In September 1944, I found myself in a very strange situation, but there was no alternative His Majesties Government had informed me by letter, follow orders or server six months in one of their prisons with free board and lodging.
The times I used to grumble whenever my mother asked me to fill the coal scuttle from the large bin that stood in our backyard, now I felt here was something to really moan about. After finding myself balloted into this strange environment, there had been one month's training at Chislet Colliery just outside Canterbury, in Kent. It had been there where in an area highly dangerous with so many hidden problems concealed by Mother Nature.
The rush of air at the pit top brought me back to my present position, the next minute the black and grey faces of the night shift were to appear in the cage from the hole beneath. The conversation of those around me broke off, instead of there were greetings exchanged with their work mates, as this night shift began to file off the gently swinging cage. Then it was our turn to step aboard this metal life that hung above the cavernous hole beneath, the cage controller swung the metal gate noisily, this would counter any thoughts on my part to escape.
A loud bell is heard as the man responsible for our descent has now been informed we were ready for the descent, it was only a week previous that the man doing the self-same job, had a heart attack. He had been winding coal at the time, so there were no casualties, but a reminder of this episode was broadcast in a broad Geordie voice, but his comment fell on deaf ears, except for possibly one set. The conversation now had to be shouted above the noise of the descent, dialects from all over the United Kingdom was heard. This was due to the coal mine being opened in 1926 the year of the General Strike, when the mining community were searching for employment in Kent, despite the awful conditions down there.
The conversation was amusing to say the least, the Country fighting for the freedom of the World, against the Nazi forces. What was the main conversation during our descent? Why, yesterdays horse racing results, how their whippets were progressing, and the events in the local miner's club in the village.
Meanwhile, the ground had disappeared from above one's head, a little jerkily at first, then the descent quickens that gives the feeling that we are going back to the surface. A rush of air around the head, at the same time the ears become blocked by the sharp change in air pressure, pinching the nose between thumb and forefinger, then blowing down the nose helped to relieve this uncomfortable experience. The mere facts of the descent were quite frightening the first, travelling now at forty miles an hour, meant that after two minutes the cage reached the pit bottom, and meant we were now three thousand feet under the ground. The cage slowed as we touched down, I felt a pair of eyes on me, I looked up, the rugged face creased into a smile, and the broad Welsh voice asked, "o'right are we boyo?", I nodded my reply with a forced smile. The pit bottom was well lit, and surprisingly quite cool, with the men there working in jackets, and it was here I met up with the man I would be working with.
Snowdown Colliery lay between Canterbury and Dover, and at that time was privately owned by Pearson, Dorman Long, a shipbuilding firm in the North East of the country. There were there districts that cut coal, and we made our way to the South East, carrying a three pound battery lamp, a two pint metal water bottle, a snap tin that held the sandwiches for the twenty minute break, halfway through the shift. Leaving the well-lit area of the pit bottom, it was a case of using the battery lam for guidance in a pitch-black situation.
Picking our way between two sets on narrow gauge railway passing every so often large metal tubs in sets of eight, on one track on our left with empty tubs, while the other had full tubs on their way to the pit bottom. Each set of tubs were made mobile by a steel cable that was suspended above the railway, the first and last tub of each set being hooked by a large thick metal linkage the ends of which had a hook that is swung round the cable three times, this controls the tubs. It was only when walking for a half an hour one realised that the ground surface was not level, with sharp rises in some areas. The reason for having strong attachments at the front and back of each train, with the rear chain taking the strain going downhill.
Working on the haulage system was not one for the faint hearted, in some cases not seeing another soul for five or six hours. Working in a swilley (bottom of a slope), your only connection with another human, being the wire that operates a bell system for giving directions to the motorman that runs the engine that controls the moving cable. These engines can only take the strain of so many tubs, which means transferring the tubs from one cable to another, this being done in the swillery, as the front chain slackens it is removed then the rear, before they reach the large return wheel that holds the cable. Remaining by the return wheel which are set above one's head, the chains once removed from the tubs, allows the tubs to gently run forward where they are attached to a second cable that was tractioned by another engine. If one was caught by two sets of tubs arriving at one time, the engine motorman is informed to stop while the other can be dealt with. One pull on the wire would ring to stop, two pulls meant to restart, while three pulls meant reverse, the motormen had all previously served as a haulage worker, so were well aware of the problems that may occur. Until one reaches the coalface itself, with working area maybe quite warm but not unbearable, with eight or ten feet girders that arched up to the roof, where they were joined by fish plated, by nuts and bolts. With the tremendous weight from above, these girders did need replacing at regular intervals, as they squeezed inwards to catch tubs travelling alongside them that could cause a roof falling in if a girder is wrenched from it's position.
Probably the most frightening episode can be a 'runner', imagine working at the bottom of a slope, just you and one battery lamp. Suddenly there is a long ring of your bell system, the rumbling in the distance tells that a set of tubs are coming your way, the haulage chain attached to them has slipped. Eight tubs full of coal would weigh about six ton, in a place where silence reigns supreme, except for an occasional piece of shale falling from the roof, this rumbling getting louder, what does one do? Every twenty yards or so there are alcoves cut especially for this eventuality, you dive for one of them, hoping it has not been used for a toilet recently. That's right, there are no facilities for the relief of one's bowels, one just has to hope, that the recess that was not having tubs in front of it, and the now wildly swinging cable does not lay you out, and no human waste products there. Once in your niche stand and wait for the express to pass through, and not catch one of the metal girders in the near locality. They talked of listening to bombs and shells whistling overhead, believe me, this takes some beating, one of two things happens, a crunch is heard before it reaches you, and a shower of dust moves through your area. The tubs pass by and hit a girder further down the track, a fall of rock is heard, then everything returns to it's peaceful self. Information soon reaches the powers that be, if the fall is serious, the men in the area are returned to the pit top while the damage is renovated, or the shift continues just another event, which most forget, but you have aged by several years.
During my three and a half years as a 'Bevin Boy', I was to work in various aspects of the mining industry, on repair replacing girders that had been misshapen by the constant weight on them. New heading being cut out of solid rock, where explosive is used to ease the work load, where the heat maybe intense, and one is stripped to barely nothing, the only air received is blown in by fan from behind, it is here where silicosis can be contracted into the lungs if working in this environment for long periods, in a stone dust environment. Working on the coalface, now this is something that really needs to be seen, to believed, I will try and explain how I fitted into this unimaginable task. The girders that formed the journey from the pit bottom end prior to the coalface, where it was to develop into a hundred yard coalface four feet six inches in height, this being the average thickness of the coal seam. The face itself was being divided into two, with two conveyor belts coming to the centre.
This 'Long Wall' system was all hand cut coal, the type of roof being very unstable for using a cutter with a seven-foot arm. The one that had been tried still lay under hundreds of tons of rock, never to be extricated owing to its position. Each part of the coalface was divided into 'Stints', each of these were issued to a collier, which meant an average of thirty to forty men worked each 'face' which included some in the main heading responsible for filling the tubs as the coal came off the two belts. Then sending eight tubs at a time onto the haulage system to return to the pit bottom. The four foot six props came in the empty tubs, these being unloaded at the tension end, where the coal belts reach, from here they are dragged up the coalface. When arriving at the coalface the colliers strip off at the tension end, collect their picks and shovels, which they lock when leaving at the end of their shift.
The morning shift usually started at seven thirty, this allowed everyone to arrive at the face, as men were lowered down the pit from six o'clock, with eight being on each cage one can appreciate with two hundred men going below ground it took sometime to complete this task, with only two cages. Then of course walking to the place of work, which could take up to an hour, with an average of six faces in work, all of the necessary rules of safety have to be acknowledged.
Having removed the jacket arriving at the coalface, it now became very hot; the only air was warm at the entrance to the face. The tools are where they were left the day before, each miner having his own security measure for safety, here the shirt, trousers, and in many cases one's shorts are removed. Now left with helmet, boots, socks and female stockings with the feet cut off, these are folded over the top of one's boots, this prevented shale, and coal getting into the boots. Some may wonder, working naked but once at work the seat ran freely, and using the inside of the thigh to propel the shovel, one soon would develop chafes, and the shorts become wet through. Remember four feet of height using a shovel or pick, a method had to be found to work in that height continually. Was I self-conscious? No not really, after all the battery lamp only threw out a light a short distance, and stripped off in the showers on the pit top left little room for any embarrassment.
One collier would be responsible for each 'stink', which could be two three or four yards, in the pit a yard was a large area, four feet six high, and the same width and breadth. On a big stint a collier may have a loader assisting him, this would entail loading the loose coal onto the conveyor belt, then assist in setting props up in the space left once the coal had been dislodged. This very tiring task, the knowledge in finding the 'run of the seam', was a learnt over a period of time, having said the roof was very unpredictable, a prop would be set up. There were very many 'hairy' situations, having already said about the 'runner' on the haulage system, how would you fancy this, the prop of timber being set up, and a half-an-hour later you watch as it splits straight down the middle as the weight of the roof settles on it.
The time passed quickly, the movement of coal only being checked by the time needed to erect timber, shortage of empty tubs arriving in the district, this gave some relief to a novice like myself, and a chance to get a drink from the now, warm water in my bottle. The sweat runs freely with only a small amount of effort, occasionally the collier I was working with, would turn to see if I was keeping up with him. David Morgan came from the Rhondda Valley; all of his family had been in the mining industry, in his early forties with a mass of blue scars to show for his twenty-five years in the pits. One of the very few miner's that I had never heard blaspheme, one day a piece of rock came away with the coal catching on the right ankle. He sat down and ruefully look and the blood oozing through his sock and uttered, "it's enough to make a man go home and eat his young."
That was a bonus for us Bevin Boys; I never heard of one that had been given a bad godfather in the pits, my admiration was never to end for the men in that god-forsaken job. The object of the morning shift being, to remove a high percentage of the coal in our stint leaving a single prop every yard to support the roof. The afternoon shift would complete the clearance of the coal, then set a split prop over two complete ones, a yard apart, this done all the way along the face, would leave a four foot six inch track. The night shift would arrive at ten o'clock that night and transfer the conveyor belt into that track, and then it was already for the next day morning shift. After three hours of work the belt stopped for a break for one's sandwiches, these had been in a metal snap tin as there were plenty of mice down there to eat anything that was going.
It was a big surprise to me in seeing so many mice down there, they came down in the empty tub with the timber that were carrying the Swedish pit props. Once down there they had no way of finding their way up from three thousand feet under the ground, it was then I was to learn these little creatures were the miners friend, if there were none to be seen it could be bad news. They were the first to know of any earth movement, that could be the first sign of a fall of rock in the area certainly before a human would sense one. So the odd crust of bread to a little brown creature that sat waiting, one could not resist, no sign would bean a quick departure from the district. With no other method of receiving any nourishment, they were always about at snap time. Another guide being the use of an oil lamp in all areas of the pit, the canary was not used in Kent mines for locating 'Black Damp' would show that this lethal gas was in the area. Though not common when I was down there with no so much water overhead this type of gas could be found in such conditions.
The thought of Monday morning shift could raise a grin on my face, with most miners being good liquor drinkers, this I should point out, made it easier for one to sweat. Working well down a face one would get the benefits of any bowel movement at the windward end, different dialects give their point of view as the aroma arrives. Having already said, no toilets meant any release of the bowel went out on the conveyor belt, this meant that the aroma from that quickly dispelled. On the pit top the coal passes along the screens where the shale is hand picked from the coal. One of the first jobs a trainee got was working on the screens, one soon learnt to recognise the difference between human waste products and a piece of shale, believe me. At the end of the shift it is a case of cooling off at the tension end, before getting dressed for the walk to the pit bottom.
One may ask how the time was relayed to the miner on the coalface, the belt has stopped, and word passed along the district. The experienced collier would also know by the amount of work he had carried out, that the time had arrived to stop. Once at the pit top the battery lamp was returned to the store, where your identity disc was returned to you, having handed it in when collecting your lamp. This was the method for knowing that all men on that particular shift had returned to the surface, and not still below. Once that had been done, it was into the pithead baths to strip off placing your pit clothes in a locker, collecting at the same time soap and towel. The shower completed, it was through to the clean side, which housed one's clean clothes then ready for home.
Other than the traumas one was put through daily, there was only one that took some getting used to, the fact that I lived in the Medway towns, where, three quarters of the male population were in uniform. The Royal Navy barracks, the Royal Marines, Royal Engineers, Royal Air Force and many other military made it difficult for a civvies of call-up age to walk about in comfort. The black that engrained the eyes various blue scars on the back and arms were no passport to not being a conscientious objector. Selection of public houses where a matelow or squaddie having his fill of hops, a young civvies was an ideal target.
Finally, after three and a half years, I was released from my bondage, by the Government that had forced me down there, no medal ribbons to decorate my chest on a remembrance service, just a few blue scars that will not come off after fifty odd years. But memories I am proud to cherish, having worked with some of the finest men that I have ever had the privilege to work with. Progress has delivered the mining industry one bonus; men will never have to work in those atrocious conditions again.