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.