29 June, Mates in a very real sense: I

pithead

 

There was news recently of a man dying in an accident in a potash mine in Yorkshire; a reminder of  the dangers faced by men and women at work the world over. in these two posts David remembers the community of comrades as well as the dangers of the work. (WT)

From the moment I arrived at the Beeston Pit I was in a totally strange world, full of strangers. Apart from the local Nottinghamshire men there were Welsh, Irish, Scots, Poles and Czechs. At first every aspect of mining seemed full of menace and every day there were accidents, some fatal. But despite the obvious dangers and the darkness of the pit, there was a sense of triumph in that men would descend into the bowels of the earth to extract this then vital raw material without which many industries could not function.

The first time I went down, after being kitted out with a helmet, a lamp, a whistle and a pick, I was paired off with a tough young Welshman, one Tommy Jones, who came from the same part of the Principality as myself, the hill country around Caernarfon. I was under Tommy’s wing: he would look after me, instruct me in my duties, and I would obey all his instructions to the letter, and would back him up at all times. We were mates in a very real sense and all the other men on the shift had similar relationships with those they worked with. Moreover, it was stressed that all the men on the shift were mates. It was run like a military operation under the direction of the ‘overman’ who was the ‘officer in charge’ and his sergeants the ‘leading hands’.

The pit was worked on the ‘room and pillar’ system, with one shift who would drill all around the coal face to create a room but would leave a pillar of coal in the centre to support the roof which would be reinforced by steel supports with pneumatic extensions. The cutting shift and the shift which prepared the next part of the coal face for cutting had all the most experienced miners, whilst the loading and clearing out shift was left to the younger miners like Tommy.

It was still a pretty tough job and in the first few weeks I was exhausted at the end of the shift when we would head for the newly built pit baths, a benefit of post-war nationalisation.

Generally speaking, the older miners preferred to have their wives wash away the dirt in the traditional way, in a tin tub placed before the range in their kitchen. I was in digs with one of the older miners, Ron Pritchard, and it was obvious when you saw his wife bathing him (and they were not at all shy about this ablution) how deep was their affection for each other. Ron had the ‘Dust’[1] and had been offered a job ‘up top’ for the same money as an underground miner but had refused as a matter of pride. As he put it he would be separated from his mates and would not feel like a miner, so he struggled on, coughing and wheezing.

After our bath Tommy and most of our shift would head for the very well-appointed and commodious miners’ club, which had a full-sized restaurant and bar, a large dance floor and stage, and a separate snooker room and lounge area. After working underground for six hours we were ready for a few ‘bevvies’ because we were totally dehydrated and would think nothing of downing five or six pints fairly quickly. But in over three years working at Beeston I never saw a miner drunk; it was not considered manly. However, I did on occasion see some of the miners’ wives and girlfriends get a bit wobbly on the club’s subsidised cherry brandy although this did not inhibit some pretty neat jiving.

 

[1] ‘The Dust’ or ‘Miner’s Lung’, is a respiratory disease clinically called pneumoconiosis, which left many miners unable to work due to irreversible lung impairment. In later years Ron would not have been allowed to continue underground.

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