Park Collieries, 1948 to 1959

Pulsed Infusion Shotfiring

In the Ravine seam, where we had the panzer, we had to have an advanced heading at the drive end. This was to enable the cutter to cut itself free, and when the coal had been filled, the drive unit with the cutter mounted upon it was pushed into the new track. The cutter was then flitted back up the face in the afternoon shift.

We had to devise a way of getting around the CMA to fire in the solid coal, a practice that was forbidden at the time. The "Boffins" came up with "Pulsed infusion". This involved using a special powder called Hydrobel and submarine detonators, which were identified by their blue wires. The holes were still fired singly. To stem a shot, the charge was inserted in the hole and pushed home by a stemming rod. A tube, with a rubber compression pad at its end was placed in the hole, the handle at the end snapped down to compress the pad, and the water hose attached to the tube. When the water was turned on, the shot was fired, the idea being that the water would drown any chance of a flame from the powder.

One day, one of the "boffins" came into the district with a new type of tube or "gun" as we called them. This one didn't have a handle to compress the rubber, but depended on water pressure to do it. I charged the shot, put the gun in the hole and fired. What a mess! The gun was smashed to pieces. The "boffin" sighed, picked up the bits and said "Well, we'll just have to lick our wounds" I was laughing fit to burst!

Really, the system was appalling, it never worked properly, and we resorted to stemming with clay and spraying water on the pile after firing to make it look as if the gun had been used! The only time a gun was used was when we were graced by the presence of an inspector, safety officer or undermanager.

I was in charge of a group of haulage lads when we had a near calamity. We were moving a cutter towards the face; it was a replacement for the one in use, which had developed a fault. We had taken it from the haulage rope and were taking it down to the heading, using scotches in the tram wheels. I never knew exactly what happened, but the tram broke away from us and careered down the rails towards the electric panels where the switch attendant stood. Imagine how I felt, a tram with about a ton of metal going at increasing speed, and no way of stopping it, or warning the men who were in the heading. Fate took a hand, and the rails split, de-railing the tram. The cutter leapt from the tram and carried on for a further 15ft. Luckily no one was the wiser, but it could have been nasty.

While I was working on the Orrell Yard as a shotfirer, we sometimes had problems with the belts running slack. The two men at the return drum were Tommy Wynne and Albert Haydock, or "Little Algy" as he was known. The belts were always left in a running state by the night shift, but as the coal was being thrown on, the belts would begin to slip and the Sylvesters or "Gablocks" which were holding the return drum would have to be tightened.

One day, as this was being done, one of the gab handles slipped and caught Albert at the side of his head. It looked a lot worse than it really was, as he was sweating and the blood flowed a bit more freely. Tommy Wynne shouted up the face "Howd 'um" The cry went up to the heading and the belts stopped. Tommy Walker, who was the deputy on the district, came crawling down from the heading. "Who's stopped t'belts?" "Ah've stopped um," Wynne said, "Little Algy's hurt 'is yed" Tommy Walker, incensed by the stoppage, said "Tha doesn't stop a war when a sowjer gets shot" Wynne was disgusted "What's think abeawt a mon like that" He said.

Another time on the same face, lumps were jamming up at the heading, and causing the belt to stall. It was easy to put lumps on the belt as it was scraping along the floor, and colliers, being human, were always being tempted to do this. In fact I saw one lump on the belt, still with the shothole in it, and someone had put a stick in the hole. It looked for the entire world like a ship sailing along! Anyway, this day, when the lumps were getting fast, Cliff Green, the undermanager, came storming down the face. "Howd them lumps off," he said. Fred Cunliffe, one of the colliers, said to him "Ah've not pur any on Cliff" Cliff, looking for a scapegoat, said to him "Nowe, ah'll bet tha's not. Tha'rt gronny's white 'en what ne'er lays away!!"

At Stone's there was a lot of Cunliffes, and most of them originated from Garswood and Billinge. Some were related, some weren't. They all had nicknames to differentiate between the families. There were Blanders, Siggies, Muckuses, Tannys, Paddies, to name just a few. Fred and his brother Jack were Muckuses, Harold, who was a fireman, was a Siggy, and so on. I recall seeing old Jack Cunliffe's name in the obituary column after his death, and his daughter had put Jack (Paddy) Cunliffe. Otherwise no one would have been able to recognize the name.

Old Jack Paddy used to come to work with another old man from Billinge, Bill Green whose nickname was Coddy. He never got anything except Bill Coddy. It was said, and I don't know how true it was, that a man came into the village and asked Coddy where Bill Green lived. Coddy said "Ah dont know anybody wi' that name" The man persisted, "He keeps pigeons, and they call him Coddy" At this Coddy realised who he meant "Why," he said, "Tha'rt talkin' to 'im"!!

At Stone's we had a lot of 2nd generation Irishmen, with names likeScully, Dooney, Towey, Kellely, Kelly, and Lenehan. All these men's fathers had come across from Ireland to work in the mines around Ashton, during the early 1900s. A lot of the Irish had settled around York Road, just as the Welsh had settled in the Stubshaw Cross area. It was as though there were two Ghettos.

In Stubshaw Cross there was a Welsh Chapel with the notice board in Welsh, and in Ashton, in Bryn St, was the Irish Democratic League of Great Britain, "Brian Boru" club. The chapel has gone now, but the "Brian" is still flourishing.

We had one first generation Irishman by the name of Jack Sharkey. Jack was a tall, rawboned man, always wore a long mac to come to work in, and didn't use the baths, preferring to go home for a wash. He was on the afternoon shift permanently, and worked as a general worker or dataller. He had been a contractor when he was younger, driving tunnels and so on, as most of the Irish had been.

Jack would board the bus outside the pit gate at the end of his shift, still with a wad of tobacco in his mouth, and wouldn't need to spit the juice out until he got off near the Catholic club. Once there, he would go in, and the barman, seeing him arrive, would have a pint of bitter pulled by the time he reached the bar. This, Jack would down in one go, and as he did so, the barman would be pulling another. Jack then took his time with this one before going home to bed. It was said that he had a wife in Ireland somewhere, but no one knew for sure.

We has another man by the name of Bill Moses, and Bill had never married, but preferred to spend his time and money in the pub. He had been a "hard man" in his younger days and he still carried "battle scars" from fights that he had been involved in. Bill told me one day, without boasting, that someone had bet him that he couldn't down a pint in 5 seconds. Bill said to him "Start counting" and as the 5 seconds were up, Bill had downed the ale!!

There was a pub in Billinge at that time in the '50s by the name of "Labour in Vain". It was down Main St somewhere, near the bottom end. It has been gone now for a few years. The sign above the inn would have caused a lot of controversy today, as it would have been labelled "racist." It was a picture of a black child stood in a bath, and a white woman attempting to wash him white. The Billingers, when doing a frustrating job, would say, "Ah think that we're washin' t'blackie here" meaning of course, that the job was impossible. This phrase, when picked up by the Poles and other Eastern Europeans, sounded really funny. "Vasching de blackie".

On the afternoon shift, the onsetter and his mate ran the pit bottom area. They were both middle-aged men, George Hulme was the onsetter and Jack Bold was his mate. George was from Haydock and Jack from Billinge. George never wore his false teeth and always looked a bit "gummy". Their duties consisted of winding the coal that had been left at the end of the dayshift, then getting supplies down, and finally winding any dirt that was filled off from the Yard mine rippings.

The arches used at that time were 2 piece and these were sent down pit, a leg at a time, suspended under the cage, from a haulage chain, hooked into the web of the arch, a half hitch round the middle, and then attached to the cage bottom. A far cry from the final days of Parkside when arches were sent down in packages of 8, complete with all the ancillary material! Of course, in those days, there was only 8 arches set in each roadway per week, so at the best, it only needed about 4 arches to be slung in a day. It would take a couple of hours to send the coal up and get the supplies down, then there was a lull until the dirt started to arrive from the face. This time was spent in chopping and bundling of firewood!

George would select wood from the tubs of cap-pieces that had come down in the supplies. He always looked for the ones with no knots. Behind the pit was a fire station, which had a set of tools, pick, hammer, spade, axe and saw, all painted red, for use in an emergency. The axe was shiny with use and so was the saw, because when George couldn't find any cappings, which were knot-free, he would take props and saw them up! When the wood was chopped, he made wire rings from cap-wire and, using about 4 of these on each bundle, would pack the chopped wood as tightly as possible. He used to supply about a dozen men with firewood and these would reward him with bags of sweets, which he took home for his grand children.

He said that the children would ask, "Where's our father's pit toffee?" George used to deliver post in his spare time in a morning, working for the Royal Mail. He also used to read quite a bit. I suspect that the stuff that he read was the trashy sex type novel, because he decided to write a bit himself. He showed me this notebook with a story that he had written. "Perils Of A Postman" It was drivel! Pure porn!! He said that he was going to get it published but I very much doubt if any publisher in his right mind would have touched it.

Still on the subject of firewood, most men would take home pieces of wood to burn, as everyone those days had open fires. You could get bags of sawn-up prop-ends for a shilling (5p), even getting them delivered! Even so, a lot of men would take cappings home, thus making supplies a bit short. One day, however, the manager decided to have a clamp down. He sent the security man back to the pit at the end of the afternoon shift, and as the men came out of the cage, he was waiting. The men would stuff a couple of pieces inside their shirts, to get them across to the baths. Some of them had so much in their shirts that they couldn't bend to get in the cage! This night, they all had to empty their wood into a tub, placed on the pit bank. When all was accounted for there was nearly a tub full of cappings!

No 1 Pit Mouthing

In No1 pit the winding drum was a split one. This was so that the rope could be shortened to wind to the mouthing, which was an opening in the shaft wall some 90ft from the surface, which had been the original depth of the shaft, going into the Wigan 5ft seam. The old colliery owners would do this to get some money in to finance further exploration. The rest of the shaft depth was sunk at a later date. When I started work, the mouthing had been worked out and we only used to go into it to pump water. Originally, a set of wooden doors had been installed, so that when winding had taken place from there, these doors could be lowered across the shaft and the bottom deck of the cage used for coal. When we had to visit the mouthing, we had to climb across the open shaft, and over the top of the doors, and down a set of steps at the other side. It was a bit "hairy" to say the least!

We used to go in there to re-set the siphon, which sent water down a pipe in the shaft. In the old workings, water used to gather and if left, it would gradually creep along and finally run into the shaft, making it wet for the men at the pit bottom. This siphon arrangement was to prevent this. It worked in this fashion. At the far end of the workings was a diaphragm pump, which operated similarly to a toilet cistern, i.e. the water was pulled up through a rubber flap. The pump operator pumped the water along a 2ins pipe. His mate, who stayed near the shaft side, removed a screw plug from the pipe so that he knew when the water had landed to him. When this happened, he would bang on the pipe with a hammer to let his mate know that the water was there, re-insert the plug; open the valve, and the siphon would be operative. All that was left to do was to get some mud known as "dummel" and plaster this round the stem of the pump handle to prevent air being drawn into the pipe and thus spoiling the syphonic effect.

This siphon idea was also used in the old 9ft workings near the pit bottom. These workings were straight in at the point where the roadway turned to go down brow to the Ravine lowerside. The roadway went in for about 100yds and water would gather on the floor, gradually coming further out until it ran on to the pit level. To avoid this happening, the water was siphoned off and piped down the brow into the lodge hole where it could be pumped to the pit bottom.

It was like being in a time capsule when you went into those old workings in the mouthing. I think that it was 1939 when the last coal was taken from there. All the old tubs were there, rusting away. There was an office with the old time books in it and other bits of rubbish. I even found old newspapers that had been used to wrap food in. It was a short walk from the pit bottom to the far end of the workings. There were no props set, as the 5ft had a good strong roof. All the coal had been worked out except for 5yd square pillars, which had been left for support. It felt very strange, going along roadways, which had no supports set.

Mo Hughes, the deputy that I had worked with on the afternoon shift, told me that he had worked in the mouthing in his younger days. One day, he and his mate had broken through into some old workings, which must have been worked many years previously from a drift from the surface somewhere. He said that there were skid boards on the floor where the baskets had been sledged along. All the small coal had been left underground, and packed into the stalls where the coal had been mined. Apparently the spades used had tines, closed off at the mouth, so that the small stuff would drop through, leaving the large pieces to be sold for domestic use. There must have been air leakage from the surface to ventilate the old workings, as they suffered no ill effects from going into them when they had broken through.

I suppose that in the Wigan area, there were lots of old workings such as these. I recall watching the excavation in Millgate when the new swimming baths were being built. The contractors uncovered two tunnels, which were in the King coal seam, running under the Town Hall. These were unsupported, and had stood since the 1600s.They were part of Peter Plat's pit, according to the archives, and they had to be filled with concrete before work could continue on the baths.

I left Stone's in September 1959, and by then the Yard mine was all but worked out. We had even taken the coal from under the manager's house and the offices, which were situated at the bottom of the colliery yard, with catastrophic effect. The whole lot began to subside and crack up. They were finally taken down. Just before the Yard mine closed down for good, I worked on the face in No 2 pit.

By this time in No 1 pit, the colliers were working just under the seam height of 2ft 3ins, taking no dirt. It was a bit claustrophobic, but after a while you got used to it. This had been done to improve the coal quality, as the washery, as I said earlier, couldn't handle the amount of dirt going out with the coal. The men in No 2 pit, however, were pulling dirt to make a working height of 3ft. When chastised about the amount of dirt going out with the coal, the cry was "They'll never shut us down, because they'll always need the coal" But it wasn't to be. I remember coming out of the No 1 Yard mine on that last day, riding the belts (illegally of course!), and thinking to myself " Soon, all this will have gone forever ". I knew that I would never see some of those men again. It's not the work that you miss, but the wit and conversation that is present when men work together, the camaraderie, you might say. Thus one chapter in my life came to an end, and I prepared to open up another one at Parkside.

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