Decent into a Coal Mine

Article copied from “Leisure Hour” a family Journal of instruction and recreation.
Thursday July 26, 1855

HAVING in a previous number explained the occupations of young persons in coal mines, we now supplement that account by a description of the interior of a great Newcastle coal mine. Let the kind reader accompany us in our imaginary descent, and we will notice things as they present themselves to us.

We must select our mine; and, having risen early, and made our way towards the scene, we observe a flag of smoke streaming forth from a tall chimney, which forms a good mine mark. The official who is appointed to accompany us, meets us at the pit’s counting-house, and conducts us to a little room, where we array ourselves in pitmen’s dresses.

A glance in a broken mirror shows us ourselves with a very laughable exterior. The writer sees himself suddenly transformed into a rough miner, clothed in wide and coaly trousers, having a scanty waistcoat with one button, and a loose flannel jacket, into one pocket of which he crams a handkerchief, and into the other a paper of biscuits. If the curious reader will fancy himself to be the writer’s companion, he can laugh and be laughed at in a similar array. Thus attired, we should both be passed as strangers by our nearest and dearest of kin, especially when we put on our heads the round leather caps with broad rims.

We now step outside and observe the busy scenes at the surface, while the preparations are making for our descent. We see a long low shed, erected at the mouth of the shaft, on what is called the ” pit-heap,” for the convenience of the men. Other long sheds on either hand are erected to cover the “screens,” where the process goes forward by which the large coals are separated from the small; and a very noisy, dusty, and disagreeable scene it is.

A strange, half-musical sound comes from the large screens of stretched wires or rods, when heaps of coal are thrown upon them, just as if so many metallic harps had been rudely struck. Here, what every housekeeper knows as ” screened Wallsend,” is made ready for the London market. The refuse, or small coal, is sold at a nominal price to the workpeople, who make immense fires of it in their cottages; or it is consumed in the many factories and glass works around. Formerly, it was kindled at the surface as waste, and the country was lit up at night for miles around with these useless conflagrations. All around you it will be noticed that the grass, once green, is black with coal dust issuing from the screens; and the red faces of the boys and lads are half-veiled in black, as they wheel away the coals from under the screens to the wagons; and if you are standing at all in their way, boys and barrows threaten you on every side.

Just behind us stands the engine-house, wherein you may inspect the steam-engine for ” winding ” or drawing up the produce of the mine, and which will, I hope, draw us up safely when we have finished our subterranean journey. This we must now soon commence, for the man at the pit’s mouth has made everything ready, and, by strange vocal communications with the people below, has arranged that the shaft shall be kept clear while we descend. A few words on shafts may be interesting while we linger here a moment.

The shafts in the Newcastle coal-field are often very deep; and I have reckoned that the aggre-gate depth of twelve of these shafts which I have descended, is no less than 11,780 feet. I have selected twelve of the deepest. The deepest perpendicular coal mine shaft in the world is one of these. It is that of Pemberton’s pit, near Sunderland, and is 1590 feet clear depth, or nearly equal to the Monument of London when piled eight times upon itself! The cost of sinking this shaft was almost £100,000, owing to the great difficulties met with in the enterprise. The most costly shafts are those which pass through sands full of springs of water, all of which must be ” stopped back ” and pumped out of the mine. Such shafts are lined with brick or stone, and sometimes with iron-casing of the most expensive character.

The mere lining or ” tubbing ” of the shafts will cost from £60 to £70 per fathom (six feet). A shaft is not considered dear at an outlay of £10,000 in difficult cases. If many springs are met, large pumping engines must be at once erected, and these enormous machines work night and day in pumping up the water. To reach the coal is termed, in the north, ” winning the coal; ” and when the expensive nature of many such undertakings is known, it is indeed a costly winning, and oftentimes anything but winning a prize. The most expensive coal-winning in the world, perhaps, was that of the Murton pits, at South Hetton, near Durham, and which, owing to the peculiar obstacles encountered, was not completed for a sum much less than £300,000! Such was my conjecture from data afforded me on the spot.

Few persons have any idea of the powerful springs of water cut in such sinking’s. They are expressly named ” feeders;” and of such feeders three were cut in the Helton colliery, which sup-plied respectively 2000, 1000, and 1600 gallons of water per minute. Hebburn colliery supplied 3000 gallons of water per minute. But the most abundant springs of water were cut in the Murton sinking above mentioned, where, according to a fair calculation recently laid before me, no less a quantity than eight thousand gallons of water per minute issued from depths of 70 to 80 fathoms! At this same colliery, steam power to the extent of 570 horses was constantly employed in effecting the discharge of water and the extraction of coal! This marvellous enterprise was carried on about nine miles from Durham, in a wild waste country. While on shafts, I may mention that the astronomer royal has recently made numerous experiments with the pendulum, to ascertain the density of the earth, in a deep shaft at South Shields.

But it is time for us to descend. The man is calling out, ” Now, gemmen; we he’s all ready, zurs.” We must step into this “cage,” which, you perceive, is a kind of vertical railway carriage, open at the sides, and running upon upright guides which extend through the shaft. The old plan of descent was an iron tub, or a wicker basket (“corfe”); but the cages have largely supplanted the baskets and tubs, although, as a matter of choice, I prefer the old basket, in which I could stand upright and easy; whereas in most cages one must crouch and draw in arms and feet, lest one or other should be lopped off by the guides.

The miners themselves have an abiding preference for ” riding in the loops;” that is, forming a loop of the bottom part of the pit rope, by hooking it back upon itself, they insert one leg in such loop, and wind themselves round the rope, and then swing off, down or up, without possibility of being ejected, however much they may be thumped, bumped, and banged against sides of shaft, or other passengers, in their journey.

I have often stood wondering at the pit’s mouth, when the men came up after work, to see them emerge from darkness, riding in loops one above the other, on the rope, and smoking short pipes, and looking as indifferent and easy as a gentleman in his easy chair. More curious still was it to watch the lads and boys coming up in like fashion after their day’s work, and to see the little boys safely hugged in the arms of their big brothers, or in some instances merely resting on the knees of the elders. In one instance, I saw a little fellow of about ten years of age emerge from the pit fast asleep on a man’s knee!

Now, then, we are off on our descent. The signals have been made and answered. All we have to do is to sit still. We are how in total darkness, sliding down—down—down, until, lo! here we are at the bottom! Actually, we have gone down 958 feet in four minutes and a half! Out, we get on the coal-floor. We can see nothing, and grope about timidly, for we must wait until our eyes become accustomed to the dimness. Let us sit down awhile on this log of wood. Now we begin to distinguish objects, and to observe a dull glimmering lamp against the wall, and a dozen black leering lads eyeing us. No time must be lost; and our guide has our candles ready. He puts a lump of clay between the fourth and fifth fingers of your left hand, sticks a thin pit candle (40 to the pound) in the clay, lights it, lights his own, gives us each a stick, and on he marches, telling us to follow him, and on no account to leave him.

We follow his candle and his shadow, and find the walking tolerably easy, and the passages airy and rather lofty. We are now walking up the ” mainway ” of the pit —as it were its Cheapside, or principal street. You observe that the roof is arched, and the sides well formed and supported. Indeed, the whole of the mainway is like a long railway tunnel, though lower, darker, and less airy.

We proceed in this passage for half a mile or more, until we see our guide disposed to turn off right or left. When he does so turn, we find ourselves in rather narrower and lower passages—like the lanes and small streets branching out of main streets. To illustrate the plan of the mine very familiarly, let us suppose that the great dome of St. Paul’s represents the shaft, and that we have descended from the summit of the cross, (which we assume as the level of the earth’s surface,) and have reached the floor of the mine, in St. Paul’s Churchyard. Consider Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street to form the mainways of the pit, and that Shoe Lane and Fetter Lane and Chancery Lane are the side passages on the right, and Bouverie Street and other streets on the left. Now, just as a street passenger would turn up one of these lanes, say Shoe Lane, so we are now turning up one of the side lanes of the mine.

The whole mine is excavated somewhat in the same manner as streets are laid out, but more regularly, and nearly at right angles, in its various passages. The object is to form the whole mine into panels, or compartments, each of which shall contain an area of from eight to twelve acres of coals. A solid wall of coal, forty to fifty yards thick, is left at first around each panel. All the panels in the mine are connected by roads with the shaft, and each one has a distinguishing name,, like that of a city square, or block of houses; so that, by a corresponding plan, mapped out and kept in the colliery office, any circumstance relating to the details of the mine can be readily referred to a specified locality. Through each separate panel, roads and ” air-courses ” are excavated, to work the coal and ventilate the mine—the air descending one shaft and ascending another.

In order to uphold the roof, and the vast masses of super incumbent streets, considerable portions of the coal are left standing in the form of pillars, the dimensions of which vary according to depth from surface, and consequent weight of strata. The proportion of coal left in the pillars varies, of course, with their dimensions. In the deepest pit (Pemberton’s), the proportion of coal left to that extracted is as six-sevenths to one-seventh; that is, only one-seventh of the entire coal is extracted.

The rest must be left to support the roof, until the one-seventh is extracted; then the miners will attack the pillars themselves, reducing them proportionally and gradually, and propping up the roof with timber; until, in the end, a large portion of the entire pillars may be removed, when the roof will probably crumble down, and the mine fall into “waste.” Such is the improved system of working; but formerly they abandoned a mine after extracting only a small proportion of the coal. Pillar-working is dangerous on several accounts ; but the most dangerous process is ” drawing the props,” or attempting to extract the wooden supports after the pillars are worked out,, and when, consequently, the roof rests on the wood, and falls instantly when it is withdrawn. I once stood near some prop-drawers, and watched the perilous parsimony of sawing the wood at the risk of life. In this manner is the coal mine excavated, supported, worked out, and abandoned.

The side passages, in one of which we are now standing, and into which we have turned while thus explaining, are narrow and low; and if you are tall, you must stoop low in proceeding. The farther in we advance, the narrower and lower they are found ; and when we attain the innermost recesses of the pit, we find ourselves compelled to bend very low—almost towards the ground—and here and there we must creep upon all-fours. In this part of our journey things are very uncomfortable. The air is loaded with the gaseous and other impurities of the pit; the heat is considerable, and, unless you perspire freely, very oppressive; your limbs ache, and, perhaps, you have more than once bumped your back, or struck your head, against roof or side, or burnt your hands with the wasting and flaring candle, or filled your mouth, eyes, and ears with coal dust.

We will therefore make short cuts to the ” hewers,” and, having inspected their operations, turn back.
Here we are, then, amongst a dozen hewers or getters of the coal, working at one ” face ” of the coal. Never did you see before such a strange-looking place, such strange-looking people, and such peculiar postures. You observe the seams are thin, varying from two to three feet of coal, and seldom more than three or four feet. You see one man kneeling, one sitting with a peculiar squat, another stooping or bending double, and, in the thinnest seams, you mark one or two lying on their sides or on their backs, and all picking away at the coal before or above them with short, heavy picks. To hew coal well is not easy.

The men must be brought up (or brought down) to it. Where naked candles can be used with safety, gunpowder is employed to blast the coal; and those peculiar, booming, deadened sounds which startled us some time ago, were the sounds of the blastings here, and the smoke of which has not yet cleared away. These hewers work only about six hours a day, and can earn from 3s. 6d. to 4s. 6d. per day, according to the demand for coals. Many are their complaints and grievances, according to their own tales, which, after a long and patient inquiry, I am disposed to think not often very well founded. They often ” strike,” but seldom gain anything by their strikes.

They live rent free, or nearly so, in cottages forming pit-villages, with plenty of coal at nominal charges. Their work is very hard, and not very healthy; but they live well. The worst part is their exposure to the fatal explosions so often arising from the combustion of the fire damp in these mines. Yet they become familiar (strangely so) with danger.

Having now seen the coal, got, the baskets filled, put on to little trucks, and driven to the bottom of the shaft, by boys driving a train on the railway which lines the mainway, the trains being drawn by pit ponies, it is time to think of returning, and ascending to the upper regions, where warm water and soap will remove our stains, and refreshment reinvigorate our weary frames.

While we are walking back, let me inform you that you might walk for more than twenty miles through the passages of this mine. In one old pit it has been computed that there are nearly seventy miles of gallery excavations. Indeed, this whole coal-field is honey-combed in all directions under-ground; and not infrequently miners pierce old workings in their progress, by which waste waters are sometimes let into the mine, and serious inundations occur.
About ten years ago, the writer collected statistics of the collieries on the three rivers Tyne, Wear, and Tees. The average depth of shafts was found to be respectively 510, 450, and 330 feet. The number of pits or collieries was 192. The number of men and boys employed (above and below ground) was no less than 25,770. The engine power in action was 19,397 horses.

The total quantity of coal raised per annum was 6,506,371 tons, the average price of which, at the pit’s mouth, was from 8s. 6d. to 10s. 6d. per ton. I have paid, not long since, 53s. per ton for coal, which, I believe, cost, at the pit’s mouth, not much more than 12s. to 13s., the remaining £2 being levied for freight, taxes, and numerous impositions. The entire mines of the Northumberland and Durham coal-field yield, at this time, about 10,000,000 of tons of coal per annum.

The geographical dimensions of this great northern coal-field are:—length, about 48 miles; extreme breadth, 24 miles ; area, about 837 square miles. Of this area, 243 square miles belong to Northumberland, and 594 square miles to Durham. The three rivers, Tyne, Wear, and Tees intersect the whole region most advantageously for the development and carriage of the coal.

Pitmen live in district villages built near the collieries. These are nick-named “Shiney Rows,” the houses being built in long rows. Those in which the subordinate officers of the pit live are called ” Quality Row.” Take your station in a pit village about five or six o’clock on a fine evening, and you will see much to amuse and inform you. Long strings of British blackamoors maybe seen approaching the village from the mine. Some are carrying empty bottles and bags—the former emptied of their cold tea, the latter of their bread, meat, and cheese. Some approach gaily and laughing—these are the lads and boys; others come gravely and moodily—these are the men.

The gait and carriage of a born and bred pitman are peculiar. A hewer will be marked by his incur-vature of body, inclining to the shape of a note of interrogation. His legs will have a graceful bow, only in the wrong direction; the chest protrudes like that of a pigeon; his eye has the glance of a hawk half awake; his face, when washed, presents the appearance of a pound of pit candles. Let us not smile at him; we should look much the same had we been hewers. They are commonly shrewd men, sharp as needles in all that concerns their earnings, strikes, and dangers. Many of them are Methodists, and neat chapels are commonly found in the pit villages. The lads and boys come onward in a slouching, careless, half-defiant manner. Poor fellows! They have had work enough for one day of twelve hours—mostly dark to them.
Upon their entrance into their cottages they strip and wash, without very much ceremony or decency. Then they sit down to a hearty meal of animal food, with much fat, and tea or coffee. A luxurious accompaniment is a cake, baked on the girdle, having plenty of fat, which hisses upon being heated, and is thence called ” a singing-honey.” Often have I been pressed to ” take a bite of sing-in’ hinnie “—a favour I have always dreaded and declined. Eating over, the boys and lads will get a game of play in the village. Men will smoke, read newspapers, and, some few of them, religious or mathematical works. Others will go to ” meeting ” or chapel, and many to the alehouse. Some are musicians, and attempt all kinds of discords upon all kinds of instruments.

The evening, however, is short for all; for most must go to bed early in order to get up at four, five, or six o’clock, when the “caller” goes round to summon them to work. Hence, about nine o’clock, most of the men and lads yawn and become sleepy: now fiddles sound very scrapingly, and quavers on the flute become very doubtful and difficult; the horn gives a short and dismal blast, and the clarionet is dreadfully nasal; songs have died away; men turn in from various resorts; lads and boys lounge in from the lanes, and from marbles and pitch-and-toss. Persecuted donkeys and dogs know their hour of release and rest is come. Boys of all temperaments become mild instead of pugnacious. On all sides there are unequivocal signs of settlement for the night. At about ten or eleven o’clock the whole village is hushed, and another day’s turmoil is forgotten in the balmy bonds of sleep.

In almost every pitman’s house there are pieces of good furniture—generally in the shape of a good eight-day clock, a mahogany chest of drawers, and a fine four-post bedstead. A newly-married couple consider these things indispensable. Immense fires and immense families are also to be seen in nearly every cottage. A family of boys is a great gain to a pitman, as they can all earn money when above ten years of age. Hence, too, a widow of a pitman, if left with eight or nine boys, is considered a great ” catch ” by the thrifty single man. Such a family would be a heavy burden to most workmen, and an incumbrance to most widows; but the pitmen’s widows consider these to be equal to a settlement. Hence, there will often be an active competition for such a widow.


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