Belts, Bells and the Bullhurst
by Barbara Harding
It was to be the ultimate experience for my two friends and I, when in 1953 we went on an underground visit to the Bullhurst seam in Chatterley Whitfield colliery. At that time I was one of only three girls working in the area laboratory based at the pit.
When the visit was first mentioned, we were all very excited, if a little apprehensive. However, Gladys Walker, Joyce Dawson, and I were very keen to experience what it was like to work underground. We were told to bring in some old clothes. I had a boiler suit and a pair of strong but comfortable shoes.
We were to go underground after work on Friday evening. My boss Mr Walter Robertson, the Area Chief Scientist, would accompany us. We all felt thrilled by this wonderful opportunity to see pitmen and pit work at first hand.
The visit started when I was given a black pit helmet that had to be adjusted to stop it falling around my ears. Then it was off to the lamp house to have a lamp battery fitted on my belt. The light itself was placed into a slot at the front of my helmet. They weighed a ton. When we reached the top of the shaft, unlike the miners we weren’t searched. The banksman only asked if we were carrying contraband like cigarettes, or if we had any means of lighting one. We all said no.
We were then allowed to step into the cage and nervously inquired if it was to go down as fast as when it carried the miners we were reassured that it wouldn’t. The chain safety gate was locked into position; the banksman rang the bell to tell the winding engine man it was safe to go.
Suddenly the cage plunged downwards into the dark shaft, and for a moment I felt I was floating like an astronaut. I hung on tightly to handle at the side. Even with my eyes tightly shut, I was filled with nervous excitement as the cage rattled against the guide ropes. Then I slowly opened my eyes and was filled with terror - it was pitch black!
Mr Robertson turned on his lamp and I saw the shaft walls screaming past I can tell you I was very relieved when I felt the cage slowing down before coming to a stop in the pit bottom. For a few seconds we sort of bounced as we hung in the shaft. Then the onsetter lifted the safety gates and I walked out.
As I entered the pit bottom it took a short while to get my bearings. My first impression was one of surprise. I was stunned to see everything was painted white. There were girders supporting the roof going up to a point. It felt like being in church.
From the pit bottom we all made our way along the roadway, to a set of ventilation doors, where a bell was rung. It was answered by another bell from the other side. Then the first door in a set of three was opened and we made our way through. We were told to watch our feet, as the floor had a deep covering of white stone dust. I was told this dust was to prevent explosions of coal dust. Then I noticed something moving in the dust and was told that it was a steel haulage rope and to be careful because there had been many broken ankles from it.
We then walked to the man riding station where were told to get into a low-lying wagon, and lie almost horizontal. Again bells were rung and the wagon started to move along the dark narrow passage. As I lay there with the light from my lamp illuminating the arches over my head I wondered how many millions of tons of rock there was above me, I can tell you it was strange feeling. But it passed and we were soon laughing and joking enjoying the experience. Finally the wagons stopped we alighted and started to make our way towards the workings. As we came nearer to the face it seemed that bells were ringing all the time.
Then I could see lights up ahead, we had reached where the men were working. It was quite warm and dusty. I had to crawl on hands and knees along a short passage that took me on to the face. The first facemen I came to shouted, “Careful lads, the girls are here”.
The nearest collier to me said” Any good with a pick”, I replied, “Pick, shovel, and paint brush, that’s me”. Quick as a flash, a pick was put in my hand. I took a mighty swing and embedded the pick deep into the coal. The problem was no matter how hard I tried I found it impossible to pull it out!
The collier offered to help, but no, I struggled to remove it myself. At last, with a mighty tug, out came the pick together with a large lump of coal. I was delighted, and said I was going to take it home. Another collier said, “Bloody hell, she’s got more off than I have all shift”. They told me that I couldn’t take that much home as it was too heavy, so they gave me a small lump in its place. I was delighted and still have it today.
The coal was being moved along the face by a chain conveyor. Face men were cutting coal off the face with their picks, or shovelling it on to the chain. Others were setting steel bars and props to support the roof. The noise from the machinery was deafening. At one point, we all switched off our lamps; it felt peculiar there in the total darkness, like I was back in the 1700’s. We stayed on the face for almost two hours.
On the way back out from the face I was shown the main haulage dip. It appeared to me that there was a continuous movement of full and empty wagons coupled together in groups of three rattling and grumbling up and down at a brisk rate. From there we retraced our steps back to the pit bottom, again accompanied by the inevitable bells. We all returned safely to the surface, although a little tired I felt fabulous, and had enjoyed the experience immensely.
I was very dirty, but that didn’t matter, in fact I was quite glad, as it was part of the whole experience. I wanted to go to the showers block in the pithead baths, but the manager insisted that we use his shower. I felt really disappointed that we couldn’t use the men’s baths, as it would have finished off the day.
From then on whenever I was typing reports of my underground visit it gave me greater understanding of the terminology.
Although there were times during my period underground when I was apprehensive, I could not have been in better hands; I knew that I was safe and would be well looked after. I still can’t understand why the miners would want to work half a mile down a shaft and a mile underground, with all the dangers of dust, gas, water, and roof falls. I said it then and I say it now “Miners are worth all the money in the world to go down there and work as they do”. I think the abiding memory I have is of the camaraderie among these brave men.
They really are the salt of the earth.