On the Face

Seams of coal stretch out for hundreds of miles under the towns and countryside of Britain, layers of ‘black diamonds’ waiting to be brought out of the earth. How this was done was transformed over time. Working in the coal in the later decades of the century, and indeed now in the few pits that are still open, would be unrecognisable to the miners of yesteryear who worked coal faces with hand tools, hard labour and basic explosives. The men who worked the face in the days of hand-got coal are what people most associate with the mining industry. The word ‘face’ simply means a long stretch of seam that was being worked at a particular time. How the face was worked and what the environment was like changed from pit to pit, including between the different seams at Kiveton.

Two seams were worked for most of the working life of the pit: the Barnsley and the High Hazel. The Barnsley was famous for its fiery character and was used to fuel the great engines and steamships of the industrial revolution and imperial age. The Hazel broke down smaller and was perfect home coal. Sid Pridmore’s father-in-law carefully made small walls of Hazel coal around the coal shed for special occasions - it was rare to get any unless you were in a privileged position at the pit.

The seams were very different seams to work in. After generations of families worked in either the Hazel or the Barnsley, it’s not surprising that they had their own characters, atmospheres and particular ways of doing things. There were more tangible differences between the two seams and very different mining conditions.

The seams were different heights: the Hazel considerably lower than the Barnsley, although neither were remarkably low or high compared to other pits. (Seams worked in pits elsewhere were little more than a foot high; the men got coal by lying on their sides day after day, working away at the seam with their picks. Other pits had seams more than twenty foot-high.) A major difference was the condition of the roof, because in the Hazel this was frail and subject to collapse. A layer of coal was left to support the roof; this wasn’t necessary in the Barnsley Seam.

Men had specific and skilled jobs to do on the face. Those who arrived here to work the pits in the late 19th century brought with them particular skills and knowledge. The jobs on the face were the same up and down the country, albeit with different names – one of the fascinating things about the mining industry. The hewers were responsible for getting the coal from the seam, using the distinctive picks that they often had to buy themselves, marking them with their initials. Colliers worked the coal onto either tubs or, as they were introduced over time, onto conveyors to move it away from the face. Colliers would have a certain length of coal to move within a shift. This photo shows Frank Ward holding two coal shovels, one from the surface, the other underground. A ripper would stand, muscles tense, hour after hour, forcing stone away from the face so that the men could return to continue mining the coal in the next shift. Being a ripper was physically one of the toughest jobs in the pit and they were often nicknamed ‘Jack’, for obvious reasons. Packers used this stone to build supports as the face moved forward: quite literally, packing the waste stone into columns to hold the roof.

Face training involved experience in almost everything face work was about before mechanisation, overseen by experienced men like Tommy Wakefield. Without exception, those who were trained in the face-training wall that was built in the Hazel seam have spoken gratefully about the level of training they received. Men would get experience on the face itself; the training officer made sure men had spent a few days or weeks trying everything that might be demanded of them.

Shot-firing was a fundamental part of mining, shot-firers were given extensive training and tests to ensure they were capable of doing this responsible and potentially dangerous job. It was very skilful, with experienced shot-firers judging the pattern and load of their shots according to the exact conditions they were dealing with. After firing, dust and smoke would bellow: officially, men were meant to hold back until this cleared but in practise they tended to dash back to the face, breathing in noxious clouds of dust. Shot was taken underground in thick locked containers. On at least one occasion, there was panic when a container ended up with the coal and left the pit on the conveyors, full to the brim with explosives. The smaller container was used to carry detonators – on both of them you can see the distinctive yellow paint of the colliery.

Things changed a great deal in later years as the days of hand-got coal ended and mechanisation was implemented. Of course, explosives remained important but none of the traditional face-workers’ jobs were left intact. Instead of men using picks and shot to work the coal it was mined using great monsters of machines which went up and down the coal face. Being a faceworker meant understanding new machines and developing new skills – as can be seen from this picture of the face at Kiveton.

No longer did men have to strain with shovels to turn coal into tubs or onto conveyors. Coal was pulled back from the face onto steel conveyors, or ‘panzers’ as they were known, after their German place of origin. Coal flowed back to the pit bottom or straight to the surface via a drift.

Things were made safer at the coal-face with the introduction of strengthened and then hydraulic supports: which can be seen particularly well in this photo. A major change was the introduction of a method of mining which involved allowing the roof to fall into the gob: protection was introduced in the form of supports with heavy curtains to protect the men at the face as the roof was allowed to fall.

Mechanisation made a big difference to coalface experiences. Coal cutters, trepanners, road headers, conveyors, panzers and much more meant work on the face was very different to the days of hand-got coal. Mechanisation meant fewer men were wanted on the face and it transformed the skills miners required: much more emphasis was being placed on engineering, technical know-how and handling the great machines that worked the faces and drove roadways. Long gone was the time when skilled use of a pick or shovel defined a good pitman.

There were long distances underground: pit bottom to face could be several miles. In the old days men had to walk, down the dark roadways, often uneven underfoot, stooping to avoid clipping the roof. All this changed over time, mostly at least. In some respects there was little improvement and miners had to be as sure-footed as mountain goats in some parts of the pits. One of the first things Stan Bowskill saw when he went underground was a buckled roof support. He saw the same support on the day he left the pit for the last time.