The National Coal Mining Musuem for England

On the 8th July 2017, I visited the National Coal Mining Museum for England. This was the second time that I have visited the museum and I was eager to return. On my first visit to the museum, I went with a smaller group of people from the When Yesterday Was young project, this time everyone involved in the project was coming. I was excited to return to the museum for a number of reasons. The first was because the first time that I visited the museum, I did not have enough time to explore all of the museum despite having an entire day there. The second was that I wanted to get everyone else’s opinions on the museum so that we could develop our idea for our community living museum further.

On the day, I arrived at the Enter Centre to get on the bus to go down to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield. I was one of the first to arrive at the centre so had to wait for everyone else to arrive before we set off. When everyone was at the centre and ready to go, we all got onto the bus and set off  for Wakefield. Two and a half hours later, we arrived at the museum. After lining up in our chaperone groups , we were led into a room where we could leave our bags for the day. After this, we were given our itinerary and headed off to our separate activities.

Our first activity of the day was the mine tour. I was excited to go back down to the mine because of the fact that each tour is led by an ex miner. This means that although they will all deliver the same information they all deliver it in a different way and I was keen to hear our tour guide’s point of view on work down the mine and life as a miner. Before the tour began our tour guide gave us all a safety briefing where he explained that we couldn’t take down anything with a battery, such as a phone or watch, due to the dangerous gases that were still in the mine.

After the briefing, we all collected our safety helmets and lamps before heading around to the entrance to the cage that would take us into the pit. However, when we arrived at the entrance, a few of our group decided that they didn’t want to go on the mine tour. Before this, I hadn’t really thought about how the young trappers would have felt on their first working day at the pit. I had read about their experiences in my research but I hadn’t really understood the fear that they could experience until I saw the effects first hand. After this I had a new respect for the life of a miner, especially the children who would have started work at the pit as young as four years old until the Mines and Collieries act of 1842 decided that only boys of 10 years and above could work in mines.

The group that decided to go on the tour followed me into the cage ready to do descend into the mine. Our tour guide then entered the cage and shut the surface and the cage door behind him. In order for the cage to go down, a miner on the surface has to press a button. It was before the cage begun its descent that we got a feel of our tour guide’s sense of humour which is a shared trait of all of the miners that I have met in my time on the When Yesterday Was Young Project. He explained that the cage started to move with a jolt but it was nothing to be scared of and was perfectly normal. However, before he finished explaining this, the miner on the surface started the cage on its journey and our tour guide let out a scream as though something had gone wrong, even though it hadn’t. This of course made everyone in my group who hadn’t been on the tour previously scream as well as they didn’t know that it was meant to happen that way.

The screaming eventually ended when everyone realised that there was nothing to be scared of. As we continued our journey, we were told that the shaft was 140 metres deep, the height of Blackpool tower! When we arrived at the bottom of the shaft, we were let out of the cage and continued our journey into the depths of the pit. To get into the main workings of the mine, we had to go through two doors. Our tour guide opened the first door and shut it behind him once everyone was through and explained that the two doors could never be open at the same time because if they were then all of the cool air would be sucked from the mine, up the shaft and out onto the surface and the temperature in the mine would rise.

After shutting the second and final ventilation door, we were posed with our first question. The miner drew our attention to the entrance and exit sign on our right hand side which where colour coded in red and green, a scheme which continued throughout the mine. Why would a man not be employed as a miner if he was colour blind? Because if he did not know his way around the mine and he needed to get out quickly, it is easier for him to follow the colour, rather than reading the sign. We then continued our trip though the mine. Our tour this time lasted the expected 1 hour 15 minutes but it was by no means less informative. Because we had a different tour guide, he had different experiences and so delivered the information in a different way.

The pit at the National Coal Mining Museum is set out so that when the cage reaches the bottom of the mine, you step out into the world of Victorian mining. You are led to an area of the pit where you see a little boy sat outside a small room where his mum and dad are hard at work. This boy is a trapper, his mum is a hurrier (or putter) and his dad is a hewer. The trapper, who could be a boy or a girl in Victorian times, started work at 4 years of age. He would sit outside the tiny room with a rope around his wrist so that he could open the door when he heard his mum knocking and close it behind her. The rope was tied around his wrist  for two reasons, the first was so that he did not drop and lose the rope in the darkness and the second was so that he couldn’t run away if he got scared.  He job was to direct the air flow through the mine in order to keep it ventilated and stop explosive gases from building up. His mum’s job as the hurrier, so called as she was constantly being told to hurry up, was to transport the coal that her husband had hewed in a wooden basked called a corve from the tiny room where he was working to another hurrier, often another child, who would transport the coal from there to the end of the shaft where it would be transported to the surface. The father of the family was the hewer. His day would be spent in that tiny room hacking away at the face of coal. He was paid by the tonne of coal produced so if he didn’t meet his quota, he wouldn’t  be paid.

It was when we reached this part of the tour that we were told that candles were expensive so only one was issued per family. Of course, this candle would be use by the man and wife inside the room so the trapper sat alone with rats nipping at him in the pitch black of the pit. It was a this point where we all turned off our headlights to experience the darkness that the trapper would sit in all day long. We only experienced it for a few seconds but it made us all understand just how difficult the job of the trapper was. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, it was so disorienting. Living in the day light, your eyes can always focus on something but in without our lights on, there was nothing to focus on. Your eyes were constantly straining to find something, anything, but there was nothing there. After this experience I understood why eye problems were so common among miners.

After this, we were led to an area of the mine that was designed to give groups the chance to experience all of the jobs along the production line of the mine. Each member of the group was given a job. One person took the coal off the conveyor belt and put in into the corve. When the corve was full another person ran the corve around to the next section where the coal was emptied onto the conveyor belt. The conveyor belt was operated by another of our group constantly turning a wheel. And there was a manager whose job it was to shout at everyone and tell  them to work harder and faster, no matter how well they were working. My job was to push the coal off the chute onto the conveyor belt. After doing these jobs for a few minutes, we were introduced another job that the young miners did and our tour guide added a level of competition. Our tour guide explained that the roof of the mine, in Victorian times, was held up by wooden struts and if the struts fell down then the mine was in danger of collapsing. It was at this point that he kicked the prop struts out from under the concrete roof built specifically for this activity. He then split us up into two groups and said that it was a race to see who could build the struts up first. I thought that the work station area of the mine was very effective. It not only gave us a taste of work in a mine but it gave us an idea of the level of noise that there would have been in a Victorian mine rather than the near silence that we had experienced until that point.

After the fun and games, we moved deeper into the mine and later into the Victorian era when pit ponies were introduced. Pit ponies took the jobs of the hurriers, moving the hewed coal from the coal face to the end of the shaft. They were bigger and stronger than the women and children, and less expensive,  so they eventually took over their jobs and when the Mines and Collieries act of 1842 banned women and children from working in mines, then men took over the remainder of the jobs. While we looked at the model of the pit pony, we were told that pit ponies were only let out of the mine for two weeks of the year. The rest of their life was spent underground.

As we progressed through the mine more technology was introduced, the next was the Davy lamp which was a major piece of safety equipment used in mines right up until their closure. The purpose of the Davy lamp was to provide the miners with a safe source of light. Until the Davy lamp was invented miners used candles which, if exposed to the dangerous gases down the mine, would explode. Other inventions were used but they cost more time and money and in some cases were even more dangerous than an open flame. Here is what I learned about the Davy lamp  while on the mine tour: Who invented the mining lamp  is highly disputed. The first designer was civil engineer George Stephenson. He designed a metal gauze cylindrical container that he realised would separate the dangerous gases underground from the flame in the lamp. The inventor of the finished mining lamp, however, was a chemist and inventor called Sir Humphrey Davy. Davy used the base of Stephenson’s design, using two sheets of gauze to separate the gases from the flame, he completed the lamp with a metal casing structure and a hook to carry the lamp. The invention was completed in 1815. This invention not only provided the miners with a source of light but alerted the miners of dangerous levels of gases in the mine. This was possible because if the gas levels were too high then the flame would go out with a small pop (a controlled explosion). This invention was a great leap forward from the early solution to dangerous gases which involved having a man (penance man) paid to crawl into the mine in wet clothes holding a candle on a stick to explode the gases before work started in the mine.

Following on from the Davy lamp, we were introduced to power tools and dynamite. In this section of the mine we held some real dynamite and were shown how dynamite was used to retrieve the coal from the coal face. The power tools were used to drill a hole  into the coal face where the dynamite was then put and the hole was filled in with mud so that the dynamite could not come straight and was forced to explode in the hole producing a pile of coal. Our tour guide then explained to us that the miners shouted ‘fire in the hole’ before detonating the dynamite so that the rest of the miners at work would know that the coming explosion was planned and not something to be worried about.

After the pneumatic drill and dynamite section, we were shown a number of different machines that were used in modern mining. We walked by a cage that contained a big machine that drilled into the coal face. We were then told that if nine men died it was an accident and if ten men died it was a disaster. The machine was temperamental and so accidents occurred quite regularly and the mine owner did not want to have to report so many disasters so came up with the idea to put the machine in a cage and not allow more than nine people in at a time. This concluded our mine tour and we headed back to the cage that transported us to the surface where we were reunited with the rest of our group.

After our tour of the mine, we headed to our second workshop of the day entitled ‘Dig Deeper’. This workshop was also led by an ex-miner but it took place in one of the museum’s classrooms. It focused on the development of mines, how coal was made and the daily life of a miner. Some of the information delivered in this workshop had been given to us on the mine tour but I think that it was good that this was the case because not everyone who did the workshop did the mine tour so this way everyone got the same information. The classroom was set out with tables and chairs around the outside and a box with different draws in the middle that was decorated on the top with trees, grass and rivers . This indicated to me that each layer of the box represented a different layer of earth, I knew this because one of the layers below the surface was partly exposed. I thought that this was very clever and a good way to store props needed for the workshop while at the same time being a good visual display that would keep younger people engaged, something that I think the National Coal Mining Museum is very good at.

The miner started off the workshop by telling us that coal was made from trees that had fallen down and were, over time, covered by the earth. The weight of the earth then compressed the wood and eventually produced coal. He then reiterated the information that we gained from our mine tour about the Davy lamp, pit ponies and the clothing and food of miners. I did enjoy this workshop as although we already knew a lot of the information, we now got to see the items first hand instead of imagining them.

After we had lunch we had some time to spare so we headed to another area of the museum. Most of our spare time was used up by doing video reviews of our experience on the mine tour while it was still fresh in our minds. After this, we had a quick look around the museum section before heading off to our next workshop.

Our next workshop was entitled ‘Sally Fletcher: It’s a hard life’. From the title I gathered that the workshop would be about the life of a female miner/ miner’s wife but going into to workshop I didn’t know anything else. Entering the room that the workshop was held in, we were greeted by a woman dressed as a miner’s wife who told us to hurry up and sit down, acting in her character. This confirmed my suspicions that the workshop would be delivered by a character. This was yet another good way to capture the attention of a younger audience which I thought was very effective. The information in the workshop was all delivered by the character of Sally Fletcher who taught us about her life as a child miner and her involvement in the forming of the Mines and Collieries act of 1842.

Sally began by telling us about her life and work as a trapper opening and closing the trap doors in the mine. She also told us about her parents’ jobs as a hurrier and hewer. Again, the information in the workshop was mainly the same as that given in the previous workshop and the mine tour but it was interesting to see how the information could be delivered in different ways. And again, we had the opportunity to experience different aspects of the information. So when Sally explained the jobs of her, her mother and father, members of our group were chosen to freeze in the positions of the jobs for around 30 seconds. Of course, this only went a small way to us understanding the role of the mine workers but the people who were chosen to hold the positions said that their hands and knees hurt even after such a short time. One thing that I am sure of is that none of us envied the life of the miner, his wife or their child.

My favourite part of the workshop was when Sally explained to us about the impact that the Mines and Collieries act had on her and her family. To do this, and to explain how the act was formed, Sally explained that she was just a child when the act was passed and said that someone that she didn’t recognise came down the pit one day and started asking questions about her work and safety down the mine. To show us how she felt and responded when this happened, she gave us a few minutes to think of questions to ask her as if we were trying to uncover the details of her life in the mine.

After a few minutes Sally came back into view acting as her younger self. One by one our questions were answered and the horrific life of Sally Fletcher was revealed. After all of our questions were answered, Sally stopped acting as her younger self and brought the workshop to a close. I really liked this style of delivery and I thought that it was very efficient for getting the information across and getting people to remember it.

This was our last workshop of the day and we were left with plenty of time to explore the rest of the museum. Because the museum’s mine used to be a working mine, the museum’s site still has all of the original machinery and buildings that were used while the mine was active so just walking around the grounds was a history lesson in itself. But there were also plenty of places that had written information for us to take in, so we headed the stables that housed the pit ponies. Of course they weren’t working pit ponies but they were situated in the area where the ponies working in the mine would have lived. Most of our time in  this section was used watching the ponies, and petting the cat that was wondering around, but this quiet time gave me a chance to reflect on what I had been told about the life of the pit pony. The stables were calm, quiet and bright, three things that the pit was not. To think that working pit ponies would only be out in the sunshine for two weeks of the year was, and still is unthinkable.

Our next stop was the building that housed the pithead baths. This was one of the luxuries that was introduced in order to boost the morale of the miners. It gave them a place to wash themselves after their long and tiring shifts so that they weren’t making their houses dirty and creating more work for their wives. They held showers, toilets and changing facilities that housed clean and dirty clothes.

To finish off our time at the National Coal Mining Museum for England, we headed on a tour of the reed beds. I had no idea of the purpose of the reed beds as I hadn’t been on the tour the last time that I visited the museum and was looking forward to learning all about them. The purpose of the reed beds is to filter the water being pumped out of the mine before it enters the streams and rivers outside of the mine’s grounds. The water needs to be filtered because when it is extracted from the mine it has a high concentration of iron pyrite that needs to be filtered down to a safe level before being released into the nation’s supply of water. Each level of filtration decreases the amount of iron pyrite in the water. When the water reaches the reed beds it has a considerably lower concentration of iron pyrite, but still not low enough. The reason that reed beds are used to filter out the iron pyrite is because they are the plant that lasts the longest before dying under the effects of the iron pyrite. After finishing the tour of the reed beds, we headed back to the main site of the museum to get on the bus and begin the journey back to the Enter Centre.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the National Coal Mining Museum. It was very educational but it was also tangible. What I mean by this is that the museum didn’t talk about mining as if it was a long gone profession, they just talked about it as if it was their day to day life which for many it was, not too long ago. My time at the museum really helped me to understand the life of a miner and back  up the written facts that I had gained knowledge of through my research leading up to the visit. I would definitely recommend the museum to anyone regardless of interest because I think that it is very important for young people to truly understand their heritage but also for everyone else to learn about mining. Mining is a massively influential part of history and  the world would be a very different place without it. Now is the perfect time for the knowledge to be passed on as, unlike most historical events, there are still miners alive today who are ready and willing to pass on their knowledge and experiences.

Susie, Youth Committee
Thursday, September 28, 2017