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About A Week: Magnificent Men

Peter Hinchliffe, who grew up in a mining village, remembers hardy pitmen, and the trials they endured to earn a living.

Year upon year, I woke to hear clattering clogs in the darkness before dawn.

Miners, setting out on a long trudge to pits in neighbouring villages.

Harold Banks, Sam Golby. Other hardy men. Bound for the Shuttle Eye pit at Grange Moor, or Grange Ash pit, or Lepton Edge.

They walked to work in all weathers. If they were rain-soddened when they arrived at the pit-head, they knew they would soon be even wetter..

Down, down in the pit cage, into dust, and a darkness that was darker than any night.

The working day officially began when they reached the coal face. That meant another half-mile foot-slog, more often than not bent double.

Sometimes they would get all the way down the pit, then find there was no work for them. They would then have to return home, with not a penny earned.

Conditions at the coal face were hellish. The Beeston seam at Lepton Edge was 24 inches from floor to ceiling.

Miners lay on their sides, straining to shift coal with pick and shovel.

There was always water in the Beeston. A constant drizzle leaked through the roofs of the mine workings. A half-inch stream lapped around the toiling men.

The water pumped to the surface weighed more than the coal hauled up the shaft.

Snap was eaten a few yards back from the face.

A man called by nature relieved himself wherever he could.

When miners emerged into the light after a crippling day in the depths, a liner of coal dust making their eyes seem very white, there was no comforting hot shower.

No such extravagance as pit-head baths.

A good pal of mine, the late Ernest Walters, worked at Lepton Edge pit, but lived many miles away at Luddendenfoot.

Soaked to the bone, matted black with dust, he had to catch a bus into Huddersfield, another bus to Halifax, then a third bus to his home village.

There to bath in a tin tub in front of the fire, with hot water from the set-pot.

I heard the clogs. I heard clogs every weekday of my young life, but not until much later did I appreciate the nobility of those who wore them.

After a day’s work of Siberian harshness, miners had enough energy left to turn out and enjoy themselves.

They went to the Woolpack pub, the Whistling Blackbird club, for a pint of beer, or two, or three, to wash the dust from their throats.

When the weather was warm they gathered round a seat at one end of the village. There was laughter, good conversation. You might have thought that these men had nothing to do all day but sit at home, contemplating the state of the world.

Digging for coal was a ghastly business, hard labour in holes not fit for rats.

But it produced some grand men.

Pits and miners were as much part of my early life as days and nights.

My school days were punctuated by the clicking and clacking of tubs being hauled up a track-way just across from our playground. These carried fresh-hewn coal from Howroyd pit up a steep slope to the lorry loading bays.

After school I would gather up coal which had shuttered from passing lorries, dragging it home in a hurry cart.

In the1940s, barely a minute of the day went by when there was not a ladened coal lorry travelling up or down Lepton Edge.

That was the time when there were cobbled setts on both sides of the road. These were to give horses hooves something to grip on when coal was hauled by animal power.

The setts have now been covered over with tarmac. And the coal lorries have been replaced by big artics, bringing goods to Morrisons, Sainsburys and Asda.

Coal is no longer mined in the area where I live.

The list of abandoned pits reads like a roll-call of the casualties in an industrial war.

Howroyd, Shuttle Eye, Gregory Springs, Grange Ash, Lepton Edge, Park Mill, Emley, Inghams, Shaw Cross, Bulcliffe Wood…

All closed.

Only faint traces remain of what was a vital industry.

From my living room I look out across fields to what is left of a group of pit-head buildings.

Every morning when I look out on remains of Lepton Edge pit I hear again the sound of clogs.

And picture the faces of magnificent men.


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