Like Father Like Son

Many local miners had ancestors who’d come to work in the pits, flocking here after the pits started turning out coal in the 1850s and 1860s. Others were the first in their families to work in the coal industry. As the twentieth century progressed, once again hundreds came from outside the area to work here, some from Sheffield and nearby towns but in the 1950s and 1960s from much further away. The decision to work in the pits was never taken lightly. All knew that pit work was both hard and dangerous. Hundreds of men flocked to Kiveton Park and Wales to find work after the first deep pits opened in the mid nineteenth century. They came in their droves from Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire, Lincolnshire and elsewhere. In many cases it was their sons, grandsons and great grandsons who were to bring coal out of Kiveton Pit for the next 130 years. The census returns for 1871 provide excellent information about where the settlers came from (click here to read the census returns).

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, boys started at thirteen or fourteen years of age. Many would have played at the pits as children, avoiding alert men who might have sent them packing with a ticking off or a clout. Some lads spent days and weeks watching the pit at work, waiting for men, often fathers and relatives, to come out of the cage with blackened faces and gleaming lamps. The pit top was an exciting place for youngsters, with screens clattering, engines thudding away and smoke pumping out of the chimneys.Some of the men we’ve spoken to felt that working at the pit was in their blood. A few fathers were enthusiastic about their sons coming into the pit and made the necessary arrangements. Kiveton was a family pit until its last decades and management and men often knew when someone’s lad was due to start. It was common for a son to follow his Dad into either the Barnsley or Hazel seams. There was a bit of a rumpus when one man finished his training because Joey Taylor picked him out to work in the Hazel, even though his Dad, an excellent local cricketer, and ancestors, had always worked in the Barnsley. A similar thing was true amongst management, including after nationalisation. The picture here shows Bill Cope, manager of the Coal Preparation Plant until the 1990s, with a photograph of his great uncle and great grandfather, William and John William Cope, engineer and surface manager at the pit in the first half of the twentieth century.

Even if you were in the same pit, once you’d started work the chances were that your paths wouldn’t cross much. Geoff Bennett remembers working side-by-side with his Dad for a few hours one afternoon. If a man had died others would look out for sons starting at the pit. George Barthorpe’s father died when George was only fifteen. George had to finish school early to provide for his family. He headed down to the pit where some of the older men took to calling him Matt, after his Dad.

There were men who’d worked at the pit for decades who made their sons swear to never go underground. This was partly because the work was hard, in conditions dangerous and treacherous. It was also because pay fell as you lost your health. Older men worked in less-demanding jobs, such as button-men, controlling the conveyors, but this paid much less than face-work. Working in the pit didn’t mean a well-paid job for life; it was far from it, as everyone knew.

Dozens of local men looked for work away from the pit. This became more common as the twentieth century progressed: improved transport links meant it was easier to commute, particularly to Sheffield; Kiveton became much less of a ‘family’ or ‘local’ pit as time progressed, with men travelling to work here from other villages; better education created opportunities to take up other jobs. Over the last few decades of the pit, things were very different to a hundred years ago, when it was taken for granted that local boys would go into the pit.

Many who started work away from the pit came back. Lance Wilks’ father, nicknamed ‘Linnet’ because of his bird-like whistling, worked at West Kiveton, Rossington and Kiveton Park, but Lance started out as an apprentice at Tommy Wards steelworks in Sheffield before working at Kiveton Pit and across the South Yorks coalfield. Arthur Fitton worked in Sheffield during the war but after national service in the Middle East returned to work at Kiveton pit. Others stayed working in Sheffield. Ray Wood’s father worked in the pit and as a postman between shifts, but Ray worked for Burtons and Trebor Bassett’s in Sheffield until he retired.

There was little alternative work closer to home: ‘There wasn’t much else around here, except farms and steelworks,’ said at least a couple of the men we’ve spoken to. Geoff Bennett’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather before them had all worked at Kiveton Pit, living at Wales Bar and then Firvale in Harthill. Geoff went to Woodhouse Grammar and tried work on the farms but came back: it was like he ‘was drawn to the pit’. Frank Ward and others worked at Turner’s Quarry close to Kiveton Park Station, near where the stone for the Houses of Parliament was quarried in the 1840s, but his brother earned so much down the pit Frank decided to join him.

Thousands of men started on the surface. The focus of these pages is about working underground because it was the underground element of the industry that made it so different to any other. But a fair proportion of surface-men visited the manager or training officer to request to go underground. The pay was much more: working in a pit was one of the highest-paid ‘blue collar’ jobs you could get. One surface pit pony worker went down the pit as soon as he realised just how much money he could be making. Another surface worker remembers going out drinking with mates who worked underground and had the money to show for it. It was difficult not to feel a bit out of it if your mates were down the pit, as they exchanged stories and tales of life underground, what had happened that day or anecdotes passed down by older miners.

It wasn’t just in the early years that men came from far away to work at the pit. For those brought up on the packed slopes of Sheffield, the promise of well-paid work and a house to go with it in the rural setting of Kiveton Park or Wales was attractive, especially if you’d met a woman from the village. Sid Pridmore lived through the Sheffield Blitz as a messenger boy and became an apprentice at Tommy Wards before coming to Kiveton to live with his new wife, whose family go back decades in the village. Ken Beaman had a similar experience. He came to Kiveton after meeting his wife. He started at the wireworks, but, like many others, the promise of higher wages and a house drew him to the pit. Soon he was working underground.

Pit officials scoured coalfields further north for men to come to work at Kiveton in the 1950s and 1960s. Ken Mawson was working at Vickers at Newcastle after leaving the pits up there after he married, but he heard about jobs going and was soon being interviewed by Kiveton Park Colliery officials at Newcastle Labour Exchange. Jock Costello’s father worked in a notoriously tough Scottish colliery, where the roofs and props dripped with icy-cold seawater. Jock joined the army and met his wife while based in Worksop; he set up home and came to work at Kiveton Pit.

Whether from near or far, straight from school or after trying other work, thousands of men spent most of their working lives in the pits of Kiveton Park and Wales. There they were to see things and had experiences different to any other industry, unimaginable to anyone who didn’t work in or around the pits.