25.3.36

Men along the private line leading to Gauber pit unloading trucks of slack. They say the mine “can’t get shut o’ t’slack” and are laying it by. This is regarded as a sinister sign. If the pits are storing slack already they will soon be running short time. The men get 4d a ton for unloading the slack. A truck holds about 10 tons, so they have to unload 3 trucks to make a day’s wage.

I think the dirtiest interiors I see, more than any of the various kinds of squalor – the piles of unwashed crocks, the scraps of miscellaneous food all over the lino-topped table, the dreadful rag mats with the crumbs of years trodden into them – the things that oppress me most are the scraps of newspaper that are scattered all over the floor.

G. is quite badly ill with bronchitis. He stayed away from work yesterday, then this morning, when still obviously ill, insisted on going to work.

Returning to Leeds tomorrow, then on to London on Monday [30 March].

The diary ends here.

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23.3.36

At Mapplewell. Houses about the worst I have seen, though we did not manage to get into the very worst ones, which were one-roomed or two-roomed cabins of stone, about 20’ by 15’ by 15’ high, or even less, and practically ruinous. Rent of these, some of which are property of colliery, said to be about 3/-. In the row called Spring Gardens we found public indignation because the landlords have served about half the row with notices to quit for arrears of, in some cases, only a few shillings. (Firth, in Barnsley, has a notice to quit though only about 5/- in arrear and paying this off at 3d per week.) The people took us in and insisted on our seeing their houses. Frightful interiors. In the first one (see notes) old father, out of work of course, obviously horribly bewildered by his notice to quit after 22 years tenancy and turning anxiously to F. and me with some idea that we could help him. The mother rather more self-possessed. Two sons aged about 24, fine big men with powerful well-shaped bodies, narrow faces and red hair, but thin and listless from obvious undernourishment and with dull brutalised expressions. Their sister, a little older and very like them, with prematurely lined face, glancing from F. to me, again with the idea that perhaps we night help. One of the sons, taking no notice of our presence, all the while slowly peeling off his socks in front of the fire; his feet almost black with sticky dirt. The other son was at work. The house terribly bare – no bedclothes except overcoats etc. – but fairly clean and tidy. At the back children playing about in the muck, some of them, aged 5 or 6, barefoot and naked except for a sort of shift. F. told the tenants if the notice to quit was persisted with to come into Barnsley and see him and Degnan. I told them the landlord was only bluffing and to hold their ground and if he threatened taking it to court to threaten in return to sue him for lack of repairs. Hope I did the right thing.

I have glanced at Brown’s novel. [1] It is b―s.

[1] Brown’s novel: Daughters of Albion (1935) by Alec Brown. In Orwell’s review of The Novel Today by Phillip Henderson, he described it as ‘a huge wad of mediocre stuff’ (CW, X, p. 534). The dash between ‘b’ and ‘s’ is Orwell’s.

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22.3.36

Kaye says his father, a collier (now too old for work), always washed the top half of his body and his feet and legs to above the knees. The rest of his body was only washed at very long intervals, the old man believing that washing all over led to lumbago.

Communist meeting in the Market Place disappointing. The trouble with all these Communist speakers is that instead of using the popular idiom they employ immensely long sentences full of “despite” and “notwithstanding” and “be that as it may” etc. in the Garvin strain – and this in spite of always speaking with broad provincial or cockney accents – Yorkshire in this case. I suppose they are given set speeches which they learn by heart. After the visiting speaker Degnan got up to speak and was a much more effective speaker – he speaks very broad Lancashire and though he can talk like a leading article if he wants to he doesn’t choose. The usual crowd of men of all ages gaping with entirely expressionless faces and the usual handful of women a little more animated then the men – I suppose because no woman would go to a political meeting unless exceptionally interested in politics. About 150 people. Collection take for the defence of the young men arrested in the Mosley affair and realised 6/-.

Wandering round Barnsley Main Colliery and the glassworks along the canal with F. and another man whose name I did not get. The latter’s mother had just died and was lying dead at home. She was 89 and had been a midwife for 50 years. I noted the lack of hypocrisy with which he was laughing and joking and came into the pub to have a drink etc. The monstrous slag-heaps round Barnsley Main are all more or less on fire under the surface. In the darkness you can see long serpentine fires creeping all over them, not only red but very sinister blue flames (from sulphur) which always seem on the point of going out and then flicker up again.

I notice that the word “spink” (for a great tit, I think, but at any rate some small bird) is in use here as well as in Suffolk.

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21.3.36

This morning went down the Grimethorpe pit. Not exhausting this time, because in order not to clash with the visit of some students from the Technical College we went to the nearest working, only about ¼ mile and little bending.

The depth of the mine, at least at the part we went to, is a little over 400 yards. The young engineer who took me thought the cages average 60 mph. when going down, in which case they must touch 80 or more at their fastest. I think this must be an exaggeration, but they certainly travel faster than the average railway train. The especial feature of this pit is the “skip wagon,” by which the coal is sent straight up in special cages instead of being sent up, much more laboriously, in tubs. The full tubs come slowly along an inclined rail and are controlled by men at the sides with brakes. Each tub halts for a moment on a weighing machine and its weight is entered up, then the tubs move on and move two at a time into a kind of container which grips them underneath. The container then turns right over, spilling the coal down a shute° into the cage below. When the cage has got 8 tons, ie. about 16 tubs, in it, it goes out and the coal is spilt down a similar chute on the surface. Then it goes along conveyor belts and over screens which automatically sort it, and is washed as well. The coal which is being sold to factories etc. is shot straight into goods trucks on the railway line below and then weighed truck and all, the weight of the truck being known. This is the only pit in England which works this system – all others send the coal up in the tubs, which takes much more time and needs more tubs. The system has been worked for a long time in Germany and U.S.A. The Grimethorpe pit turns out about 5000 tons of coal a day.

This time I saw the fillers actually working at the coal face, and now having seen the different operations of coal-getting, except blasting, in progress separately, I understand more or less how it is done. The coal-cutter travels along the face cutting into the bottom of the ledge of coal to the depth of 5 feet. Then the coal can be tumbled out into boulders with picks, or – as here, the Grimethorpe coal being very hard – is first loosened with blasting charges and then extracted. Then the fillers (who have also extracted it) load it onto the conveyor belt which runs behind them and carries it to a chute from which it runs into the tubs. Thus:

As far as possible the three operations are done in three separate shifts. The coal-cutter works on the afternoon shift, the blasting is done on the night shift (when the minimum number of people are in the pit), and the fillers extract the coal on the morning shift. Each man has to clear a space 4 or 5 yards wide. So, as the seam of coal is about a yard high and the cutter has undermined it to a depth of 5 feet, each man has to extract and load onto the belt (say) 14 X 5 X 3 cubic feet of coal, equals 210 cubic feet, equals nearly 8 cubic yards of coal. If it is really the case that a cubic yard of coal weighs 27 cwt, this would be well over 10 tons – ie. each man has to shift nearly a ton and a half an hour. When the job is done the coal face has advanced 5 feet, so during the next shift the conveyor belt is taken to pieces, moved 5 feet forward and reassembled, and fresh props are put in.

The place where the fillers were working was fearful beyond description. The only thing one could say was that, as conditions underground go, it was not particularly hot. But as the seam of coal is only a yard high or a bit more, the men can only kneel or crawl to their work, never stand up. The effort of constantly shovelling coal over your left shoulder and flinging it a yard or two beyond, while in a kneeling position, must be very great even to men who are used to it. Added to this there are the clouds of coal dust which are flying down your throat all the time and which make it difficult to see any distance. The men were all naked except for trousers and knee-pads. It was difficult to get through the conveyor belt to the coal face. You had to pick your moment and wriggle through quickly when the belt stopped for a moment. Coming back we crawled onto the belt while it was moving; I had not been warned of the difficulty of doing this and immediately fell down and had to be hauled off before the belt dashed me against the props etc. which were littered about further down. Added to the other discomforts of the men working there, there is the fearful din of the belt which never stops for more than a minute or so.

Electric lights this time – no Davy lamps used in the pit except for testing for gas. They can detect the presence of gas by the flame turning blue. By the height to which the flame can be turned while still remaining blue, they have a rough test of the percentage of gas in the atmosphere. All the roads we went through, except one or two galleries used for short cuts, were high and well-built and even paved underfoot in places. I have at last grasped the reason for the doors one passes through from time to time. The air is sucked out of one entry by fans and goes in of its own accord at the other entry. But if not prevented it will come back by the shortest route instead of going all round the mine. Hence the doors, which stop it from taking short cuts.

Excellent baths at the pit. They have no less than 1000 h. & c. shower baths. Each miner has two lockers, one for his pit clothes and one for his ordinary clothes (so that the pit clothes shall not dirty the others.) Thus he can come and go clean and decent. According to the engineer, the baths were built partly by the Miners’ Welfare, partly by the royalty owners, and the company also contributed.

During this week G. has had two narrow escapes from falls of stone, one of which actually grazed him on its way down. These men would not last long if it were not that they are used to the conditions and know when to stand from under. I am struck by the difference between the miners when you see them underground and when you see them in the street etc. Above ground, in their thick ill-fitting clothes, they are ordinary-looking men, usually small and not at all impressive and indeed not distinguishable from other people except by their distinctive walk (clumping tread, shoulders very square) and the blue scars on their noses. Below, when you see them stripped, all, old and young, have splendid bodies, with every muscle defined and wonderfully small waists. I saw some miners going into their baths. As I thought, they are quite black from head to foot. So the ordinary miner, who has not access to a bath, must be black from the waist down six days a week at least.

I have been wondering about what people like the Firths have to eat. Their total income is 32/- a week. Rent 9/0½ d. Gas say 1/3. Coal (say 3 cwt. @ 9d) 2/3. Other minor expenses (eg. F. keeps up his Union payments) say 1/-. That leaves 18/6. But Mrs F. gets a certain amount of baby-food free from the Clinic, so say the baby only costs 1/- a week beyond this. That leaves 17/6. F. smokes at any rate some cigarettes, say 1/- (6 packets of Woodbines a week.) That leaves 16/6 a week to feed 2 adults and a girl aged 2 years, or about 5/6 per week per head. And this takes no account of clothes, soap, matches etc. etc. Mrs F. said they fed chiefly on bread and jam. If I can do so delicately I must ask F. to give me a fairly exact account of their meals for one day.

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20.3.36

Talking with Firth (see notes on his house.[1]) He gets 32/- a week from the U.A.B. [2] Mrs F. is a Derbyshire woman. Two kids, ages 2 years 5 months and 10 months. They are fairly sturdy as yet and it is evidently the case that these kids do much better in infancy than later, as for about their first three year they get help from the Infants’ Welfare Clinic. Mrs F. gets three packets of baby’s food (dried milk) a week and also a little Nestle’s milk. On one occasion she got an allowance of 2/- a week for a month to buy eggs for the elder child. While there we sent out for some beer. I noted both the F.s let the children drink a little beer out of their glasses. Another kid was in and out of the house mothering the F. baby. Her father was murdered four years ago. The widowed mother gets an allowance of 22/- a week, I do not know from what source, on which she has to keep herself and 4 children.

I did not know before, what F. told me, that when the mines have baths at the pithead these are built not by the company but by the miners themselves, out of the Welfare Fund to which every miner subscribes. This is the case at any rate round here – must try and find out if it is so everywhere. It is by the way another argument against the statement that miners do not want or appreciate baths. One reason why not all the pits have baths is that when a pit is anywhere near being worked out it is not considered worth while to build baths.

I forgot to mention that in the day-hole at Wentworth the pit props, owing to the damp, had a strange fungi exactly like cotton wool growing on them. If you touched them they went all to nothing, leaving a nasty smell. It appears that a Lancashire miner, instead of slinging his lamp round his neck, has a band above the elbow and hangs the lamp from that.

Today G. earned little or nothing. The coal-cutter had broken down so there was no coal for him to fill into the tubs. When this happens those on piece-work get no compensation, except a shilling or two for odd jobs called bye-work.

I see the Manchester Guardian has not printed my letter re. Mosley and I suppose they never will. I hardly expected the Times to print it, but I think the M.G. might, considering their reputation.

[1] 12 Albert Street East.

[2] U.A.B.: Unemployment Assistance Board. For details see Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 85-6.

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19.3.36

In frightful exhaustion after going down the “day hole,” as, of course, when the time came I had not the strength of mind to say I did not want to go as far as the coal face.

I went down with the “deputy” (Mr Lawson) about 3 pm. and came up about 6.30 pm. L. said we had covered not quite 2 miles. I must say that I got on perceptibly better than at Wigan, either because the going was a little better, as I think it was – probably one could stand upright about one third of the way – or because L., who is an old man, moderated his pace to mine. The chief feature of this pit, apart from its being a “day hole,” is that it is infernally wet in most places. There were quite considerable streams running here and there, and two enormous pumps have to be kept running all day and most of the night. The water is pumped up to ground level and has made a considerable pool, but curiously enough it is clear clean water – even drinkable, L. said – and the pool was quite ornamental with waterhens swimming about on it. We went down when the morning shift came up, and there are comparatively few men on the shift for some reason I did not understand. When we got to the coal face the men were there with the coal-cutter, which was not running at the moment, but they set it running to show me. The teeth on a revolving chain – in principle it is an enormously tough and powerful band-saw – cut in underneath the coal face, after which huge boulders of coal can be easily tumbled out and broken up with picks before being loaded onto the tubs. Some of these boulders of coal, not yet broken up, were about 8 feet long by two thick by four high – the seam is four feet six, I think – and must have weighed many tons.* As it cuts the machine travels backwards or forwards, as desired, along the coalface, on its own power. The place where these men, and those loading the broken coal onto the tubs, were working, was like hell. I had never thought of it before, but of course as the machine works it sends forth clouds of coal dust which almost stifle one and make it impossible to see more than a few feet. No lamps except Davy lamps of an old-fashioned pattern, not more than two or three candle-power, and it puzzled one to see how these men can see to work, except when there are a number of them together. To get from one part of the coal face to another you had to crawl along awful tunnels cut through the coal, a yard high by two feet wide, and then to work yourself on your bottom over mountainous boulders of coal. Of course in doing this I dropped my lamp and it went out. L. called to one of the men working and he gave me his lamp. Then L. said “You’d better cut yourself a bit of coal as a memento” (visitors always do this), and while I was cutting out a piece of coal with the pick, I knocked my second lamp between the two of us, which was disconcerting and brought it home to me how easily you could lose yourself down there if you didn’t happen to know the roads.

We passed tubs, carrying props etc., going to and fro on the endless belt, which is worked by electricity. The tubs only move at 1½ miles an hour. All the miners at this pit seem to carry sticks, and they gave me one which was a great help. They are about two foot six long and hollowed out just below the knob, and when you have to bend really low you grip the stick by the hollow. The ground underfoot was as mucky as a farm yard in many places. They say the best way to go is to keep one foot on the trolley-rail and the other on the sleepers, if you can find them. The miners going down the roads run, bent double of course, in places where I could barely stagger. They say it is easier to run than walk when you have the hang of it. It was rather humiliating that coming back, which we did by the most direct route, took me three-quarters of an hour and only takes the miners a quarter of an hour. But we had gone to the nearest working, only about halfway to the end. Those who work at the furthest working take nearly an hour to get to their work. This time I was given one of the new crash helmets which many, though not all miners, now wear. To look at they are very like a French or Italian tin hat, and I had always imagined they were made of metal. Actually they are a kind of compressed fibre and very light. Mine was a bore because it was too small and fell off when I bent very low. But how glad of it I was! Coming back when I was tired and could not bend much I must have bashed my head twenty times – once hard enough to bring down a huge chunk of stone – but felt absolutely nothing.

Walked home with L. to Dodworth as I could get the bus more easily there. He has a two-mile walk with some pretty stiff hills going to and from work, in addition to the walk inside the mine when he gets there. But I suppose as “deputy” he doesn’t do much manual work. He has worked in this mine 22 years and says he knows it so well that he never even needs to look up [to] see when there is a beam coming.

Birds all singing. Tiny pink buds on the elms that I had never noticed before. Many female flowers on the hazels. But I suppose as usual the old maids will be cutting them all off for Easter decorations.

When I sit typing the family, especially Mrs G. and the kids, all gather round to watch absorbedly, and appear to admire my prowess almost as much as I admire that of the miners.

* A cubic yard of coal said to weight 27 cwt

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18.3.36

The Barnsley public baths are very bad. Old-fashioned bathtubs, none too clean, and not nearly enough of them. I judged by the appearance of the place there were at most 50 baths* – this in a town of 70–80 thousand inhabitants, largely miners, not one of whom has a bath in his own house, except in the new Corporation houses.

Some curious coincidences. When I went to see Len Kaye he recommended me to see Tommy Degnan, to whom I had also been recommended by Paddy Grady at Wigan. But what was more curious still, D. was one of the men who were thrown out at Mosley’s meeting, though not the one I actually saw thrown out. I went round to see D. last night and had some difficulty in finding him. He lives in a dreadful barn of a place called Garden House, which is an old almost ruinous house which half a dozen unemployed men have taken and made a sort of lodging house of. D. himself is not unemployed, though at the moment “playing” because a few days before the hammering he got at M.’s meeting he was slightly crushed by a fall of stone in the mine. We went out to look for the man whom I actually saw thrown out, as I want to get particulars and see his bruises before writing to the papers about it, but couldn’t find him, and I am to see him today. Then in the street we ran across another man whom I saw thrown out. The latter’s ejection was an interesting instance of the way any upset can be misrepresented and turned to advantage by a demagogue of the type of Mosley. At the time of the uproar at the back of the hall, this last man – name Hennesy,** I think – was seen to rush on to the stage, and everyone thought he had gone there to shout something out and interrupt M.’s speech. It struck me at the time as curious that though on the stage he didn’t shout anything out, and the next moment, of course, the Blackshirts on the platform seized him and bundled him out. M. shouted out, “A typical example of Red tactics!” It now appears what happened was this. Hennesey° saw the Blackshirts at the back of the hall bashing D., and couldn’t get to him to help him because there is no aisle up the middle; but there was an aisle up the right hand side, and the only way he could get to this was over the stage. D. after being thrown out was charged under the Public Meetings Act, but H not. I don’t know yet whether the other man, Marshall, was. The woman who was thrown out – this was somewhere at the back and I didn’t see it – was hit on the head with a trumpet and was a day in hospital. D. and H. were in the Army together and H. was wounded in the leg and D. taken prisoner when the Vth Army [1] was defeated in 1918. D., being a miner, was sent to work in the Polish mines. He said all of them had pit-head baths. H. says the French ones have them too.

G. told me a dreadful story of how a friend of his, a “dataller”, was buried alive. He was buried under a fall of small stone, and they rushed to him and, though they could not get him out completely, they got his head and shoulders free so that he could breathe. He was alive and spoke to them. At this moment they saw that the roof was coming down again and had to take to flight themselves. Once again he was buried, and once again they managed to get to him and uncover his head, and again he was alive and spoke to them. Then the roof came down again, and this time they did not get him out for some hours, after which, of course, he was dead. But the real point of the story, from G.’s point of view, was that this man had known beforehand that this part of the mine was unsafe and likely to bury him: “And it worked on his mind to that extent that he kissed his wife before he went to work. And she told me afterwards that it was the first time in years he’d kissed her.”

There is a very old woman – a Lancashire woman – living near here who in her day has worked down the pit, dragging tubs of coal with a harness and chain. She is 83, so I suppose this would be in the seventies.

*Actually 19!

**His name is Firth, I got it as Hennessey because he was introduced to me as Hellis Firth. (Ellis Firth – people here very capricious about their H’s.)

[1] Vth Army: Presumably D. was taken prisoner during the German spring offensive south of the River Somme launched by Erich Ludendorff on 21 March 1918. The Fifth Army was forced to retreat and suffered very heavy casualties.

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