My Early Days at Rossington Colliery

Starting at Rossington Pit – Keith Scott

Keith talks about his training and early days as a mineworker in Rossington

I lived in a village called Perkinsville, about 3 miles north of Chester le Street in County Durham. I was unemployed, having been laid off by Wimpey, the builders. I came to Rossington to visit one of my 2 brothers and while I was here, one of my brothers suggested that I try to get a job here. I thought it over, decided to try my luck and ended up getting a job at Austerfield brickyard. I put my name down for a Council house but after a while found out that that there was a very long waiting list and it might be months before I got a house. I told my brother that I wasn’t prepared to spend months living in lodgings and that I was packing up and going back up north. He asked why I didn’t try to get a job at Rossington pit, because at that time a house came with the job. Once I’d got a house, they couldn’t kick me out even if I left the pit. After a few days I went to see the Personnel Officer, Mr Dutchman, who set me on, and I started my work at the pit. That was 1979. I had to do 20 days’ basic training which took place at Armthorpe Colliery, where I met other lads who had just got jobs at various pits in the Doncaster area. During the 20 days we worked in mock galleries and mock tunnels which looked as they would underground and we learned to use different kinds of machinery.

After a few days we were issued with a pair of safety boot, a belt and a yellow helmet. That was so everybody would recognise that you were just doing your basic training. The other people would have white helmets. So, I had my yellow helmet and I was issued with a miner’s rescuer in a silver tin, roughly 3 inches by 7 inches, which fastened on my belt. In the case of any fires where there might be carbon monoxide, you’d unclip a metal clip on the rescuer which would enable you to take the lid off and you’d pull the rescuer out and put the band over your head, just like a gas mask. You put on a pair of nose clips to stop you breathing through your nose then put this thing in your mouth so you could breathe through the filter. In the event of a fire it would allow you to get fresh air. The smoke would be going one way with the downcast of all the air coming down the shaft, so you’d go the other way to get to fresh air. Luckily, I never had to wear this in real life, just in training, when all the lads had to walk round in a circle. They weren’t real rescuers we used then. When you’d worn it for a while, it would have saliva hanging from it and didn’t look very nice. Of course, when you were training down the pit you wore a proper rescuer.

So, I’d have my rescuer, my pit boots on, my belt and my miner’s lamp. That was worn by some men on their belts in a pouch. The trouble was that when you were on your hands and knees underground the battery would sometimes come out of the pouch. Others used to slip their belts through the 2 hooks attached to the battery. You always tested the battery before you went down the pit because if you got down there and your light didn’t work, you’d be in trouble. During your basic training your lamp would have a yellow mark on it to show you were doing your training. Your battery and rescuer both had the same number and nobody ever touched them. You had your own lamp and rescuer and that was it: they were yours. If anyone else took them there would be trouble. The lamp you had when you were doing your basic training illuminated the area around you but when you’d finished training you got your proper lamp. It had a spotlight on it and the light would travel a long, long way and not just around the immediate area.

Anyway, I was doing my training at Armthorpe and then would come the day when they said you were going to go down the pit for the first time. A lot of lads were nervous, some were excited and some weren’t bothered. You got your gear on and your lamp and rescuer out, then made your way to shaft-side. Everybody was standing round and the man at shaft-side, the onsetter, the banksman, would say we’d got permission to get on the cage. We had to switch the lights out because if 10-20 of us had been in the cage with our light on, we’d have dazzled each other as we travelled down in the cage. When I started at the pit it was a steam-winding engine at Armthorpe. During the 20 days I was there, I remember they were converting to electric winding, which, funnily enough, was slower lowering you down than steam power.

When we got to the pit bottom, I noticed there were a lot of men hanging round waiting for us to get off the cage. Apparently, when people got to know that there were new trainees coming down the pit they used to come to shaft-side to watch them get off. Now and again, somebody would go pretty mad, really scared, being enclosed in a small area when they got off the cage and they used to scream and shout. I think that’s why the lads used to go there to see if it would happen. Fortunately, when I went down, nobody was upset too much by it. Generations of my family had all been miners and I think it must have been bred into me.

You got off at the pit bottom and it’s all white-washed round that area – all nice and clean, and everything was swept. You wouldn’t think it was down the pit until you actually went into the workings. At pit bottom at Armthorpe there was a mock gallery. It was all white-washed and nice and clean. We were put into little groups and shown how to lash chains together and how to use a little mock-up electric engine to drag mine cars up and down the tracks. We were shown how to lay down railway track with sleepers, how to put the tracks together. We learned how to use fire extinguishers and hoses. Looking back, it was really very basic. We were shown lots of different things and people came to give us safety talks, etc.

After 20 days, I left Armthorpe Colliery and came to what would have been known as my mother pit at Rossington. I did another 20 days’ training, where, again I had a yellow helmet and I had another lamp – but it was my lamp. My pit lamp number was 705. During the 20 Days at Rossington pit I had to work with another bloke who was a proper skilled miner who’d done a number of years down the pit. My trainer was a bloke called Johnny Savage who lived in York Street in Rossington. He was what was known as a pan man. His job was to look after the belt systems in the pit. Blokes down the pit always worked in pairs, for safety. If anyone gets hurt, there’s hopefully always another bloke to help him out. Johnny Savage’s friend was a bloke called Billy, who lived out of the village, at Thorne, I think. He used to travel to work every day on a motor bike. They worked days regular which meant from 6 am to 1.15 pm. As I said, they looked after the pit belts. These belts travelled for miles and miles. They started right away at the face, as far as 4, 5 or 6 miles away from the pit bottom, and they carried the coal to get it out of the pit. Johnny Savage’s was a district called 90s, and 70s, and all that part of the pit. They used to look to see if there were any split coming in the belt because if the belt split while it was in motion, it would spring and bounce and could go for hundreds of yards. It would take lots of men a long time to get these belts pulled together and a new piece put in. If you managed to catch a belt that was just starting to split you could tie the belt up. Two metal plates were put across the belt, knitting them together and anchoring them down with chains. One plate on one side of the belt and more plates further down past the damaged part anchored down with chains to secure the ends while the damaged part was cut out and a new joint put in. That would take a lot less time than if it went off by itself. That was Johnny’s and Billy’s job. They’d look for splits or for a part where the ends might just need trimming with a Stanley knife. They used to walk all round that area of the pit checking the belt system. Some days they might have nothing to do: other days they might have a lot to do. It depended how well they looked after the belt systems. The saying was that a trainee wasn’t allowed to go any further than an arm’s distance from his trainer. If anything happened while I was training with Johnny, if I got hurt or lost while I was under his supervision, he would get into trouble. If you wanted a wee or anything you had to do it in sight of your trainer. Of course, it didn’t really work like that. You were allowed to go a little bit away from your trainer, but having said that, you weren’t allowed very far. They were always careful to look after you in case anything happened. You weren’t supposed to do any heavy manual work in case you trapped your fingers or anything. While I was on the training job I used to get my checks out and wait at the check area for Johnny to come through. I wasn’t supposed to get mine out until he got his because if he hadn’t turned up for work, I could have sneaked down the pit. I always had to wait until Johnny came in first before the time attendant would give me my checks. I’d get my checks out then might pop into the canteen and have a drink of coffee and talk to the other lads. At the pit you could get a drink, a sandwich or a pie. You could get a full breakfast if you wanted to. Some lads used to get up in a morning, go straight to work and have their breakfast there. Other lads just had a drink and sat down to have a talk and a fag before they went down the pit.

You’d get your checks out, go for a drink then go into the locker area where there were hundreds of lockers. You’d walk down the path at the side of the lockers. On the right-hand side, they were stacked 2 high. You’d go down and find your locker number, which was different from your rescuer and pit lamp number. The lockers were at the ‘clean end’, where you’d strip off down to your skin and leave your clothes. You had a towel and some soap there and some folk used to wrap the towel round their waist to walk down to the ‘dirty end’. Others just threw the towel over their shoulders. Everybody did it. There was no shame, no embarrassment or anything. Everybody was in the same boat. In between the clean end and the dirty end there used to be a bath attendant who used to hose down the whole area. All the showers were hosed down. You could go there and get yourself a bar of soap. It wasn’t very good soap, nothing special, but it was cheap – about 10 p a bar. You put 10 p or 2 shillings in a dish on his table and asked for a bar of soap. Then you’d carry on to the dirty end which was well named, because people coming out of the pit were thick with mud and dirt and ‘clarts’. If you had nothing on your feet and you stood on a little stone somebody had brought out of the pit, you’d really know about it. Some people used to wear flip-flops, but not everybody. In the dirty end you’d open your locker where you kept all of your gear. When you opened the door, it used to stink because you might have worn your clothes for 4 or 5 shifts. It used to smell something terrible. You’d have your belt and your pouch, your boots, smelly socks and your trousers. They used to stand up on their own when you’d been working in wet conditions. When I first started working at the pit, they didn’t have overalls. Some people just put their underpants on with a pair of shorts on top. You’d put your trousers on, a T shirt or maybe a jumper and your donkey jacket with NCB written on the back. That’s if you were lucky. It depended where you worked down the pit as to whether you were issued with one or not. On your belt you might have a pair of adjustable spanners carried in a little piece of pouch that you adapted to hold them. Lots of people used to carry them and some used to have a hammer, too, depending on what type of job they had. Some used to have a bag. All your tools were thrown in your dirty locker and you were always frightened that it would get broken into, if anyone knew you had tools there. You might have all of your tackle stolen. Lockers were broken into regularly. The same key fitted various lockers and you only lent yours to someone you knew you could trust.

So, once you’re dressed and you’ve got your helmet and belt on, you leave the dirty end. At the exit there used to be what we called ‘brushes’. They were circular, and when you pressed a button they’d spin round. There was a 5 gallon drum of dubbin with a stick in it that you used to put some dubbin on the brushes. You used to press the button to make the bristles turn and you put your boots up against them. It was supposed to waterproof your boot for when you were walking in the water in the pit. There’d be lads out there having a smoke – the last before they went down the pit. They might light up there and stand talking as well or you might just come out of the dirty end and cross the road past the weighing bridge where the home coal used to be on the left-hand side. There was a little office with a big metal plate next to it that the lorries used to pull on to for the home coal deliveries. I think you used to get it every 5 or 6 weeks.

You’d get to the lamp room where the lamps were all stacked up on shelves. Because they were electrically charged, they were on pivots on the shelf and you had to twist them to pull them off. I’d test it to make sure it worked, but didn’t put it on my helmet straight away. I used to shove the cable under my belt. I’d get my battery and put it in my pouch, then my rescuer, checking that it hadn’t been opened accidentally, before attaching it to my belt. I’d walk a bit further down to go nearer shaft-side in the lamp room. There would be one or 2 blokes there who would search you to make sure you’d not brought a cigarette lighter or any electrical equipment, matches or cigarettes. If you got caught with any of these it was classed as ‘instant dismissal’ because if you have them down the pit, and there’s methane down there, highly explosive … BANG! Well, of course! There was only ever one bloke I ever knew who got caught with anything, and he didn’t get sacked. He’d done a lot of years at the pit and ended up working on the pit top. He was an electrician. He was very lucky he didn’t get the sack.

So, they’d gently tap you on the shoulders and tap your pockets to see if they could feel anything. Now and again, they’d do a really thorough search and there’d be 3 or 4 searchers with a table beside them. They’d go through everything, even your bag where you kept your sandwiches and water. You’d empty your pocket and they’d make sure you hadn’t got a key to the morphine that was in the First Aid boxes down the pit. They’d check your helmet to make sure there was nothing stuck in it. They’d check everything in a really thorough search that happened occasionally.

A bit further into the lamp room you could get a dust mask. You could request a mask if you wanted one but you didn’t have to have one. They were in little blue tins with a band round to go over your shoulder. I used to slip the handle over the bag that I carried my sandwiches in. It was easier to carry. A bit further on you could go into another room to ask for your miner’s lamp if you were an official or if you were allocated one. They were the Eccles pit safety lamps: the brass ones with a hook that attached to your belt. Only a certain percentage of men had one of these lamps. I ended up having one later on in a job that I got.

Then, I’d go shaft-side. Of course, I couldn’t go down the pit until my ‘marrer’ Johnny Savage, my trainer, arrived. He had me for 20 days. If you missed a shift out of your 20 days you had to make it up. You had to do 20 days’ training and that was it. He’d take me down the pit. You wouldn’t have your main light on, only a tiny lamp that would illuminate a small area, just your face and a couple of feet in front of you. Not many people put their lights on going own or coming up the cage.

Johnny had me for 20 days, poor man. On the cage, there were 3 decks at Rossington pit – bottom, middle and top. I preferred the bottom deck, but the trouble was when you reached the pit bottom you had to climb up a few steps to get on to a landing. On the middle deck, you came down maybe 2 or 3 steps to reach the landing, and on top deck you had to climb 2 landings to get on to the cage. You also had to come down a ramp at pit bottom, or climb down the steps, with all 3 decks meeting in the same area.

Before you went down you gave the onsetter one of the brass checks that you’d got from the timekeeper. He then sent them back to the timekeeper who would then know how many men had gone down the pit. You kept the other one until you came out of the pit when you returned it to the onsetter. Sometimes checks were lost I the pit in which case you gave him a piece of paper with your number on it so that the timekeeper knew you were out of the pit. If your check wasn’t handed in they’d have to search because they thought that someone had been lost at the pit.

After my 20 days with Johnny Savage, I was classed as being able to work as a proper miner. Not only that, but I was able to go across to the offices and put my name down for a pit house. So that was the start. I was in lodgings in 104 Allenby Crescent, I think, with our Ivan and his wife, Mary.

My first job at the pit was helping a chap called Adam. He was a small, stocky, muscular bloke. He was Polish and never spoke much. I stayed with him for a few weeks until a place was found for me on a proper regular job. I ended up working on the methane boring team, safety staff, because of course methane is highly explosive.

We were working on the Barnsley seam down Rossington pit. As the coal was cut the face advanced and the methane borers used to come along when it had advance 25-30 yards. We were just a small team and we worked days regular from 6 am to 1.15 pm. We had an air machine, like a big Black & Decker, only it stood 6-7 feet tall and worked with compressed air, so it was very noisy. The air turning machine, as we called it, was very heavy and 4 or 5 of us would hump it a yard or so at a time to where we needed it. With a bit of luck, we’d get somebody with a tractor machine, like a mini bulldozer, with a big arm at the front that was used to hump all of the muck. We’d get a chain and lash on to get it to where we needed it. We had a big compressed air hose pipe, 3 inches in diameter, that went on to the machine and down to the end of the pipe range, which came right from the pit top all the way down to the pit bottom into all areas of the pit. It was a bit like a fireman’s hose. There was a big compressor on the pit top. We’d attach the hose to the compressed air range and on to the Turmag boring machine. We had big boring rods, a bit like a Black & Decker drill, but these rods were about 5 feet high. You got one of these, thread it at one end, then check to make sure it wasn’t blocked by shining your helmet light through it. Then you’d attach it to the machine and drill up into the roof. The thing was that you had to have water running through the middle of the rods. If the rock was easy to drill through they would fly up, but sometimes it would take forever to drill one bit. You could spend ages waiting for one drill rod 5 feet long to bore through. As that one drilled through, you locked it off at the top with a big spanner. You’d slam that on and the teeth would knit round the road which was now up in the air. Then, you’d get another rod, check it was clear, attach it, screw it on with your hand, lock it on and drill that one. All the time, there was water pouring up these rods and it came out all over the place. After drilling 200 yards of this up into the roof with water pumping out for hours, the place would be absolutely flooded. So now you know why we used to dubbin our boots when we came out of the dirty end. Once you’d done about 200 yards with those drill bits, you’d bring them all out. All the rods would come down. You lowered them down very slowly. Sometimes you had a bi spanner about 4 feet long to lock them off because they’d knitted so tightly. It might take 2 people to snap these rods. I think that’s why they wanted me, because I’m a big bloke. I had a good bit of pull to break them apart. Once these rods were out, some yellow pipes would shoot up. They were about 3 inches in diameter and you had to put up about 16 of these. There were 2 different sizes – a 5 foot one or a 2 foot 6 inches. Some preferred the 5 foot so they didn’t have to shove up so many, and others preferred the shorter one. It’s all personal use. You had to use 40 feet of these yellow pipes, all screwed together. When you pushed them up the roof, you’d try to wedge them so they wouldn’t slip back again. You packed in pieces of wood then shoved some resin up, and it would come out over the edges of the pipes and try and block all the holes out. You’d get another 3 inch hose and attach this to these yellow pipes which were just sticking through the roof by 3 or 4 inches. That would stretch across down to the side of the tunnel and on to the methane range. The methane pipes were 6 inches in diameter and each one was 15 feet long. They stretched for miles, all the way to the pit bottom, then up the shaft to the methane house, out of the pit. The methane used to go to the boilers and would eventually be used for setting the boilers off, after the Lancashire (coal) boilers were finished. They’d burn the methane in the boiler house for hot water and the heating through the pit, or if they didn’t need it, they’d just burn it off when it went pit top. After that you’d dismantle the Turmag machine and throw it to one side. With a bit of luck, you’d build the machine up on one shift then either come back on the skeleton shift at 6 pm to start boring, or somebody might come in on night shift and finish it off. There were always 2 of us to do it. We were mainly just on days regular, except when we were boring.

There were 3 districts going when I first started, so if you did one district one day, you might have to wait a week then go and do another district. If a district wasn’t going very fast it wouldn’t need doing as often a one where there was plenty of coal coming off, when we’d have to go down pretty regularly. It was always down the tail gates, the returns, because they used to come down the shaft, go round the pit down the main gates where fresh air was. It was always cool down there so you needed plenty of clothes on, a T shirt and trousers, but by the time the air had actually gone across the face where they were cutting the coal and coming down the tail gates, you didn’t wear very much. You’d be very lucky if you had your underpants on, or maybe just your shorts, with your belt, socks, boots and helmet. You had no T shirt on because the sweat used to run out of you. I always had a red brow because I used to sweat like anything. I was always wiping it off.

In the tail gates it was always very dusty. The big machine at the face cut thousands of tons of coal at one time and the dust was unbelievable. You could hardly see at times. I always wore the dust mask that I’d got from the lamp room and sometimes the lads used to call me Darth Vader (from Star Wars). I thought “Yes, you can call me Darth Vader, but at least I’m not swallowing that dust!” Coming out of the pit at the end of a shift, the filter on the end of the dust mask was always black. If I hadn’t worn it, that would have been in my lungs. Some people used to chew ‘baccy’. I tried it but it tasted horrible. It was vile stuff. They used to buy it in the canteen or at their local shops. They’d bite a bit off and chew it all shift, because it kept their mouths moist and when they breathed in, the dust was supposed to stick to their mouths. The lads chewing baccy were always spitting, to get rid of the dust. Some lads chewed arrowroot sticks for the same reason and tried that now and again. Others used to take snuff. When you’d been humping something heavy and wanted to breathe hard, you’d say “Let’s have a pinch” and they’d take out a tin of snuff and you’d have a pinch. I used to buy crystal snuff in a little round tin from the newspaper shop. You always tried to use it within 2 or 3 days because after that, with the heat, it would go dry. If you put a tiny piece of orange peel in the tin it helped to keep the snuff moist a little bit longer. If yours went dry, you’d throw it away and someone else always had a tin. I used to take crystals but there was another sort that came out, in a green tin that some people used. It was just a sociable gathering, a breather, until you started humping again, breaking your backs, pulling metals, heavy steel. You’d put your tin away and start work again.

When you’d finished the methane you’d throw your tackle to one side and that was it. You might move on to another district: maybe 70s. The tail gate at 70s was way down the pit and the workings had been worked for years and years. If when I got to work I found that we were being sent to 70s, I used to think “Jesus” because it was so low. Even for small people, it was low, and I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall. It used to break my back walking down the tail gate to where we had to work.   Of course, as the face advanced, after about 50 or 60 yards, the area of the stone and the ground was beginning to settle. After the coal had been taken out, the ground had to settle and it would start to come up and the roof would start to come in. As you got further and further on, the workings began to get very low. That’s where the bucket on the front of the tractor used to come in. To get the workings up to full height again, we used it to get all the muck, stone and brick out and on to the belt which would take it out to pit top, to get rid of it on the slag heap.

After I’d been on the methane boring for a while, I was asked if I wanted to do my face training. I thought I’d have a bash at that, because on methane boring, I used to get 65 per cent bonus on whatever the pit made, but if I did my face training, I’d get 100 per cent bonus – a lot more money, plus I’d get more money per hour. I decided to try it, so I was sent to Bentley Colliery, where I had to do 20 days’ training. Back to square one again! Again, there was a mock gallery, but, as a face worker, I was shown how to use the chocks, how to lift them up, how to use the face chain and all that sort of thing. Basic working again.   After the 20 days I came back to Rossington where I was put under the guidance of a different chap. Every time I went on, I’d be given a different chap. It was his job to look after me and to make sure I did nothing wrong while I was doing my training. I had to do 3 or 4 months’ training on the ace before I was allowed to work by myself. I absolutely hated it. I hated that job. I was on 46s to do my face training and the chocks were so low for me that I couldn’t get my full stretch. While I was a trainee, I remember a deputy used to say “Can I have a drink of water, Keith”. You’d never refuse a bloke a drink, but he took a liberty, not just having a sip, but taking a good bit of my water. I was wise to him after a day or two. I brought an extra bottle of water, but unbeknown to him, I’d put some laxative in it. So, when he asked for a drink I gave him the bottle. I thought “He won’t bloody ask again!”

Anyway, I ended up going back to see Mr Dutchman. I couldn’t stand it on the face: I hated it. I took my hat off to the lads working there. Mind, not everyone is 6 feet 5 inches, are they? I ended up going back on the methane boring, but there were other jobs down the pit. You could be on stage loading, which was on the face. All different power pack on the face in the main gate. There were big steel rings going round the arches of the gate and the machinery was hanging on thick iron chains that were attached to the rings. The stage loader driver was in charge of all the belt system and all of the chains along the face. If the face stopped, he’d want to know why. Then, the control room on the pit top would contact him, wanting to know why the face had stopped and he’d have to relay back any telephone messages. If the belt stopped, he’d have to stop the face chain. He was a pretty busy bloke, always active.

Then there were the blokes laying down the track for the locos – the road layers. They had to make sure the track was the right width from one rail to the other. The deputy would come down with his measuring stick. He always carried the stick which had a little notch in it to measure the width of the rails and if it was wrong, they had to re-lay the track. Of course, the men were experienced and knew what the width of the track had to be for the locos, and for going round curves, it had to be special.

Then there were the contractors who would do any job in the pit. They could start a new face one day and be humping metal, or track laying, the next. The contractor could do anybody’s job. They were usually well paid but they were special – good workers.

There was the loco man who drove the little trains. There was a little loco down the pit that everybody called Ding Dong because it had a bell on the front. The driver sat at the very front, and then there were maybe 6 sets of ‘paddys’, which were lengths of coaches for men to sit in. There were 4 blocks of 4 with 4 men in each block. It was very narrow and you’d sit there with your bag on your lap and with your knees interlocked with each other. Our lamps would be out and we’d sit there waiting to go in, or come out at the end of the shift. We might start a sing song as we went in. A good one down there was ‘Bluebells’. That’s all we sang “oh, bluebells, oh bluebells, oh, blue”. There was a Polish guy there called Pablo who had a mouth organ, and he’d start to play, or sometimes my brother, Ivan, would play. People used to pass wind and with the air travelling one way it used to stink. People used to stick their heads out of the paddy and go ‘baa’. They used to call them sheep. At the other end of the coaches there would be a guard. He sat at the very back and was in charge of the brakes. He was supposed to whistle to let the driver know when the coaches were full and the paddy was ready to set off to wherever it was going. When I first started he used to wave his lamp to the driver. Later on, with the rules and regulations, he had a whistle. He’d blow it twice to go in-bye, 3 times to come out-bye and once for an emergency stop. If the loco was travelling and there was an emergency, he’d slam on the brakes or he’d whistle. If you were going into one district, say 70s, you’d tell the loco driver you’d got a special job on and where you wanted to get off. If he forgot as he was travelling in-bye, you’d switch on your lamp, stick your hand out, and flash it to the driver to make him realise he’d forgotten to stop. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d be sitting in a coach with an emergency brake and you’d slam that on. The lads who were going in-bye, say on early, with a 6 am start, often closed their eyes and got a short nap, so when the brake slammed on, they got a rude awakening.

When you were on methane boring with all the water going up into those holes, it sometimes came out into a 3 inch hose and went into the main 6 inch methane range. Of course, if it filled up there was no gas coming out, so we’d have to go down every so often, usually on the 6 pm shift (the skeleton shift). There was one time I was working with a lad called Lep when we had to go down. Every so many hundreds of yards was a big valve to close off the methane range, and we took it in turns. Lep stayed out-bye to turn off the valve and I walked in-bye right the way in, maybe half a mile or so. You weren’t supposed to do it by yourself, as you were supposed to work together, but I went in. Because the range was turned off there was no suction, so I took the collar off where these pipes were joined together with a Carlton clip. I’d split the range and drain all of the water. There was so much water it would fill the area and people had to work there later and they didn’t like it. I’d join the pipes back together again and put the collar back on, then get on the phone to Lep and tell him to open the range again. I’d wait an hour or so then I’d get on the phone and tell him to turn it off so I could split the range again and drain off some more water. At snap time, I walked back out to where Lep was. After we’d had a bit to eat, it was his turn to go in, so he’d set off in and got on the phone to tell me to turn it off, so I turned off the valve. I waited and waited and waited. I got no message from him to open it back up again. I was getting a bit concerned now and wondering what the hell he’s at. I looked at my watch, thinking the men are going to come in on nights just now and they’re going to wonder what’s going off I decided I’d best go in, so I set off walking to find out where he was. I don’t know to this day what had happened, but he was stuck between the methane range and the ring side. What he was doing on the blind side I do not know, but he was pinned up against the rings. The poor lad had been stuck there for about 3 hours waiting for me to come in. Of course, he gave me a mouthful, didn’t he! I had to get a big iron bar and pull the methane range away from his chest to let him out. I coupled up the range and went out.

I remember one occasion when I was dropped off the paddy train to go to a job. Just as the paddy train was pulling away, one of the lads shouted “Look out for the White Lady”. I’m not normally a nervous person, but all the time I was on my own during that shift, I was looking over my shoulder and jumping at the slightest noise.

We had some good laughs down the pit as well – we had some good fun.

Of course, there’s no toilet down the pit. If you were talking to a bunch of lads and you wanted a week, you just turned round and had one. What else could you do? If you wanted to do a number 2, you walked 50 or 60 yards away from where the men were working and made a hole in the muck and shale with your hands. If you were lucky, you may find a shovel to dig a hole. You’d do what you had to do then fill in the hole. The trouble was it used to stink. You could smell it a mile away. The other problem was that when there were 50 or 60 men working in the same area, it wasn’t unusual to start making a hole with your hands to find that someone else had been there and you would end up with it all over your hands. There aren’t many wash basins down there, so what do you do? You have to use your drinking water and do the best you can!

If you have an orange as part of your snap, you can smell it forever. Something about the smell of an orange, it used to travel for ages.

At the end of a shift, we call came out of the pit to get on the paddy. As soon as it got to pit bottom the men used to jump out and the young lads used to run like the clappers to shaft-side so that they could be the first on the cage to get out and first across the yard to get a shower. The first ones would get a hot shower but if you were one of the last, you’d only get a warm shower. We got out at the place we called ‘top of number one’ where the paddies used to hang around to take you in and drop you off. At the end of the shift, you got off the paddy and walked down. The young lads running in front of us kicked up all the dust and blokes would curse about it. Down at shaft-side, you joined the queues, got on the cage and came up. As I said earlier, from the lamp room down it was illegal to have contraband – cigarettes and the light for them. When the lads crossed the yard before going down the pit, they’d sometimes bring a cigarette and match and hide them among all the spare parts. Then, when they came out of the pit, desperate for a smoke, they had a cigarette handy. When you got out of the cage, you handed in your second check and then went to the lamp room. There was a table where I put my dust mask and it would be washed for me by the attendant before my next shift. I’d come out and put my rescuer away, making sure that I clicked it so that it would be charged for the next day. I’d walk across to the showers, take off all of my dirty gear, and put it in my locker. I’d pick up my towel and soap that I brought from the clean end at the beginning of my shift and go into the showers. If I was lucky, I might get a shower straight away, but I might have to wait a little turn. I used to keep my eyes open to see when someone had nearly finished and jump out before anyone else got to it. I’d shower and wash my hair and we’d wash each other’s backs. I’d wash anybody’s back nice and clean and they’d do the same for me. Then I went to the clean end, got dried and put on my clean clobber. I used to leave my towel and soap there. It was always hot in the clean end so my towel would be nice and dry for the next day.

Some of the lads would go to the canteen for a bite before they went home and others would leave straight away. I’d go to the bike shed outside the canteen, get my bike and ride home. Some lads were so tired that they couldn’t even ride up that bank on Queen Mary’s Road, so they’d get off and walk.

I ended up getting a house on Streatfield Crescent, on the corner opposite The Royal. The lady who owned it before that was Mrs Scarborough. All my family from up north – 3 kids and the missus – moved down to live on Streatfield.

February 2007