Down the Pit

For many people the symbol of the worker is a coal miner. The man who goes down the pit takes with him the image of the beleaguered proletariat, and comes back up plastered with dust and defiance looking even more so. It’s hard, dirty and dangerous work: it fosters resentment, producing the “them” and “us” attitude between the employers and employees. Its history goes back centuries, to the days when men, women and children dug the coal with bare hands in 20-hour shifts, living and dying like troglodytes—all for a pittance.

This powerful image produces intensely felt solidarity among miners who often live in isolated communities and express their consciousness in traditional ways: chapel, singing, club drinking, brass banding, rugby, football and strikes. As the pay of miners has gone up the wages league table, the source of miners’ resentment is popularly felt to have disappeared: for the days of child labour are long gone and the stunted, semi-crippled men with “buttons down the back” (permanent scabs from continual banging of vertebrae on low overhead beams) described by Orwell in the 1930s, have gone too.

The road to Hell

What’s it really like down a mine? I was recently offered a place in a party visiting Silverdale Deep in Staffordshire. A chance to compare the image with reality was too good to miss. People are encouraged to go down the pit, it’s a public relations exercise for the employers—and for the employees, it turned out.

In the pit canteen we were met by two men, symbols of “them and us”. Them was a mining engineer in charge down at the face for that shift; he was smooth, knowledgeable and authoritative about mining output per man/shift, the efficiency of Silverdale compared to other pits and all the technicalities of coal getting. Us was the coal face shop steward for that shift; he was a craggy, old Potteries boy, brimful with frightening tales of disaster at the pit, who insisted that we all swig our pint mugs of tea and cram as much bread and marge as we could into ourselves, to survive the trip.

We were kitted out with hard hats and head lights, connected to belt-hung wet-cell batteries: then we strode with trepidation to the pit head. The cage plunged a thousand sickening feet in a few seconds and then stopped so swiftly that I thought my skull would burst.

Stepping out of the cage my image of a coal mine collapsed. For the brightly illuminated main gallery was not black, but white. Lime is plastered everywhere near the foot of the shaft, in an effort to lay the dust that peppers you in blasts of warm and cold air. We trudged out of the whiteness and into the blackness for 500 yards, with Them in front, and Us behind. Then we came to a downward-sloping conveyor belt. Us took over here. He demonstrated how to pitch yourself safely onto the man-ride at ten-yard intervals. We did, and rode another thousand feet down into the pit. Them caught the visitors at the end of the man-ride, but Us disdained his help and stepped off deftly. We walked another 500 yards along a maze of narrowing tunnels, in a strangely smelling stream, towards a distant noise that grew to a roar.

Into Hell

“It’s an Anderson-Boyes mark ten coal-cutter”, screamed Them in my ear, as Us spat tobacco juice into the dust cloud around the beast. Half an hour we spent at the face and that was the only  conversation possible. But we looked and wondered. A traction motor the size of a rhinoceros, attached to a circular saw as big as an elephant, lumbered along a railway bed and knocked lumps of coal the size of settees off the face, through jets of water and arc lamps, down a gallery not much wider or higher than a Nissen hut.

It was too much to take in all at once, so I staggered to the end of the face for a rest and to leak away the tea, suddenly realising why the stream had smelt so. “Yer might at least piss away from us!”, bawled a voice. Peering into the gloom I saw a line of boots sticking out of the catacombs. Part of the shift were on a tea break and were munching at the contents of their snap tins. “First time down, eh, kid?” he yelled, “bleedin’ awful, ennit? Goo on back in there, or you’ll miss the best bit!”

At the face the machine was stopped briefly, as Them, Us and others crawled over it, making adjustments and panting through their masks. They finished resetting and, at a curt nod from Them, Us carefully positioned all visitors on a raised catwalk. Them walked down the face pulling a series of hydraulic levers. Then the entire coal-cutter, rails, catwalk, pillars and roof slid forward two yards—followed by an earthquake, as the now unsupported world behind us came tumbling down and the coal-cutter took out lumps like motor cars in a new pass along the face.

Capitalist pigs

As we left, a man yelled, “tell ’em up there what it’s like down ‘ere!” We tramped in stunned silence to the manride and gratefully flopped onto it. The rollers massage your body as you rumble upwards and I was nearly asleep when something tapped my foot. It was Us; he’d crawled up to talk. “Of course”, he shouted, “This ain’t a proper way to run a pit. They do it right in Russia. They’ve ‘ad their revolution. Done away with the capitalists. That’s what we oughter do!” For a moment I was dumbstruck. It was like something out of a really bad novel. The “old bolshevik” trying to convert the “middle class intelligentsia”, two and a half thousand feet underground! For that was how he saw himself and me. The I remembered that I was a socialist and launched the counter-argument at him in the only language the noise permitted. “No! Russia’s no bloody good! Neither is violent insurrection, it only gets workers killed. Nationalisation is a fraud! What’s the difference between a private capitalist pig and a state capitalist pig?” We argued all the way up to the pit head, until, stepping out of the cage into the fresh air, all the visitors started to cough up black phlegm.

After a change of clothes, a wash and a gargle, we trooped into the pit canteen, to drink an incredible amount of tea and have a de-briefing. Pneumoconiosis and silicosis were on all the visitors’ minds, as we contemplated what two hours down the pit had done to our lungs. “We only get the odd pneumo”, said Us, “it’s like trench feet, a matter of morale. If the men could get the pay and conditions they want and the management would only cooperate, it would disappear altogether”. At this Them demurred: “If the men would only wear their masks all the time, there would be no more silicosis”, he said. Someone pointed out that the only time Them had worn his mask was when adjusting the coal-cutter, and even then he had to take it off to shout orders. A lady visitor went to the heart of the matter when she said “This isn’t work that anyone should do for mere money”. “Too right”, said Us. “The mines should belong to the miners, the ships to the sailors, the trains to the engine drivers. All industry should be run for the public good”. At this Them got quite heated and made a speech about the need for profitability in the private and public sectors. It was obvious that the two of them had been doing this for years, because Us rescued the de-briefing with a tale of humorous disaster. Then we went home, I coughed up coal dust for a fortnight.

The world for the workers

Well reader, where do you stand? Which side are you on? Are you for Them or for Us? What’s a fair wage for a man’s working lifetime down the pit? Can you quantify discomfort for the face worker? Should it be more or less than that of the deep-sea trawlerman? One thing is certain—this side of capitalism there is no solution. But, on the other side, beyond the garbled dream of the shop steward, there is, for the taking, a socialist world. A society without “them and us”, without  public or private ownership, without buying and selling, wages and jobs; where everyone, including miners, will have free access to the wealth created. Only the harmony of that society could adequately compensate for such toil—if it were necessary. To be sure, the solidarity of the miners has never risen to the level of socialist class consciousness, but how much of a push would it need to make it do so? Just a few thousand socialists explaining the difference between “the mine for the miners” and “the world for the workers”.

B K McNeeney

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