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What Was Denaby Main Colliery like below ground?

PICTURED: 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 Willy explained that these had now been superseded by the ‘Protector’, invented by Mueslar in 1885, who’s brass pillared, glass sided lamp, gave more light and was a safer lamp in general.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 from.

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.