I was born in 1940 when my father was an under manager at Dorman and Long’s Leasingthorne Colliery a in South West Durham. He was subsequently under manager of two other Dorman and Long pits i.e Bowburn and the Mainsforth Collieries (around 1943). He took up his first managership when he became the manager of Leasingthorne sometime after 1943. Between about 1937 and 1964 my family lived in at least 7 different houses as a result of my father’s career b in the pits of South West Durham.
|My Father, E. Fletcher||Click Below For More Details|
|1945 – 1952 Manager:||Leasingthorne National Coal Board (N.C.B.)|
|1953 – 1955 Manager:||Thrislington National Coal Board (N.C.B.)|
|1956 – 1957 Manager:||Metal Bridge Drift National Coal Board (N.C.B.)
and Thrislington National Coal Board (N.C.B.)
|1964 – 1965 Manager:||Metal Bridge Drift National Coal Board (N.C.B.)|
One childhood memory still with me stems from my father’s period as Manager at Leasingthorne. In his time there he met his overmen at the colliery offices one morning of each weekend. As a treat he often took me with him. On one of my early visits I was shown the cage for the canaries the mine was required to keep 3. On subsequent visits I often popped into that room to spend time enjoying the song and flitting about of the birds. It was in that room that I was told that canaries were carried by members of the District Rescue Brigade 4 and the pit rescue team C when attending some mining incidents because the birds can detect carbon monoxide which humans cannot.
Another childhood memory is of the banner of Leasingthorne Colliery branch of the NUM going to the Durham Miners Gala and being paraded, I think on its return, through the street in Leeholme accompanied by a band. The banner was also accompanied by branch members and their families some dancing to the music.
I joined the coal industry in 1958 when it and the miners it employed were benefiting from changes brought about over a period of years of just more than a century. The biggest change was the Nationalisation of Pits 5 10 years before. Some changes had come about as the result of the continued passing of Acts of Parliament aimed at improving safety, working conditions and terms of employment. Others had flowed from the birth and activity of the mining unions. A fourth set were in progress as a result of the push to increase the mechanisation of mining and the more and better machinery that was becoming available. Mining seemed to have a bright future ahead of it.
The National Coal Board was a multi-level organisation. Its Durham Division consisted of a number of Areas, each of which was supervised by an Area General Manager. No 4 Area was in South West Durham and was roughly the part of the county that ran eastwards from just west of Evenwood to Kelloe Colliery, East Hetton and southwards from Bearpark (a few miles west of Durham City) to an imaginary line running through Leasingthorne and Eldon.
The Durham Divisional Chairman in
December 1956 was E. H. D. Skinner.
May 1960 was Dr W Reid.
My initial contact with No 4 Area’s Head Office was when it was in Darlington. It was subsequently in Howlish Hall, Coundon, and had an outstation in the outbuildings that stood in the grounds of the house that was at one time the home of a Group Manager called Mr Foreman. Travelling in the direction of Westerton the drive to that house was off the right hand side of the Coundon end of Westerton Road. I believe the outstation was the Area’s laboratory. Some time in the 1960s the Head Office moved into a purpose built block on Green Lane, Spennymoor. I understand that in recent times part of the block has been occupied by Sedgefield Borough Council.
No 4 Area was organised into Groups of mines near each other. Each Group was supervised by an individual known as the Group Manager. Group Managers held mining qualifications. Some pits in and nearby Ferryhill formed A Group, No 4 Area, Durham Division. For a number of years its offices were at Dean and Chapter Colliery, Ferryhill.
No 4 Area had a Central Workshop, an Apprentice Training School and a Miners Training Centre within the grounds of Tursdale Colliery, Near Bowburn. The Miners Training Centre provided several services. I first visited it with my father to support his colliery’s First Aid 4 team in the Final of the Area’s Annual First Aid competition. The winner of those Finals went on to complete in Durham Division Finals and the Divisional champions to compete in the National Finals. The Centre trained some miners to test for methane gas and tested miners seeking to be shotfirers and deputies to see whether they satisfied the gas testing requirements for such advancement. You will hear more about shotfirers, deputies, the Centre and the Apprentice Training School later.
a. Visit the Durham Mining Museum website for a lists of County Durham coal mines in existence in some of the years between 1869 and 1991
b. Visit the Durham Mining Museum website, outlines some under-manager and managers positions held by an E Fletcher. The information seems to fit with what I know of my father’s career.
c. See Glossary Rescue Man
d. Bowburn Colliery photo, Bowburn Local History Society
e. Dean and Chapter Colliery Photo, Northern Echo
The (first) relevant legislation found
1. The Coal Mines Regulation Act 1872
2. The Coal Mines Regulation Act 1887
3. Regulations were made under the Coal Mines Act 1911
4. The Mines Accidents (Rescue and Aid) Act 1910
5. Coal Industry Nationalisation Act of 1946
I should perhaps start by explaining that in these notes I use the terms that I used in my days in the pits of South West Durham. Those of you who have either been miners or lived in a mining community will know that the name of a tool etc. can change from coalfield to coalfield, Area to Area within the same coalfield and from colliery to colliery even when they are within a short distance of each other. I apologise if the terms I use cause any confusion.1842 1 saw the prohibition of the employment underground of all females and boys under 10 years of age. The age from which boys could be employed underground was raised from 10 to 12 years of age in 1872 2. The lowest age at which children could be employed at mines as surface workers was raised from 10 to 12 years of age in 1887 3. That year also saw limits placed on the hours children above that age could work in that capacity 3. I believe that in 1957 15 years of age was the minimum age at which a child could be employed as a mine surface worker.
My first permanent job was as a new entrant miner at Leasingthorne Colliery a. I started there in January 1958. Some of my first weeks in the employ of the NCB were spent at No 4 Area’s Tursdale Miners Training Centre on a course I had to attend before I could work on the surface at a colliery.
I went back there shortly afterwards for a course that I needed before I could be employed underground at a working mine. This course mainly took place below ground and was an introduction to the sort of thing I would see and do when an outbye b job in the mine became available to me. It is my memory that I took my first shaft cage rides to get to and from the course’s underground tuition areas. Course members were introduced to the workings of some of the haulage systems used in local pits. We were, for example, taught how to couple and uncouple tubs, how to use sprags b – some would say drags – to slow and stop tubs and how to attach tubs to endless b rope haulage systems. We were also introduced to the pit pony. We had to harness and couple one to a tub b using chains or limbers b.
Leasingthorne’s mining entrants who completed the second course were given a job below ground as and when there was a vacancy. In the meantime they worked on the surface waiting for their turn to come up. I moved on before it was my turn to take up a vacancy.
When I was a surface worker I was a member of a team tasked with a number of jobs. One was to unload the lorries making deliveries and to top up the stockyard stocks of supplies used underground. Another was to load supplies on to tubs and trams b for transport underground. The supplies we handled included wood props, wood roof planks, Dowty b hydraulic props, steel roof bars, arched and other girders, the plates needed to join them, steel rails and fishplates. We did not handle explosives or detonators.
Further Education and Apprenticeship Programmes
Whilst I was in the coal industry a body (The Mines Qualifications Board)1 set two colliery management exams. It also set the educational qualifications and practical experience a candidate should have1 before he could apply to sit each category of those exams. One exam led to the Second-Class Certificate of Competency1 – the Under Manager’s Certificate. The second led to the First-Class Certificate of Competency2 – the Managers Certificate. Entrants with the necessary qualifications and practical experience could take and pass the “Manager’s exam” without ever sitting the “Under Manager’s exam”.
The NCB had Further Education Schemes under which its employees could study. Local Technical Colleges ran courses leading to the Ordinary National Certificate a (ONC) and Higher National Certificate (HNC). The students could take evening courses leading to the ONC and HNC. The last year of the ONC course was also available by Day Release. The subjects taken in the final examination for Ordinary National Certificate in Mining were:-
- Mining Technology
- Mechanical Engineering Science
- Electrical Engineering Science
ONC and HNC courses in surveying were available to NCB employees who were training to become Mine Surveyors 3.
Polytechnic Colleges ran Sandwich Courses b for NCB employees holding either the ONC or GCE A levels. These led to Higher National Diplomas a (HND) and took 3 years to complete. Such courses were, I seem to recall, available in Mining Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. Around 1965 the BSc Star replaced the HND in both Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.
The subjects taken in the final examination for the HND in Mining were
- Mining Technology
- Colliery Mechanical Engineering
- Colliery Electrical Engineering
- Mining Surveying
- Coal Preparation
The NCB ran Apprenticeship and Student Apprenticeship programmes. Holders of GCE O and A Level certificates could apply to become Student Apprentices. The aim of one programme was to provide the Colliery Managers of the future. Student Apprentice Mining Engineers studied for the Technical and Polytechnic College qualifications and at the same time gained the practical experience that the Mines Qualification Board stipulated that entrants wishing to sit the Managers exam had to have. Shortly after starting at Leasingthorne Colliery as new entrant miner I sent an application for a Mining Engineer Student Apprenticeship to the headquarters of the National Coal Board’s Durham Division. My indentures, signed on 19 March 1959, say my four to six year indenture period began on 27 October 1958.
a The Ordinary National Certificate in Mining and the Higher National Diploma in Mining were awarded by the Institution of Mining Engineers in conjunction with the Department of Education.
b Mining Sandwich Course, students attended college for 6 months – roughly from September to April – and worked in their collieries the other 6 months of the year.
I wrote this note and some others for a relative involved in youth work. Some young people she had met in a South West Durham mining village knew little or nothing of the working life of members of their family who had worked in the pits. I hope you will read this as a supplement to the Lamp Section.
For some years before 1957 miners in No 4 Area, Durham Division, NCB had used an electric lamp arrangement similar to that in Picture 1. A few used cylindrical shaped hand held flameproof electric lamps a instead of a cap lamp. The battery container formed the base of these hand held lamps and was much bigger than the bulb housing that sat atop of it.
The duties of some Officials included the making of pre-shift and mid-shift inspections 1 of the working places in the mine. It was part of those duties to use their oil safety lamps to test for methane gas. Shotfirers were for example required to test for the gas before putting an explosive 1 charge in holes drilled for blasting. Some other miners in certain areas of the pit used to test for the gas 2. To perform the test the oil lamp’s flame was turned down – on those with round wicks until it was similar in shape and appearance to a fried egg. If the tester saw a blue fringe/border round the lowered flame it was a sign that methane was present in the atmosphere.
The use of special electric hand lamps to test for gas was being trialled whilst I was in mining. A flashing red light indicated the presence of methane.
The “other miners” carried oil safety lamps 2 similar to the one in Picture 2.
The lamps used by miners who were not “officials” were lit in the lamp house. Underground they could only be relit in one of a very limited number of places where a flameproof relighting machine b was available. These lamps had a contact on the base and a copper “prong” close to the wick – Pictures 4 and 5. The floor inside the relighting machine had an electric contact on which the contact on the lamp’s base was placed. The rest of the lamp base being in contact with the remainder of the machine’s floor completed an electric circuit. When the machine was closed its inside and the lamp were isolated from the outside atmosphere. After the machine had been closed cranking a handle sent an electric current around the circuit and a spark lit the wick.
Each official carried an oil safety lamp – a re-lighter c – that could be relit wherever he was in the mine. Re-lighters had a relatively small strip of brass with teeth (the ratchet) d that went into the base just below the glass. There was a flint and a small cog with a wheel on it inside the flameproof part of the lamp. Pulling the ratchet out and pushing it back ran the wheel over the flint to create a spark, much like the mechanism of an old cigarette lighter did. The spark relit the lamp but not necessarily on the first or second time of asking.
Oil safety lamps burnt colzalene e. They were opened in a lamp room on the surface for cleaning and filling and then resealed. They could not be opened/dismantled anywhere else.
Oil lamps were given out by and returned to a lamp room man. There was generally a self-service system for and collecting and returning electric cap lamps.
Every man about to descend into the mine had to pick up two checks 3 from the lamp house. In the mines in which I worked this was done as part of the self-service lamp collection system.
At Mainsforth Colliery, if not others, female nurses, who were I believe training in hospitals that could receive victims of mining accidents 1 were very occasionally allowed underground. They too had to pick up checks.
Each person about to enter the cage into the mine gave one check to the Banksman f. They handed the second check to the Banksman on their return to the surface. The checks were part of the system used to keep a record of each person entering and leaving the mine 3. The Banksman also made random checks for contraband g.
a. Hand held electric lamp (Glossary)
b. Safety Lamp Re-lighter (Glossary)
c. Deputy’s Lamp – (Glossary)
d. Ratchet – Deputy’s Lamp (Glossary)
e. Colzalene was the commercial name for the fuel used in Davey lamps / Clanny lamps
f. Banksman – (Glossary)
g. Contraband – (Glossary)
The Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908 came into force on 1 July 1909 except in Northumberland and Durham where it applied with effect from 1 January 1910.
Picture 2 to 5 are of a miner’s oil lamps used by my father as a Colliery Manager, possibly as early as 1945.
Student Apprentice Mining Engineer
“Bob Bradley’s Pit Terminology – Glossary and the Glossary on the Durham Mining Museum website (the DMM)include descriptions of some of the terms, e.g canch, that I use in this note. The everyday setting in which some of the other terms were used is explained in some of the chapters in these parts of the DMM.”a) The Elements of Coal Mining by Daniel Burns
Mr F(red) Penny in the Staff Department had oversight of the Student Apprentices and Directed Practical Trainees of No 4 Area, Durham Division. He kept a fatherly eye on how we were progressing in our technical education and in the acquisition of the required practical experience. As part of the latter he was always on the look out for special work that was taking place and made arrangements for at least some of his “students” to see what was entailed.
I can recall two pieces of special work that I was sent to see.
The first I attended was the installation on a coalface of No 4 Area’s first German designed armoured flexible conveyor and coal plough.
The second was prompted by the Coal mining legislation covering colliery shafts, which required the rope(s) on each of the cages to be
- cleaned and thoroughly examined at intervals not exceeding 30 days,
- recapped at the end at which it was attached to the cage at least every six months, and
- replaced at intervals of not more than 3 and a half years.
I was present when the rope attached to the cage in the Mainsforth Colliery upcast shaft was recapped. The recapping process required shaftsmen to stand on the top of the cage whilst it was on the keps at the top of the shaft.
Mr Penny also ran monthly meetings of his “students” most of which were held at the Tursdale Miners Training Centre. He was not averse to using the get-togethers to take us out and about.
I remember visiting Westoe Colliery on the Durham coast to see the colliery’s skip i.e. a new system for raising coal up the shaft. A skip was a large container into which the loose coal was loaded in bulk. At Westoe the tubs were unloaded near the shaft and the loose coal transferred to the skip for its journey up the shaft. In our pits cages that could carry between 2 and 6 one ton capacity tubs at a time brought the coal to the surface.
We visited the Imperial Chemical Industries’ Anhydrite mine at Billingham, Teesside. You can imagine our surprise when we saw huge dumper trucks of the size used in opencast mines and in the construction of motorways running in the mine’s underground roadways. By comparison the roadways in which underground locomotives ran in our pits were relatively small.
Visits were made to factories where mining machinery was manufactured e.g. Huwood in the Team Valley, near Gateshead, and Underground Mining Machinery in Newton Aycliffe.
Mr Penny was happy to take the group on visits to places not directly connected to mining. One was to the Wills cigarette factory somewhere near Newcastle upon Tyne. A couple of others that I remember took us to the breweries of Nimmos at Castle Eden and Vaux at Sunderland. Testing the brewery’s product was of course an essential part of the visit.
The practical experience side of my Student Apprenticeship programme was mostly spent working alongside and performing the same day to day tasks as those undertaken by people for whom I would have overall responsibility if I became a mine manager.
In the first few months of my apprenticeship I spent a few weeks working for the Mainsforth Colliery Surveyor. Some longwall face workers were pieceworkers i.e. paid according to their output. The Surveyor’s staff visited each piecework coalface every Friday to take measurements of the length of the face, of the main gate and of the tail gate. The measurements taken on each such face were compared with those taken on that face the previous week and the difference between them used to calculate how much the workers on that face would be paid on the following Friday.
There was a whitewashed centre-line on the girders in the main and tail gates of a face. The line was used to keep the gates advancing in the direction it was intended they should follow. The Surveyor’s staff extended the lines whilst on their Friday visits.
Roadways had to be driven to open up areas of the pit’s reserves so the coal could be mined. Some of these development roads had to be driven on a specific grade as well as in a predetermined direction. The girders in them had centre and grade lines whitewashed on them. Each week the Surveyor’s staff extended these lines. His staff also took weekly measurements on those development roadways being driven by stone men on contract i.e. under an agreement setting out the rate, say per yard advanced, at which they would be paid.
Some piecework faces were easier to work than others so a quarterly system of casting lots, called cavilling, also known as calvilling, was used to allocate the place in which a filler would work in the upcoming period of three months. Cavils could also be cast to allocate the “driving” of main development roadways between teams of stone men.
I next spent a period working in different outbye parts of the mine i.e. away from the coalface. During that period I worked on some haulage systems. Miners were prohibited from riding on haulage systems except on a system specially designed for the purpose e.g. in man-riding carriages pulled by an electric battery or diesel engine powered locomotive. I understand that riding on some main roadway “rubber” conveyor belts became an acceptable way to travel on the way out at the end of the shift. In all the years I worked underground you could be sacked if caught riding any conveyor belt.
Relatively early in my Student Apprenticeship a couple of colleagues and I were sent to the Tursdale Apprentice Training School where apprentice electricians and mechanics learnt some basic skills. The purpose of our being there was to learn one or two of those skills. We learnt to saw, file, scrape metal and use micrometers/feeler gauges before being let loose on vertical drilling machines, mechanical shapers, lathes, millers etc. Towards the end of our stay we were asked to attempt a couple of the test pieces the apprentices had to complete on their way to passing out of the School. The test I remember was to produce both a metal square with a square hole in the middle and a second metal square just thousandths of a millimetre smaller in length and breadth so that it just passed through that hole. My result was acceptable.
Shortly after this I undertook my coalface training at a time when in my neck of the woods the most advanced form of mechanised coal mining was the use, after “shotfiring”, of a coal cutting machine fitted with “boxes”/”paddles” instead of picks to load the coal on to the “rubber” face conveyor. There were still longwall faces on which fillers hand-shovelled the coal on to the face conveyor.
I spent a total period of more than a year as a coalface trainee on the Mainsforth Colliery Training Face in the Mainsforth Hutton seam. It was an advancing longwall face on which hand filling was used. A Coalface Training Instructor worked alongside the trainee.
Coalface trainees took turns driving the pit pony that hauled the coal tubs from the end of the main gate conveyor to the seam’s main and tail haulage system. I had the pleasure of being that pony driver a few times. I did not need much skill. The pony knew what needed to be done better than I did. He would come and stand near the tub when it was ready to be moved away from the end of the conveyor. When unhitched on the approach to the main and tail he would step out of the way of the still moving tub into the parallel set of rails where he would wait patiently for me to take him back for the next tub. It was almost as if the pony could talk.
Three shifts of miners were needed to complete the cycle of operation on a hand-filling longwall face. In the first shift the coal was undercut, generally at the bottom of the seam. This is the shift on which this recollection of my coalface training begins.
Each hand-filling longwall face had a coal cutting team. I spent a little time as a member of the Training Face’s team. The coal cutting machine or “cutter” was normally “stabled” at the end of the face at which its previous cutting run had finished. The miner who controlled the cutter – the cutterman – was the head of the team. Cutting machines of the type we used were flameproof electric devices manufactured in conformity with the relevant provisions of the mining legislation. Each machine had a set of controls at one end and at the other a 6 feet long jib around which ran a chain with removable picks. The jib could be swivelled so that it could work at a right angle to either long side of the machine. Power was supplied to the cutter’s motor by a flexible armoured cable plugged in to the end with the controls.
After switching the cutter on the cutterman could flip a switch to start and stop the chain rotating. Before cutting could begin the cutter had to be positioned so that the controls were at the end facing in the intended direction of travel. Once this had been done the cutterman started the chain rotating and skilfully manoeuvred the jib in to the coalface. The jib was secured in place once he was happy that it was at a right angle to the length of the face. A length of wire rope was then run out from a drum on the machine and the far end anchored at a point down the face. With the chain rotating the machine was slowly winched along the face. Whilst the cutter was cutting water was continuously sprayed through nozzles mounted along the jib in an attempt to suppress the dust produced by the picks.
A kerf or undercut approximately 6 feet deep was cut in the seam as the cutter traversed the face. The swarf created was dragged out of the kerf by the rotating picks. A device called a gummer attached to the cutting machine in the vicinity of the jib pushed that material into the track down which the cutting machine had just travelled. A second member of the team – me, most of the time I was on the team – shovelled the drilled swarf on to the face conveyor and pushed sprags or pit props into the gap to prevent the coal from sagging. Sagging could cause cracks in the coal making holes, which would be drilled into the face later, unusable for shotfiring purposes.
I do not recall the time in or after coal cutting at which the driller started to drill the holes. Nor do I recall when the shotfirer detonated the explosives following the procedure I described in my note on Officials. However, at least some coal blasting had to take place before the fillers were able to work.
Each filler was allocated his own stretch of coalface to work. They shovelled the loose coal on to the bottom loading “rubber” face conveyor. In the course of doing this they protected themselves and others by following the Support Rules laid down by the Colliery Manager and hammering three pit props tightly under steel bars or wooden planks to support the roof. When a filler was not able to use a combination of props and a plank immediately he would use a temporary prop to support the roof. A temporary prop was a prop topped with a wood cap/bobby – a thinnish piece of wood slightly bigger than the diameter of the prop.
The South West Durham seams being worked in the 1950s and 1960s were rarely of a height that allowed fillers and other miners to stand whilst on the face between its gates. The Mainsforth Training Face was not unusual in not being high enough to allow you to kneel to work. We spent long periods of our shifts lying on our side with a thinnish pit prop under the shoulder for support.
There were at least three teams of miners in the shift that followed the fillers. One team worked in the main gate, another in the tail gate and a third on the face between the gates. The miners in the groups working in the gates were referred to as stone men and those in the group working on the face as pullers or packers.
When the fillers finished their shift the coal on the face had moved forward about 6 feet from where it was before the coal cutting team had started its shift. As a result about an extra 6 feet of the base of the rock overlying the seam had been exposed between the ripping lip of each gate and the coal on the face. It was the job of the stone men to deal with this stone so that the ripping lip moved forward by that amount. The stone they worked on was usually referred to as the canch.
I was a member of one team of stone men whilst on the Training Face. Early in the shift holes were drilled in the canch. A shotfirer detonated explosives placed in the holes to produce handleable pieces of rock. Once shotfiring was finished the team supported the newly exposed area of the gate by erecting arched girders, which came in halves that had to be joined together by fishplates and bolts. It advanced a safety device meant to stop stones breaking off the ripping lip i.e. the newly exposed rock face. The debris created by the shotfiring was cleared and used to build packs along each side of the roadway behind the newly erected girders. The packs were built using the larger pieces of rock to form a rectangle of walls of a similar construction to the dry stone walls seen when out and about in the country. As the walls were built the void was gradually filled with the smaller debris. One wall was built a little more slowly than the other three so that the inside space could be filled as near to the roof as physically possible.
In the time I worked with the Training Face pullers we moved the face conveyor forward into half of the track from which the fillers working in the previous shift had shovelled the coal. We then removed – pulled – the supports under the roof of the track in which the conveyor had previously run. Some of the supports removed were props and roof bars/planks. We moved chocks forward to just behind the new conveyor belt track . The roof from which the props etc. had been removed generally fell into the goaf. We used some of the debris this provided to build packs at intervals along the face.
My time on the Training Face came to an end once I had completed the tasks, on each of the three shifts, that a miner had to complete before he could work on a production face. I subsequently spent periods of time
- At different collieries and on coalfaces gaining experience of different methods of working and different geological conditions.
- Accompanying fitters, electricians, safety officer etc as they went about their duties.
Towards the end of my apprenticeship I spent a couple of periods in the Planning Department of No 4 Area, Durham Division. These attachments made me realise that the future of mining in South West Durham was not as rosy as some might think. Reserves were running out. Future development in some areas was limited by the presence of difficult geological conditions such as faults. Abandoned workings, some containing water, ruled out development in others.
I became a Directed Practical Trainee shortly after being told I had passed the 1966 final exams of the Higher National Diploma in Mining Engineering. I received my Colliery Managers certificate in January 1967 after passing the exam held in the autumn of 1966. I left the mining industry at the beginning of March 1967.