A mining incident

Mining accidents are frequent such as the recent ones in Equador, Columbia, China, New Zealand. Many without the coverage nor with the happy outcome of the Chilean incident. A socialist who worked in the mines as a Bevin Boy in the 1940s recalls conditions there and the fear miners have of rockfalls.

In a coalmine the roof is held up – when the coal is extracted from beneath it – by posts made out of H-section steel. In the mine where I worked, Penallta Colliery in the Rhymney valley, near Ystrad Mynach in South Wales, most of the coal seams were something under five foot, so most of the posts were about 4ft 6in. They were expensive, and so were the flatter pieces of steel which went across the top of two of these posts. My lonely job was to go round and see that all these steel supports were retrieved as the coalface went forward, not merely left behind and lost. (Only about one employee in six in a coalmine is actually digging out the coal – they are called colliers; all the others are getting the coal back to the pit shaft, repairing the tunnels, moving the conveyor belts forward, building stone packs behind the conveyor belts to stop the roof at the coalface collapsing too quickly, looking after all the machinery, and doing all the other ancillary jobs.) I went most days into the “N” district (which was about two miles from the pit shaft) down the No.3 road, or tunnel. The tunnel roof was getting very unstable, as well as very low. With half a mile of rock and earth above it, the roof of each tunnel gradually sinks, until it is “repaired”, that is hacked out again to a reasonable height. In the old days, when the tubs of coal were pulled out along the rail tracks by horses (and they were horses, though they were always called pit ponies), the tunnels had to be repaired as soon as they got below about seven feet, because horses won’t crawl on their knees. You could explain how necessary it was to maintain profitability, but a horse pretends not to understand. Men, however, will crawl if necessary, so as to keep their jobs. I’m not sure what that tells you about the comparative intelligence of horses and men.

Now in due course horses were replaced by engines. Every so often along each tunnel they would build an engine, which pulls a long thick steel cable (winding it round a rotating drum like a barrel), fastened to the front of a train of tubs; when the train arrives at the engine, the cable is unhitched, and another cable, running along to the next engine, is fastened to the front tub instead; and the train resumes its progress to the pit-head. (In South Wales the tub is called a tram or dram, and the train is called a journey.) But when horses were abandoned, you didn’t have to repair the road (or tunnel) so often; it could go down to about four foot high, or just high enough to let the tubs, loaded with coal, pass underneath. Men, naturally, are prepared to walk long distances bent over almost double. Human beings who have been brainwashed, or forced by economic necessity, into spending their working lives half a mile underground, accept worse than that without complaining.

If a road is not repaired in time, the great pressure (from both above and below) to squeeze it flat will take over, and the tunnel collapses. Every time I made my solitary trek along the No.3 road, the roof was more and more unstable. Little bits would fall out of the roof as you passed, and you wondered if your steel-capped boots were going to create enough disturbance to make the whole thing cave in on top of you. When a roof is on the point of collapse, any little agitation might be enough to bring it down. As you went along, bent down to get under the low roof, you would squint sideways to try and see what was happening. Shakespeare says that cowards die many times before their deaths: that was me, all right, every time I went down the No.3 road. One day I made my usual fearful way along this tunnel, and I could see it couldn’t hold up much longer. Little runs of dust or small stones were falling from the cracks. But luck was on my side, and I got through the bad bit of the road, perhaps a couple of hundred yards, to the next engine. At an engine, of course, you were safe. If an engine is destroyed it costs money to replace, while if a man dies you just get another one free of charge; so when a roof over an engine got a bit dodgy, it was made secure immediately. (An ordinary bit of tunnel is allowed to get worse and worse before the mine management finally has to take men from other work in order to repair it; you might lose money doing that too soon.) This particular day, as soon as I got to the engine, and sank trembling on the bench to wipe the nervous sweat from my brow, a great roar came from behind me, an overwhelming noise. A huge cloud of dust billowed past. I felt a great sense of relief: I almost laughed. It had missed me! Now they would have to repair the road, to allow the miners to get in and the coal to get out. I would never have to walk under that rotten roof again. Almost certainly, my progress along the tunnel, with boots kicking against the rocks and the rails that made up the tunnel floor, had been enough to tip the crumbling roof over the edge.

When the noise subsided, I took a few tentative steps back along the tunnel, and stared up at the great hole in the roof which had been opened up by the fall. Then I resumed my walk towards the coalface. Not far along, I met one of the No.3 district firemen (the name in South Wales for foremen – besides their electric head-lamps they had a little Davy lamp, with an open flame, to test for gas) coming back to see what the noise was. I showed him, so he said, “Well we’re cut off. There’s been a fall in the face between the No.3 and No.2 roads.” This sounds much worse than it was. The colliers in the face were already working to clear the fall there, and a couple of hours later you could get along the face and out of the district that way. It took them longer to clear the fall on the No.3 road, and when it was repaired, it became (comparatively) almost a pleasure to walk along it – if you can fancy strolling along a hole eight hundred metres deep in the earth, where only your cap-lamp stands between you and absolute, total, blackness.


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