expenditure had been overlooked, and the money would be put down again on the table, and shuffled like dominoes, for to have a fresh -start, or another "devidement,” as they termed it, in collier vocabulary. Resting their elbows on the table and smoking their short pipes the difficulty would be studied out amid fumes of tobacco to the satisfaction of all parties, and then the jug went round and song and tale would become the order of the evening.

It was at one of these gatherings that I heard the following anecdotes. As usual, when indulging in the contents of the foaming jug, they began to get coal over gain, some of which had been consumed to ashes a great many years ago. Some were seated in a crouching posture, sketching out a plan of the local coal fields on the hearthstone, with a piece of chalk. There were "jowks,” “jigbrows,” “slaunts,” “levels,” “air roads,” “cut-throughs,” “warks,” “gobs,” and “tunnels” constructed in various directions, until the house floor bore some resemblance to a railway map of the present day. Transverse lines were made to show the position of the "faults,” "up throws,” and "down throws,” and those who could not decipher their “hieroglyphics” were considered to have a head on their shoulders as stupid as a “ginhorse” "Owd Jim at Abram’s” pointed out a “jigbrow” in the Black Mine, where he had got coal above 40 years before, between Werneth Hall and Chamber Hall. The Abram Meadow Pit, at the bottom of Werneth Brow, at which he worked, had been stopped for some “dooment”— he believed it was Oldham Wakes—and when they returned to their work the “jigbrow” was fallen up the whole length, and two Waggons were left at the top of the brow, which were found over 36 years afterwards, and brought out at the Hall Dam Pit, in Chamber Lane. They were mere skeletons, he observed, not at all damaged by the fall of the roof; the soft wOod had decayed, but the hard wood and the ironwork remained almost intact, having suffered little from their entombment. It was not considered Worth while at the time to clear out the “jigbrow” as all the coal had been "robb’d back,” with the exception of a few "pillars.” “It Was a good job,” said old Jirrh, that us poor lads were’ri off Wakesing when that brow fell Up, or perhaps somebody else Would have been imprisoned beside those two waggons.” This circumstahce took place early in the last century, but such accidents Were of common occurrence in those daysj as the miners were not supplied With necessary material as now to make the workings secure to prevent loss of life.

The Hall Dam Pit,-‘opposite Chamber Hall, was sunk £ short time before 1840; and derived its name from having been sunk on the site of a water dam—one of a series on the Chamber Estate, which were wont to supply the watermills located on the stream which runs through Hollinwood and Moston Vale, and joins the Irk in Colly- hurst, and the combined waters flow on to the old mill which once stood at the end of Long Millgate, and under the old College wall, joining the Irwell at Huntsbank. Old Charles Bowers, formerly of Copster Hill, who had been an underground manager for a long period, strongly objected to this pit being sunk. He had a thorough practical knowledge of the coal seams of this neighbourhood, and his advice was that the pit should be sunk at a place called "Starting Chair,” "Hollinwood Edge," at the southern side of the reservoir. "The coal,” said he,

"will then be on the rise, the waggons will run down hill by the law of gravitation, but if the pit be sunk irt Chamber Fields it will require engine power to wind the waggons up the incline, as most of the coal had been got on the rise about the spot selected.” His opinions were,, however, over-ruled by the chief manager of that day, and the project of sinking the Hall Dam Pit was carried out. It was soon afterwards discovered that the suggestion of old Charles was right, and had advantage been taken of his sound advice the saving in the cost of labour would have been exceedingly great. Mining operations had hot proceeded eighty yards southwards before they were through into the old workings of the Copstef Hill Pits. The same result attended their efforts in mining- northwards. Abram Meadow Pit workings were discovered under the present Werneth Park, or thereabouts, and the two Did waggons were found as mentioned- by “Jim at Abram’s.” With the exception bf a little “bone picking,” coal there was hone, and eventually brows were driven on the dip of the mine, and an engine •employed to wind up the coal, as foretold by old Charles Bowers. Some twenty years afterwards, so the story runs, a number of colliers sat in the coalpit cote of a neighbouring colliery. It was "reckoning ” Monday Tnorning, so, as the saying is, they were "slack wound on,” caring little whether they descended the pit that day, or wet their whistles from the prime tap of the "Sleek Inn.” The chief manager before mentioned was among them, and related several anecdotes, much to the amuse- ment of the gathering. Tales went round in quick -succession, all of which had some bearing on coal mining. At length the manager told a story about a •certain nobleman in the North of England who experienced great difficulties in sinking for coal. Although "he was said to be very wealthy, he had nearly expended -all he possessed without any apparent sign of success. In utter distraction he paced about the room of his mansion, the thought of being ruined preying heavily on Lis mind. One day his good lad}', in her simplicity, evidently wishing to console her lord and master, asked him if it would not be possible to get the coal first, and sink the pit afterwards. A roar of laughter followed the conclusion of the manager’s story which lasted for severa minutes.

There was one individual, however, who was squatting in the corner, from whom the story did not elicit even a -smile. There sat old "George o’ Dick’s,” with his short flannel trousers and leathern belt, and a skull cap made of the same material, with a piece of candle stuck in a loop -on one side of it. He was smoking a short black pipe, -and whiffing away like a‘high pressure engine, apparently in a very serious mood. ~ "What’s the matter, George,” his mates inquired, “that you look so sollit?” Taking the pipe from his mouth, in order to speak, he declared, with strong emphasis, more forcible than elegant, that he would consign his old rags to a certain hot climate if it was not possible. "What’s possible, surreh ? ” eagerly inquired his mates. "Why,” said George. "It’s possible to get th’ coal th’ furst, an’ sink th’ pit after.” This statement caused another round of loud laughter. "Well, George,” said the manager, "I did think that a man of' your experience, who has worked for half-a-century in the pit, would have had better judgment than make such a wild assertion. Why, you are as silly as her ladyship.”

"Well well,” said George, still looking grave, "never mind what I am, I’ll maintain what I say. It has been done in this country.” "When, and where, and by whom ? ” eagerly inquired the manager, thinking to raise another laugh at George’s expense. "Well, I needn’t go far to feyther my tale,” replied George. "Did’nt yo’ sink th’ Ho’ Dam Pit, an’ th’ coal had been getten above thirty years before at Abram Meadow ? ”

A subdued titter followed George o’ Dick’s witty remarks, which were evidently too truthful for the manager, for he frowned and bit his lip, not seeming to relish the idea that the tables should be turned so- unexpectedly against him. He took his leave shortly afterwards, and in his absence the colliers gave vent to a heart) guffaw, which put them all in a merry humour. No picks were dulled with mining that day, but in a few hours afterwards the floor of the "Sleek Inn ” was. chalked over with plans ot "Abram Meadow,” "Old Hollows,” "levels.” "slaunts,” and "jigbrows.” Some were challenging to singing matches, the best song, truth and time, for a quart ; others weighing which had the - ^heaviest watch for a similar wager ; and pld George o’ -Qick’s having gained the laurels with his favourite time- piece "Tippy Bob.” was sat in the chimney corner -singing

Jcrry-go-Nimble wer’ lame o’ one leg,
Hey diddle, high diddle, dee, &c.

Sketches of Collier Life
No 2

IN the latter half of the 18th century, when coal mining was developed in and around Oldham, it created no little sensation amongst the working -classes, and many forsook their usual occupation and turned colliers, as good wages were to be earned in comparison to what was paid in other branches of trade. Ordinary spadesmen had been working for a is. a day, bricklayers is. 4-d. to is. 6d., and other trades in the same proportion. The discovery of coal was the sensation of the period, and shuttles, spades, and trowels were abandoned, black diamond digging holding forth such alluring -attractions, and the pick, hammer, and wedge were substituted as tools with which to earn a livelihood. Old Johnny o’ Mills, who lived on the edge of Hollinwood . Common, in a cottage which was o’er-shaded by a large thorn, was looked upon as a wise man of that day. He was crafty at all kinds of mechanism —a general ‘ tankler’ amongst the weaving class, a maker of looms, shuttles, and clocks with wooden wheels. By-the-bye, he made the first clock for St. Margaret’s Church, Hollinwood, built in 1765, which so pleased the minister that he granted Johnny a free seat for life. The situation of the «eat did not please him, "however, as it was underneath the staircase, where, being a tall man, he could scarcely sit in an easy posture, and he absented himself from church the following Sunday. Meeting with the pastor a few days afterwards, his reverence inquired why Johnny had not attended divine worship, to which the latter replied, "If you think no better o’ me than putting me were they thrown owd shoon, I shall go to yo’r church no moore.” . The minister could not suppress a smile at the quaint simile, but promised to make amends in the future. Johnny was quite a favourite with the great folks who dwelt at the old halls in the neighbourhood, being an adept at repairing their ancient furniture, plate, crockery, armoury, &c. In fact, nothing came wrong to him in handicraft work, for he was quite an "anythingarian,” and several specimens of the skill of that humble genius are still preserved at this day. Sir Watts Horton, formerly of Chadderton Hall, was in the habit of keeping a diary, and in the daily cash account Johnny o’ Mill’s name appears, to whom money was paid for work done. One item reads as follows:—“To crapping my lady’s clogs, 6d.”

Several of Johnny’s kindred were amongst those who were transformed from handloom weavers to colliers, and there was a wonderful prophecy which he made at that day which has, to some extent, been verified. On fine sunny days it was customary for the weavers to meet and sit on the "gorsey bank,” beside "Grace’s Well,” on the edge of the moor, and spend their "noonin’” in chatting over the events of the day, and to fettle the nation by occasionally talking politics. One day Johnny had been reading an account in the newspaper about the new coalfields in the vicinity of Oldham, and intimated that the mineral wealth discovered boded future prosperty for the

locality. There would be a thorough change brought about in the trade of the district, which would better the position of the working folks. The argument waxed warm on both sides, for even at that day any new venture was looked upon with suspicion by many people. At length Johnny, with the gravity of a sage of old, unfolded his candid opinion, which was based upon thoughtful reading, and with much energy he spoke as follows to those around him :—"I’ll tell you what, chaps—mark my words—I may not live to see it, but some of you young folks may do, and then maybe you’ll remember what I’m now going to foretell This coal—this coal,” said he {striking his fist on the palm of his hand), "will be th’ means o’ bringing about o’ sorts o’ new inventions in machinery, and folks of o’ nations will flock into this neighbourhood from every point o’th’ compass, and if th’ owd inhabitants are not d tough th’ new comers ’ll punce ’em off th’ clod. Aye, aye, you may laugh, but as sure as ever mon sowed corn th’ state o’ things ’ll be altert i’ this neighbourhood, an’ hondloom weavers ’ll become scarce articles.” It is now a long time since these words were uttered by that humble worthy, and it has been handed down to this day as Johnny o’ Mill’s prophecy, and certainly many prophets have been far wider of the mark. Handlooms, like hatters’ kettles and cobblers’ lap-stones, the rare relics of a once flourishing trade, have almost vanished from our midst, and left a wreck of poor weavers behind.

It is said that a conversation once took place betwixt a collier and a handroom weaver. The former was relating stories of pit accidents, and enumerating the number of Jives which had been..sacrificed in the working of coal mines. "They ought to be well paid for their labour,” said he, “on account of the danger they have to undergo to earn their daily bread.” The weaver admitted that coal mining was a dangerous calling, but solemnly declared that handloom weavers were exposed to quite as much danger. "Heau dus't mak’ that eaut, surreh ? ” asked the collier, fixing his eyes upon the weaver, eagerly waiting for a reply. "Why, becose they’re in danger o’ bein’ clemm’d to death, if they’n nowt to depend upon but what creeps thro’ the shuttle e’e neaw o’ days. I’ve known folk weave a sort o’ goods what went by th’ name o’ * Cheap Trip.’ It wur paid at th’ rate o’ 52 yards for 5s., an’ it took a week to weave a cut, and they had to work hard too. Weavers then were clemmin’ i’ full wark, and that’s why I say it’s a dangerous trade.”

At the latter end of the 18th century, when the coal trade had become somewhat flourishing in Oldham and Rocher Valley, Tom Mills, a nephew of the eccentric “Johnny” before named, was the manager at the pit known by the name of "Old Bobs ”—"Bobs ” were two balance levers, or strong wooden beams,- which were attached to a water-wheel to pump the mines dry, to enable the pitmen to work. A number of youths who worked at this pit, amongst whom were several of the Mills family, brothers and cousins, commenced a "Bullet Shooting Club ”—a sport much in practice in those days in this part of Lancashire. Matches were made with members of similar clubs around the country side within a radius of about twelve miles, which generally came off at the Wakes time, and occasionally prizes were given to draw the crack shots of the various districts together. The guns used were about six feet long and three-quarter inch bore, being too heavy to hold to the shoulder, and they were fixed in rests on the ground. The shooters lay down whilst taking their aim at the target, and many an' exciting game was played in the manner described when the annual pastimes came round. It was early in the 19th century, in the spring time of the year, when a number of stalwart collier lads were wending their way towards Manchester, dressed in their holiday clothes, which consisted of cloth swinger jackets of the sportsman’s cut, plush waistcoats, or "senglets ” of red, blue and green, with glass buttons, velvet kneebreeches, blue stockings, and ruff hats with black silk bands, and streamers flowing over their shoulders ; such being the colliers’ costume at that period. What appeared to be the "dons” of the company wore their hats in an oblique position, and walked with a swinging gait, and were evidently ready to engage in a rough tug and tussle of up and down fighting if such a source of amusement crossed their path during their day’s ramble. There were two amongst them—"Sam Seaurpoke ” and “Jone o’ Pod’s—who were quite out of their element if fighting did not form part of the programme when out for a day’s sport. On this particular day, however, they were on a more peaceful mission, their object being to visit tbe district of Worsley, in order to make matches for quoiting and bullet shooting with the colliers of that locality. Not being able to meet with the parties they expected, they held a consultation amongst themselves to consider whether it would not be advisable to go to Worsley Hall to see the Duke of Bridgewater, and ask for work, as the trade was brisk there, and work was suspended for a time at "Rocher Vale.” They entered the park, and proceeded with cautious steps along the gravel walks and shady avenues, but they soon became conscious of the fact that they were on forbidden ground. The walks seemed to be laid out too beautifully to be trampled down iDy men of their class, for everything had a quiet air of privacy all around, and something whispered in their -ears that to proceed further their appearance might •create some alarm at the hall, and they might all get in trouble for their abrupt intrusion. Through a break in the foliage, they saw a plain dressed person, clad in dark “brown coat and vest, and drab breeches, walking in front of the hall, who had the appearance of a well-to-do farmer, at the sight of whom their moral courage forsook them, and they retired behind some evergreens, to hold a consultation. These rough-hewn sturdy sons of Lancaster, who, with undaunted courage, would have defied the dangers of the mine or battlefield, became quite abashed, and shrunk like truant schoolboys on approaching the presence of the great man. In their peculiar dilemma Sam Seaurpoke came to the rescue, and volunteered to act as ambassador for the party, and forthwith accost the Duke. Sam was an unlettered man, having been sent to work in the pit as soon as he donned his first breeches. He was, however, possessed of a fair share of mother wit, quite an original humorist, and was the life and -soul of the company whenever they assembled, and would often "set the table in a roar ” when the merry mood was in the ascendant. Sam declared that he could see nothing to be afraid of in speaking to a Duke. God made them of the same sort of “stuff” that he made colliers, and if he (Seaurpoke) got plenty of meat and -drink and good clothing, and health and strength to work for his living, and pay his road, he would not "swap ” titles with the Duke of Bridgewater. Having thus delivered his brief oration, to the amusement of his comrades, he made towards the hall without further ceremony.

As he entered the presence of the plain-looking gentleman before-named, he put his hat under his arm, and made a low bow, and thus began "Aw say, mesthur, are yo’t’ Duke or t’ Duke’s mon ? ” “I believe I am the Duke himself,” was the reply, a smile curling on his lips as he spoke; "What is your business with me?” “Why, why, dun yo’ see, Mesthur Duke, there’s me (my name’s Sam Seaurpoke), and Jone o’ Pod’s, and five or six o’th Mills lads—owd Moses breed, yo known—an’ they’re great swipper lads, bigger by th’hauve nor me; yo’winno find their marrow for mickle and buckle ; an’ I’m comn o axin yo’ if yo’ can find us a job at coalin’, or tunnelin or sinkin’. We’n o’ bin browt up to that sort o’ wark. and if yo’n find us a job we’n mak’ yo’ a set o’ good workmen if yo’n mak’ us a good mesthur.” "Where are your companions ? ” said the Duke, "I do not see them.” "O ”, says Sam, "they darno’ face up ; they’re at t’ back o’ yon trees, waitin’. They’re a little bashful, like me ; but they’n be there when they’re wanted ; they win that, an’ bother none. Eh ! there’s Turn at Big Aaron’s yonder^ yo' should see him ; he’s a fine lad ; an’ he shall oather quoit or shoot ony'mon i’ Worsley for ten guineas an’ a leg o’ mutton an’ trimmins. But I’m gettin’ off th’ rails wi my talk. Con yo’ find us a job, or heaw, Mesthur Duke?” The Duke seemed amused with the quaint character before him, and inquired from whence he came, and for whom he and his companions worked. “We come’n fro’ Owdham side,” said Sam, "an’ we worchia for th’ Owd Company at Rocher.” "Oh, indeed,” remarked the Duke, "I have heard of the Old Company ;. but how does it happen that you are without work, because I have heard.that the coal trade is rather brisk in your neighbourhood ? ” "Aye, aye,” says Sam, “there’s plenty o’ wark, but dunno’ yo’ see, we’re dreawnt eaut for want o’ waythur.” "Drowned out for the want of water ! ” said the Duke, with a hearty laugh, "you mean to say that you have got too much water.” "Well, :aye,” says Sam, "but as it happens, it’s booath roads. Dunno’ yo’ see, Mesthur Duke, we wortchen at 1 Th’ Owd Bob’s ’ pit at Rocher, an’ eaur waythur’s pumpt eaut o’th warks wi’ a waythur wheel, an’ what wi’ this drought that we’n had for a week or two past th’ bruk’s dry, and th’ wheel winno’ turn, so we’re dreawnt eaut, as aw said -afore, for want of waythur.” "Oh! oh ! ” says the Duke, you are right after all,” and he burst out into a hearty Jaugh at the witty observations of Sam Seaurpoke. The Duke handed Sam a £ i note, saying, "Here, take this -my jolly fellow, and drink my health along with your •companions. The Old Company cannot well spare such fellows as you, and I hope that ere long there may be a change in the weather, and that rain may come sufficiently to replenish the brook to turn the waterwheel at the ' Old Bob's’ ”

Sam thanked the Duke for his generosity, and returned to his comrades in high glee. They at once repaired to the village inn, and spent a merry afternoon, joined by a number of Worsley lads, who had learned the tidings of Sam’s successful visit to the old hall. The old inn kitchen shortly became the scene of joyous revelry, friendly matches at quoits and shooting -were made, to come off at the ensuing Wakes time, and many a full bumper was quaffed, pledging the health of the Duke And Sam Seaurpoke.

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