Underground

Dark, dank and dirty – just a few words used to describe what it was like underground. Miles and miles of desolate roadways stretched out from beneath Kiveton Park, towards the faces where men worked the coal from the ground. The environment was hostile, extremely so at times. Working in a pit was different to anywhere else, as many men have told us. Imagine a world with little light, choking dust and deafening noise – particularly on the face as the next section goes on to explain.

People have different ideas about what the pit was like. At pit bottom, the offices, the neat Victorian brickwork, telephones and whitewashed walls meant you could almost be in a rather small factory or workshop rather than several hundred yards underground. Things were very different going into the pit: the roadways, gates and faces were a far cry from the neat orderliness of the pit bottom.The seams went in different directions. If you were working the Barnsley, you could be striking out two or three miles north-eastwards to get to the face. To take one example, for a fairly long period the Barnsley seam was being worked below Lindrick golf course. The High Hazel went off southwards, making a beeline for Harthill, from where many of the miners came. The High Hazel was several hundred yards under ground but they had followed the unspoken rule adopted by generations of miners, namely that to avoid digging under a church they took a hefty westwards shift.

A noticeable thing about the pit bottom at Kiveton Park was the smell of pit ponies. Think about the smell of horses above ground and imagine it in the pit, where ponies were kept for over a hundred years. Before nationalisation in the 1940s these ponies were seldom taken above ground. It’s not surprising that their smell was so strong and was a lasting memory of the pit for many men.

People seldom think about the smells of the pit, but smells would wisp their way around workings with the ventilation flowing from the Barnsley intake though the pit to where it was drawn out. Maybe a wisp of the smell of shot, a hint of an orange or much worse, especially if, as a joke, someone had had thrown their ‘waste’ onto the fan. Perhaps the most obvious thing to say about working down the pit was that it was dirty and it was mucky. No man, except perhaps Prince Charles kitted out in smart white overalls, was ever going to work underground without coming out filthy. Other exceptions were these handsome devils, were picked out to pose for publicity shots for the pit – look at the creases in their brand new overalls!

Calling the muck of the pit just dirt is to understate just how much it got, quite literally, particularly in the old days, right under men’s skin. If coal dust got into cracks and scratches, men would be etched with blue streaks for the rest of their lives. Someone who cares for several former miners tells how they still get coal dust on their collars: perhaps unsurprising considering they were covered in coal for more than forty years of their lives.

These pictures show more typical scenes underground – remember they were taken using a powerful flash. The development teams in the later decades used road-headers and drove forward yards and yards each day.

The roadways were sometime huge, stretching for miles with conveyors, belts and paddies running their length. Yet, even so, the pits remained dark and dirty places, and, as you can see from this photo, the immense pressures caused supports to distort and buckle.

Miners only started wearing their distinctive orange overalls in later years. Before the Second World War, miners wore their own clothes down the pit, although, if it was a warmer pit, they stripped down to a loincloth or, frequently, nothing at all. The same thing was continued in later years. Arthur Fitton was a tail-end ripper for much of his time at Kiveton Pit. He wore shorts and little else. Working away from the face, particularly close to where air was being drawn into the pit, things were much colder: one Kiveton veteran we’ve spoken to described stuffing his overalls with newspaper to try and keep warm.

Helmets too were only an invention of later years. It became compulsory to wear them but some men refused to, wearing flat caps well into the 1960s. At least one man kept his cap rolled up on his belt but flipped it onto his head as soon as he was away from the Hazel pit bottom. Sam Shaw is remembered by a few men as the last miner to wear a flat-cap at Kiveton.

Amongst the men, there was certainly a sense that something could go wrong when underground, causing injury or worse. This meant miners had to watch out for each other. Even men who might have fought with each other outside the pub or club had to forget any differences the next morning, work together and respect the dangers that the pit could hold.

Also see our question and answer page about working in the pit.