Going down a Coal Mine
What’s that old song .. Going down a Coal Mine, Going down, down, down.
Well today I went down a coal mine. Although you don’t actually go to where they are physically working, you do see all the coal faces and working machinery.
My visit was to the National Coal Mining Museum - I think they said it was the oldest working mine in Europe, and it is very well set out. On the surface there is a tourist type centre with a series of displays, information boards, and short films to give a background before you actually enter the mine. Although we are all aware that mining was a dangerous business, it was still shocking to see the fatalities that happened in the industry over the years. Outside were lots of buildings and also some pit ponies to see, but once again it was raining hard, so I just stuck to the inside exhibits.
On entering the actual mine buildings, all phones, cameras, car keys and in fact anything containing a battery of any description had to be handed in, then with a hard hat selected and a miners headlight handed out for each of us we headed to the cage for ‘the drop’ but not before looking down the furnace shaft, nearly 500 feet deep, and easily tall enough to take Blackpool Tower and more. This wide brick lined shaft was already in existence when the first plans of the mine were drawn up in the eighteenth century. Apparently a fire was kept burning at the bottom and this giant chimney then drew air through the mine, and early form of ventilation system.
There were eighteen of us plus our guide crushed into the small cage, though our guide Tom told us that twenty would be the normal number for miners, and thirty on the way up when they all wanted to get home as soon as possible when going off shift. He also said that the journey down would take us two minutes whereas for the miners it would have been 40 seconds.
Tom had started work at fourteen as a pit pony handler, and his job was to hitch up the full coal wagons and take them from the work-face to be hauled to the top, then bring empty ones back. He said that his pony knew if he tried to attach three, rather than the usual two tubs to the harness and would refuse to budge till the extra one was un-hitched. Also the pony knew what time the shift ended and went to stand by Tom’s coat for a tit-bit, and as that particular mine was a drift mine as soon as the pony had received his polo mint he galloped up the drift shaft to the top, and unless Tom was quick at jumping on his back for a lift he would have to walk up after him. But the mine we were in was a pit rather than drift mine, and the ponies who worked in there spent their entire working lives underground, apart from the two weeks when the mine shut down and they were let out to grass. Tom said it was the Devil’s own job catching them to go back underground once the annual holiday was over.
The tour was arranged from the earliest type of mining, then on through to when this section of the pit finally closed. So the first thing we saw was a figure of a young child who would have been a door minder.
In order to control the ventilation in the mines there had to be doors at certain points, and these would need to be opened and closed as the coal was taken though on its journey to the surface. Children as young as four or five would have been in charge of these doors and worked a twelve hour shift in total darkness as candles were not provided by the mine owners, and the job was too poorly paid for the children to afford to buy them. In fact most mines in those days, and even up to the twenties and thirties worked on a gang system, so often the gangs were formed of family members, otherwise you would have physically had to fight to get your fair share of the pay at the end of the week. Such hard times! and so recently in our past.
Tom told us that all jobs in mines require that you have had underground mining experience so although he had started as a pit pony boy, and progressed to miner he had gone to evening class and become an engineer, eventually in charge of huge pieces of laser controlled mining gear, and his friend who started along with him ended up as Colliery Manager.
The tour lasted over an hour, and we were told before we started that it would be about three-quarters of a mile walking, so I was worried I would manage, but Tom made it so extremely interesting that the time flew by, plus there were one or two places to have a sit down along the way which helped me out.
A most memorable and worthwhile experience - though no photos to show you as the camera was locked away at the top of the shaft.