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.