Language of the underground

Our good mate Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler has struck gold again. This transcription of an article from the Lichfield Mercury, of Friday, 4th January 1904 is a real gem, both for those with a keen interest in mining at the time, and those who are scholars of the nomenclature and language of our area.

We all know areas called ‘The Swag’ – There’s Jeffreys Swag and Plant’s Swag at Chasewater, for example. I remember tales of young coal-pickers being bawled out for picking bat not coal.

This article is wonderful, and I thank Peter for yet another great find in the archives.


Hardworking, skilled lads. But if we met today, would we have a clue what they were talking about?

Some peculiar words are used in the connection with coal mines and the modes of getting the coal. We find such terms as square work, long wall, pillar and post, drift system, past wall, and strait work, each indicative of a method of extracting the black diamonds.

The surface in the immediate vicinity of the pit’s mouth is the “bank”, and “sump” is used to describe that part of the pit shaft sunk below working level for drainage purposes.

“Brazzil” is an inferior kind of hard coal, “cobbies” all “kibbles” are round coals, “chats” are small coals, “clunch” is soft shale, and “bat” is the hard shale, which usually forms and layer between two seams a coal.

The “down cast” is the shaft conveying air to the underground workings, and the “up cast” is the shaft up which the return or used air ascends. The lack of adequate ventilation is expressed by the Black Country collier in one word…damp, but he distinguish various kinds, such as fire-damp, after-damp, choke-damp, white-damp, black-damp, and peas-blosson-damp, each having its peculiar features.

He applies the term “sulphur” to explosive gas, and “fire-stink” to the fumes given off by undergrown fires. By a “stint” is indicated a set task of piece-work, the “shift” or “turn” and is a day’s or night’s work, and “joey” is a term significant of the time to leave off work.

A collapse of the surface into old workings is called a “crownin-in”, and if water accumulates in a subsidence of more than ordinary proportions the place is dubbed a “swag.” A “thing” is a fault or displacement of strata. This word is commonly heard it inquests into mining fatalities, and is also the term “bump” a superincumbent weight.

The main entrance to underground workings is a “gate-road”, a “navvy” or “thurling” is a length of working between two main roads, and “man-of-war” is a small pillar of coal left to support the roof in thick coal workings, and “pot-hole” is a small break in the roof. The word “burn” is a localism applied to the round open baskets which were at one time taken to the pit bank by colliers wives, and filled with coal from the spoil. They contained sufficient for one fire or “burn”, hence the name.

We conclude with one other provincialism “ lazy back”, the loading stage at the pit bank, so called because the stage is on a level with the bottom of the cart which is to be loaded, and so enables the work to be formed without much stooping.

(Lichfield Mercury Friday 1st January 1904)

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14 Responses to Language of the underground

  1. Anthony Brevitt says:

    i know what there on about i worked in a coal mine back in 60’s

  2. Laurence Thacker says:

    Hi Bob interesting piece. My grandfather was a miner for many years, in his earlier life, and I have heard most of these terms used when he recounted story’s of his time down the pit. One description he used was “Green Rock” which was a very hard material miners would come across when following the coal seam. I’m not sure what this rock might be as it was thrown onto the spoil heap as rubbish. I don’t believe it could be Copper ore for example as this would have a value. Maybe it’s a type of Granite? Has anybody heard this term and Know what “Green Rock” was. Thanks.

    • david oakley says:

      Dipping deeply into Google, in the context of underground coal mining, the green rock was probably slate, which forms above the coal seam and is freed as the seam is mined.
      These lumps of slate often undergo a natural process in which “ferrous reduction spheres
      form around iron nuclei, leaving a light green spotted texture”
      ( Haven’t a clue what that means,) There are fluorite deposits that are formed underground that display themselves as green rock, but these are comparatively valuable and are not normally associated with coal miniing.

  3. what an interestng article – a very different world !

  4. Clive says:

    Nice one Peter, very intresting.

  5. Mick_P says:

    Several mentions of green rock or green stone in this interesting pdf of a document from 1852, A
    TREATISE ON WINNING AND WORKING OF COLLIERIES made available by the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.

  6. Laurence Thacker says:

    Thanks folks for the info. My grandfather told me a story of a pit situated close to stubbers green
    area that ran into a seam of this “green rock” and it was so difficult to get through the mine went
    bankrupt before reaching more coal. Not sure about the date for this but maybe 1920ish ?
    Has anybody come across this story. Thanks.

    • david oakley says:

      Interesting thought:- British History Onllne states that ‘in 1865, Bloxwich was becoming the chief coal mining area in the parish’. Adjacent to Bloxwch is ‘Green Rock Lane’ a council house development. British History gives no origin of the name. Wonder where it came from ?

  7. Laurence Thacker says:

    So we have Green Rock Lane the Green Rock Tavern and also Green Rock School
    all in the area. It looks as though, for what ever reason, Green Rock had some significance locally. I’m still intrigued as to what it might be; my grandfather built his own house in 1952 and used Green Rock in the house foundations. His house being built in Pelsall and it was sourced from a local mine. Family still live in the house and it might be possible to find a sample to look at, if so I will endeavour to find out a bit more about it. Thanks for the comments Laurie…

  8. Green Rock may well be basalt, which is hard and tough to break. It wouldn’t be present here in large quantities, but enough to make mining life difficult.



  9. Pedro says:

    Searching the 1852 reference highlighted by Mick comes up with…

    “Throughout the Staffordshire and Worcestershire coal field, a stratum of basalt prevails, but is especially conspicuous at the mountain of Rowley Regis. On approaching this mountain, the coal becomes charred. For many years, it was considered that the green rock terminated the coal strata; but, on a trial being made, (although difficult and expensive to sink through,) valuable coal and ironstone mines are found below.”

    Also when talking of ventilation the author says…

    “I made some remarks to their Lordships’ Committee on this great anomaly. In one part of the country, we are striving for the advantage of greater ventilation; whilst the people of Staffordshire say expressly there ought only to be what is demanded for the men, horses, and candles.”

  10. Laurence Thacker says:

    Thanks chaps, it does look like basalt is a strong candidate for the green rock.

  11. Jim Simpson says:

    I worked in the green rock heads at the Sinking in what was called 4s deep,it was the rock formed by the larva of extinct volcano,s,was one of the hardest rocks to be found.

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