When I was little I used to listen with a mix of horror and fascination when Dad told me stories of the pit ponies used to haul rail carts laden with coal from the mine in Ryhope (near Sunderland). His father was a harness maker and was responsible for making and repairing harnesses used by the ponies (along with other leather items) and as a boy Dad remembers visiting the stables where the ponies were kept. I remember being horrified at the thought of the ponies working underground in the dark for years and years, and heard the stories about how they went blind once returned to life above ground. It turns out that perhaps this wasn’t entirely true, that ponies were not blinded as a result of having their retinas burnt out but rather were injured by falling lumps of coal or rock. Nevertheless, this image of ponies emerging into the light, blinking once or twice in the blazing sun and then going blind haunted me for years, as did the thought of being trapped underground or, even worse, being crushed in an imploding coal seam.
Perhaps there is some genetic memory at work or perhaps my father was just really good at telling horrifying stories, but it turns out that my great grandfather (William Stratton – whose sister married into a branch of the Wordsworth family…) was hewing coal in a shallow seam at the mine in Murton when a boulder-sized chunk of stone and coal broke free and crushed him, killing him instantly. Dad found the mine accident report of the death which states,
When he was hewing in Low Main Seam a stone fell from between slips, killing him instantly.
William Stratton was 34 and left behind a wife and six children including my infant grandmother, Mildred. Though Granny never knew her father, his story passed through her to my father and then on to me. William was hewing coal, lying on his side wielding a pickaxe in a seam that may have been as shallow as 15″. Granny recounted, “[At the funeral] he looked as if he had just come out of a band box. He was a handsome man with auburn hair.”
Coming out of a band box was, apparently, a description of someone whose face was untouched, as if taken out of a hat box, in pristine condition. At 34 he would have been in his prime.
Hewers had a nasty job, hacking away at the face of the coal seam, scraping the coal behind them where it was picked up by a marra (workmate) who then loaded the coal into a tub, a cart that ran along tracks and was pulled out of the low, narrow tunnels toward the surface – often by the pit ponies. Miners were paid by the tub and the loads were counted twice – once by a representative from the mine and once by a check weighman, an ex-miner (often injured) who also counted tubs and checked the weights of coal to make sure the tallies were correct. According to Dad, another of our relatives was a check weighman after he lost several fingers in a mining accident.
Dad remembers there being 500 pit ponies at work in the mine in Ryhope and when he would accompany his father home from work at the pit the two of them would stop to feed the ponies hay, stroke and brush them. “I loved the ponies,” Dad says, fondly recalling his visits to the stable.
These mining memories have come up recently for a couple of reasons. First, I get really creeped out when underground and though I really want to do some spelunking, the thought of being down there somewhere when an earthquake hits or some narrow crawlspace proves to be too narrow to get back out again fills me with dread. Even when I was having the time of my life playing on Virgin Gorda I had moments when my stomach clenched and I had to force myself to breathe normally and not think too hard about those massive boulders shifting, cracking and toppling, pinning me down there somewhere never to be found again.
The other reason we’ve been talking about mining accidents is that Dad is at work on a series of coal mining paintings, an homage to his fallen ancestors. Our Olympic rowing team neighbour graciously posed (on the ground, with a pickaxe) for Dad. Sketches and watercolours are underway, all preparatory for work in oil… I’ll post as progress is made.