From Hook to Book

Return to the Coal-face

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandfather trekked down the pit road six and a half days a week, sometimes a mile into the gloom, to reach the current coal face of the Hamilton Palace Colliery in Lanarkshire, Scotland. (Those who lived in the colliery’s tiny pit village of Bothwellhaugh affectionately knew it as the “Paillis”.) It might have taken John an hour before shift start for him to ride the cage down hundreds of metres to the road below before beginning his walk, and he didn’t earn a shilling until the first coal shards hewn hit the bottom of his skip.

In the quiet of the mine, every noise magnifies, the laughter and cursing of men, the snickers and snorts of pit ponies, the clang of picks on rock and shot fired into the bords bringing down stone and coal and earth. Some shifts, depending on your bord (work face), you’d spend soaked to the skin from start to end, if not soaked with sweat from the heat generated deep underground, you’d be wet through from the sodden roads or lying crouched in cramped quarters to get at the coal.

We can read a hundred books, and scan a thousand photographs and still be hard pressed to realise the eerie, cloying nature of dust-filled air and the closed-in walls of the underground caves of a coal mine. Tiny lamp lights carried not far in front, especially in the days of naked flame lamps pre-gas and battery lit lanterns. Danger lurked in a myriad of life-threatening ways. Precipitous rock was not always given to staying put leading to frequent “falls of stone”, or men and lads might face a panicking pit pony sending a tonne of skip and coal  careering down the tracks to crush any body unable to jump into a cutaway in the wall, or see the pony fall victim itself, another of the many unfortunate creatures  lost to the task.

Men might  drown with an inrush of water. Others fell down shafts or found themselves crushed between hutch (skip) and props. The tales and manner of demise of workers, especially in the shameful era before men’s lives were considered more important than the tonnage hewn, are endless, even without the oft written about explosions from fire damp and roof falls. I cannot imagine many miners, wheelers, shiftmen or engine drivers began their shifts at ease, nor saw their loved ones wave them off without a prayer. In the course of writing my novel, I’ve imagined their discomfort, the dirt, the wet, and the fettered fear that must have travelled the pit road with all who worked the tunnels. Last week, for a second time, I ventured down a coal mine too.

My first trip underground was mid-2010 when I went down a Lanarkshire coal mine, into the gloom, yet fully trusting of our guide and in the knowing we were down for a limited time and with all the safety precautions of modern-day OH&S. Still I found it unnerving and the prickles jagging up my spine only eased on stepping back into daylight. I was determined though to tour underground at the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, it being my great-grandfather, John McConaghy’s workplace the last eighteen-years of his working life before ill health saw him retire in 1930.

Regardless of whether you’ve a family history connected to mining, the tour at Wonthaggi offers excellent insight into the workplace/life of a miner, wheeler or shiftman. From the steep trek down a (tourist smooth) path between the skip tracks to the ride out up the very steep incline in a cage train, I found the tour took me not only down into the mine but transported me to another time. Part of me wanted the human voices to hush and let me hear the whispers and sounds of the long-ago workings take up instead. Only the coward in me remained happy to keep it real and modern and focused. A few seconds pause, at one stage, saw our humorous guide, Rod, snapping off the lights to give us an inkling into just how black, dark can be. From then on, though the periodic lamp lighting somewhat injured the pretence going on in my imagination I was most grateful for the light they cast just the same.

Rod told us tales of how the miners used to kick the thunder box before opening the lid for a sit, lest they got a bite on the bum from a rat for their oversight. Yet the rats were the miners’ mates. The miners used to feed them. And if the rats hung around, you knew you were pretty right. But if the rats were running past, you knew to high-tail it out of there fast too.

We writers and descendants are lucky to have such opportunities to hear the whispers of our forebears and vicariously experience a tiny taste of their lives, without the danger, the suffering, the physical and health damage working in any mine (be it coal, gold, tin, or other) can inflict on a body leading to premature illness or death. I’ve often lost sight of some of the harsh realities while writing my novel, which is set in both Wonthaggi and Bothwellhaugh. At times I saw only the romantic side of a different era and place and lifestyle, despite working hard to establish authenticity, but then even war can take on a romantic side in literature. We can paint the suffocating air, the crash and grind and squeal of a hutch careening out of control and slamming into flesh, but I am grateful not have to see and live the aftermath and grieve as men, and wives and mothers did often in days when many had no choice but to follow the pit road. I am grateful as are some I’ve interviewed and read about that those days are gone. Though there are others that equally mourned the passing of such days and a life that was all they knew.

I’ll be proud to see the novel that has resulted from my research published. I’m delighted that the feedback coming already has acclaimed its veracity and believability. Research is my bliss in being a writer, almost equal to the writing, be it interviewing a rodeo clown, climbing down a coal mine, or scuba diving in the ocean. I wonder what on earth, above or below, is coming next…

I’d love to know what type of things you’ve done or adventures you’ve had in pursuit of authenticity in your writing research. If you like, you can leave me a message in the comments.

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14 thoughts on “Return to the Coal-face

  1. Fabulous post, Chris. You described the experience so well that I almost felt claustrophobic reading it and I don’t usually get claustrophobia.
    What an amazing experience to follow in your great-grandfather’s steps. I hope you wore your disc. Now I know why your books is so realistic. It’s the research you do.
    I don’t think I want to go where my WIP is set =- Hell.

    Good luck that Maire finds a suitable home soon.

    Alison

    • Thanks, Alison. I’m glad if it gave you a little taster. My initial visit to Wonthaggi gave me not only a taste of the life my great-grandfather must have led, but screamed of a story waiting to be told. Mine is fiction and not my grandfather’s though, since he led a very quiet life.

      I did wear my “510” token and the guide noticed and asked the backstory and the connection. For me it’s twofold as my mum’s dad also worked at Wonthaggi SCM, briefly, when he was young, along with a few of his brothers. It no doubt gave Ted a strong affinity with his father-in-law (John). So the life was certainly a big part of my maternal forebears, though barely discussed while I was growing up. I think the family history is what gave me such a passionate drive and connection to the writing, though I also find the era and settings absolutely fascinating.

      I do think there has to be a limit to research, and I think hell is definitely where I’d draw the line. I look forward to reading your WIP when you’re and it’s ready.

      Best, Chris

  2. Hi Chris, great post – and so brilliantly described. i felt like I was there!

    Very significant for me as my grandfather and his brothers worked in coal mines. In fact my whole family did – uncles, cousins and my father for a while – because my grandfather, and his 8 brothers (they did have one sister!), owned the mines. My mother was an accountant working in the mine office.

    Yes, the family was well off – but they dug those mine shafts and worked at the (literal) coal face along with their employees. It was hard work and they earned their money. The family sold the mines off in the 60s to one of the big conglomerates.

    One of the brothers, my great uncle, was blown up in an underground gas explosion, which was so very tragic. I think it was before I was born. But I remember the canary stories and I have so many photos of various family members in their mining garb at the pit site.

    Thanks for bringing back memories – some great, some poignant.

    My own adventures for the sake of a story? Hmmnn – what does it say about me that my current series of YAs is set on the Gold Coast!! LOL. Sun, surf and slobbing – that’s me…

    • Thank you, Kerri, and for sharing your family mining connections. I’ve been amazed while I’ve been writing this novel just how many people I speak to are connected to either mining or Wonthaggi SCM in some way. I guess a big part must be the huge influx of immigrants in the early 1900s from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, many of them miners.

      It was a terribly dangerous life and one of my great-uncles died too in a mine explosion at the Golden Gate mine in Mathinna, Tasmania, which was so sad because he’d survived and returned from WW1 only to die in the mine leaving a young wife and five-month-old son.

      The canaries are amazing in how they can detect the gas and are still apparently the best detector to be had according to our mine tour guide.

      Enjoy that sun, surf and slobbing. Sounds divine on this freezing Melbourne (summer’s) day. 🙂

      Chris

  3. Hi Chris,

    My granddad was also a migrant coal miner in Huntly, North Island of NZ. He died before I was born, but I remember his coal mining helmet with a light at the front.

    Chris, is this novel a YA?

    • Hi Angela

      Thank you for telling me about your grandfather. New Zealand was another major migrant destination. What lives these men and their families led and how brave to leave all they knew and migrate to the far side of the world knowing they’d likely never return.

      My novel is adult but it has very strong crossover potential, particularly as the protagonist is only fifteen in the beginning. I think it would gain a strong readership in the upper secondary age bracket. I think a publisher will decide the best market to aim for and I’ve tried not to aim it at one or the other.

      Cheers,
      Chris

  4. What a wonderful post, Chris. I felt I was there, in the mine,
    struggling for breath. Some of those miners had no choice.
    My own Scottish Great Grandfather I remember as a learned
    man but I never knew what his life had been.

    Your book will be very special.

    • Thank you for your wonderful comments, Corinne. The edginess down there had the same effect on me, though there’s all sorts of safety precautions, air protection and risk detection systems in place, unlike a century ago. We’ll have to compare notes on great-grandfather’s birthplaces, though mine actually came originally from Ireland.

      Chris

  5. You’re braver than me, Chris. I’m sure that research will pay off though in a realistic setting and story. It’s not the sort of hands on research i could ever have done. I’ll settle for reading your account of the experience.

    • Hi Dale

      I’m not sure I’m so very brave, Dale. More determined and really wanting my writing to come from an authentic experience. I was very toey both ventures down the mines, and the last, it didn’t thrill me to know a lot of the tunnels are flooded. “The water can’t break through, can it?” I worriedly asked. It’s funny how many scenarios can run through the over-active imagination of a writer at such times. Our joy can just as quickly become our terror. 🙂

      Cheers, Chris

  6. Chris there was a movie that was set in Wonthaggi, shot in Wonthaggi in the early 1980’s- the local library there would have it, I’ve gone completely blank on its name but I remember the excitement around its opening- my grandfather was a miner there and they filmed in a miners cottage around the corner from my grandparents house.

    • Hi Green Mama

      I have been trying to obtain a copy of “Strikebound” for two years without success. Thanks for the clue about the local library might have it, for I’ve had no luck in my search. I’d love to see it and I can imagine the excitement of the film opening. BTW, was the miner’s cottage in the film in Hagelthorne Street or can you remember which street?

      Many thanks for dropping by again too.

      Chris

  7. Strikebound, that’s it! It was in a lane behind Hagelthorn Street, near the corner of Cameron Street. My grandparents lived in Hagelthorn Street, and my parents have a farm at Cape Paterson so I’ve driven past the mine a million times, but never felt an urge to visit. Now thanks to you I think I might. I know that Newhaven College Year 12 students used to do local histories, and I’m sure some students after my year level (20+ years ago) did elements of the mine too. The local historical society has a good rep too.

    Can’t wait to read more of your novel development

    • Thanks for that info. I’ve checked out the original SCM built cottage on the corner of Hagelthorne Street, and there are some fantastic older houses still in the street.

      The WHSociety are fantastic and I’ve been in touch with a couple of wonderful members who’ve assisted me both on info on the town and the mine. Invaluable resources and great contacts indeed.

      I hope I won’t keep you waiting to long to hear of new developments with my novel. 🙂

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