Working in a coal mine…

Since covering the anniversary of The Grove Pit Disaster – the worst such event in our area’s mining history – I’ve only peripherally touched on the subject of the local mines. After some prompting by readers, I’ve decided this week to feature the Walsall Wood Colliery in the ‘Pictures from the Past’ feature.

I’m very wary of glamorising or sanitising the history of mining; I’m aware that it’s a sensitive issue locally, and I have nothing but respect for those hard, proud people that worked in such a harsh, deadly industry for very poor pay. Those who would regard this industry with misty eyes behind rose-tinted spectacles outrage me. The history of mine worker pay and conditions doesn’t shadow that of the general British workforce; their occupation remained regularly deadly long after others were made safe. Former miners continue to this day to fall due to respiratory diseases caused by the atrocious conditions they endured to fuel our industrial boom.

Please study these images, think about where the mine stood – on the corner of Coppice Road and Linden/Brownhills Road – and reflect on the changes since the pit closed. When you pass the site, try and imagine the slag heaps and filth that marked out the mine and it’s community. Try and conceive, if you will, how our life compares to those who worked that hole in the ground.

As ever, I pay tribute to the fine books these images originated from, and in particular, to Brian Rollins, who works tirelessly to evoke, commemorate and document the works and workforce he was once part of. The value and contribution of the Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society of which Brian is a leading light, cannot be underestimated.

I had never seen this series of three images before I saw them in David F. Vodden’s book ‘Around Pelsall & Brownhills in old photographs’. Originally 3 photos on three separate pages, they form a panorma of the Walsall Wood Colliery, which I’ve stiched back into one image, as best I can. Please click on the image to view it full saize. To those – like me – who didn’t live through this time, the filth, grime and bleakness cannot be understated. It shows just how far we’ve come in six decades.

Ordnance Survey 1:10560 scale Epoch 5 plan of Walsall Wood Colliery in 1955.

Another bleak landscape. Next time someone talks to you wistfully about the past, the days of old king coal, think of this. This, the pollution, hardship, and generations of poor education, poverty and poor health are what they’re unwittingly celebrating. We owe those men a massive debt, we as a community and society stand on their shoulders. We must never forget that. Taken from ‘Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge’ by Brian Rollins and Walsall Local History Centre.

The mine owners were entrepreneurs, and didn’t let anything stand between them and a profit – even to the extent of making their own building materials cheaper than the local brickworks. Taken from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

The honest belief is generally that miners were the salt of the earth, and all the accidents were the cause of the managers, but occasionally, the pitmen were their own worst enemies. One cannot imagine the act of opening a naked flame to get better light – but of course, many miners suffered with their eyes, so the motivation can be understood. Remember that the Grove Pit Disaster was thought to be caused by a miner striking a light down below. Taken from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

The primitive nature of much of the mining industry up until nationalisation cannot be understated. The dangers these men were subject to were constant and very, very real. Taken from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

Walsall Wood pit trialled and innovated in several techniques – some were more successful than others. Is it me, or dowes the fireman appear to be wearing his cap backwards? Whoever he was, he doesn’t look like he’d stand for a lot of shit. Taken from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

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24 Responses to Working in a coal mine…

  1. Thank you for this! What a treasure trove! You are an accomplished cybercurator. Hugely enjoyable post. I’ll never look at Walsall in the same way…

  2. Kate Goodall says:

    Nice post Bob. Wish my Dad was still here – he’d have loved the trip down memory lane.

  3. John Kirk says:

    Didn’t know there was mining that close to Sutton Coldfield. I’m from North Derbyshire/Sheffield and my Grandfather and Uncles were miners. Nothing glamorous about it, but when the oil runs out I think it will be back in use.

  4. CAZ says:

    Great post Bob.As stated, it must have been a hard life for the miners.My moms 16 year old brother was crushed to death in this very mine and her older brother suffered from ‘pit dust’ for many years, dying eventually from cancer.
    l’ve seen a photo of my Dad as a miner and when l asked him about it he told me he didn’t work there for long as he couldn’t stand it,it was claustrophobic and soul destroying.He had the utmost respect for anyone who went down the pits.
    l remember as a child at Walsall Wood School being taken on a tour around the mine after it closed.It was a very bleak depressing place as l remember it.
    Living close to the pit, l remember well the giant slack heaps running along the side of Coppice Road where the Maybrook units are now. And l have a faint recollection of hearing a dog howling at night….like the hound of the Baskervilles.At school the next day the talk was that a dog had fallen down one of the pit shafts.
    keep up the good work

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  6. Andy Dennis says:

    Six foot under (at least)

    Another thought provoking post!

    You allude to the dangers of working down the pit. Here are a few incidents from just one man’s life that might be food for further thought as this story applies equally to thousands of others down the years.

    My great great grandfather Henry Dennis and his brother Joseph arrived in Brownhills in 1852. Like many others he came to find work at the new Cannock Chase pits. Henry’s wife Dorothy was carrying the child who would be my great grandfather John.

    John and his sons also began their working lives at the pit and were no strangers to injury and death. John’s middle son Jack had his back broken by a roof fall and, though he was able to earn a living as a haulier, he was never again to stand up straight.

    In 1861 John’s uncle Joseph was killed in an explosion of firedamp. He left a widow and four children.

    In 1868 two of his nephews were involved in a disaster at a Cannock Chase colliery. William (18) and his brother James (just 13) were among eight men descending when the cable snapped and the cage plummeted to the bottom of the shaft. James and four others died there and then. A young man of 16 died later. William and the other man miraculously recovered. The report said: “The accident was caused by some hemp rope being attached to the wire as an indicator for where the engine should stop. This prevented regular inspection and hid the decay of the wire. … The engineman was censured and the manager, a Mr M’Ghie, was fined ten shillings plus costs.” I believe this was about two months pay for a miner. So, a couple of slaps on the wrist. What would be the consequences today?

    In 1889 John’s nephew Thomas was killed at Brownhills Colliery by a “fall of rock roof in a gate road. Cause, want of timber”. He was just 21 years old and is remembered in St James’s churchyard.

    So, just this one man lost an uncle and two nephews, and his son and a third nephew were very seriously injured, but the astonishing thing is that his experience was far from extraordinary. The fact is that mine owners and managers and the miners themselves often took short cuts to cut more coal more quickly and this inevitably led to tragedy. Sobering …


  7. Mike Ashburner says:

    I have seen the new Brownhills Notice Board on the High St. Wonderful at last we might get to know what is happening. The one notice from the Partnership recommends Brownhillsbob, and I must say that is the best bit. Only question is who do we contact to get a notice on the board? Funny but there a three commercial notices and not a copy of the upcoming meeting on Saturday 5th March at Silver Street church, the Partnership web site suggests this to be about Anti Social Behaviour, whilst a notice in the church suggests it so the local people can tell WLAP what they need in the community. I do wish that WMBC might get their act together and understand what they are doing from the point of view at pavement level.
    Thanks Bob I have enjoyed lookin at your items, perhaps more so because as teenager living in Surrey I opted to become a Mining Engineer. They will be mining 200m tons of coal per annum in 2000 it was stated.
    I started in Kent at Betteshanger Colliery and soon became aware of the comradeship underground it was fantastic and necessary. How I remember Condor smoke and thick twist chews on the early morning bus to work. I agree with Bob the nation owes every thing to it’s miners and the battle they fought to get the NCB was a great triumph.
    Since the days of the 60’s I have been in Oil and Gas, the spirit lives on to some extent in terms of dangers, it was a pity that BP did not listen to the ground level engineers who had a feeling about the problems– still that’s how it goes I suppose.

    When people talk about the “coal face” these days, as they do, I makes me creep they have no idea, the people at the bottom of the pile support the rest it cannot be otherwise, pity they are expendable. Still activity between El Alemien and Tripoli or even Tunis might yet be the peoples revolution for the 21st century, what happened in St Petersburg nearly 100 years ago??

    Enough of this stuff for today.

    I married “Digger Hampton’s” daughter and have never been happier, Digger lost and arm, it was torn off by a conveyor belt, he was a fantastic guy.

    Long Live Brwonhills and Bob

  8. D.Evans says:

    My maternal grandfather came here from Hednesford and spent his working life down the Coppy. In one explosion he had his face blown off and had extensive and largely successful surgery in Walsall General hospital. In another accident he broke nearly every bone in his body. But he went back to work and is remembered as a kind man who read his Bible during the breaktimes down the pit. He lived in one of the houses near the school in Brownhills Road and his view of the pit was just like the panoramic view shown in one of the photos. Like other miners he helped build and sustain Ebenezer Methodist Church until he died in 1964. He was known never to complain or grumble about his life even though his last years saw him walking with difficulty, coughing and suffering from “dust”.
    Each time I see the stark iron pit head memorial I think fondly of Grandad Ike and Grandma Lucy…and the community of kind, honest, decent and mutually supportive people in their poor surroundings
    With kind regards D. Evans

  9. D.Evans says:

    My memories of the day of the Coppy pit tagedy in the early 50’s are still vivid..ones of the pit hooter sounding at the “wrong” time, of women hurrying along to the pit, of hushed whispers, long sad faces, and of us children being kept well away from the events; parents giving us an extra cuddle and hug before we went up to bed, of grown-ups having to go to see so and so and take something, of quietness in the village and grown-ups with their usual stride replaced by quiet steps , of seeing grown-ups in twos and threes, talking quietly with each other,stopping their conversations when children got near; of people knocking at our front door and my parents taking money to these people at the door; of teachers at school being extra kind to some pupils who had been absent for a day or so.
    The People statue in the village shows silhouettes of real people, some of whom were close to the events then.
    With kind regards, D.Evans

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  13. brian stringer says:

    Just came across Mike Ashburners piece about Digger Hampton. I remember when Digger had his arm torn off down Walsall Wood pit. I was the maintenance fitter on that district and at the start of my shift I was told to get up to 5s district straight away as there had been an accident. I had to make sure that the safety guards were in place. They were off when I got their, and in replacing them could see a lot of Diggers blood on the belt rollers. He later admitted that he had taken them off to scrape some loose coal away from the weigh end roller but tried to do it without stopping the belt. A loose belt joint caught his sleeve and wrenched his arm off. Amazingly he picked it up, popped it in a sack, and ran to Jack Cantrill for help. He took one look at digger and passed out. Unfortunatly they couldn’t save his arm but Digger. I saw little Digger a few months later and he proudly showed off his ‘new’ arm. He was a truly courageous and brave guy.

  14. Iris says:

    Hi,just wondered,anyone know anything about the Aldridge pits,location etc. .have interest as my dad was a miner,but not sure where,I know he had a brother killed ,early 1900`s,at a pit in Aldridge.any info,much appreciated.

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  17. Pedro says:

    Thanks to Andy alerting to the CMHRC site recently, there is an interesting link to the PDF for the report…CHILDREN’S EMPLOYMENT COMMISSION 1842.

    The link to the South Staffs report is here…

    It is well worth a read to show the conditions in the area just before the Harrison Family took out their lease in 1849.

    In Bob’s post above it refers to…”it seems hard believe that a fire at the bottom of the Upcast shaft was still providing the ventilation of this colliery until the late 1950’s.”

    Yes, over 100 years before this report says…

    “A second shaft has also to be dug, generally, not far from the first shaft, in order that when the mine is at work there may be effected a circulation of air. This is produced by placing a lamp consisting of a broad weighty stand, from which rises a stalk of iron several feet, which at the top spreads out its bars, in which is placed the fire. This fire burns vehemently and causes a strong current to ascend the shaft, which, as a necessary consequence, causes a strong current to descend the other shaft. When the workings of the mine have become extensive, it is necessary by a system of doors to guide this current, so that after descending the one shaft it shall pass all round the mine before coming to the other.”

    And to Andy’s reference to owners and managers taking short cuts…

    “Some of the proprietors of the coal-mines work them on their own account but the greater part let them to tenants on certain conditions, the chief of which is the payment of a royalty in proportion to the coal raised…In order that the landlord may not suffer from the tenant neglecting to work with sufficient energy the mine which he has taken, there is a covenant in which the tenant undertakes to bring up a certain amount every year and if he do not do so, at all events he must pay the same royalty as if he did. This prevents negligence on his part, and also prevents him from retaining possession of the mine and land after the coals are exhausted.”

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  24. Chris Smith says:

    Thank you for an excellent article. My Great-grandad Joseph Smith worked at The Coppy and one his jobs was to look after the store of explosives which used to be kept in the shed in the middle of the field opposite the pit. Grandad Isaiah Smith worked down the pit from leaving school until the dust got to him and he had to stop working. He lived in Carter’sfield Lane in Stonnall and often said that he worked to work only to find himself working under Stonnall, do a day’s unimaginably hard work and then walk home again. I would love to hear from anyone who knew “Saiah” as he was known. I also had the pleasure of being taught at Walsall Tech by two ex-coppy engineers, Pete Harper and Copper Mason, great guys!

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