I started work at Wardley colliery, Co Durham, in 1952 and after working on the surface for a while went to nearby Usworth colliery for my basic training then returned to Wardley and worked at various jobs underground including timber leading with a pit pony. I also worked at hand putting and pony putting until it was my turn for face training. Eventually I got a place in the team as a face-worker, coal hewing. We used all wood supports, roof bars, props and chocks. We advanced the face till it reached the boundary. As there was not a face ready for the team to transfer on to we were all spare to the pit doing any job that was required. I had also trained as a coal cutter machine man and me and my marrow (work mate) were asked to go on the split shift. (between days and noons) Our job was to complete any coal cutting ready for the noon shift coal producers. We were informed that there was fifty yards of the face left to be cut, so we made our way to the coal face.
There was an area of the face where water had accumulated to a depth of four inches, and, as the machine inched its way slowly along the three foot thick coal seam, there was an ominous cracking sound as the wooden supports were smashed and the roof came crashing down on top of me. My head was pushed into the water but I just managed to raise it sufficiently leaving the tip of my nose just touching. I was in a kneeling position covered in rubble, gasping for breath and fearful of being drowned. If I did not get out quick, there would be a second fall of rock as now there was no support to the roof. Stan Morrison, who had been at the rear of the machine, began to move the rubble frantically but a big slab of rock was balanced on my back and the front of the machine.
I heard him groan as he tried to lift to move this. My right hand was trapped under another rock, then his grip slipped and my head was pushed under the water. Once again I was able to raise it sufficiently to get my nose clear. Stan said it was too much for him so he would go for help. I yelled for him not to go as it would be another hour before the noon shift got into the district and the roof might not stop up for that length of time.
I though I was going to die, leaving my wife Doreen, to bring up our two small children by herself. Stan tried once more. This time I snatched my right hand from under the rock Stan heaved on the rock, and from my kneeling position, I summoned all the strength I could and pushed the floor with my hands and knees. The rock slid to one side and I managed to struggle through the rest of the rubble. My hand was very painful as the salt water seeped into the wounds, but I couldn't care less as I crawled down the coalface into the main gate roadway.
I had two broken fingers, a finger end hanging off, and needed 25 stitches in my hand but I was pleased to be alive. I still have an impairment of grip, and a disfigured ring finger to remind me of this particular accident.
By the early 1960s Lord Robens who was chairman of the Coal Board at the time said that output was going to be 200 million tons of coal per year and this was to be achieved by mechanisation. In Co. Durham there were some thin seams and adverse geological conditions that wouldn't support mechanisation, and Lord Robens had said it was mechanisation or bust for the Coal Board. He was concentrating investment in areas of the country where there were thick seams and they began to close pits in Durham.
At first men could transfer to other local pits. From where I lived, I could see five pits and as one would close men would be transferred to others. Economic circumstances in the area were getting worse. They were closing shipbuilding and the steel industry plus supporting industries and gradually unemployment rose to 20%
I knew the pit was going to close and I had seen a booklet saying they wanted miners in Staffordshire. There was good prospects, the money was good and they provided transportation for you and your family, provided a house, and there was other bits and pieces. So it was either the dole or move. As I wanted to maintain the quality of life and standard of living for my wife and family we decided to move.
I started work at Florence Colliery. I was a face worker, so we were guaranteed face worker's money whilst doing other work. I was spare, along with other men, and when a vacancy came on the face through absenteeism or injury, we would fill that place. Then I became a permanent member of the coalface team.
There was a terrific difference in the pit because the seams I worked in at Durham was 2'6" to 3' and here we were working 4-5 feet. I had always been used to working on me knees and that's the way I continued for all we had plenty height, because when I stood up and worked shovelling, I had a terrible backache. But I eventually got used to it.
The night shift would have a coal-cutting machine that would cut the coal in the middle of the seam to a depth of four foot six. The top coal would be fired, first so we used to kneel on the bottom section and fill off the top section coal, putting up cantilever link bars to support the exposed roof at 3 foot intervals. Then the bottom coal would be fired and as we filled that on to the conveyor we put a hydraulic prop under the cantilever bar. Each man had a 11 yard stint. We shovelled about 20 ton per man per shift and I think I earned about 72 shilling a shift.
After the face had advanced, it left what was known as the goaf, which was an area from which coal ha d already been extracted. This then was allowed to collapse to take the weight off the coal face. On some seams packs were built to keep this goaf up in order to prevent subsidence to the surface.
It was a single unit face, where it has one main gate and one return gate. A double unit face would have a main gate and two return gates, left and right side.
The first two year I was hand-filling, but other seams in the pit were mechanised. The seam I worked in was Great Row, then they started to mechanise this seam. We had machines that cut and loaded the coal onto armoured faced conveyor. The machine would traverse the face cutting and spewing the coal onto the armoured face conveyor. But the supports were props and bars that had to be moved manually.
Later on, powered supports came in with hydraulic powered supports that had hydraulic rams that pushed the panzer up to the coalface after the machine had taken a metre strip off. When the face conveyor was pushed over and the ram was at its full extent, the powered support would be lowered the ram put in reverse, this would pull the powered support back up to the panzer, then you reset it to the roof. With this method you could cut up to three metre strips off per shift.
Working conditions in Florence were better than in Durham except for the crush factor in roadways, which had to be re-ripped continually. The method used was to advance the face, and follow up with roadways for supplies and transporting the coal out by means of conveyors.
Then there was a new method of coal extraction called retreat mining. Where by the
Main and the Return road would be cut through solid ground, including the coal seam. Then they would form the face, put the powered supports on, the armoured face conveyors and the machine, then cut and load the coal as they were retreating.
I went on to powered supports maintenance for the last few years of my working in the pit.
So in about 34 years as a coalface worker, I had seen the changes from producing coal by pick and shovel, to big machines that cut and loaded the coal onto armoured face conveyors, supported by sophisticated powered supports.
In Durham I had worked in a small pit, everybody knew each other and we all lived locally. The pit had its welfare grounds with football, cricket and bowling green. Inside the club was played dominoes, darts, crib ect. and we used to have competitions with neighbouring collieries. Parties, dances wedding receptions ect were all held here. It was a much tighter social community than moving to a big pit like Florence where the workforce were dispersed over a larger area, although all the welfare facilities were the same with the help of the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation. (CISWO)
In Durham I had been elected onto the Lodge committee after about 3 years in the pit. I was also elected as workman's inspector two years later under section 123 of the Coal Mines Act.
On inspection visits I accompanied the full time inspector, who was employed by the Miners Union, We made a report of the visit in triplicate in the inspection book, one copy to be posted at the pit head for workmen to read, another was sent to HMI of Mines and the third copy was left in the book for reference.
I also represented the workmen on the joint consultative and safety committees.
Then from the miners lodge, reluctantly, I was nominated on to a panel of five people, one of whom would be nominated to stand for election to the local council and to my great surprise I got the nomination and went on to win a seat on the Felling Urban District Council. I only served two of my three years, because then I moved due to the imminent closure of Wardley Colliery.
When I moved to Staffordshire, at first I didn't get involved, be cause by then, I had four children, my youngest son being born on the day I was elected to the council.
But I could see my wife, who supported me thought out, was getting a bit upset,
(who could blame her) and with the upheaval of uprooting and moving to a strange place I decided to devote more time to my family.
But gradually I started to put my two pennies worth in at the union meetings, and was not too long before I was elected onto the branch committee and elected as a workman's inspector.
But I declined to go into local authority politics.
I joined the Mines Rescue Brigade in 1958 and trained in the use of the Brown Mills liquid oxygen self-contained breathing apparatus. This allows the wearer to work and breath independent of the out-side atmosphere. When I moved to Staffordshire I had to get used to the Proto compressed oxygen type.
The trained rescue men consists of men employed at the pits who go to the rescue station for six practices each year, with a further two practices underground at local pits.
They are selected from volunteers, who have to meet a high standard of physical fitness. Even if still fit they are to retire from the rescue service at the age of 45 years. Later this was reduced to 42 years. I retired in 1972 after attending a number of underground fires in North staffs.
I will always remember the friendship and comrade-ship of all the people I worked with in my time as a miner.
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