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I was called up for National Service in the autumn of 1943, by Douglas Ayres


D.J. Ayres

I was called up for National Service in the autumn of 1943. The pattern then was that you were called some two or three months before your 18th birthday so that your medical and registration was cleared and they could induct you into whatever area they wanted on day one.


As a Bevin Boy I received railway tickets to go to Stoke on Trent Station where I was met, as I recall, with other Bevin Boys and we were taken to Smallthorne Miners' Hostel near Burslem, which the locals call "Boslem". We were told to be ready to go to class on the following morning. We were issued with a miner's helmet made of resin and fibre and with boots with shiny steel toecaps. We were then given a training course which meant alternate days in the classroom taking notes and being told how the pit was organised; this included the supply of a copy of the 1911 Coal Mines Act. On intervening days we went down the training pit, which was Kemball Pit in Fenton near Heron Cross, Stoke on Trent. I still have the notebooks in which we took down the notes from the lessons and on re-reading them they are quite comprehensive up to a good GCSE O Level. I don't know if everybody there understood them; for example, being told about materials used. They discussed cast iron, wrought iron, mild steel, ordinary steel and those which could be forged and which can't and what they were used for. We were told about machinery, and about shot firing and details of the detonators, which would impress a modern terrorist. We were shown how to read a plan of the pit, with details of airways and which way the air doors fitted. We would need to know this because the plan of the workings is exhibited at the lamp house and must be brought up to date regularly. We were told the causes of fire; about nine of them were given, including the information on spontaneous combustion, which I researched subsequently. The old and new methods of working the coalmine with pillar and stall and the current long wall method, all was set out. In the old system a "pillar" of coal was left in to support the roof while the collier dug round in his "stall".

The whole seam is extracted in the modern long wall method. A width of 100 yards or more of coalface is removed to a depth of 2 or 3 yards in every 24-hour cycle via conveyors. The roof drops gradually in the relinquished waste area, which is supported on packs, i.e. piers of stone rubble, at short intervals. These prevent sudden large roof falls but are in turn crushed to a small mass. The design problem is to arrange the system of conveyor belts, loaders, trucks and the face itself with the minimum of air doors so that air circulated at all parts where men worked. The geological sequence was explained from the igneous rock to the Paleozoic up through the Cambrian and Silurian and the Triassic, up through the Tertiary. The geology of forming these rocks was not explained but the faults, which occurred in rocks, were described, including the folding of rocks and the dip and the strike of different strata.

Special terms were explained. A compressed air hose was called a "bag"; a "locker" was a cast iron rod, 1½ inches in diameter with a ring handle and a pointed end. You could insert it or even throw it into the spaces in the wheels to stop a moving wagon. Excavation into mixed strata of coal and dirt was called "ripping" if the rock was above the coal and "beating up" or "dinting" if it was below. A few of these words were used by us in the real pit, the rest forgotten in our notebooks. Safety principles were repeated again and again about the special electric switches and the details of the Davy lamp were given. Of course it's not a Davy lamp, it has been developed by two or three people in its various parts and it is now the Hailwood lamp. We were shown how the different flame patterns could be interpreted. If you turn the lamp right down you can look at the size of the extra flame above the base flame. This enables you to assess the percentage of any fire damp, methane that is in the air. There is also the automatic electrical equipment, which can show this; the actual configuration and mechanism was described with platinum contacts and various sealed systems, various porous areas and how the alarm contact is made if the percentage of methane is too high. We learnt that the temperature of the strata increased by 1°F for every 92 ft. increase in depth. We were going to find things very warm.

On alternate days we went down the practice Kemball Pit. Before going down we were searched for contraband, that is to say a means of causing combustion. Smoking is of course forbidden in the pit and you cannot carry matches. A match was found buried in the lining of my jacket - I don't smoke, and I was told off. Down below, pitmen with a craving chewed tobacco or took snuff. Once down we were shown the various methods of haulage which is the main part of activity in the pit, getting the coal from the face once dug and put on a conveyor belt, then on wagon to the shaft, the "pit bottom", and up to the surface. There were different ways of operating the endless steel rope, which moved along the various tunnels to the motorized wheel, which drove the system. Different clips could be attached to the rope from the wagon or a chain could be skilfully wound on to the rope. There was also a main and tail system with two ropes whereby one end of the rope was hooked to the wagon from the motor and the other rope on the back end of the wagon was paid out from a second motor via and round through the pulley at the road end.

The actual details of wagon assembly were hardly necessary because you just got on with it when you went in the pit. It was essential to learn the discipline of rope signals: one ring to stop, two rings to go and it was four plus three to reverse plus your station signal because nobody saw each other in the various stations of sending off and receiving wagons along the tunnel. Whoever stopped the rope was the only person who could start it again. If anybody else started it while you were adjusting something or lifting a derailed wagon, serious injury could occur.

Training didn't go very well for me because runaway wagons hit me across the shin, didn't break it, but put me off work for about four weeks which was, although painful, not too bad because I actually went home to my parents over this time while it healed under the supervision of University College Hospital. This couldn't be dragged out of course because I reported to the Ministry of Labour in London who ensured that I was swiftly despatched back to Stoke on Trent forthwith when I got my medical clearance.

As part of the training day, instead of lectures we would have an hour of physical training jumping about and kicking balls and exercise to get us fit. This fitness, however, was augmented when I had to report to the Colliery for work because initially I was not sent down the pit. Instead I was sent into the quarry, which was adjacent to the pit. This quarry had a red mudstone, a fireclay of some sort, which I hacked away by pick and shovel, loaded into the wagon where I had to push it along and up to the area where there was a brickworks and there the soft mudstone was put into a press where it was squeezed out in a proper form at a convenient moisture content to make bricks. That quarry work was the hardest work I have ever done in my life. It was through winter and you often had freezing water round your ankles and we had leather boots and no wellies, raw fingers, it was so cold, it was so hard and it sometimes rained and you had to carry on working. I looked forward to the warmth of going down the working pit, which came after about five weeks.


The pit was the Homer and Sutherland Colliery. It was owned by Sir Francis Joseph, known affectionately, or otherwise, as Frankie Joe by the coal miners. The company that operated it was Settle Speakman and that was the wording printed on the wagons, which transported coal on the national rail system. The pit was a quarter of a mile away from the bathhouse, which was a building with a canteen. This had a clean side with lockers into which you put your clean clothes and then armed with only your towel and your soap you walked round to the dirty side and there you had another locker with the same key and in it you kept your dirty clothes, repeat dirty, because they were all full of coal dust so once you put them on you were filthy from that minute and that's what always gave me a horrible feeling, putting this stuff on. You walked across with your locker key and your lamp check and your snapping tin (i.e. lunch) and water bottle to the pit and to the adjacent lamp house. You handed in your lamp check and they handed you a hand lamp, which had been on charge all day, and should last you the shift. Every miner has a lamp check. This is a round metal disc with his number on it. It is handed in at the lamphouse in exchange for a lamp and a hexagonal metal check with the same number. This check is placed on a hook on a location board fixed near pit bottom, before the miner goes to the job site. It informs officials where the miner is and must be collected before going up the shaft. The original round check is handed back when the lamp and hexagonal check is returned. This way nobody gets lost. Abuse of the system is a disciplinary offence. My check number was 3462.

Although you were paid from a nominal time of starting e.g. 7.00 a.m. on day shift, you had to get to work well before this, to change and fetch your lamp. The lamp house counter was closed sharp at 6.50 a.m. and if you didn't reach it by then you were turned back. This meant a return to the bathhouse, a full bath after wearing dirty clothes and no pay. If this happened several times you could be disciplined or even be taken to court for absenteeism. Hand lamps were the basic lights; they were about a foot high and shaped like a squat lighthouse, with a carrying hook on top. They were heavy and you stood them down and worked near them according to whatever you were doing. Certainly the colliers, the men who worked on the face with shovels, had hand lamps. Other people who were very mobile, the firemen or people who had to move about carrying things up the face, had a cap lamp. This was OK for seeing things but of course the lamp on your cap is just above the eyes so, as light is transmitted from this cap towards anything, it illuminates the covering of coal dust and there are very few shadows apparent. If you just stare ahead at things, they are not discernible until you move your head about or take your cap off and wave it about so you can generate shadows to see objects in very dusty areas. Cap lamps had check numbers in the 4000 series. You always inspected your hand lamp very carefully when issued because, if it had a leak, you tended to get an acid burn on your thigh. As you walked, one of the ways of getting around was to hook the lamp over your belt and walk in a sort of swinging movement leg to leg; as the lamp swung it should not touch your leg.

You could have "snapping" supplied by the pit, which came from some outside caterer. You had another lamp check for this, an oval check for which you paid, which you handed in at the lamp house and they handed you a pack of sandwiches which you put in your snapping tin. This was a tin where the two sides slid over each other. This had a dual purpose. One, of course, was to stop the air passing over the bread, because that hot dry air would make your sandwiches stale in about twenty minutes and the other thing was to prevent mice eating your lunch. The mice at our pit were known as "moggies" a term usually for cats, don't ask me why.

The essential thing, however, is the water bottle. I would carry a six pinter because I was in the hot pit as opposed to the colder pit. Let me explain, coalmines have two shafts, a down cast and an up cast. At the bottom of the shaft there is an area known as the pit bottom from which you go out into the workings. The down cast shaft is open to the air, cold air goes down there pulled by suction and goes into the workings and then along what is called the back air road through and back into the workings of the up cast pit on the other side, through there and up through all the haulage roads to the pit bottom of the up cast shaft. At the top of that shaft the area is enclosed and sealed with air doors. There is an area here at the side where the foul air, which has been through the two pits and collected all the gas and has of course become very warm, is sucked out to the atmosphere.


To go down the pit, the cage was controlled top and bottom, at the top by the banksman and at the bottom by the onsetter and they worked the signal system for men riding or for wagons riding and in turn their signal went to the winding man in the engine house. This had a very large drum with a single steel rope wound round it of some one and a half to two inches diameter, that was all and there was a special clip on that, called the King's Patent, so that if it overwound it would release itself leaving the cage hanging at the top.


The cage, which took men or wagons down the shaft, was two tier and 4'6" high at each level. The winding man in the winding house would raise a tier of the cage up to the loading level at the top, the banksman would push his supporting chocks with a lever to hold the cage in position, we would enter the cage bending with our knees slightly bent. The cage would then lift off the chocks, the banksman would pull them back so that the next tier could be lifted to position and supported again on chocks; more men would go in and then the descent would start. Of course we weren't allowed to go as fast in the cage with men riding as when coal was being drawn up the pit. Nevertheless it did sometimes reach a very high speed as that cage on that single steel rope descended but there was a safety mechanism so that if the cage was going too fast as it approached the pit bottom the winding wheel would stop suddenly. When this happened the cage under its three-quarters of a mile of steel rope which was quite elastic would bounce up and down with an amplitude of two or three feet. We would joke "Dust eer, theyd've paid won and threypence for this at Blackpool". When we got to the bottom you bent the knees, because if it dropped suddenly on to the chocks of the onsetter at the bottom while your knees were straight, you could damage a knee joint. Out of the cage we stood up and walked past the wagons some hundred yards to the assembly area before going to the workings. Here you took your hexagonal lamp check, which you had received with the lamp and hung it on your board for your district, mine the West Bowling Alley.

The overmen would be there and tell you where you were going. "Doug, on the plate". Most of the time I was on the plate. I was a twister pushing those empty wagons across hour after hour, till snapping time of course, some twenty minutes, no longer because if you relaxed too much then muscles weren't ready to go again, but you had enough time to talk. Once I walked over to sit with my mates and as I settled, the roof, where I had been standing by my plate, came down. A large piece of rock, about five feet long and two foot thick, fell. We were quiet for almost a minute and we started to clear up some of the debris and when the fireman arrived he was most upset, whether from the near miss or from the amount of paper work involved, I don't know. Going down from the assembly area through the workings was a long descent of about a quarter of an hour, going through air doors, walking down the main, steeply sloping crut, weaving between the wagons, which were of course now completely still, to get to the bottom. Almost a day's work to get to the site. As one wag put it "we'll win the war, we're stealing their bloody coal".


As I recall, my first shift was the afternoon shift as we were drawing coal in the afternoons that week. The drawing shift is when they are moving, digging, and taking the coal away, the other two shifts are preparation shifts. On one shift all the coal is dug out, on the second shift the equipment, the face conveyors etc., is moved forward to the new face, usually about a couple of metres and then some of the posts and bars supporting the roof in the abandoned area, the waste, are recovered. This gob or waste has packs of stone to support the roof of the area from which coal has just been extracted. A coal cutter goes along the new face; it has a long massive arm with a revolving chain so that it digs right into the coal at the bottom of the seam to a depth of one and a half or two metres after which holes are drilled into the coal above this, not quite as deeply in, and the explosive is put in. This is a low explosive, which is then fired so you have massive lumps of coal spread out all over covering the coal conveyor at the face, which the collier has to sort out when he gets there. Firing of explosive was under the control of the fireman or his deputy. Charges and detonators were put in shot holes and damp clay, brought down especially, was rammed behind it. Warning was given: "Fire on it, three (or "thray") holes". You took up position, well away, with your back to the explosion and waited till the three shots were fired. Later, steel tubes packed with compressed carbon dioxide were used instead in the shot holes. This produced more large lumps, a more expensive commodity, and fewer fine coal particles. Wagons full of charged or spent tubes were heavy to manoeuvre.

There is quite a long walk from the pit bottom down to the workings, along the haulage roads, which sometimes are very steep, as they lead from one seam to another which is excavated through rock, this is called the crut. At the bottom of the crut is the road that leads to your seam and I was working in what was called the West Bowling Alley. The Bowling Alley is an established seam in the geological series and West meant that this was a particular district of that in which we were working and on the wagons there would be the initials WBA because the colliers were paid for the coal that they dug. From the bottom of the crut, this main road, I went along to an area where coal was loaded from the conveyor belt into wagons. This main belt went along one side of the haulage road and ended at the face, which is called the long wall face and was at right angles to it. There were two face conveyor belts on either side delivering, in the middle of the long wall face, coal from both sides on to this central conveyor. Every shift, every 24 hours that end of that main conveyor was moved in another two yards or so and another length of conveyor belt was added. Then after perhaps three months or six months when the belt became very, very long, the loading end was moved inwards 100 yards so that it shortened the main conveyor.


The end of the main conveyor, where coal poured off, was raised up towards the roof, which was hollowed out, to allow wagons to pass below. It was suspended by chains from the arch or the rings as we called them and the rails were laid underneath it. On the adjacent road, the empty wagons came up alongside the belt and were pushed on to a solid steel plate spanning the empties road and the loaded road, about 10 feet behind the loader. This enabled transfer of the empty wagon to the loaded road without switches, which would clog. As the empty wagon ran on to the steel plate it ran on its wheel flanges and some strong young fellow would push it bodily across under the conveyor belt, till the wheels hit a metal bar at the back of the plate. This located the wagon so it could be pulled on to the loading track. The chap at the loader who was watching the coal drop into his wagon whilst easing it forward to make it fill evenly would call "through" when it was full; the other chap behind would push the next empty wagon so you didn't get any spillage; the ends of the wagons were flush against each other.

At the beginning of the shift or from time to time the collier on the face would try and get rid of a lot of coal by putting lumps of the size of a man on the face belt. These were then diverted round at right angles on to the hopper at the coalface end of the conveyor. There would then come along a massive piece of coal and as it got near the loader, even in the lighting we had, it cast a shadow and you called out "lump" because a piece of coal about five foot long, coming off the end of the conveyor, would not fall down with the stream of small coal vertically, but would go forward for a bit. It would then tip over beyond the end of the wagon and slide down beyond it to fill up the track; then you would have to stop the belt because you couldn't move the wagon. This was quite regular, we called out "lump" and the loader chap would pull his wagon forward to catch the enormous lump and sometimes, if he was too slow and missed it, it went on the deck and we'd all shout out "butterfingers".


The chap on the steel plate pushing and pulling the wagons whilst turning them was known as the "twister". He would pull the wagon knowing how it would move and turn so he would get the exact push at the right moment to slide it over with the minimum effort but which was still effort enough. I speak with feeling, because I was very often the twister and I did 600 wagons a day. The rolling friction of the flanges steel to steel required less force than a straight thrust, so it was a complex movement. Empty wagons weren't too bad but there were two others, which were. One was the grease wagon; this was a wagon full of thick black grease which circulated and went round all the pit all the time, coupled up in trains so that as it went round people would take this horrible black grease from the top covered in gunge and use it to lubricate points and switches. When the grease wagon arrived it was difficult to get hold of the damned thing because it was so slippery and sometimes you'd get an extra help. As you moved it forward and rolled it and the wheels moved, you judged the position when you could twist and you'd get your helper to push on a given point on a given signal and we'd manage to get it across. We'd get pieces of paper sacks to do this to put over the wagon side so we could handle it without getting covered in black grease.

The paper sacks came from stone dust and this was another thing which surprised me because usually people walked around covered in black dust but now and again two men would appear looking like ghosts covered in white dust, quite eerie. This was stone dust, a rock ground to a flour of the consistency of domestic baking flour. This flour was quite dense and was powdered limestone with a high specific gravity and quite a high specific heat; it can absorb much heat. What happened was that the stone-dusters would take half a bag of this stuff (these were in 1cwt bags) and carry it and scatter this flour on to every ledge, crevice, cranny, or whatever he could as he passed. The problem was that if there were an explosion with a flame advancing in an untreated tunnel it would be terribly dangerous because you'd get burned to death in the lethal mixture of coal dust and air. The effect of the limestone dust would be that the explosion would disturb it and so you'd get a mixture of rock flour and coal dust (you had to get 70% at least rock dust) suspended in the air. The limestone dust would immediately absorb the heat so flame could not proceed in the tunnel. These stone dust wagons were very, very heavy and again you sometimes called for assistance to get them across the plate.


These were the haulage staff receiving and despatching wagons at the stations. A set of four to six full wagons would be hooked together under the continuous rope and a 15-foot chain, weighing about 50 lb, was attached at the front by looping the end ring of the chain over the wagon hook. At the other end of the chain was a heavy hook, which was lapped over and round the moving chain three times. The rope moved forward about 5 feet during this time and you had to clip the hook back over the chain from the wagon before it tightened. The skill lay in holding the links pressed on the rope in such a way that the chain could be kept slack and slid back along the rope whilst avoiding amputation of the fingers. Generally this was done without gloves although the steel rope had nasty spikes from time to time. As the wagons passed you placed another chain at the back in a similar manner, except that you looped it under the chain in the reverse mode in case the rope was stopped or reversed in an emergency.

Wagons arriving were more enjoyable. You placed your foot on the chain to make it slacken and then with a swift flick released the ring from the wagon hook. Meanwhile, the rope had progressed 4 feet and you would not be able to catch up with it to release the chain, perhaps not before it reached the guard plate at the rope return wheel. By holding the ring and giving a twist and flick, a wave rang along the chain and it unhooked itself. By pulling, the hook end then spun over the rope for the number of turns applied and then, if you did not stop pulling in time, would hit you in the face or body. Skill and judgment were paramount for a good job whilst avoiding the cardinal sin of stopping the rope. There were other rope tricks, such as a half hitch with the hook wedged on the top edge of a wagon. This was illegal, regularly done, and enabled you to bring up 10 wagons at a time to the load area with ease.


At first I worked on the haulage bringing empty wagons to the loader and pushing the full ones back to make a small train of half a dozen wagons, hooking them up so that they could be attached to the moving rope. I then had a long period of twisting wagons on the plate. I saw only the end of the main conveyor belt i.e. the loader, but much later I had the task of taking timber along to the coalface itself. This meant walking along the continuation of the main haulage road alongside the conveyor belt where a rather poor supply track had been placed to wheel materials up to the face. In the early days they used "trows" as they called them or troughs, which was the proper name. This was a continuous steel channel about one foot deep two foot wide which was in 10 foot sections bolted together; it went right along parallel to the face where the men were working. At the business end where it delivers on to the main conveyor belt were air motors and underneath that last trough section a large steel connector was welded with holes drilled through it and to this was attached a long steel piston rod which went back and forth into a cylinder where it was driven by an air motor. The piston would suddenly push forward very quickly, the whole trough would move forward but there was a massive piece of metal, which it struck; this stopped the trough while the coal inside the trough slid forward. The piston then withdrew and then struck out again. The noise was indescribable, bang, bang, and bang. Dust flew up and as I got there I could see men in all this dust and when those with cap lamps turned their heads the beams of light sliced through the dust in all directions. Hand lamps were also there and men were crouching by watching the coal spill on to the conveyor belt. This was in a seam just over four feet high. Dust everywhere, heat everywhere, noise everywhere it was the nearest thing to Blake's vision of Hell. It would have reduced a Health and Safety Inspector to a shuddering wreck within a few minutes. This system must have extended back for many years, highly inefficient, nerve and ear shattering; monitoring this was a task sought by nobody. I was never delegated to it and after a few months they changed over to a system of a conveyor belt of rubber and canvas running the length of that half of the face down to the main belt.

At the beginning of the shift the whole of the face was full of loose coal and the collier who had his stint of seven yards would dig himself in to make his working hole so that he could move his shovel. The coal shovel is large and square-shaped with a slight scoop form. The dirt shovel is small and heart-shaped to push into and under masses of shattered rock ("dirt"), twice as dense as coal; it is used in the construction of packs. I learnt how to use the square coal shovel; if you are going to work for three or four hours at a time you must get into a position where you don't have to move your feet, where you can move your body and never grip the shovel too hard. Balance the shovel so that you push or pull it or put the force in the right position; hold it so that it moves lightly on the skin so the air removes the sweat and keeps friction to a minimum. No rubbing means no blisters.


As soon as there is room one should get a roof support in. This is usually a post and lid. The post is a steel girder section and a pad or lid of wood is placed on the top of it between the roof and the top of the post. This was just knocked in easily, just held. During the shift the roof would descend a quarter of an inch and grip tightly. The wooden bar was a longer piece, ten foot or so, which stretched between two posts. One of my jobs at one time was to snig or drag timber - a timber snigger, I am sure there are jokes there somewhere. The method was to carry usually a section of tree about ten foot long which you dragged with a piece of strapping; this was a section torn from an old conveyor belt, which you would make into a loop which went round the piece of timber. You went through on your hands and knees, because there wasn't much room with all that coal having been fired, dragging it with the strap between your knees until you got to where the collier required it. Sometimes this was right at the top end of the face where you were most welcome because the poor chap had been shovelling for about three hours and hadn't seen anybody except his neighbour. One was welcomed with a joke or some sort of teasing. As the shift progressed I took up more timber and at one time I saw Judder (which is the local name for George) working and he had cleared a lot of the space. I went past a metal post with its lid at the top and just knocked it slightly with the timber I was pulling. Unfortunately the post had been placed only recently, the roof hadn't tightened and over it went taking Judder with it and I always remember his false teeth skittering along the slope, along the warrant (local name for the floor of the seam). Judder was all right and most of us coped with little accidents. I got half buried by coal once. Coal is quite a low-density material and so really apart from the odd scar or scratch nothing much happened. At the end of the shift that face looked very clean and shining and empty, with the virgin face of tomorrows coal waiting for the next shift.


Behind the face conveyor belt, in other words the area from which we are retreating, the roof was supported by packs. A pack is a pier of stone with large stones round the outside and loose material thrown in the middle; this reaches up to the roof. In between these packs, to hold the roof up while you were working, there were temporary chocks, which were of timber, later of steel, which gave a support, which could be removed later and advanced to follow the work face. The roof slowly descended crushing these packs and there was no air circulating there; it was a most dangerous place to go, especially alone. Way back at the loader end delivering into the wagons, a similar pack, placed months previously, had been crushed by the pressure of the ground to much less than a foot. That was where mining subsidence started and was transferred up through all the strata to the surface.

All the strata were moving slowly under intense pressure. The tunnels were slowly closing in, especially in the most recently excavated zone. The boards behind the metal arch rings would gradually split leaving jagged edges for the unsuspecting. I would train new entrants in how to push a pit wagon along the supply track beside the conveyor. This meant putting the hands on the back edge of the wagon and never, never on the side edges. The clearance between wagon and rock face would reduce slowly until one day it could gash the fingers of a novice holding the side.


The collier would stand in the middle of the face swinging his shovel, with his hand lamp like a little lighthouse placed clear of his working area, and I can recall seeing Arthur, who used to work naked except for boots and a two inch leather belt round his waist and a blackish grey singlet folded over the belt across his back over his kidneys so that as he sweated the air didn't cool them because he felt that this caused his backache. That man swaying backwards and forwards as he shovelled, squat, black and glistening with sweat, epitomised for me the miners working for low wage, striking, trying to get a better standard of living over the previous century. He was now the best paid of the labouring miners; above this the mine management, the firemen, the overman, the under manager, the manager, were better paid and many had come through that route.


It is necessary in such a dangerous area to work closely together for the common safety and this is where I had to learn all over again. In the six towns of the Potteries area, which contained these mines, the local dialect was called Potsy. It had stayed with the 16th Century, the second person singular was used with the nominative form pronounced "they" and the accusative and dative pronounced "thee". The auxiliary verbs remained as in the old days, for example: "whist they bin" meant "where hast thou been?" Or "artowrate" meant, "are you alright". "Canna" meant "cannot" and "dunna" meant "do not". "Woot" meant would'st thou". Some special vocabulary from Old English included "fang ite" = "take hold of". Very important if you are handling steel rings which are extremely heavy and elusive things to hold, shaped like a hockey stick with a centre of gravity in fresh air. The first person plural of the verb conjugated with the "m" sound, for example "we'm go" or "we maun go" meaning we must go, this can represent the use of I am down to we am in a shortened form. Spoken at speed with that structure and that pronunciation it was initially unintelligible. Later one absorbed it.

An interesting application of this was when we left the colliery to go on the local bus into town when I was with another Bevin Boy, Ivor. We would converse a little in heavy Potsy in the presence of rather posh matrons who did not approve of us common workingmen and then suddenly we would switch over into our best southern accents and say "I say, Ivor, are you going to the Victoria Hall in Hanley next week? Barbirolli is coming to conduct the Hallé Orchestra with Eileen Joyce as soloist". The grand ladies would realise they were being sent up and purse their lips. In the pit dialect like this wasn't something you put on, it was part of you when you met your mates, you said "what see surree" which is not so far from the Shakespearean " What say Sirree" and "dusteer" for "listen". In some quarters the dialect was highly prized. The local paper, The Evening Sentinel, would, in its Saturday edition, include a paragraph or so set in dialect.

In the pit some haulage staff would chalk phrases on wagons such as "wonanatannerarowyerdunnera" (one and sixpence I owe you, don't I) or "getferknowthecaint" (find out how many wagons-full have been produced), or "sturd owt" (have you heard anything?).


Material that was not coal was called dirt so that if some of the rock in the roof between the rings spilled out, often as a result of the board between the rings cracking, then we called this "dirt down". This was likely to cause a derailment of the wagons. We would know about this because the movement of the haulage would be noticed and somebody would ring to stop the rope, but otherwise the derailed wagon banging into the side when moving would disturb dust which would sweep along. The worse derailment was when a heavy wagon full of limestone flour derailed. This flour filled the tunnel and drifted along. It had the smell of sweet marshmallow and as it passed me, taking almost a minute, that sickly smell made me shudder and as I write this I can feel that shudder creeping down my back. Sometimes a derailment caused the rail to be distorted from the sleepers. These were short flat pieces of wood with a dog nail driven into it. The gauge was quite accurately kept by everybody; in my case it was the distance between the end of my right elbow to the tip of my middle finger plus one finger from the left hand. Some dirt, i.e. small pieces of rock was invariably present in the coal as it went off in the wagons.

Before the wagons left from the area where they had been loaded, one of the haulage staff would dab it with a brush of pink or blue or green chalky liquid. Each colour identified one particular working district and in turn the colliers who had hewn that coal, and were to be paid accordingly. At the surface the checkweighman, employed by the Union, would double check wagon origin and how much coal there was as it passed over the weighbridge operated by the mine official. Coal then went to the screens where rock was picked from the material as it passed along the conveyor belt and was loaded away to rail wagons or local lorries for distribution. The dirt went up to a heap, which was called the dirt tip. The presence of small amounts of coal in such a tip and the wind blowing across would allow spontaneous combustion to occur. Pumps from the nearby canal pumped water up pipelines to the top of the tip where it sprayed over the surface and kept the level of combustion several metres below the surface so that no illumination was present which could be seen by enemy aircraft at night. "Dirt down" was always a delay and a nuisance and sometimes quite dangerous. We would also use the term as banter or even an epithet in joshing each other.


Looking back, one seemed to be living in a situation comedy where various characters were very colourful. Some had a nice dry humour laced with a certain vulgarity; some had a very short temper. I recall that at the end of one afternoon shift the colliers had all come along past the loader to the bottom of the crut where wagons were still being attached to the rope, i.e. they were still drawing wagons away full of coal to get as much production as possible. This meant that it was too dangerous to go up that sloping tunnel between those moving wagons to get out; this was another 20 minutes climb to the pit bottom and this was afternoon shift, ten o'clock at night and you had to get up there across the pit baths and out. If you had to catch the miners' bus back to the hostel you had to be pretty quick. The overman, Harvey, who had quite an intimidating presence standing there with his particular high powered hand lamp with a very strong beam along the tunnel said "hold on" and as men muttered, he said "don't be silly" and used the word "bastard". Arthur, standing there, launched himself at Harvey with his pick in his hand with the intention of killing him; the others grabbed him and held him back. There are some words you don't use in the pit. Getting out of the pit on afternoon shift was always a problem up to the time I got digs locally. On one occasion I missed the hostel bus and walked into Stoke on Trent and stayed the night in a Salvation Army Hostel before doing the next 6 miles the following day. At 3 a.m. I was visited by the Police who were looking for deserters but I had my Identity Card. Coming away during the 1947 winter after the afternoon shift, with wet hair from the pit baths, I walked up to the main road and the air was so cold that my hair froze on my head.


In opening out new faces, the crut would be bored down towards the new seam and the main haulage road established for wagons, being pulled outbye empty and returning inbye full of coal. Headings, that is to say blind tunnels were driven from this to follow the coal to confirm the geology and the practicality of mining the coal. It was quite a lonely job with only a handful of men doing various tasks. A large propeller fan was erected at the beginning of the headings and a tube made of sacking and some 2 feet diameter was hung from the supports along the top of the tunnel so that air was gently blown right up to the end of it and out again. Coal and dirt was carried along to the nearest wagon as the men proceeded. The heading started at the beginning of the return air road. This was another tunnel without tracks, parallel to the haulage tunnel, which led back to other workings. It was a very dangerous place because it was little used except in emergency escape, where water could stand covered by several inches of dust so that if you tripped and fell forward you might not survive. There were various bits of old equipment lying about, but one walked down this airway for about a hundred yards in the dark looking back to see light where men were working, to a point where there was an air lock, that is two doors. You opened one, shut it, then opened the second one and you found yourself in the main, well lit, haulage area. As ever, there were layers of sacking around the doors, to help control air, which we called brattice. You pulled the brattice apart, exposed the air door, pushed it open, went in, closed it behind you walked forward and out through the other door. It was a relief to get from that gloomy spot into the well-lit area. One night I was on night shift and had to follow this route. I could hear nothing much in the distance where the men had been working; I got to the air lock and pulled the sacking aside. I was confronted by a brick wall! This had been erected on the previous night and nobody had told me. The shock was the most frightening thing I have felt then or since. I turned around and almost ran, a thing forbidden in the pit, up towards that distant light as quickly as possible.

I had one comfortable job during this time when I was on continuous night shift. This was to drive the engine because I held a driving certificate. The engine room was suspended above the haulage road on timbers with the electric engine driving a very large wheel. At the engineman's seat I had the control of the brake and of the electric power, which I let in gradually to start the wheel moving and the continuous rope around it to move up and down the haulage roads. The men were working at headings near Station Two and the first thing they wanted was empty wagons brought out. After about three quarters of an hour I would get the signal, "one plus two", that is to say, stop and wait until it started again with the signal "two plus two". This would not happen for two or three hours while the men produced a wagon train full of material from the headings. At this juncture I would lean back close my eyes and have a nice sleep. I would be woken by "two plus two" rings and it was essential to remember the signal as you fell asleep because there were other stations as the men got into position to haul in the coal. A jolly pleasant few months during which I could get about during the day only having a few hours sleep in my lodgings.


Towards the end of the shift the colliers who had finished their stint would make their way out walking along past the plate and, as they got to that point where I and the other members of the haulage were loading and despatching wagons, they begged for water. Those men had taken in six or eight pint containers and had drunk and sweated the lot. I had probably finished most of my six pints but down there towards the shift end you gave them a swig as they passed. At this point the flow of coal on the belt was much more intermittent and so with the impending end of the shift we dressed ready for the off. This was called "loosit" and was represented by seven bells on the signals. When we heard this everything stopped and we were off. We followed the same climb up, past the tubs, through the air doors, up to the assembly board, took our lamp check and walked along to the pit bottom. Sometimes the onsetter was still loading wagons into the cage with great dexterity. As he pulled the chocks forward the cage jumped up, the full wagon entered, it jumped again so he could pull his chock out move down to the next layer and away. But the pitmen stood all the way round, out of the way, waiting to go up. On Saturday when there was a football match on day shift, they were very eager to leave.

One day the miners were all sitting around pit bottom crouching, tired, hot, waiting for the signal to change from loading wagons to men riding. This was controlled by the under manager Bob Brunt, squatting near the cage determined to get the last ounce of coal away. Murmuring grew louder until suddenly a clear voice rang out, (mine), in as clear and refined an accent as I could pretend, saying "Don't be a cad, Brunt, the Cheps just want to get beck to their jolly old loved ones, what!" There was a second's silence and a great roar of laughter round the pit bottom, except from me, I was rather scared, but after five minutes he relented. Going up was nice, up to the top where the banksman let us out. We went straight across a walkway to the lamp house, collected our round lamp check and back across the sidings, past the explosives hut, to the pit baths, off with the dirty clothes, into the showers and, starting with the hair, washed, and the black mud ran all over the floor into the gully. This left the back still dirty, which you couldn't reach. The pattern was to offer to wash somebody else's back and he in turn would wash yours. We tried to avoid Len; Len was massive, six foot plus, very muscular but very very hairy. It was like washing a gorilla.

The soap was issued, because it was in short supply, at the bathhouse, it was a big yellow block of laundry soap with the word "Bibby" on the side. Clean at last, back to the clean lockers and on with the clothes, black-eyed because you can't clean eyelashes with soap, you either left like that, looking like Elizabeth Taylor, or you applied a little Vaseline and then removed the coal dust round the eyes with a rag. In the baths while you were washing you checked any gashes or cuts that you'd suffered during the shift because, if they filled with coal dust, this formed a layer over which tissue would form. This in fact constitutes a tattoo and you had blue marks under the skin, the so-called miner's trademark. You removed this by applying a toothbrush to the affected raw flesh because it was better to get it out in the baths than leave a permanent mark. These were superficial wounds.

The pit, however, took a heavier toll. There was one fireman who walked about rather slowly with bottle lens glasses. I was told that he had the "stag", that is to say one of the mining eye diseases, "nystagmus". Another hazard is the effect on the lungs due to deposits of fine silica. Unfortunately where I stood on the plate, the on-coming dust in the air stream passing the end of the conveyor belt would to coat me, so that you could write your name on my chest. Black mud came down from the eyelids, no masks, and no goggles. I was blacker than some of the others and one day my parents came up to Stoke-on-Trent and my father visited me at the top of the pit. As I came out he took photographs and he saw my black and he said, "You've put that black on just to impress me". I never forgave him for that. He had had a very hard life in the First World War and at sea and in his youth in real poverty, living with a widowed mother. This had impressed me but he would not allow me to impress him. After my release I used to attend the mobile X-ray units which the Government sent round in the 1950s as part of the diagnosis of tuberculosis in the population; I was interested not in TB but in the observation of any shadow of silicosis in my chest. So far I have been lucky.

The canteen was subsidised and when I came off night shift I would sometimes expend a little of my sparse wages on a plate of porridge and golden syrup. Alternatively they` had a really nice dish of grilled bacon and hot cheese with a little milk over it which flowed in a nice tasty thick sauce with plenty of bread. Beats all your pizzas! I found lodgings in Fenton about a mile from the pit with Mrs. Whitaker the widow of a miner. I shared a bedroom with another Bevin Boy, Harry Williams, from whom I learnt a nice Birmingham accent plus his impersonation of a Black Country accent. The miner's widow was entitled to the concession of a load of cheap coal from the pit and once or twice when I had come home from night shift and was having my breakfast a lorry would arrive coming along the "backs", a road between the back gardens of the houses. The lorry would tip up and leave half a ton of coal in lumps of a cubic foot or more which had to be carried up the back yard into the coal outhouse which was next door to the outside lavatory. A few years ago I visited that house again and there was no sign of dear Mrs. Whittaker or her family and as I walked round the back I saw that it had been rebuilt with a bathroom and an inside lavatory. The area was now under blight because of coalmine subsidence.

Amongst all the humour and joking which held our community together down below there were rarely any actual jokes. We would snigger as adolescents about sex and girls, hiding our ignorance and the older men would look at us and say "what's they on abait? Ar't they on abait that theer, that as dogs fight o'er, atna?" and we'd laugh. We were teased about our girlfriends, what progress we had made in seduction; I won't quote that dialect! This was met with hot denials amid ribald laughter. In talking about their own wives the miners referred to "Ma lady", or "my lady", and sometimes in talking to us they'd refer to us as "our youth" an appellation, which my parents found amusing. There was one story about the miner who had injured himself and was bleeding profusely and they had tried to stem the blood with tourniquets and various dressings. Nothing worked. One miner said "I'll fix it" and put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled strip of paper which he rolled into a ball and put on it and the blood stopped immediately. What was that, his companions asked. He said "It's me wage slip. There's enough stoppages on that to stop bloody Niagara Falls". For my first week's wages, for six-day shifts in the pit, I received a net sum of £2.12s.6d. It didn't go very far after paying thirty bob for your digs.


As the old Wobbly poster (the IWW) used to put it: "You go to work to get the pay to buy the food to get the strength to go to work". Extra rations were provided for heavy labourers. An extra 12oz of cheese per week per person was allocated. Bread, i.e. the National Loaf, 15% wholemeal, was not rationed until after the War when the new Minister of Food, John Strachey, introduced Bread Units (BU's). Miners received an extra allocation of BU's. At the War Workers Club in the evening I mulled over whether to spend 3d. on a buttered bun which I really fancied. On a Saturday evening it was luxury indeed to go down to the chippie and spend one shilling on fish chips and mushy peas.


In the War Workers Club in Stoke (there was another in Longton), Bevin Boys, and other young miners, railway, pottery and shop workers came to drink tea, listen to records and dance and listen infrequently to lectures. The Club chairman was a Bevin Boy, Harold Rhodes, an engineering student who later qualified as a Mining Engineer and rose high in the ranks of the National Coal Board. I was enlisted as Education Secretary and received the services of the Workers Education Association who had members in the Club. There was one education weekend break when I arranged for a group to stay at Barlaston Hall for a short course on evolution. Mrs. Copeland was a sponsor of the Club and arranged for us to visit her Spode Pottery nearby.

Members brought the latest records to play for dancing. It was the Swing era with Harry James, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and the inevitable Glen Miller. There was also a new young singer called Frank Sinatra. I was into boogie-woogie and had got a couple of records and was impressed by another Bevin Boy, Jim, who had got the latest Albert Ammons record. This was on Parlophone and cost 5s.4½d. including Purchase Tax; a princely sum for me. He disappeared after a few months and a few years later when I was on weekend leave in London I encountered Jim as a bus conductor. On the weekends some miners took their leisure with Parker's and Joules' fine ales. There was a consequence to this because on Monday morning day shift, flatulence ruled and, downwind, in the unforgiving airway there is nothing to be done except make colourful remarks some of which still ring in my head.

In those days before television the wireless was the main home entertainment. ITMA had ceased after the death of Tommy Handley and the first Goon Shows came in 1946. There was a plethora of films with many cinemas, showing double programmes, changed twice a week. There were six pottery towns (Arnold Bennet's "Five Towns" plus one) and Newcastle Under Lyme. Old films from the 1920s onwards plus obscure B movies were pulled out of stock and shown. I was impressed by Erich Von Stroheim. Within a 2d. bus ride I was offered some 50 films a week. Live classical music was supplied by visits to Victoria Hall, Hanley, of the Liverpool Philharmonic under Malcolm Sargant and the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli.

There were evening classes at the North Staffs Technical College near Stoke Station and I enrolled in September 1945 to learn about organic chemistry, one of my many blank spots. I missed one lecture in three because I was on the three weekly shift cycle of days, afternoons and nights but gave up because the course was well above my comprehension. I changed to inorganic chemistry to keep up my skills and passed (Second Class) Intermediate BSc in the subject in June 1946.

We were all automatically members of the closed shop union, the North Stafford Miners' Federation (sic), and given ballot forms to complete at the bathhouse canteen to vote for some official or other. The membership card gave pay rates for Colliers, Crutters, Datallers, Roadmen, Motormen etc. plus rates for Boys from 14 years to 20½ years starting with the 1911 Basic Rates plus extra rates in 1936 and 1941 plus War additions plus Green Award. If you worked an extra shift at weekends, the overtime did not seem to apply to some of the additions and there was little extra money. On the contrary the time plus one fifth paid for the five-day week on afternoons and nights meant that you lost 11/5th days pay if you took a shift off. After nationalization by the Labour Government, day shifts were also reduced to a 5-day week but the explanation was that there was a bonus day if you worked a full week. If you took a day off you lost 2 days pay, whether days or nights or afternoons. So now it was no Hallé if you were on afternoon shift.

The Bevin Boys gradually changed to become absorbed among the other miners. There was little conversation about politics or religion, which was probably just as well. The main things were sex or football because "our Stan", Stanley Matthews, the local footballer who became famous, was much admired as was Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion and others whose names I forget. On Saturday there was a rush on day shift to get out of the pit by 1.30 (we left an hour earlier), so that the miners could go out through those baths and up to the special miners bus, which would take them to the Victoria Ground for the start of the match to watch Stoke City.

In the final analysis, as Bevin Boys we were young men, untutored or otherwise, from different backgrounds gathered together on what was dirty and dangerous work but we went there to join young and old men who were already doing it, either from choice or from force of circumstance, sometimes called poverty. After the initial badinage we were accepted, we were looked after, taught by them in that community of men cooperating with head, hand, brain and eye in the complicated task of hard work, which should be in the correct social circumstances most satisfying. So, no regrets but I'm not going back.

About 6 or 7 p.m. on afternoon shift on 8th May 1945, there came the message that the war in Europe was over. The message was passed on but work continued exactly as before even to that last climb up the sloping crut in a hurry to get out and to the baths. About 10 years later the Inland Revenue paid me the infamous Post War Credit of £9. Not a lot but equal to three weeks wages at the time. I was demobbed in mid 1947 and took the train to London and home.


On the surface in the Six Towns it was like living in a time warp. The little Bethesda Chapels, Baptist Churches nestled between terraces of houses. There was one fellow, a lone man, who stood on a platform in the middle of Fenton Square talking to nobody for an hour at a time on behalf of the Anglo Israel Society. I never found out what that was. When I returned over 50 years later to a reunion of Bevin Boys being held near Stoke on Trent, after visiting my old digs I walked up to find my old pit. The road was there, the kerbstones surrounding the road into the pit were there, which stopped at the other side of the pavement where there was a fence. Beyond the fence the ground fell away and there, in that vast area which had held quarries, brickyards, training pits and working collieries, sidings, screens and our very own dirt tip (slag heap to you), was the motorway. Everything had been wiped out. In Hanley Centre the inevitable omnipresent electrical, clothing and pharmaceutical and food stores of multinationals masked the original identity of the place. The little shops near my lodgings where I'd watched cobblers making their own twine to repair shoes by hand and other shops where pikelets and oatcakes were the local fare had gone. Instead in Stoke there was the oatcake shop selling Staffordshire oatcakes and distributing them to supermarkets. As I went about on the bus or in the streets I heard the familiar Northern accent but never that dialect. The Victoria ground was closed and the Club had moved up to the new Britannia Stadium. The dozens of little cinemas were there no longer, most of the pottery banks with their bottle shaped kilns had gone, and so were the other coalmines. The local tourist advice was that there was a Coal Mine Museum at an old pit several miles out of town where one could visit and actually go down a shaft to see how it was, but without the dust. I had left the pit and the pit had left town.