What Was Denaby Main Colliery like below ground?
Denaby Main Colliery.
To the right can be seen the sidings of the Flameless Explosives
Company manufacturer of Westphalite, a safety explosive for mines,
better known locally as the Powder Works. Reproduced courtesy of the
website Yorkshire Main Colliery and Other Local Mine
Last month we covered the life of one of the men who helped to sink
the shafts of Denaby Main Colliery. But what was it like to actually
go down a mine, in those far off days before the innovation of
electric light and the internal combustion engine? To work in a
man-made hole a quarter of a mile below the surface of the earth,
where the light never penetrated and the dark was so intense that it
was absolute, and you constantly worked with your ever present
workmates danger and death?
At the latter half of the 19th Century an article appeared in the
Mexborough and Swinton Times which may give us some insight into
this world, belowground, when an unnamed reporter for our local
newspaper descended into the depth of the pit and wrote an item
about his experiences there. When reading this newsletter we must
consider that he was escorted, as a visitor, and as such would have
been shown the choice areas of the pit and not the typical work
places of the men, also we must take into consideration that his
visit was made during the Christmas Holidays, thus only a skeleton
staff would have been present.
After gaining permission, from the Manager of the Denaby Main
Colliery Co. Ltd., Mr. W.H. Chambers (Manager from 1883-c1909), his
journey began aboveground, on an icy cold Christmas morning, by a
visit to the office and the lamproom, and it was while in the former
that Mr. H.S. Witty, Assistant Manager of the colliery, who proved
to be his guide for the day, arrived carrying his protective ‘head
gear’. This consisted of a stout, leather, scull cap with a ‘neb’ at
the back designed to protect the rear of the neck. The lamproom
proved to be a large building lined with shelves of gleaming
numbered lamps, each number corresponding to a miner and it was the
first and last place visited by the miner at the beginning and end
of each shift. Our visitor then, as the night shift had recently
finished, was shown how the lamps were cleaned, refuelled, and
checked by specially trained men, but he was surprised to see not a
Davy Lamp in sight. Mr. Willy explained that these had now been
superseded by the ‘Protector’, invented by Mueslar in 1885, who’s
brass pillared, glass sided lamp, gave more light and was a safer
lamp in general.
Their next step, while still on top, was to the Engine Shed where
the Engineman stood before dials which indicated the rise and fall
of cages in the shafts and, by the use of electricity, rang a bell
telling him that the cage was sixty feet from its destination,
enabling him to slow its speed ensuring the safe arrival of both men
and minerals at the base.
Passing through the Engine Shed they came to the top of the shaft
where our visitor became dazed by the hubbub of: the din of the
metal coveys, both full and empty going up and down the shaft; the
clanging of machinery; and the eerie, ghostly, disembodied babble of
voices, ascending from the cavernous hole below. He was informed by
Mr. Willy that the last visitor to the pit, a canon of the
established church, enlikening it to Hades and refused to go any
further, but our visitor was made of sterner stuff and, although
still in a daze followed Mr. Willy to begin his journey into the
bowels of the earth.
The metal cage, carrying its two occupants, fell like a stone down
the cylindrical shaft so quickly that his legs and feet became
affected, then came the strange feeling that he was going up the
shaft and not down. No sooner had they begun their descent than it
was over, as the engineman, above, begun to steady the cage for its
final few feet. But it was at this stage that ‘what if’ arose in his
brain. What if the machine failed? What if the rope broke? Then the
cage with its occupants would crash from side to side as it
plummeted down until it reached the sump along with the mangled
remains of its passengers. On disembarking from the cage another
sensation came over our visitor as he began to feel as though he was
aboard a tossing ship. He was assured that this was quite common and
was taken to a subterranean office to recover before continuing his
journey along the labyrinth of tunnels.
They walked for three hours along an underground tramway. Firstly in
the direction of Old Denaby and Mexborough Station then towards The
Pastures, where aboveground skaters enjoyed themselves on the frozen
flood waters. He: squeezed himself between stationary corves; ducked
his head beneath protruding overhead rocks; also lifted his feet
high to prevent himself tripping. Then came a loud rumble, like
thunder, and Mr. Witty dragged him into a refuge hole, which are to
be found every 20yds, as a number of corves shot by.
Our visitor explained that corves, or coal tub, are metal or wooden
wagons, used to convey coal from the coal face to the pit head.
Several are linked together, to be pulled along a railway track by a
pony or connected to an endless rope which runs between the tracks.
An endless rope is made of metal and is attached to a revolving
machine and it is the easiest thing to become entangled in it or to
trip, thus breaking a leg, or worse, the corves being attached or
detached at underground stations.
Our visitor had heard of an underground fire in the pit, thought to
be caused by the spontaneous combustion of the coal and was taken to
the site. At first the heat was hardly noticeable but as they got
nearer to the seat of the fire it began to become intense. The seam
of coal where the fire had been was walled up in order to starve it
of oxygen and when it was extinguished was dug out. He was taken to
an area where this was in progress, the brickwork had been removed,
and a man digging out the burned coal, worked in the aperture almost
naked, with sweat pouring from his body, here the heat was, to our
visitor, unbearable, the residual heat contained within the
brickwork making it glow.
Next on their schedule was a visit to one of the blocks of stables,
to be found underground, to see the ponies which pulled the corves,
he found the ponies, which he was shown, to be in good health and
was informed that mistreatment, of any animal, was not tolerated by
the management of the pit, and anyone found doing so was sent before
the magistrates. He was also shown an experimental collar being
tried. Instead of the usual, made of leather, which accommodated
dirt and rubbed the animal sore, this was made of zinc which prevent
this and was much cooler. In another empty stable block a strange
noise could be heard like shale or shingle on the beach at ebb tide.
This was caused by hundreds of mice, which poured out of the straw,
trying to flee or climb the walls to escape into niches in the
brickwork. Mr. Witty explained that they had reached plague
proportions and were becoming a monetary problem as they devoured
large amounts of the ponies feed.
As they passed through the Montagu District full corves past them
coming from an area where men were erecting props and ‘picking’ at
the coal, while others
were throwing large lumps of coal into the corves. Here Mr. Witty
checked that their lamps were suspended at a reasonable distance
from the point of their picks. The miners were working extremely
hard and he wasn’t surprised to hear that output, the previous
Christmas, exceeded any other. Although working hard the men seemed
to be happy and their laughter and singing could be heard
frequently. At that time the eight hour day for miners was the main
point of discussion of the day and our visitor stated that he agreed
with it as he did not believe “all his mortal life should be
monopolised by labour” he should also have time for “leisure,
recreation, and study”.
He was then taken to a passage where the return air, smelling like
burning wool, was sent up a shaft. Here was an area where only Mr.
Witty and Mr. Soar were allowed and the atmosphere was checked on a
more regular basis.
From here they went to a small underground cabin where ‘Clever Dick’
could be seen relighting lamps which had become extinguished. He was
told that this is usually the result of the miner placing the lamp
on the floor, where the draught blew it out. He also explained that
the collier had to bring the lamp to the cabin to be relit as the
management had found it necessary to keep the lamps locked as some
miners, in the past, had tampered with the workings of the lamp,
thus endangering both themselves and their workmates.
Prior to returning to the surface Mr. Witty took our visitor to see
an accumulation of fine coal dust which our visitor stated was as
soft as velvet. He explained that this was the cause of explosions
in the mine and told of the strange occurrence in the pit where, if
an east wind was to come into contact with the current that brought
the coal dust then there would be a fall of what resembled rain.
Then after one last reading with his instruments it was time for Mr.
Witty to take our visitor home. But not by the route they originally
arrived by, this time they were to travel by the Cupolo Shaft, used
to extract steam from the underground engine. Mr. Witty rang an
electric bell and the Engineman, aboveground shut off the seam and
sent a cage down the shaft to pick them up. As they ascended through
the warm mist Mr. Witty used his prowess as a ventriloquist to play
a joke on our visitor and asking, in a disembodied voice, if he had
enjoyed his journey below ground. This at first, completely confused
our gentleman, and it wasn’t until they reached the surface that its
source was revealed, and much laughter ensued.
After so much time had been spent belowground he was surprised to
find how much snow had been gently falling and he returned home to
sit before his warm coal fire and think on the pit where it had come
Information obtained from: an article, date unknown, discovered
in the Mexborough and Swinton Times
Copyright: This newsletter may not be reproduced, in
part or in its entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby.