Park Collieries, 1948 to 1959
I finished at Wigan Grammar School in the summer of 1947, and for 12months assisted dad in the running of the business. This involved going on the road with the pony and cart, retailing fruit and vegetables. It wasn't too bad as I had enough money to spend, and plenty of leisure time to enjoy it, but there was just one cloud on the horizon, National Service. This involved being away from home in an army barracks somewhere, and it wasn't a pretty thought. I didn't fancy getting involved in any fighting in lands overseas, and the Korean War was on the horizon. There was one "get-out", though, I could go to work in the pit, for this was known as a "reserved occupation", and our family had been miners for generations, right back to as far as I could remember.
When I was a boy, I used to go with uncle Joe Bradshaw to the pit in Liverpool Rd, Ashton-in-Makerfield, Park collieries, or Stone's, as it was known, to get his coal wagon loaded up. I had seen the pit shaft, with the cages going up and down, wondered what was going on down there underground. Little did I think at the time, that I was going to be part of it one day?
Uncle John Bradshaw was the mine manager there, and he had a few words with my mother about my imminent launch into the industry. The outcome was that I was to go to the pit for a visit. One day in the summer of 1948, I went to the pit, riding my bike and following my dad's instructions. "Go past Landgate, deawn t'brew, an' up Soughers Lane. Then through Deawnall Green un Spindle 'illock. Deawn Arch Lane, o'er t'crossins an' then goo under t'stile, an tha'll come to t'pit. Goo an see Tommy Bowton, an' he'll see to thi then."
I did as I was told, and when I got there, went in to see Tom Bolton who was the training officer. Tom had been a deputy at one time, but he had phlebitis in his leg, and had taken the lighter job. Tom took me to the lamp room and fixed me up with a lamp and tally, and we went across to No2 pit bank. This was all new territory for me, and it was exciting. I had been told of how the cage went down so rapidly that you felt that you had left your stomach behind!! And how, when you were halfway down, you felt that you were coming back. The cage came to bank and the banksman Seth Martlew, who came from Billinge. Pushed the full tubs out. Everywhere we went it was "Do you know this lad? He's Fred Foster's son" because dad was well known at Stone's.
We went down the pit with some more men who were going on at that time. They must have been the 10 o'clock shift, when I think about it. The cage deck was only about 3ft 6ins in height, and there were two decks. Each held 6 men, all crouching down. If you didn't take care, you got axle grease on your hands and clothes. It was foul smelling stuff! The banksman closed the gate on the cage, and gave the signal to lift up. This was to enable him to withdraw the catches. Another quick 3 and then a 2, and we were away!
About halfway down the pit, one of the workmen said "Tha con oppen thi een neaw" I didn't realize that as I left the pit bank I had closed my eyes tightly! I looked around to see the shaft wall going past as we made our descent. It was lined with bricks, and it seemed like we were riding along a tunnel, but vertical instead of horizontal.
When we arrived at the pit bottom, it was like being in another world and as we got out of the cage, I could see the haulage rope moving silently on the left hand side of the roadway. The full tubs were coming down the level, which was surprisingly well lit. We left our coats in the pit bottom cabin, cut out of the solid rock on the left hand side of the level, and I was introduced to the onsetter, Fred Hitchen, another of Dad's acquaintances.
Walking into the workings via the air doors, we entered the return airway. This in itself was an experience, as the difference in pressure made your ears "pop". Walking on, we soon reached the face, which was in the Orrell Yard seam. The coal seam itself was only 2ft 3ins thick, but to give a decent working height, about 6ins of top dirt was taken. This meant that the face was a height of 2ft 9ins. Tom shouted to the first man on the face to stop the belts so that we could clamber over on to the face. "Howd um". The cry went up the face from man to man. We crawled over, and the shout went up again "Lerrum goo".
We crawled along, wearing kneepads, through each working place. The quantity of coal that each man took was measured off in 7.5 yd lengths, known as "breyds" or "stints". All the men on the face seemed to know dad, and they all asked after him. "Neh, heaws th'owd chap gooin' on?" I was allowed to shovel a bit of coal on to the belt and I recall that I skinned my finger doing it! It was a great experience as a "first time". All these men sweating and chewing tobacco, filling coal and setting props, the smell of the powder smoke as the shots were fired. You can't describe it, it's a scent all on it's own. We made our way along the face to the main gateroad, and followed the conveyor belt out towards the pit bottom again. Up the pit and into the canteen for a cup of tea and a piece of slab cake. Tom turned to me and said, "Well, what do you think about it?" I said "OK" He said, "When do you want to start?" I decided to go there the following Monday morning.
Starting Work at the Pit
Monday morning came and I rode off on my bike, suitably dressed in clogs and cap, with a new "tommy tin" and can on my belt. I think that I probably had egg sandwiches for my break. After putting my bike away in the bike shed, I was taken to No1 brow where I was to start work. The man in charge of me was the banksman, Fred Foster. To add to the confusion he also lived in Billinge Rd but this was in North Ashton. I was known as Fred Junior! My first job was pushing empties into the cage as the full ones came out at the other side, for there was no mechanical ram in those days. Two girls pulled out behind the pit, Annie Lowe and Hilda Crank.
As they pulled the tubs out they had to look at the mark or tally number, and shout it to the weighman, who was sat in a small cabin to the left of the shaft. Some times, the men at the pit bottom would play tricks, like tying dead mice to the tally, and then, as the girls took hold of the tally to see the number, there would be a shriek as they touched the mouse!
The tubs with tallies or chalks on them were from the Ravine Mine but the Yard Mine tubs were unmarked, as these were pooled between all the colliers on the face. Ravine tubs were hand-filled by sets of 2 men, collier and drawer, and these men were paid on the tonnage filled. The tallies were made from tin plate with the collier's number embossed on them, and each one had a string attached, which passed through a hole in the tub where a sliver of wood put through the loop in the string held the tally in place.
As the tubs were tipped, the tally was taken off by another boy, who hung them on a tally board, ready to be collected by the collier at the start of his next shift. If the collier ran out of tallies, he would use chalk to put his number on the tub. The girls behind the pit had a bucket of water and a "Turk's head" brush, and with this, they wetted the rails to make the tubs run easier, and also rubbed out the chalk marks. The man on the weighbridge was Tom Miller. He was ex-underground, and had been given the job, as he was unable to work there because of his eyesight. Most of the surface workers had been underground at one time, and through accidents or other causes, had been given jobs on the pit bank.
As the tubs left the weighbridge, they gravitated towards the tippler. Operated by Ronnie Roby. He was a big rawboned lad, about a year older than me, and he wore size 14s boots! There is a tale to be told about Ronnie. He had a mate, Bill Cunliffe who also worked at Stones, and one day, they decided on a trip to Paris. They went across on the ferry and made their way to the capital. Bill said to me "Wi went fert 'ave a look at that theer Follys Bergeree, wi aw them naked wimmen. Wi cud only afford fert' stond up at t'back un that cost us ten bob. Behind the tippler was Stan Gore. He was known as the "tally snatcher" He was only small, and he had a very wide smile, with uneven teeth. He was later killed underground at Wood Pit, in an accident on the face there. Stan's brother, Nat, was a charge-hand or "bummer" on the Yard mine in No2 pit.
The tippler situated on the first part of the brow was used to handle the coal from No1 pit. Further along from this, a creeper took the empties on to what was known as "t'new brew." From here they gravitated back to the shaft. Also on this "new brow" was a tippler handling coal from No2 pit, in tubs, which came across a gantry to be tipped. The tippler was of a "squirrel cage" type, so called because of its shape. Worked by gravity, it was a round drum with 4 segments, and each held a tub. As each full tub was put into the tippler, the weight of it pushed the drum round, the movement being controlled by a strap brake.
At Stone's colliery, each pit had a different width of track. I never knew how this came about, unless at some time in the distant past, there had been a pit closure and Stone's had bought the rolling stock of the closed pit. In consequence of this, there was a section of the brow where 3 rails were laid to accommodate the tubs from both pits.
At the point where the tubs separated, Harry Chamberlain worked, and his job was to operate the points. The pit wound coal from 7.00am until 2.30pm, stopping briefly at 8.00am and 9.00am to wind any men wishing to go down. Usually at 8.00am the undermanager would ride. At 10.00am the pit stopped for the morning break and this lasted until 10.25am, and men could ride then as well. At that time, with the cages holding 4 tubs, 2 in each deck, a total of 1500 tubs would be raised during the shift from each shaft The tubs from No2 held 10cwt and those from No1, 8cwt.
The tubs also known as boxes had a steel base with angle irons at the four corners. To these irons, boards were bolted to form a box. There was a groove cut in the edge of the boards to accommodate a strip of iron, which was put there to seal the joint between them. Another iron strip was bolted along the top of the tub to strengthen it. In No1 pit the couplings were 3 links at one end and a hook at the other, but those at No2 pit had a hook and link at either end. If ever we had a tub de-railed, we used a wooden lever, usually cut from a prop, to ease it back on to the rails. Sometimes we used a piece of this iron strip, suitably bent, to clean the gap between the rail and the guide rail.
The tipplers delivered on to plate conveyors, which were staffed by pit brow girls. They each stood by a dirt chute, and any pieces of dirt were picked off and disposed of here. If any big lumps of coal came along with dirt adhering to them, known as "chippers", the girls had pick-hammers, which they used to separate the dirt from them. All the girls wore black stockings and clogs and they had their hair covered with 3 headscarves, to keep the dust out. Later on, however, they were issued with green overalls.
The coal that came up was very dusty, as sprays weren't used much at that time underground. The worst time for dust on the picking belt was first thing in the morning, when the "scuftings" were being tipped. This was the small coal that was filled from the Yard mine, which had been cut by the machine. The colliers had to fill this first to clear the track on the face. The coal went over a 2in riddle before it got to the picking belt, and this took out all the fines and small coal. The lumps were dropped into a wagon, situated under the screens, and the end of the picking belt had a rise and fall arrangement, so that the lumps wouldn't break as they fell from the belt end.
The girls had a pretty hard time of it, and in the winter it was quite cold on there. They were a rum bunch! I recall one lad, Bill Speakman, whose nickname was "snook." He was shouting to the girls, having some fun with them, and they were shouting back, "Come down here and say that" He was foolish enough to go down on to the belt, and once there he was grabbed, his pants were whipped off, and flung into the coal wagon. He looked so daft going for them with his shirttail hanging out!
There was another lad by the name of Gerald Lewis who worked on the brow. He had had the mickey taken out of him so much one day that he actually broke down and cried. The last straw was when he had saved a sandwich for his afternoon break. When he came to bite it, someone had filled it with sand!
I had a date or two with some of the girls, and it came to my uncle John's notice, one day, he took me into the office and told me to watch out and make sure that I didn't get my fingers burnt!! I'll bet there weren't many lads who got that sort of advice from their manager!
I recall that we once had a dance at Ashton baths, run by the welfare committee. I went, and missed the last bus from Ashton, and had to walk home. The traffic lights at Bryn seemed to be going away as I walked towards them!
The colliery was well thought out. The small coal was taken to "t'sleck wash," as the washery was known. The nuts, cobbles and doubles were separated out for sale on the yard. The slack was loaded into special wagons and that went to the furnace or "firehole". Here were 6 Lancashire boilers, which produced steam to power all the surface machinery. We produced our own electricity, with DC generators. The fan, winding engines, haulers, were all steam powered, and even the ashes were used to make black mortar for use underground.
Jimmy Jackson was the electrical engineer, and Bert Lyon the mechanical engineer. A chap by the name of Bill Mitten was in charge of the shafts, and he used to inspect the rope each day for any flaws.
When it was break time the lads went into a cabin, situated in between the tracks on the rail network. We had a pot bellied stove which was stoked up in the morning, so that we were warm during the break, especially during the winter months. The girls had their own cabin, which was part of the main complex of buildings. These housed the bike shed, canteen, undermanagers, surveyors, time-office, safety, training, and rescue. They were built from corrugated iron and painted outside with a dark red paint. Each office had either a fireplace or a stove. There was a bathroom for the staff, i.e. undermanagers, but the rest of the "Plebs"went home dirty.
When break was over in the morning, the whistle would blow on No1 winder, and work would start again. In the afternoon, the pit stopped at 2.30pm until 3.00pm to wind men. We got a break then, but had to work on later until 3.45pm.as the surface always worked longer than underground. The extra time was used to clear the coal at the pit bottom, because the afternoon shift was mainly used to send material underground.
I was on the surface for the rest of 1948 as I only went underground when I turned 18. The pay at that time on the surface was around £2.50/week for a 17yr old. I can recall various incidents that used to occur. Sometimes I would be sent across to the stores to fetch things for underground, like oil, lump chalk, and belt fastenings. The stores always had an interesting smell about them! It was near the stores that the time clock was situated. This was under a wooden canopy near the big chimney. It was really old-fashioned, the clock was mechanical and had a pendulum, and when you punched your number, you did so by moving a rotating arm on a central pivot, and inserting the bar at its end into the appropriate numbered hole, and pressing it. You were then rewarded with the "Ting", and you knew that your number had registered.
As a new boy I got sent on errands quite a lot. "Goo un tell t'jiners us t'winder wants a lag on" When you get messages like that you wonder if it's a leg pull! All that it meant was that the winding drum needed a piece of wood fitting to take up the slack in the rope. As each cage depended on the other for alignment, when a new rope had been fitted, inevitably there was some stretch. A lag was the method used to correct this.
On another occasion, Tom Miller, the weighman, said to me "Goo un find a lecky, t'telephone's cracklin' like a bilin' o' chips" Lancashire dialect played a big part in everyday life at a pit, and the dialect used around Garswood and Billinge took a bit of getting used to.