September 16th, 2011

It’s a dangerous life

Posted in The Job - Experience by 200

Ever since the mid 1980s I have taken a particular interest in stories involving miners. It came about as a result of mixing with them every other week for around a year.

When the strike started the call went out for immediate support to all forces in the country. We went to Nottingham and were on duty for 48 hours before coming home and being told to have a good sleep because we were going back a couple of days later for a week.

I can’t recall how many times I went to Nottingham & Yorkshire but it was quite a few. We did have some trouble, particularly at Orgreave, but mostly we were just kicking around outside the pits with miners. We would stand opposite each other on the picket lines on shifts, when both sides had completed our shifts we often spent time together in the local miners social club. I remember we got so friendly with a particular group of strikers that one of the coppers ended up serving behind their bar when we were off shift.

Many of  the management staff still worked, together with the occasional bus load of ‘scabs’. We were invited down the pit to see what life was like.

We all geared up in orange suits with helmets & battery packs, most of us already had steel toe capped boots because we had bought them from the mine stores; they were cheaper than the boots we normally wore and offered much more protection.

We were given a  safety briefing and made our way to the pit head. I have no idea how deep we went but it took ages to get to the bottom.  I’m not sure how far out we went from the pit  head but I’m sure it was measured in  miles. I seem to recall than in an 8 hour shift the miners spent half of it travelling to and from the coal face. We rode the conveyor belts for ages, every so often we had to jump off the belts while still moving and jump onto the next one. It seemed so archaic, I imagined the transportation system looking exactly the same 50 or 100 years earlier.

Eventually we got to the coal face. We stood around one of the mine managers while he told us about the risk of being blown up by exploding coal dust, or being crushed by collapsing rock. He then told us to turn off our lights. I have never, before or since, been anywhere which was so dark. You’ve not seen dark until you have been somewhere with quite literally no light, and there aren’t many places like that  in my life. Not even when I’m really pissed off at work.

We were to enter the coal face at one end then crawl down the length, which was about 100 yards, then exit at the other. The place we crawled was between the pit props. The props were about 4 feet high, so for a guy over 6 foot it was not the most comfortable walk I’d ever had. The props were hydraulic rams positioned every few feet literally holding up the roof.

As we crouched between the props we watched miners working the huge drills which were massive circular bits which span round and bit into the coal face knocking it from the rock as it fell onto conveyor belts to be whisked away.

Every so often someone pressed some button which advanced the pit props forward a few feet. As the props moved forward the ceiling collapsed behind them, rock and coal was falling just inches from us. I managed to pull a piece of coal from above my head, I still have it in the loft somewhere. The props moving and the roof collapsing was mightily scaring. You really felt that any second the whole place could come down on top of you.

We gradually made our way along the face to the other side, virtually on all fours. It was such a relief to make it to the end and be able to stand up at last.

I wasn’t the only one to comment that going down to the coal face was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life.

That afternoon when I was on the picket line, i shook the hands of several miners. I looked at them differently after that.

I was sad that four lads died at Gleison this week.

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  1. 334Boss says:

    There’s a Welsh singer / entertainer called Max Boyce. He sang a song called ‘Duw (God) it’s hard’ One line jumps out ”the price of coal’s the same”
    My Dad an ex 30year collier told my brother and I ”you come home from your first shift underground your case will be waiting, one collier is enough in any home”

    September 16th, 2011 at 23:55

  2. Fee says:

    My family were miners for over a hundred years, and the price of coal has indeed always been very high. Even those who lived to retirement felt the effects. Both of my grandfathers suffered from black lung (pneumoconiosis) which certainly shortened their lives – certainly neither one got particularly good value from their ‘Coal Board’ pensions.

    My heart goes out to the families and friends of those lost at Gleison.

    September 17th, 2011 at 09:59

  3. Plodnomore says:

    My grandparents moved from South Wales so their sons and grandsons would not have to go down the pit. During the miner’s strike in the 80′s was in Nottinghamshire when we heard about the infant son of a miner who needed an urgent operation but who didn’t have the funds to go private. A football match was arranged between the Police and miners and all the media – TV, radio, newspapers – were invited to try and draw up some interest (and cash). Enough money was raised, thanks to some local benefactors, the miners themselves and most of the Police officers up there. Strangely enough, there was not one person from the media there to record this and no mention of it was ever made in the national or local press. Not enough bloodshed, I suppose. The miners won 5-2!

    September 17th, 2011 at 17:13

  4. Tony F says:

    Braver men than me bar far. I have been potholing, and I have been stuck. but that was as a hobby, not day to day….

    The miners were let down by Scargill and it’s ilk. If you don’t believe me, see who is out of pocket now.

    September 17th, 2011 at 17:51

  5. Blueknight says:

    We went down the mine at Silverhill. It was a strange experience. The first thing you notice is how warm it is.
    Doubt if we would be allowed down a pit today.

    September 17th, 2011 at 19:57

  6. Lilly lady says:

    Good post

    September 17th, 2011 at 21:23

  7. George says:

    If you do want to go down a mine and see what its like, you can at the Yorkshire Mining Museum.

    My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the miners that died.

    September 17th, 2011 at 22:15

  8. Not a miner says:

    One of my granddads went down the mines at 13. My dad’s cousin did the same and was badly crushed in a roof collapse. He survived but never worked again. His son was trapped in the cab of his long-wall miner for almost a week when the roof collapsed. He was uninjured but went ga-ga and never worked again. My brother-in-law got out by the skin of his teeth when an old miner suddenly grabbed him and dragged him out of the workings, shouting “the knockers say it’s going to go”. The roof went right where they’d been working. My uncle was a mines engineer and rescueman for all his working life—he has the 1,000 yard stare of a veteran soldier. My family has worked mines—coal, tin, lead, gold and more—in Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand for the past 300 years. We’ve lost at least 17 men down the mines with 11 of them entombed where they fell. I’m bloody glad neither my father or I followed the family tradition.

    September 18th, 2011 at 10:59

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