Updated: Mar 8, 2019
My Mum - Daughter of a Coal Miner 22/02/2019
Recording of our conversation
Geoffrey Simm - Coal Mine 23/02/2019
Geoff met me in Costa Coffee in St. Helens. He didn't want me to use the dictaphone, so the notes I took are simple bullet points and drawings that Geoff and I drew to help explain things we talked about.
Geoff completed his apprenticeship as an Electrician Pitman at Sutton Manor Colliery and spent most of his career in Parkside. He worked as a face electrician and then on the winds.
We spoke about what life was like during the strike of 83/4 for himself and others. Electicians and apprentices where some of the people that continued to work during the strikes, this was because the mine shafts needed to be maintained otherwise they would be lost.
Personally I want to avoid depicting the strike in my film as I want to avoid politics in my film. However, I do want to show the significant changes that have happened because of the strike.
Geoff himself was never involved in any accidents, but he said that any accident would be a bad accident due the environment and conditions of the tunnels.
After reading my script, Geoff explained some parts that I'd got wrong.
The beginning of my script doesn't describe the workers well. In the morning, buses from over a wide area would bring men to the Colliery. Some men would be up at 5am in order to get the bus to work. Once they arrived at the mine, they went to the canteen to socialise and have the last cigarettes of the morning* anything flammable was completely banned from the pit as methane ignites easily.
Next would be the baths. The baths were separated into two sections, clean and dirty. This allowed the men to keep their clean cloths in the clean locker for when their shifts ended. They would walk to the dirty section in a towel and change into their work clothes.
Exiting from the dirty section, the men would then go to the lamp room to collect their tallies. They would be given two tallies, one would be given to the banksman to keep count of how many men were in the mine.
To get down into the mine, the men would go through gantries (in Parkside at least) and wait in the downshift at the bank.
*Most men who smoked would chew bacca while underground, it was considered a right of passage for younger miners (school leavers/apprentices) to be pushed into trying bacca before they had their lunch. The bacca would make the younger men loose their appetites and older miners would end up eating the well prepared lunch that their mother had prepared for their son.
In my script I have 1 character entering the lift, pressing buttons and then descending underground. The character turns on a lamp while in the lift.
This isn't what happened. The lifts where commonly called cages, as thats what they looked like. In Parkside, there were 4 cages ontop of each other. There were no lights inside the cage or buttons and they where controlled externally by a Banksman and an Onsetter, each cage could hold 27 men in them. The doors of the cages would open bottom-to-top and they were made up of metal poles which interlocked at the middle and folded as they lifted. This allowed the men to look through the gaps as they descended and ascended the shaft. A wooden ramp would be placed between the cage floor and the floor of the bank to allow the men to walk in and out. The cages would actually be suspended in the middle of the shaft, not touching any of the concrete walls.
Only a few people would have an oil lamp in the pit, mainly managers and other people in authority. Everyone else in the pit relied on their cap lamps to help them see. Despite electric lamps being used, oil lamps where still preferred because when methane was present, the colour of the flame would change and the miners would react. The electric lamps didn't do this, so explosions could occur without the pitmen being aware of anything.
Each man had a self rescuer and a cap-lamp on their waist belt. A self rescuer is essentially a breathalyzer which allows each man to breath for around 20 minutes in low oxygen environments after an accident.
Canaries were mandatory in all mines until the 90's. In Parkside there had to be a pair of canaries which were housed in the ventilation office, and they would be taken on at a time when needed down into the mine.
Banksman - A banksman, banker, hillman or browman works at the pit bank to dispatch the coals, and organise the workforce. He is in charge of loading or unloading the cage, drawing full tubs from the cages and replacing them with empty ones. The counterpart role at pit bottom is the onsetter.
Onsetter - Worker at pit bottom responsible for loading the cages.
25/02/09 A Day at the Pit – Parkside Colliery
The day began with the slow arrival of coaches from all areas brimming with half asleep miners. The pit had a large catchment area so some of the lads had been on the road since 5 o’clock. The time was about 6:15am.
The first port of call was the canteen. When they pushed through the door the place was full and the atmosphere laden with cigarette smoke. It was so thick it was difficult to see the far side of the room. The majority of the men were having their last drags before going down. There was a long queue forming up for chewing bacca and snuff - essentials for a full day underground.
Groups of men went through the pay-hall past the Ambulance room and into the clean side of the baths. The clean side was really a clean area full of the smell of soap and freshly washed bodies. Everybody had their own locker and they stripped off, wrapped a towel around them, slipped on the flip-flops and proceed to the dirty side. Flip-flops were essential because “Athlete’s Foot” was rife. You would be jostled by naked pitmen on the other shift trying to get home as soon as possible. There would steam pouring out of the showers and water under foot. The dirty side was certainly dirty smelling of dirt, dust and good old sweat! You’d unlock your locker and heave out your work gear. The baths were very hot and everything would be rock hard dry. The baths were pleasant in the winter but oppressive in the summer. Boots on, overalls on, helmet on, belt over your shoulder and off you would go. All were dressed in orange but before clothes were supplied the men would use anything to go down pit. Out of date clothes, parent’s suits I’ve seen it all! Some pitmen were notorious hoarders and their lockers would be full of all sorts of rubbish. Once a year everything was cleared out – strictly enforced! - you’ve never seen so much trash at the end of the aisles.
After the baths at Parkside you went up one level to the Lamproom passing the officials baths, time office and other small offices. The first part of the Lamproom was the area containing the racks for the Cap-lamps and Self-rescuers. The Lamproom had its own unique smell – first the smell of over a thousand electric cap-lamps charging and discharging then there would the strong aroma of Kerosene from the oil-lamps. Everybody had a pit number and that number was on your Cap-lamp and self-rescuer. Unclip the cap lamp, because it was on charge overnight – on the belt – rescuer on the belt - pick up your two tallies, which also had your number. If you required an oil-lamp you went to lamp man and he would issue one. Oil-lamps were carried by Managers, undermanager’s, overmen, firemen, shot-firers, ventilation officers and pit men in special areas.
At Parkside to get to the shaft bank you used gantries. They were enclosed walkways sometime using steps. Passing the control room and the booking in kiosk where you got your job for the day. Arriving at the bank you came under the control of the Banksman. Men access was on two levels so he would have assistants to get the men underground quickly. A pat down search and check on the oil-lamp and then you were ready. One of your tallies were handed over and this went back to the Lamproom to indicate you were underground. There would lots of shoving and pushing, comments about girlfriends, football scores, rugby scores mixed in with lots of colourful language.
At Parkside there were four deck cages but only three used for men. The Banksman would try to get as many men he could into the deck using comments such as “Come on girls don’t be shy shove up” and if not push them in with his boots. You would hear the signals – three rings which meant men riding and then two for lower – and off you would go. Parkside winders were electric so the acceleration was quite smooth, however half way down you thought you were coming back up! At Parkside they used three horizons or levels but most of the men went the No. 3 horizon.
When the cage stopped, with some relief because you were nearly suffocated, the Onsetter would drop his platforms, a type of bridge, and out you would walk. Winding men and materials went down the downcast shaft at Parkside. The upcast Shaft was used for winding coal in large 15 ton skips. Upcast shafts in modern mines were connected by a tunnel to the main ventilation fan. This machine drew the air up the upcast shaft – dragging air into the downcast shaft and ventilating the mine.
When you arrived at the pit bottom it was usually cold because of the draught but as soon as you got into the workings it became very warm. Most modern pits had manriders or manriding systems. Some were loco driven others were rope operated. The manriders would take you into the district you were working in and then you had to walk. Everywhere you went there was stone dust, on the floor, on the walls and on what was called stone dust barriers. Stone dust was a deterrent against coal dust explosions. They found in the past that even a small methane explosion would cause a surge of air which blew up the coal dust and ignited. So plenty of stone dust about – up to a foot deep!
At the face there were two tunnels – intake and return – and the actual face was between them usually about 200 metres long. The face was the height of the seam of coal but the tunnels were shaped like a railway tunnel – straight side and curved top. The intake or maingate had the majority of the machinery and supplies for the face. Electric power supply, compressed air and water supply. The area at the face was full of equipment – electric panels, Gullick pumps, cables etc. Half of the tunnel was taken up with the main conveyor belt that was used to transport the coal from the face to outbye and the coal shaft.
At a modern colliery on the face were advanced support chocks. They could support the roof, push the metal conveyor or panzer over and then move over to carry on the sequence. The chocks had five or six legs and you could crawl, with some difficulty between them – a number of chockmen operated them and they were usually termed powered supports. The cutting machine was the most advanced piece of equipment on the face. It was always termed an ASL or Anderton Shearer Loader. A double ended ASL was an enormous piece of kit, it had two drums with picks at either end. If you go to the monument on the island near the St. Helens retail park there is a drum, with picks on the bottom section under the miner. It was named after James Anderton, he was head man at the time, but it was really designed and built by a gang of fitters at Ravenhead Colliery, St. Helens. (Don’t quote me!) After 1954 it was used all over the world on Longwall faces.
Pitmen worked a comparatively short time shift – 7 and a quarter hours – so with all the travelling it was soon time start moving. Faces had to follow the coal seams and in Lancashire they were tilted sometimes to a severe degree. In was OK travelling downwards but come back it was a steep climb. Pitmen used to jump on the conveyor but if they were caught there was trouble. The manrider back to the shafts went at a certain time so were always full. The ride up the shaft was better than going down because of course you were going home.
You handed in your other tally to prove you were up the pit. Then it was a mad scramble to the baths. The showers at a pit were normally very good but the problem was the coal dust – it managed to get into every nook and cranny on your body. Also you finished the day with a mascara look that would have been the envy of a beauty queen. The soap provided by the NCB was a hard block, usually green, with PHB stamped on it. It was that rough it would take the skin off a pig! There were other disgusting habits that pitmen had but of course it was the environment they worked in! The emptying of the nostrils was one of the worst!! The coaches were waiting to whisk you back home or to a quick pint in the pub or club. Life at a pit was unique. The conditions were dire but the camaraderie was fantastic! Your mates knew more about you than your wife. A great loss to this world.
The above was a view of a modern pit. You may want to go back to an earlier time. Pitmen then lived near to their colliery – hence pit villages – Yorkshire and Durham. They went down in the same gear they arrived in – Clogs rattling on the street cobbles. They worked longer – were payed less and came home “in the black” – having a wash in the galvanised bath tub in the kitchen. I worked at Wood Pit in the 1960s and that pit had no baths – there was a baths available at a redundant pit – Old Boston – but it meant going into Haydock. If you lived in Earlestown the pitmen would jump on the bus in his black and jump off on the Markey Square and dash home!
An earlier coal face was quite different the modern arrangements. Coal getting was over 3 shifts. Afternoon shift drilled the face with power drills in an established pattern. Night shift loaded the hole with the explosives and the shot-firer fired the face – bringing all the coal down. The day shift loaded the coal onto the face conveyor and the sequence started again. It was very labour intensive – day shift men had a section to clear – I’ve heard called a Braid – not sure on spelling. The men used a coal spade which was a different shape to a normal spade. This was a hand filled coal face – bloody hard work. If one man was falling behind his mate would help him out. They were paid piece work so it was a job to go for – but what a price!!
Steve Ellison - Coal Mine, Zinc and Copper Mine
Recording of our conversation
Facebook My mum suggested that I put a post on facebook in a group called ' People of St Helens'. I must admit that I've been putting off using social media for research, however after speaking to Geoff Simm, I realised just how much research I have to do ignorer to reach my goal of being accurate. Talking to people who have first hand experience is so important and valuable for me to replicate how the colliery really was. I also realised that although Geoff can provide a lot of detail and help me with my research, but as he didn't work in Sutton Manor after his apprenticeship, his contribution is limited .
Hannah Vose was the first person to contact me. She said that her Grandad was a miner, and that she would ask him any questions that I had for my research.
Questions: Where did you work and for how long? What where your job roles? What was your daily routine like at work? What was your experience like working in the colliery? Good and bad? What misconceptions do you think people have about working in a mine? How where Canaries used in Sutton Manor? What was the basic layout once you reached the lower part of the shaft in the cage? Where you ever in an accident, or witness to an accident in the mine?
I suggested that she make a voice recording of there conversation with her Grandad, if they are both comfortable with doing so. Doing a voice recording ensures that you don't forget anything that has been told. Speaking to my Mum and Steven Ellison, it was more engaging for me to have a conversation and let them control the pace and tell stories, occasionally asking questions that arose naturally.
'I started on haulage, transporting materials and equipment to various seams/workings. Then moved on to backing up the tunnel driving team keeping them supplied with the materials and laying road rails and conveyer belt as the tunnel advanced. Then i moved to what was called the Mindev pumping station, at the mindev pump we mixed the packing mix and pumped it to the top and bottom of the face for support as the face advanced. Picture 4 shows me and Tony Marsden at the Mindev Pumping Station at the MFI (main florida intake) tunnel.' - Paul Hewitt
Paul has added me to the 'Sutton Manor Miners Reunion' Facebook page so that I can ask more questions to a wider audience of miners.
Ian sent me a bunch of photographs that he has, and invited me to the miners reunion in September if I want to ask more questions.
Jade Ashton Mills
Jade Grandpa was a miner and suffered life long injuries during a mine collapse. Jade has offered to speak to her Grandpa for me and ask him the same series of questions I wrote for Hannah Vose.
Again I suggested doing a voice recording because it's easier to do that take notes and send them across.