Chris Upton recounts some tales from the Black Country’s days as a coal mining area.
At one time – and not so many years ago at that – something like half a million of us spent our working lives underground.
For the coal miners and those who dug in search of tin and lead and lime, not to mention those employed on the London Underground, daylight was in short supply.
In the Black Country in particular, the presence of ironstone, coal and limestone made subterranean work an economic necessity. The miners would not have missed the daylight very much, since there was precious little of that above the ground either.
“Black by day and red by night,” was how Elihu Burritt described the area.
Not that the Black Country coal miners were necessarily cut off from all light and air. The term “pit”, still widely applied to coalmines, indicates that in the early days the search for coal involved not tunnelling, but digging a hole in the ground. The trick was to dig to the coal seam, then hollow out around the shaft to create a hole in the shape of a bell-jar. Once the coal was hauled up, the trick was to get out before the bottom of the pit collapsed. Having done all they could with one pit, the miners abandoned it and started again elsewhere.
The whole business was fraught with every kind of danger. “A million years of stored sunlight” was how someone once described the black stuff, but it was considerably less picturesque if it fell on top of you. Then there were the leaks of poisonous gas, fire hazards and underground streams. Death by all four elements was perfectly possible: fire and water, earth and air.
Church registers chart the increasing incidence of death underground. At St Bartholomew’s, Wednesbury, the earliest fatality recorded is in April 1577, when Christopher Delye was interred. The vicar helpfully notes: “He was slaine in the Bullryddige in the coal pitt.”
From this point - at least, when the vicars chose to record the cause of death – the “coal pitt” claimed a host of victims. Two miners died within days of each other in February 1690, while seven more died in accidents in 1753 alone.
In some cases, the circumstances added extra poignancy. When Daniel Haynes died in a coal mine in June 1719, the vicar added in the burial register that it was “seven days before he was dugg out.” In March 1753, Paul Skidmore died in a mine, just two months after his father had met the same fate.
Even by the 17th Century, pit work had become a profession in which son followed father and, indeed, the son’s entry into the work began as an assistant or apprentice to his father. In May 1685, the Wednesbury vicar buried John and Thomas Slater, the sons of Thomas Slater, collier. It was an irony of Black Country life to be buried twice.
Nor was a fall of coal the only method by which the Wednesbury miners were shepherded into eternity. In 1758, the vicar recorded that George Crowder was going down to work when the rope broke and that was the end of him.
In 1706 the collier, Lawrence Constable, was killed “by ye damp in a well at Gournal”, whilst in June 1731 Edward Danks was “most dismally scorched and roasted to death by the hellish wild fire”.
The vicar clearly considered that Danks deserved his fate, the fires of hell having risen from their usual level to take him. As for his comrade, Joseph Jennings, “being a strong, brave, courageous, honest fellow, he lived in the utmost torment three days longer...”
Such was the reward for honesty.
Given the dangers, the Black Country miners were a suspicious lot and any sign which foretold trouble was taken very seriously. A list of such omens once hung above the chimney breast in the Cockfighter’s Arms in Wednesbury. Woe betide any miner who dreamt of fire or a broken shoe or saw a robin “perched upon a man-made object”.
“If you mete a woman at the rising of the sun”, the notice went on, “turn again from ye pit. It is a sure sign of death.” Nor were such signs entirely fatuous: “When foule smell be aboute, a sure sign that ye imps be aneare.” Imps or no imps, the smell of gas was something to avoid.
But it was not only the men who dug the coal who were in danger. The countless abandoned pits made it a dangerous place, especially at night. No doubt the locals knew where the traps were, but strangers wandered the byways of Wednesbury at their peril. In February 1745, for example, the vicar buried George Perry, “a Willnall man found in a Colepitt in Wednesbury field.”
In 1752, a Birmingham man suffered the same fate: “Thomas Harpur, who fell into a coal pitt at Wednesbury, where he lay almost a week before he was found.”
Abandoned pits could be “crowned” or covered, but that did not dispel the hazard entirely, as John Eaton discovered in August 1753: “He was looking over a rail into a crowning in and pressing too hard upon the rail, it gave way and he dropt into ye bottom of ye hole, being about six yards deep and was killed by ye fall.”
The Black Country was a minefield; Wednesbury was not a place to drop in unannounced.