Back To Blows
Though both David and I had matured a little it didn’t stop the occasional disagreement between us. David bought his first car from his father-in-law; it was a rusty old Hillman Minx that was eventually written off when a motor cycle collided with it. (The cycle survived) One day whilst travelling around the traffic island outside of the pit canteen David had a minor collision with another car causing slight damage; I would not let him forget this and started to call him “crash” and to be honest I think that I rubbed this in a little too much. One afternoon shift we was travelling out on the manrider; I in front with David behind me and I still calling him crash, David tapped me on the shoulder and as I turned around he thumped in the face blacking one of my eyes. In temper I retaliated and threw a punch at him and missed, the momentum caused me to fall out of the moving cars and black my other eye. I will never forget it was on a Friday, both of us usually went out together for a drink and would you believe it David paid for all of my drinks that night. No doubt he had a guilty conscience.
It was during our employment on 7s face that both David and I decided that we would at our own expense attend an evening class at Derby Road Technical College Mansfield to obtain our Shotfiring Certificate; this was an unusual thing to do at that time. Our elder brother Dennis was the tutor for this class and I must admit that it was only because of the encouragement that we received from him that we did agree to attend, my brother-in-law Graham Bradshaw decided to attend also. We were successful in obtaining our certificates on 01/02/1966 and signed on for a follow up course to obtain our Deputies Certificates; David and Graham passed the exam, due to my wife being ill I was not able to attend and it was some time later in 1971 when I eventually took the exam, this time at the Boards expense.
In order to attend the evening classes we had to get permission from the Colliery Undermanager Harry Copell to work on the dayshift on the Monday when our face team was on the afternoon shift. He agreed to this as it would give him the opportunity for two extra face men to fill the regular “Monday morning” absentee workers on 6s Waterloo stint face that was on the opposite shift to ours.
Waterloo 6s Coal Face
6s coal face was the only stint face in the Waterloo seam; the seam varied in thickness from 1.5 metres at the loader gate up to 1.9 metres in the supply gate, there was a dirt band in the middle of the seam some 500mm thick. The face was pre cut to a depth of 1.3 metres in the dirt band; the method of roof support was similar to other stint faces except that hydraulic props were used instead of rigid steel props. Two conveyor belts were required to convey the coal off the face due to the face length and load that they had to carry, this led to the face being described as the top half and bottom half, the bottom half being at the loader gate end of the face. If you worked on the top half of the face, the stint length was six yards and on the bottom half it was seven yards, and I can tell you it was bloody hard work. Sorry to mix up from metric to imperial measurements, but stints were measured in yards then.
It was on this face that I was to learn a good lesson; I was in the next stint to a chap named Charlie Oliver, more commonly known as C.O. (He played the drums at Huthwaite Miners Welfare). I am right handed so I found it easier to break in at the top end of my stint (next to C.O.) and couldn’t have cut down the mark between the stints better with a razor blade. Now C.O. was a steady chap and being in no hurry took his time; I being young and impatient was in a hurry and had finished my stint whilst C.O. had a couple of yards at the bottom end of his stint to go. You can imagine my horror when I saw him and the shotfirer pack all of his remaining explosives into the last two shot holes and proceed to fire them; on my return I had got a good half of Charlie’s coal in my stint and half of my props blown out. All Charlie could say with a grin was “you’ll learn me lad” and I did.
Another time David and I were sent on 6s in the next stint to each other on the bottom half of the face; we had decided that as we were strags we would get our stints off and get out of the mine early; this was permitted if you were a stint worker as you had completed your contract. On that day the top half of the face was delayed due to a breakdown on the conveyor and the deputy Ted Ullathorne decided to re-deploy all of the men from the top half of the face to join the men on the bottom half. The plan was to clear the bottom half of the face whilst the conveyor was repaired and then for everyone to move up to the top half of the face and complete the stints there. The problem with this was that we only had a couple of yards of coal left between us; a chap named Stan Bailey dropped in between us thinking we were going to let him fill our coal off, we ordered him away. Ted Ullathorne came down and demanded that we let Stan share our stints, both of us pointed out to Ted that we were under contract to fill our own stints off and that he had no authority to renegotiate the terms of our contract. If you were a strag on a stint face and due to various problems were behind with your work, the regular men would not help you; both of us had been in this position before and were determined not to change our minds. We finished our stint and left for the pit bottom, however Ted got his revenge; he had phoned the pit bottom onsetter and instructed him not to let us out of the mine early.
After completing our courses on the evening class’s both David and I continued to work on 7s coal face except for a short period when both of us applied to be trained for rescue work as part time Rescue Brigades Men. Both of our applications were successful and we attended Sherwood Colliery Medical Centre for a medical prior to the commencement of our training in rescue work.
We attended Mansfield Mines Rescue Station for our training and qualified to take part in Rescue Operations on the 8th. November 1966; from that point on we were required to attend four pit practices and two Rescue Station practices per year one of which would include an annual medical and to attend any emergencies as and when necessary. I don’t remember the names of all the men that attended the training course that David and I were on, but I do remember David Stead of Sherwood Colliery and I remember one of our first trainings. We were to spend one hour walking around the Rescue Station wearing Brown and Mills Aerophor breathing apparatus fully charged with 5.5lbs of liquid air. I believe the total weight of the apparatus was about 35lb. The apparatus had brass tubes that passed over both shoulders; these tubes did have some padding underneath them, but this did not prevent your shoulders from getting bruised due to the bounce of the apparatus as you walked.
I also remember our first training to put out a fire in the gallery beneath the Rescue Station; our task was to locate and extinguish a fire and to recover two casualties, off we set eager to impress Alf Smith the station officer in charge of us.
It was impossible to see anything due to the thick smoke; our eyes were streaming even though we was wearing goggles and progressed slowly around the gallery until we located the fire. We did not see the fire at first and only located it by the increase in temperature and then as we approached we saw only a dull glow through the stinging wood smoke; fire extinguished (the steam was scorching) time to look for the two casualties. We searched throughout the gallery and could only find one “dummy” this was stretchered out and back we went to locate the other casualty. We came across a simulated fall of roof and instantly set about setting temporary wood props and cleaning up stone in a search for the missing casualty; all to no avail, we had failed in our task, our time was up and with bowed heads we returned to report our failure. Alf could not believe that the second dummy couldn’t be found as he had left it in an obvious place for us to see; Alf started a fan up to clear the atmosphere in the gallery and took us with him to show us where the other dummy had been left. Alf was shocked to see that we had set the dummy as a prop to support the roof; the dummy was made out of an old wood prop and due to repeated rough use it had lost most of its distinguishing attachments. Alf was forgiving and saw the funny side; he also congratulated us for what we had achieved.
The annual medicals that you had for the Mines Rescue were not what you would normally expect; you had the usual medical examination at the nearby Sherwood Colliery medical centre and if you were found to be fit and well you then had to undergo the “Harvard Pack Test”. This test was a fitness and recovery test that had to be carried out under medical supervision at the Mines Rescue Station. I don’t remember all of the details of this test; but I do remember that you had to carry one third of your body weight in a pack on your back and keeping in step with a metronome had to step up and down on a step that I believe was about 450mm in height for five minutes. I can tell you that this was exhausting and as soon as you had finished you were sat down, the weight removed and had your pulse taken by the doctor or a nursing sister. Your pulse would be repeatedly taken until it had returned to normal and then the time would be noted so that your recovery time could be checked and recorded.
One member of our team Ron Cutts always appeared to be fitter than the rest of us; in confidence he admitted that he had frigged the test, I thought that this would have been impossible as you had two station officers in attendance to supervise the test. Ron explained that he made sure that he would be as close to the back of the queue as possible; he said that after a time the station officers would not be so observant and could easily be distracted by others talking and when they looked away he would kick the step instead of stepping up and down. The station officers hearing the sound of Ron kicking the step were fooled into thinking that he was doing the test properly; Ron was the only man that I knew who had repeatedly and successfully frigged this test.
Earlier on I mentioned that not many men would use the underground toilets that were provided; at the top of the Dunsil manrider there was a short section of a return air roadway that was little used that became known as “Shit Alley”, you can guess how this section of roadway got its name. It was a legal requirement for any person who would defecate underground to cover the faeces in dust; but this was not always the case, many of the men would just leave without covering it. Over a short period of time the dust in the mine atmosphere would settle on the faeces and cover it over such that to any person walking by would not notice it; whilst you would not see the faeces you could certainly smell it, however if you were wearing breathing apparatus you would neither see or smell the offending material.
One day whilst on pit rescue training we entered the mine accompanied by one of the Rescue Station Officers Norman Beadle as part of our team; normally the station officer would accompany us on our practice as an observer, Norman said that he was to travel as a team member as he had to get a pit practice in to comply with his training schedule. We had received our instructions on the surface as to what roadways we were to travel and what the practice would include; on reaching the underground deployment centre we filled our apparatus up with liquid air and dressed up ready to go. The team captain checked everyone’s apparatus and associated equipment and then gave the signal to move off and we travelled down the main return airway towards the Dunsil manrider. You can guess which roadway we were to travel next; yes “shit alley”. The team captain Tony Kemp was gingerly making his way through shit alley when suddenly Norman Beadle collapsed on the ground and rolled around pointing to his mouthpiece as he did so; this was a surprise part of the practice, Norman wanted to see what our reactions would be and what we would do if such an emergency arose with the failure of one of the teams breathing apparatus. Norman was shocked and surprised that no one came to his assistance; we had to take out our mouthpieces and stand there laughing, Norman hadn’t realised that he had rolled around in numerous amounts of faeces, it was all over him and no one would touch him. Had it been a real emergency we would have reacted in a proper manner; this didn’t stop Norman from giving us a right good bollicking, I think more so because of what he had rolled in.
I will never forget our first “call out”; it was March 11th. My birthday, I was on the night shift and had just got out of bed, I don’t remember the year but I believe it was in the early seventies. Not many people had telephones then and the colliery van was sent out to each team members home to notify them that their services were required that night; all the information that we received was “There has been an incident at a local colliery and your attendance is required, you will be picked up at 9:00pm. so that you can get changed into your underground clothing and then transported to the incident colliery”. Only one person couldn’t be contacted at home and that was my brother; he had gone out to celebrate his birthday, you can imagine his dismay when the van driver arrived at his local and informed him of the incident, he had just purchased a pint of beer and had to leave it.
It wasn’t until we were in the colliery van being transported to the incident colliery that we was informed of our destination and the nature of the incident; there was an underground fire at Thoresby Colliery in the Top Hard Seam. The cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion in the gobbings of a coal face that had ceased production and was in the process of being salvaged. Attempts had been made to contain the fire but it had got out of hand and the decision was made to seal the district off at the outbye end of the gates; however this was not to be; an increase in the amount of methane in the atmosphere made it necessary to withdraw the men and to put seals on close to the pit bottom. This would cause the loss of two production faces in the Top Hard but the safety of the men comes first. We arrived at Thoresby Colliery at about 10:30pm. And reported to the Rescue Room to log our attendance in; we were then told to go to the colliery medical room for a medical. If we were fit to undertake rescue work then we were instructed to wait in the canteen on “standby” if not fit report back to the Rescue Room to service the breathing apparatus as it came out of the mine; only one person failed his medical and that was the team captain who had been suffering from back pain.
When an incident occurs and the rescue teams are called into action; as one team dons their apparatus another team has to be on “standby” at the Fresh Air Base (a base selected that is not and will not be contaminated by any harmful gases but as close to the incident as is possible) should the team entering the affected area require assistance in an emergency. The breathing apparatus will last for a minimum of two hours and if the team has not returned by that time the standbye team will be sent in to locate them.
The canteen was full of rescue teams from various collieries; some of the men were lay on stretchers, these were provided so that men could get some sleep if they wanted as some of them had been in the canteen on standbye for eight hours. Tea, coffee and food was provided free to the rescue teams; however this did not relieve the boredom of the long hours on standbye, every couple of hours you would see some of the teams called out to go underground and some new teams enter the canteen to start their turn on surface standby. Eventually they called for the Sherwood and Teversal teams to make ready and I can tell you that this does give you an adrenalin rush; we got kitted up and entered the mine after waiting about ten hours.
On arrival at the fresh air base we were told that we would be on two hours standby before we would be going into action and that we would be going onto the main return airway to continue the work on the stopping (seal) that was being built there. I can tell you as the time passes the nerves start to kick in; this is not fear, despite all of your training you will be entering an extremely dangerous place and can’t help but think what it is going to be like.
It was our time to go in; instructions had been received, apparatus filled, all equipment checked, time checked and of we set inbye, we had been told that the atmosphere was lethal and to take great care in what we did. After a few minutes we were at the stopping site and I was surprised to see the air so clear with just the odd patch of greenish smoke in it; the velocity of the air was much faster than I expected it to be and it was really warm. We set about filling the stopping with a material called Hardstop, this looks like the pink stuff that you plaster walls with; normally this is mixed with water and pumped into the stopping. The pump had broken down and we were just emptying the bags of Hardstop into the stopping and flooding it with water so that it would set; the problem with this was that most of the Hardstop was blowing back into our faces due to the velocity of the air and the Hardstop was setting on our clothing and our faces. The time flew by and it didn’t seem long when the next team arrived to relieve us; on returning to the Fresh Air Base I was surprised by how much our clothes stank of smoke, they smelled as though they had been dipped in boiling bitumen. We spent one more shift at Thoresby Colliery before all of the stopping’s had been completed and that part of the mine sealed off; we would return weeks later in order to recover that section of the mine.
A stopping can be best described as a plug in a roadway to prevent it being ventilated; however that would be a too simple description. The size of a stopping is calculated by a mathematical formula using the height of the roadway; the length of a stopping would usually be not less than five metres and consist of a wall at each end gripped into the roof and sides of the roadway and the void between the walls filled to the top with a cement like material. A small metal tube with a valve at the outbye end of the stopping would pass through to the inbye end of the stopping so that air samples could be obtained, the air samples could then be analysed to see what the composition of the mine atmosphere was inbye of the stopping.
If it is planned to re-enter the sealed off workings an access tube would be fitted in the stopping for later exploration; each end of the access tube is sealed off with a metal plate; the plate at the inner end of the tube can be opened from inside and the outside of the tube but the one at the outbye end can only be opened from the outside. This is because what is known as a balancing chamber would have to be built at the outbye end to prevent noxious gases contaminating the rest of the mine atmosphere whenever the access tube had to be opened. All of the stopping’s were fitted with access tubes as it was planned to re open the workings once the gob fire was extinguished due to the lack of oxygen.
Some ten or twelve weeks later air samples from the sealed off part of the mine indicated that the fire was extinguished and a plan of recovery was put into action; the plan was to manually transport materials through one stopping and to convey them inbye to the stopping’s that had been started at the outbye ends of the district that the fire was on and the stopping’s there to be completed. This would be carried out over the week-ends so that production could continue during the week and that the minimum of men would be permitted in the mine during recovery operations.
I can tell you that the first team to enter the sealed off workings was a team made up from Sherwood and Teversal collieries of which David and I were members. I took a high reading methanometer in with me and obtained a reading of 36 percent methane in the atmosphere, this was far above the explosive range of methane which is between 5 and 15 percent; this made me feel much more comfortable about being in such a hostile environment. I won’t go into the details of the recovery but believe it took four or five week-ends to complete the job and to re-ventilate that part of the mine.
Our next and last call out was to Markham Colliery in Derbyshire, I don’t remember the date for this but I do believe that it was in the last half of the seventies. I do remember it being a good walk to the site of the fresh air base and losing a canary on the way in; we were walking down a roadway and the velocity of the ventilation was so great that it blew the canary off its perch and pinned it up to the side of the cage, we hadn’t noticed this until it was too late and the canary was dead. I’m not sure if it was instantly killed or not; you would have thought that we had committed a murder, it caused no end of trouble for us and the team captain (my brother David) was grilled about this at his debriefing at the end of our shift.
Our task at Markham was to prevent carbon monoxide that was leaking profusely from two stopping sites; on one we had to build additional packs at the side of a roadway and seal them with Hardstop. The other stopping had to be drilled around the profile of the stopping site and a cement based grout injected under pressure to fill the breaks in the surrounding strata to plug the leaks. We spent two shifts at Markham; there were a number of other rescue teams there, most of them from the Derbyshire area.
Many rescue teams have been called out to recover the dead and injured victims of colliery disasters; I was fortunate not to be called out to any such incident, but I feel that I must mention one of our face team Eric Kirsop (page 31 No11 on photo) He was a rescue man that attended the Creswell Colliery disaster in 1950 where eighty men lost their lives in an underground fire. He was also involved in the recovery of some of the bodies of miners that had been entombed for almost one year after the fire.