Sunday, January 6, 2013

Going Underground

10th November 1984 was an unexceptional day in Allerton Bywater. The fog crept up from the River Aire and clung to the low hills and spoil heaps. It was seven o’clock. Lights went on. The sound of ablutions could be heard. All around the village, front doors opened almost in unison, as men walked down the short paths of their terraced house to the front gates.
Many carried rucksacks, containing sandwiches, newspapers, books. There was no canteen underground. Generally well turned out, the miners had an almost incomprehensible obsession with personal cleanliness. In two hours time they would be filthy, crawling in ore-blackened water, their skins grimy and their eyes red from blinking away the dust.

Danny Gofton walked on his own as was his habit. He wasn’t an unsociable man by any means, but a serious one nevertheless. He was looked on by his peers as a leader. Not a position he sought, but one he felt obliged to fill if others deemed it necessary.

He walked through the gates and acknowledged a few mates with a nod. The car park was still empty. Most of the miners were still local men. The car park was generally used by the office staff, skilled workers and management, who arrived later.

He entered the wash-house and lit a last cigarette before going underground.

He changed into his working gear, long johns, a second vest and overalls, then strapped on his lamp, self-rescuer and his gas warning meter. He double checked the equipment, fastened his locker then walked to the pithead. There he picked up his tally and put it round his neck and waited for the cage to ascend.

The cage clanked up the shaft, the banksman opened the metal gates, and he walked in. By now there were a dozen other miners with him, most of them younger. He said little – listening to unlikely stories of their drinking exploits, sexual conquests and plans for the weekend. A weary smile flickered across his face. It was part of the rights of passage for most young men that had passed him by.

The pit wasn’t doing well. Every time the target was met, then it was raised again. There was no overtime. Everyone just had to work harder and smarter, but with tools and techniques that hadn’t changed for twenty years that was well nigh impossible.

The only way was to cut corners. Cages carried more men. Trains went faster, trucks were overloaded, machinery was fixed rather than replaced. Warnings were ignored.

The cage reached the bottom of the shaft, the onsetter opened the cage gates and they jumped on the train. It was a ten minute journey to the coal face. Most people quietened down at this point. Some tried to read their newspapers, others just stared blankly around them. The featureless walls and electric strip lighting provided no stimulus.

The train juddered to a halt and they jumped off and split up into their teams of six. Each team member had a role. Danny was a barrowman. The hewers, with a combination of drills and picks, win the coal from the coal face. It was the barrowman’s responsibility to separate the slate and shale, get the good coal into the tubs as quickly as possible and then hitch the tubs up so that they could be towed away. Their seam was too narrow to accommodate sophisticated machinery, but it contained anthracite of the highest quality.

The tub had their team name on. When it got to the surface it was weighed and the bonus for the team calculated. There was no room for shirkers, no time for rest. Any coal spilled cost money.
There was a slight incline down to the coal face following the dipping Silkstone seam. Pushing the tubs up the incline to join the train needed two strong men.

Danny didn’t like breaking rules. If a deputy or an overman caught you, it was instant dismissal. He fought a constant battle with the rest of the team about basic safety issues. Shoring took time but had to be done. Trucks were clearly marked as to where they could be filled to. The team could be fined if they broke the rules. But still they did it, particularly the younger guys. It caused friction in the team, arguments. Danny knew he was right but he gave in. He understood.

Underground it was constantly wet. Wet from perspiration, from clouds of exhaled air, but most of all from the water that leaked from the coal seams, making the anthracite gleam in the artificial light. It ran down the walls. It dripped from the roof. It often gushed out of the face when new coal was won.
A thick grey corrugated rubber tube ran to the coal face, occasionally moving of its own volition like a tentacle. When all else was quiet you could hear water gurgling through it and the distant hum of the pump that removed the water from the coalface.

Today, as often happened, the pump stopped. It was usually as a result of dust and grit clogging the filter. They were supposed to stop drilling and wait for maintenance to fix it. They all knew what that meant. Lost time and lost money.
As ever, they took a vote as to whether to stop. As ever, Danny was outvoted. They continued, the water rising slowly but inexorably, making the floor slippery.

A tub was full. The hewers stopped. Danny noticed it was well above the limit, but there would be no point in even suggesting unloading. They pushed the tub up the incline, coupled it to the next full one and tramped wearily back down. Sore, wet, tired, lungs heaving and sinews aching.
A dull thud echoed round the coal face. Miners became accustomed to all the noises they heard underground. This was different and immediately Danny looked round to see the tub trundling down the slope, slowly gathering speed and moving towards them. His mate hadn’t seen it. Danny yelled, but the hewers had started up and his mate couldn’t hear him. In desperation Danny pushed him out the way, but as he did so he slipped in the slurry produced by the water and coal dust. He regained his balance but it was too late. All he could do was grab the front of the tub and try and stop it. It was a losing battle. Although he kept his footing, he was pushed inexorably down the slope and pinned against the coal face. A jagged lump of coal pressed agonisingly into his back. The tub recoiled and he collapsed to the floor and lost consciousness.


No comments:

Post a Comment