First Days

First experiences of pit life could be a real shock, an eye-opening introduction to life underground, especially before the days of nationalisation when there was little training and men and boys had to learn on the job. Over time these boys and young men developed what was called ‘pit sense’ as it became second nature to live and work in the harsh conditions underground.

Imagine walking towards the pit at your first day, approaching the imposing gothic colliery offices with its stern-looking clock tower and bay windows where management could keep a close eye on everything that was going on.

New starters were given a fountain pen to sign a large ledger with their address, previous employment and age. The book for the surface-men can be seen in the digital archive. The older men ‘made their mark’ - colliery officials had to write their names for them as they couldn’t. The younger boys were fine – in some cases just a couple of days before they had been sat in the ‘big school’ a few hundred yards away, practising their handwriting.

The first few weeks were a steep learning curve, especially before nationalisation in the late 1940s when there was very little training. Eddie Ashton started working at Waleswood Colliery in 1930. His first days were taken up with calling out tallies before starting to learn about the rest of the pit, including underground. The photo here is the winding wheel at Waleswood which would have sent him underground on his first day. Ernest Wilks, also at Waleswood, was a clipper, clipping tubs onto the haulage rope. For both, it was a case of being shown how to do it and then getting on with it.

Sid Pridmore began slightly later at Kiveton Park, he was put straight on night shifts moving tubs around the pit bottom. Many had their first days as pony drivers and still talk fondly of their ponies, with their little traits and tricks. Stan Bowskill was told, ‘Make sure thy’s head’s lower than its bloody arse’ – the plus side was that you wouldn’t hit your head on the roof!

Nationalisation meant the introduction of training for lads going into the pit. To training pits like Treeton, from across the coalfield, came men and boys to be ushered into classrooms and onto training walls. ‘Just like going back to school,’ remembers one Kiveton veteran. The picture here was taken in wartime and includes some of Kiveton’s Bevin Boys, before going down underground. Their overalls are very smart but another Kiveton veteran, an experienced flyer with the RAF, remembers the reality of going underground in a deep pit for the first time: within a few minutes of being underground everyone was stripped down to their underpants! Training at Kiveton became more advanced too – here are engineers during training in the 1950s.

Cages at every colliery moved rapidly, for time meant money and the cages were needed to bring coal out of the pit as soon as possible. At Kiveton, going down in the shaft on your first day was an even more shocking experience than elsewhere. Often in the winding house was Frank Cope, who had a reputation for playfulness. If there were new lads on the cage he would let it plummet down really fast, leaving their stomachs hundreds of yards above. On several occasions, men dashed out of the cage and tried to engage Frank in ‘discussion’ about his winding!

For those who were worried about going underground or took time to get used to it, there were others that loved that feeling of hurtling down to the bowels of the earth so fast: several we’ve interviewed felt a real thrill, although this wore off after a few hundred trips in the cage.