This is an excerpt from a book that a dear friend of mine is working on, most likely to be titled, “20 Tamworth Street”. His blog is also titled “20 Tamworth Drive” and he is one of the most talented indie writers I know. His book is about growing up in Manchester during WW II, at the time the Nazi’s were bombing and destroying his world around him. This excerpt is in the after years, when Manchester and the rest of Europe struggled to recover. The author was faced with working in a coal mine at the age of only 15. Please, read his guest blog today and jump over to his page and follow him if you find yourself compelled to know more. His name is Terrence Flannery and you’ll not be disappointed. – Jesse MacGregor-Jones
My schooling finished, I walked away, free and happy from the little Catholic school of St Wilfrid and after a few weeks working in a clothing factory, I began my basic training for the coal mines at the “Robin Hood Pit” outside my home town of Manchester in Lancashire.
Trainees did not enjoy shower privileges in the main facilities at the mine and so I travelled home on the bus covered in coal dust but always enjoying a seat all to myself.
Two days a week we attended college and learned about mining methods and the remaining days we spent at the pit.
Our instructors were older “Colliers,” men experienced in all the hazards of coal mining. They were laconic, tough, time worn men constantly chewing wads of tobacco, turning their heads to the side and spitting thick black jets into the dusty ground and wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands; broken hands with fingers and thumbs missing.
Their faces and bodies were marked with scars etched in blue. “Tattoos” from the coal dust that had become en-grained in the wounds as they lay, waiting to be brought from the coal face to the surface and the ambulance that would take them to the hospital. From them we learned of the dangers of working in the pit, related in a matter of fact way and sprinkled with anecdotes from their experiences. We learned the first law of the coal miner–it is a high crime for matches to be found on your person when you are underground. With the ever present danger of gas underground if a miner should be tempted to light a cigarette, an explosion can occur which would cost many lives.
In their care we entered the cage and were lowered down a thousand feet on long creaking cables into the darkness of the pit. Watching the walls of the main shaft pass by and listening to the drip of water as we sank ever further from the sunlight and fresh air, where we would learn how to hook up the Tubs in long lines to the moving cables that snaked along the floor of the mine and sometimes at waist height to and from the face bringing up the coal.
These thick steel cables are made up of smaller steel threads twisted together in a spiral to form the finished cable. Over time some of these threads break and when separated form deadly hooks which will easily remove a finger or thumb from the hand of a careless haulage worker or drag him along in a deadly grip if he should handle the cable.
On that first day down the pit, we walked along the main drag. a huge shaft, with two way traffic of tubs rattling noisily in long lines filled with coal, like commuter trains to and from the coal face, pulled by endless steel cables.
This shaft is a very busy thoroughfare, well established, secure and well lit, but with all the signs of settlement where the the pressure of millions of tons of the earth above has moved, bearing down inexorably, crumbling supports in places and bending the steel. This is not a sight you welcome on your first day underground, and our “guides” would tell us stories of how the roof would settle on a new wooden prop if it was badly fitted, shooting it twenty feet, a deadly projectile for anyone in it’s path.
In some of the larger pits we visited, the face was reached by a small electric passenger train with open seated carriages carrying miners down to the coal face, where they would often work for a shift on their hands and knees working with explosives and digging out the coal. We stood to the side and watched them pass, joking and poking fun at each other, in that special way that men have when they share a life that takes them on a daily journey close to death.
They are like soldiers at war who know they may yet see their friends die before their eyes. There is that popular saying, “This is the first day of the rest of your life,” but down here in the earth’s womb they know only too well it could be the last day of theirs’.
For people on the surface, the pleasure of work, of job fulfillment, comes, not just in the end result of what they do, but of creating and organizing in clean conditions with windows to the outside world and the sight of the sun and a blue sky.
In the coal mines there is little joy other than the close camaraderie, doing a hard days work in dirty dangerous conditions with only the knowledge a man has fed his family for another day.
Without doubt these are very special men.
Once at the bottom of the shaft we would go to a training tunnel in a safe area of the mine, set up for trainees to learn their trade. This time was used to get them accustomed to being entombed for hours in dusty claustrophobic silence often with only the light from our battery powered lamps on our helmets.
Once in this area, with the help of short training runs of tracks we could learn how to safely hook and unhook the tubs, spin them around, and push them back and forth with pretend industry.
On our breaks we ate our “snap,” sandwiches wrapped in bits of paper, by our mothers, which we carried with us in our “snap tins.” The first sip of water from our bottles used to clear the coal dust which thickened in the mouth and throat, we spat loudly onto the floor, mimicking our instructors, and laughed out loud, children playing at the work of men.
We’d sit together in the dust and the darkness and tell stories of how the ghosts of miners killed in accidents still roamed the mine, unable to find their way to the surface.
Part of our training included extinguishing our lights to experience the total darkness where not even our hands pressing on our noses were visible. The stories were many, of miners who had lain trapped when the shaft caved in, and had died waiting for rescue as they ran out of air and water, and the power from their batteries had given out leaving them in pitch darkness. They would strike a pipe with a hammer a rock to signal life for rescuers they knew would be searching for them. The pipe would carry the sound beyond the cave in. This would sometimes be the last sound they were heard to make. We knew with all the certainty of youth it could never happen to us.
At first to my young eyes this had all seemed exciting and almost glamorous but soon enough I came to see the descent differently, the cage was my coffin, my life slipping away from me as if I were descending into my grave.
No matter how I tried, it was never possible to wash the coal dust off myself completely and I carried the mark of the coal miner. Away from the sun, my face was a grainy pale white but my eyes were faintly rimmed with black: the mascara of the pit. At the end of each day down the pit I would go to the public baths where for a few pennies I would be given a small piece of soap and a towel. The attendant would show me to a tub in a private cubicle and fill the tub with hot water and I would soak away the dirt for twenty minutes before going for a swim in the public pool.
In time I completed my training at the Robin Hood Pit and said goodbye to my instructors and friends in my group, ready to begin life as a coal miner. I was fifteen years old.