Sunday 26 August 2018

Nine Men by Ann Turnbull

"I went down to the bottom of the mountains;
The earth with its bars was about me forever..."
(Jonah, 2.6)

Madeley is a former mining town, situated on the East Shropshire coalfield and, since the late 1960s, part of the extensive new town of Telford. There are many reminders of Madeley's industrial past, one of the most poignant being the graves of nine miners, killed in a pit accident in 1864, who lie side by side in the churchyard of the parish church of St Michael. The quote above is part of the inscription on their memorial stone.

The graves are plain, bearing only the initials of each man on their cast-iron covers. The memorial stone gives their names and ages:

   Edward Wallett, 52.
   Benjamin Davies, 35.
   John Tranter, 37.
   Joseph Maiden, 18.
   William Jarratt, 18.
   John Farr, 14.
   John Jones, 14.
   Francis Cookson, 13.
   William Onions, 12.

What shocked me most when I first read this list was how young most of the dead were. Even in 1864 they were regarded as children: the coroner's inquest record states that the victims were three men and six boys. Twenty-two years earlier the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act had prohibited children under eight from working underground. But even in 1864 it would have been quite normal for children to start work at twelve - and no doubt this made an essential contribution to the family income.

The Madeley Wood Company, who owned the mine, were considered to be good employers; they had never employed women underground and were local benefactors. But the shifts were long - twelve hours - and there were no extended breaks in the working day. The men would take it in turns to grab a quick bite to eat. The air they breathed was full of dust and most of them would eventually contract lung diseases. Life expectancy was short.

Madeley's many pits are now hidden under tree-covered mounds. The Brick Kiln Leasow pit at Madeley Wood was an ironstone pit, 220 metres deep. It stood near the top of the steep hill that leads down from Madeley into Ironbridge, and nearly all the miners lived within about half a mile of it. They were a tight-knit community and no doubt many of them were related. Certainly the oldest man on the shift, Edward Wallett, was the father of William Wallett, who was banksman on the day of the accident.

On Tuesday 27th September 1864 at 5.40 pm the shift had just ended and the men were coming up in the device known as 'the doubles' - loops of chain forming seats, with a heavy iron 'bonnet' above to protect them from any falling debris. This device was hooked on to the main chain which was drawn up by the engine at a signal from the 'hooker-on'. The hooker-on that day was Benjamin Davies, an experienced man who'd been doing the job for twenty years.

When the men were about halfway up, the engine man felt the winding chain go slack. He knew at once that the miners had fallen to their deaths. Moments later the doubles, the men, the iron bonnet and the great chain crashed through the layers of thick planks at the bottom of the shaft into four metres of sump water. The thunderous sound brought miners and local people rushing to the scene.

The mutilated bodies were brought up and taken down the hill to the George and Dragon pub, close to where many of the miners lived - and desperate relatives had to be kept outside the room until the bodies had been washed and laid out.

No clear cause was ever found for the accident. The hook and chain were intact, so it was assumed that the hooker-on had somehow failed to properly connect the hook to the chain, and that the hook had slipped out halfway up. Nine men, rather than the permitted maximum of eight, were in the doubles that day. Whether this could have been a factor was unclear. A verdict of accidental death was returned.

This was not an unusual accident - a similar one occurred a few miles away eight years later, when a triple-link chain broke - but it made a deep impression on the community not only because of the large number of miners lost, but because so many were children. One of the dead, 13 year old Francis Cookson, lived in a house only yards from the one where, in the 1980s, my own 13 year old son was able to look forward to a very different future. The Victorians made great strides in child protection and improved working conditions, but one of the most shocking aspects of this story is not the employment of children - my mother started work at 14 - but the long working day, which was still accepted as normal, even for such arduous work. Change comes slowly, and is often hard won.

   This pit pony sculpture is by local artist Gerry Foxall.

We thank Ann Turnbull for this post. Carol Drinkwater will be back next month.


Susan Price said...

This strikes a chord, Ann. I live not so far from you, in the Black Country, and my great-grandfather was a miner and my grandfather worked at a pit above ground for a while. (All the Black Country pits were closed by the 1926 Coal Master's Lock-Out -- The General Strike was started, not by 'the workers' but by the Master's Lock-Out, an attempt to force the miner's back to work for starvation wages.)

Before the pits were nationalised, many were run on shoe-strings to make more profit and it was uncommon for miners to be lowered down pits as they sat in loops of rope. Accidents in the pit-shaft were frequent -- breaking ropes, breaking chains. Quite often bricks fell out of ill-maintained shaft linings or debris of some kind fell in from above and killed men whose heads weren't protected by any kind of shield above them. The pit you describe evidently was quite a good pit for the time.

None of those pesky, 'nanny-state' health and safety regulations or 'red tape' in those days.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for this, Sue. I knew where you lived, but not that some of your ancestors were miners. If it was uncommon in the Black Country to use the doubles, what did they use? Surely the big cages must have been more expensive? I don't think I knew about the Master's Lock-Out during the General Strike. (I have to say 'don't think' because my memory is not good!) I know I mentioned the General Strike briefly in Pigeon Summer, which was very loosely based on this area. In real life, the last pits in Madeley closed in the 1950s.

Susan Price said...

My comment should have read 'not uncommon' or 'common'. Sorry. Ages ago, in my 20s, I spoke with an elderly man who'd worked at a pit and had seen men lowered down in a loop of rope with a boy sitting in their lap. He'd also seen men brought up dead after being hit by falling bricks. That must have been, roughly, around 1910.

Susan Price said...

In 1925, I think, the Coal Owners proposed reducing the wages of the miners in order to increase their profits. They'd refused to invest in the pits, but expected the miners to lie down and take a cut to their already poor wages. The Mine Unions refused. So the owners locked the miners out of the pits, saying they'd allow them to come back to work when they accepted the wage cut.

The miners refused - they couldn't afford to take a wage cut. The TUC called the General Strike in support of the miners. In response, Churchill sent armed troops into the coal fields.

The mines in the Black Country were very deep -- the thirty foot seam, the only place in the world where men climbed ladders to cut coal. They were also wet pits. Because the owners locked the miners out, the pumps weren't manned and all the pits flooded. After the dispute was settled, the Coal Owners decided it wasn't worth their while to pump the pits dry again. So all the Black Country pits closed in 1926/7.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Thank you, Ann, for standing in for me with this fascinating post.

Ann Turnbull said...

My pleasure, Carol! I don't know how you regulars manage to write such interesting posts every month.