"The Changing Face in Coal Mining"

March 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - John Howarth

The March 2009 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in The Centenary Lounge on 6th March 2009. The March meeting is traditionally the date of the Society’s Annual General Meeting and this was held prior to the evening’s talk. Tonight’s presentation was entitled ‘The Changing Face in Coal Mining’. The guest speaker was one of our own members, John Howarth who had been engaged in the industry himself. John mentioned a talk given by Wendy Freer last year on coalmining on the Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire borders. That talk went up to the end of the 19th Century. John’s talk was intended to continue from where this talk ended. The presentation was in the form of a talk accompanied by slides.

John began his presentation by relating a story relating to his early career in coalmining. It would seem that John had been ill and a doctor was called to his house to examine him. The doctor knew that John was working down the mine at that time and when the examination was completed enquired of John as to whether or not there were any ponies used where he worked. John answered in the affirmative that there were two ponies working down the mine but he was intrigued to know why the doctor wanted to know about them. John asked the doctor why she was so interested in the ponies and was exceedingly surprised when the doctor informed him that she was the local secretary of the pit pony protection society. John then went on to relate how well the ponies were looked after at the pit where he worked. The ponies were in the care of an ostler and were inspected every day to ensure that they were in the best of health. Any signs of illness or injury were investigated immediately. Evidence of ill treatment to the ponies was dealt with severely. Pit ponies were an integral part of colliery life and it was the 1970’s before the last pony disappeared from the Nottinghamshire coalfield.

John then went on to describe how there was a major improvement in mining technology in the 1920’s. It was then that the old system of hewing the coal out of a face manually began to be superseded by machines that could cut faces as long as 150 yards. John then went on to describe the technical details of how this new system operated. The heart of the system was a large piece of equipment, not unlike a giant chainsaw, which went along the coalface cutting large sections out of the coalface. This considerably increased the amount of coal that could be extracted from a mine. One drawback of the new machinery was that the coal that was cut tended to be of a smaller individual size than that which used to be hewn from the coalface by hand. The machines also created much more dust than had hitherto been the case.

John also explained how developments in pit-prop technology made the mines safer. Supporting the roof in a coalmine had been problematical since the early mines. Roof-falls, quite obviously, were potentially catastrophic events and attempts to advance the technology in this part of the industry was slow to advance. From the early days of mining wooden pits props had been favoured, as much as anything because they were cheap and readily available. However, it was difficult to rate their individual strength and consequently how much pressure they could withstand. Wooden props were gradually supplanted by metal props which were much more predictable when it came to the loads that they could bear. Whilst John was working in the mine the hydraulic pit prop was introduced and this was a major advancement it pit safety. The beauty of these new props was that, individually they were much stronger than the props that they replaced, indeed, the pressure within each prop could be set to suit the requirements of the location in which the prop was situated.

John then continued his presentation by showing individual pieces of machinery that were used to extract the coal and explained how they worked. Some of these pieces of machinery were very large and it was necessary to take them down to the coalface in parts and then assemble them in situ. The size that an individual part of a machine could be was dictated by the size of the shaft that the mine had been sunk down. This tended to be around 24ft square. It was surprising how large some of the pieces of equipment that could be taken down a pit shaft were; items as large a diesel engines, for hauling the coal, were suspended vertically from the bottom of the cage and lowered down the shaft. However, once the coalface had been worked out then all of this machinery was left down the mine. It was simply too expensive an operation to bring it all back to the surface for use elsewhere.

In 1947 there were approximately 1500 mines in the country, of which 47 were located in Nottinghamshire. Today, there are only two or three pits in the whole of the county. One area though where there has been a dramatic improvement is safety. In 1947 there were 468 fatal accidents in the coal industry nationally. By 1984 this figure had dropped to single figures, indeed, it is now common to have a year without a fatal accident. Likewise, the amount of explosives that are used annually has dropped dramatically, though this in part can be explained by the much smaller amount of coal being extracted. In 1947 18,750 tons of explosives were used, this figure had dropped to 512 tons in 1995. Productivity has improved over the years too, today over twice as much coal is extracted per individual man hour as it was a recently as 30 years ago. With these statistics John concluded his presentation and there followed a question and answer session.