Great Grandad's Mining Tales
In honour of my Great Grandfather,
Big Bill from Black Bed'orth:
The folklore of Warwickshire coalmining.
It's generally held that women were always considered bad luck in a coalmine but there were female miners across the UK for a couple of centuries.
In Polesworth churchyard you'll find the grave of Mrs Elizabeth Wood (died 1772) marked with crossed picks and a miner's lamp.
Elsewhere, women and young boys were used to carry from the seam to the surface but in Warwickshire it was less common and one incident is often blamed:
At Baddesley Ensor until the 1920s a service was held one Sunday each summer to commemorate an accident of unknown date.
The pit owner's son was proudly demonstrating new winding gear to his chums. A group of boys were successfully returned to the surface but the girls that followed all died when the lad lost control of the mechanism.
Thereafter, women were considered an ill omen anywhere near local pits, much less in them.
Red-headed women were even more alarming and even red-headed men might be viewed with caution.
Dogs too were kept away, though for more obvious safety reasons not just superstition.
It was The Mines and Collieries Act 1842 that barred women and children under ten from working underground. Lads from ten to eighteen continued to work as Parish Apprentices.
Which was what lead to the rise in pit animals (horses had been used to a less extent since the 1750s).
Pit Ponies were particularly sensitive to the ghosts of miners and often reluctant to venture near the site of previous deaths.
The ghosts of pit animals were said to remain, the sounds of their movements drifting through the workings.
Aside: I live in a house built on an old pit field where the ponies would have grazed but I can report no random neighing or nickering in the night.
Pit accidents and miner deaths were mostly a case of lax safety/poor management but that didn't stop plenty of superstitions from growing up around the village:
- no whistling
- no sitting down (aka Ringing It)
- no dropping tools
- no picking up a dead miner's tools
In some places you might be saved by the warning sounds of the Tommyknockers (related to the same fear of vibrations as whistling and dropping tools?)
Though you shouldn't pick up a colleagues tools, he couldn't rest until his last shift was completed (after the funeral).
I make light but pit accidents were no joke and communities would be devastated by the loss of miners. Big Bill himself died in a pit accident in 1959, leaving a wife, daughter and three grandchildren as well as a village full of friends.
Back at Baddesley, a poorly fitted boiler caused the worst mining disaster in the area.
Eight men, a boy and eleven ponies were trapped underground. The owner and many others risked (and gave) their lives in the rescue attempt. In all thirty-two men died on the 2nd May 1882.
At Hamstead near Brum, six of the twenty-even men lost in March 1908 left this verse written in chalk:
The Lord Preserve Us
H Curtis J Guest
H Watts J Cole
J Johnson Joe Hodgkiss
For we are all trusting in Christ.
The incident was memorialised by JL Bayliss of Bordesley Green...
For every thousand tons of coal brought to the light of day,
Five hundred pounds, one human soul is what we have to pay.
Another list of twenty-seven is added to the roll,
Of the thousands that are offered as sacrifice to coal.
(First of two verses.)
Another mining ode originated in the village of Hos where one bitter winter night a railway detective, Edward Farmer, took refuse in Little Jim's Cottage. He wrote Poor Jim, The Collier's Son to mark the passing of the little lad who succumbed to the cold that night.
The cottage was a thatched one,
The outside old and mean,
Yet everything within that cot,
Was wondrous neat and clean.
The night was dark and stormy,
The wind was howling wild,
A patient Mother sat beside
The death-bed of her child.
A little worn-out creature,
His once bright eyes grow dim,
It was the collier's only child,
They called him Little Jim.
Farmer died in Tamworth in 1876 and is buried in the churchyard. The cottage stood until fire destroyed it in the 1970s.
Wherever you have villages built specifically for a new mine opening you always have two things in close proximity: a Church and a Pub.
Which came first is a bit chicken-and-egg; technically it was the church but the builders needed somewhere to sup their ale after work and they usually chose a spot near to the church under some shade. Which is why so many pit villages have pubs called The [Something] Tree.
And where you have groups of men supping ale, you have a budding entrepreneur selling the booze so magically a pub (originally just a stall) would appear close to the church. Though not disreputably close to it, of course.
With this in mind, next week's #FolkloreThursday post will be pub tales. Warwickshire has quite a few of them, pubs and tales both.
Some bonus Midlands miners' slang to end on:
Basset: the coalface
Swilly: a short dip in the seam
Kelf: the space floor to roof
Pufflers, Coddies, Doggios: senior miners
Loose/Louse All: signal for shifts end
Time To Coat: end of shift
The Others: the next shift up