COAL MINING IN THE
By O J Anthony
First published in Coleg Technegol Rhydaman
(Ammanford Technical College),
1927-1977, Dyfed County Council, 1977
The following memoir of mining in the 1930s was first published in a booklet produced to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Ammanford Technical College in 1977. O J Anthony was a former coalminer and student at Ammanford Technical College who later became a policeman. A fuller history of Ammanford Technical College can be found in the 'History' section of this website or click HERE.
My memory frequently goes back to the days when I left school and took my first job. After many weeks of fruitless searching I at last obtained employment at the Pembrey Collieries Ltd., known locally as "Y Ffrwd" (the Stream, or Torrent).
.... One was lucky indeed to find work at all and I was privileged to have been taken on as a boy collier, called a "Carter". I shall explain later the meaning of this term.
.... The Colliery was comparatively small, employing some 350 men and boys. The methods used for getting coal were more or less the same as had been used for the past century. There was little in the way of machinery other than the winding engine, which was used to haul the coal to the surface.
.... It was a happy place to work. The collier is renowned for his sense of humour and loyalty.
.... I believe I can recollect the first day I went to work. I got up at about 5.30 a.m. and dressed in my working clothes and left home to catch the workmen's bus. It seems incredible now, but this vehicle was a double-decker fitted with solid tyres which creaked and groaned its way along, causing all my young bones to vibrate. The men were quietly chatting in small groups and smoking before the arrival of our transport then filed solemnly into the 'bus'.
.... On arrival at the colliery surface the men alighted and made their way to the drift entrance and to the lamp room to collect their safety lamps. A token bearing their work number was handed in and a lamp handed to them. This also bore the same number. This process was reversed at the end of the day. The lamp was their responsibility and any misuse or damage would bring down the wrath of the lamp man. The lamps were cleaned and refilled with oil, and wicks were trimmed ready for the next day.
.... The "Ffrwd" was a drift mine. This means that it was a gradual slope into the bowels of the earth, not a direct descent as in a pit. Men were conveyed on a carriage called a "Spake", a contraption made by fixing a wooden frame upon tram wheels and axles. A bar was fitted along the centre and one man sat on each side. Eight men were carried on each vehicle. There were about eight vehicles to a journey.
.... The ritual before getting onto the "Spake" was that everyone made sure that he carried no tobacco or matches. Cigarettes were put into a small tin and hidden on the "Bank" ready for a smoke on return to the surface. These were occasionally pilfered, but it was seldom that your last cigarette was taken, and anyone caught doing so would be ostracised by his mates.
.... We boarded the "Spake" and I entered the mine for the first time. Travelling downwards at just above walking pace we clattered our way along the metal rail into the gloom and now the lamp was our only means of light. It was surprisingly good. It is difficult to describe the total darkness of the coal mine, not a silhouette, not a glimmer of light from anywhere.
.... On reaching the heading the "Spake" stopped to allow the men of that area to alight, and the rest of the journey was on foot. We stumbled along the sleepered track for about half a mile and at this stage I branched off with my collier and others to my heading which was reached by climbing an incline and so on to my "top hole".
.... The "tophole" was a tunnel driven upwards on the rise side of the heading until it 'reached through to the heading above, usually a distance of about 100 yards. The collier commenced to dig upwards at an angle into the coal seam. At this stage the coal was loaded directly into the tram and my job was comparatively easy for the first few days. As the work progressed, however, the hand cart came into operation. The cart had no wheels but was moved like a sledge.
.... When the "tophole" had progressed forward the collier had to cut out a "stage" upon which the coal could be stacked in such a position that the trammer could fill his vehicle. This was done by cutting into the rock beneath the entrance to the tophole and lining the floor with wooden planks. A metal rail was placed across the top so that the cart could be turned sideways and the contents tipped onto the stage. When this was completed the scene was set for serious coal getting.
.... As the distance from the "Stage" to the coal face increased and became too far to shovel the coal in two "throws", the hand cart was brought into use. It was made of wood, oblong in shape and being without wheels it moved on skids just like a sledge. It could hold between four and five hundredweight of coal, depending on the skill of the "Carter" in loading. On each end was fitted a "U" bolt to which could be attached a chain used by the Carter for dragging the vehicle. A form of harness, known as a "dress", was made by cutting a tyre into a sufficient length to fit around the boy's waist. Around this was passed a strong metal chain hooked in front and passed between the boy's legs and hooked to the "U" bolt of the cart. The boy then crawled along the slope up to the coal face dragging the cart behind him. He loaded the cart with coal, then hitched the hook to the front of the cart and dragged it down to the stage and unloaded the coal. It was possible for a good boy to claim between 10 20 carts of coal each shift, depending on the length of the tophole.
.... After moving upwards about 10 yards a "Crossing" was made to the right of the tophole to meet the collier on the other side. This was done at regular intervals in order to facilitate the circulation of air through the workings. After passing the first crossing it was decided to bring two carts into operation. A post was fitted in the centre of the roadway just below the coal face and a pulley attached to the post through which was passed a chain, the ends of which were attached to both carts.
.... The full cart was dragged downwards, pulling the empty 'vehicle up at the same time.
.... The basic wage of the boy was 19 shillings per week, but piece rate payment was made for coal handled by him. The rate started at 4½ d per ton increasing to a maximum of 10½ d. depending upon the distance of the face from the Stage.
.... It was hard work as the boy heaved and sweated in the confined space. A height of 3 ft. was considered to be good, frequently it was about 2 ft. 6 ins. The carter had to handle his heavy cart and at the same time carry his safety lamp and ensure that it did not go out. Often the slightest tap on the base of the lamp was enough to extinguish it. The lamp was locked and even if one had a match to light it, it would not be possible. The only solution was to re-trace your steps to the 'parting" at the drift and use the "relighting machine". If the collier was ahead with his coal hewing he would lend his lamp amid threats as to what would happen if the incident was repeated. On some occasions the unfortunate boy had to grope his way down the incline, along the lower heading and on to the parting in total darkness. If you have never experienced it. It is difficult to imagine complete and utter darkness. One handled one's lamp very carefully. If the tophole was not too far advanced it was possible to leave the lamp hanging on a prop near the stage and make use of the collier's lamp to light the cart filling process. In the main, however, the lamp had to he carried on the belt around the waist and swung expertly between the legs as one walked to avoid bruising inside the knees by striking with the heavy brass base of the lamp. Herein lay the danger of losing the flame if you slipped and the base of the lamp struck the ground sharply.
.... Another difficulty encountered by the new boy was avoiding striking his back against the "collars", crosspieces of timber used to support the roof at what was considered to be a weak point. I bear the scars of many an early encounter with the supports. Having previously received a cut. I found that a second contact, however slight, would knock the scab off the wound with sickening results. So one learned to be careful.
.... When the tophole reached through to the heading above, the next step was to take coal out from the pillars between the topholes and the crossings. The collier then had a fairly easy task as the coal rolled out if struck at the correct angle. Most of these pillars of coal were removed leaving large expanses of roof supported only by wooden pit props.
.... The coal hewer was a man of great skill obtained over many years of working at the coal face. He was able to look at the "face" and decide which side to work first in order to loosen the coal. His tools consisted of man-drills of various types, a sledge hammer and metal wedges, and an axe. The mandrills and axe were carefully sharpened and protected. He would not allow any unskilled person to use them. The boy's job was to take them up to the surface blacksmith for sharpening, but he would invariably collect them himself in case they were blunted by an irresponsible youth.
.... Hard work and coal dust frequently made these men appear older than their years although many worked on until 65 or 70 years of age. The skill and care with which he worked was a joy to see and many an elderly man who could hardly scramble to his place of work could far exceed the coal output of the younger, stronger and less experienced collier. The majority were men of great integrity and wisdom. It was a pleasure to work with them and I admired them very much. Little was said at that time about the dread disease of silicosis caused by rock and coal dust, but looking back I realise that many of them suffered grievously from it. The scramble up the incline, so easy for us, was interspersed with frequent rests while they wheezed and coughed. However, when he reached his domain he was king and no one would have the temerity to tell him how to do his job. His face was scarred with blue marks of many cuts and his hands calloused by the pick and shovel. He was frequently a "rough diamond" hut a true diamond he was amongst men.
.... The intermediate step between the collier and the Carter was the man who loaded the coal from the stage and pushed it to the point where the pit pony could collect several loaded trains and haul them out to the parting where they were hitched to the main rope and conveyed to the surface. These men were the young strong adults of the mine. No job this for the weak. The trains were made of heavy steel plate and even empty were difficult to push along the uneven rails. The load could be between I ton and 25 hundredweights. I have seen some of these hefty young men pushing two at a time and controlling them with great skill. The "Trammers" as they were known, had a longer shovel and the speed with which they loaded their vehicle was a source of pride and argument amongst them.
.... At the incline, which worked on the same principle as the two carts, the full tram was pushed over and a brake lever was used to slow the descent to a reasonable speed. At the foot of the incline was a man known as a "Hitcher" whose job was to attach the empty tram to one end of the rope and signal the trammer at the top when he was ready to receive the full tram. Alongside the incline was fitted a hollow pipe through which they called to each other. There were occasions when they misunderstood each other's instructions and a full tram thundered down before the empty one was hitched to the rope, with dire results. On receiving the full tram at the bottom of the incline the hitcher would shunt it to a small parting to make up a journey of about eight trains ready to be drawn out to the drift by a pit pony.
.... The person in charge of the pit pony was known as the "Haulier". His duty was to collect the empty trains at the drift and convey them into the headings to the point nearest to the coal face, and to collect the full vehicles and take them out to the drift, where they were marshalled into a journey bound for the surface. The hauliers were responsible for the welfare of their ponies and looked after them well. At the end of the shift they would return the animals to an underground stable in the care of the stable man. The animals were well looked after, groomed and fed, and were at all times in first class condition. However, they were not often taken to the surface as this meant a long walk up the steep drift as they could not be carried on any vehicle due to the low roof conditions. When the animals did surface after long periods they were temporarily blind, but it was a joy to see them galloping over the fields in the sunshine after their dark and cramped quarters below ground.
.... The worker in charge of the Spake and journeys of coal trains to the surface was called the "Rider". He controlled his trains by bell contact with the winding house on the "Bank". Stretching from the "Winder" to the bottom of the drift was a pair of electrical wires. The man placed a hook on the top wire and made contact with the other wire to form a circuit and ring the bell in the winding house one ring for stop, two to lower and three to raise.
.... In addition to the man in charge at the winding house there were surface workers to control the journeys and weigh the trains. Each tram was marked in chalk by the trammer, giving the collier's number and the quantity was credited to the collier. If a journey was derailed en route to the surface or any single tram lost part or all its load, it was marked 'Broken' and the collier was credited with the weight of his previous tram.
.... To check the loads at the weigh bridge were two "Check Weighers", one for the Company and one for the men. The men's Check Weigher was often also the "Union man" to whom we paid our Union dues.
.... At the end of the shift, weary and covered in coal dust, we made our way out from the coal face to the drift and waited for the spake to take us to the surface.
.... Friday was pay-day and the older men collected their pay packets and checked the contents against the details on the packet. So many feet of top ripping at so much a foot. So many yards of bottom cut to sustain the height of the roof when pressure caused the floor to rise. Payment for the work was made to the collier and invariably he would meet his Carter later on that evening to give him his remuneration, sometimes with an extra half crown if it had been a good week.
.... This is a brief glimpse of the miner of the 1930's. A hard, tough life, but I doubt whether in any industry, past, present or future, one would ever find such comradeship, loyalty and friendship as that of the old coal miner.
Source: The above memoir was first published in a booklet produced to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Ammanford Technical College in 1977. O J Anthony was a former coalminer and student at Ammanford Technical College who later became a policeman. A fuller history of Ammanford Technical College can be found in the 'History' section of this website or click HERE.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010