This page is a combination of notes made in 1944 and recollections of my father: Gerald Carey
Contemplations on a mining future
I look upon the coming year
With thoughts and meditations
So many things I’ll miss, I fear
But most, my recreations.
I’ll miss my music most of all
That is my life and spirit,
But music is a man’s own soul
So always he should hear it.
I’ll meet new people where I go
And see their ways of living
New places I will get to know
Far from the scene of killing
But most of all I’ll miss the ‘Proms’,
They’ve sentimental worth.
Give me my Mozart, Bach and Brahms
And peace will reign on Earth.
G.E Carey 25th January 1944
By January, 1944 I had spent over a year working in the Estates Department of the Union Cold Storage Company in their offices at West Smithfield in the City of London. As I was approaching the age of eighteen I was not surprised to receive my National Service call-up papers. However, I was surprised to find that I had been directed to work in the mines. There was no option in the matter. The selection was based purely on the final figure of a person’s National Registration Number. (My number was CCK 27109).
Apparently, Mr.Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, had made a grave mistake in calling up experienced miners in the earlier years of the war and he now had to remedy the situation. And so it was that on one morning at the beginning of March, 1944, I found myself amongst several groups of young men standing at the end of the platforms at St.Pancras Station in London. People were talking and joking with others whom they had never seen before and one could not help being reminded of the feeling we have when going to school for the first time.
We all had a common interest, and that was merely the fact that we had all been called up for work in the mines.
We were suddenly swamped by a crowd of city workers who had been deposited by a small train on a platform to our right, and as the crowd diluted itself, a man with a Ministry of Labour armlet could be seen edging his way towards us. !I Those for Sheffield on my left !I, he shouted, !I and those for Chesterfield on my right !I. Gradually the groups sorted themselves out. I was amongst those going to Chesterfield. Although I had been away from home many times before, I still experienced a slight thrill at the thought of going to a place which was new to me. I had heard about the industries carried on there, and of the church with the crooked spire, and some element of curiosity Within me told me that these things must be seen. There was also something exciting in the thought of going to work in a coal mine. The possible dangers had not yet passed through my mind. I, for one, had never seen a colliery, and neither had many of the others. This made it all the more interesting.
We found ourselves being ushered along to No.1 Platform where our train had already been waiting for some time, but since accommodation had been reserved for us, there was plenty of room. We soon took our seats and were thankful for the rest that followed. It was five minutes past ten when the train, gathering momentum, went under the High gate Road, past the Kentish Town sidings and into the long tunnel leading to Hampstead. We left London behind us, and passed into the open country which showed signs of a certain bleakness.
The trees and hedges were bare, and small patches of snow still remained in the corners of the fields. The quantity of snow on the landscape increased as we travelled northwards and when we reached Derby most objects were covered by it.
We arrived at our destination (Chesterfield) some four hours after our departure, and a large man in plus-fours, accompanied by portly ladies of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, were there to meet us Whilst walking up the steep hill leading from the station, it struck me that Chesterfield was rather a dismal and a dirty place, especially at that time of the year. The chimneys were belching forth thick black smoke and the buildings were covered in soot. This showed up as a sharp contrast to the snow which still lay beside the roads. As I was looking round, two people came towards me, and one asked, ” Do you come from London?”, and when I said that I did, he replied, “I thought so, you can recognise a Londoner anywhere”. Whether that meant I was arrogant or just plain stupid I do not know, but it cheered me up immensely, for I felt as though I had wandered for days in some foreign country and had just come across someone of my own nationality. Their names were Peter and John; one was an amateur actor and the other an amateur artist. We kept together and followed the others to the place where we were all given lunch. When we had finished our lunch it must have been about half past three, and since we had to wait some time for a special bus to take us to our billets, we decided to go out for a drink. We did not stay away long for fear of missing the bus. On our return we found a bus waiting, but apparently we were not to travel on it. Peter muttered something about going back for another drink. Nobody made any move in that direction, so we went indoors to watch John doing some card tricks.
MANSFIELD WOODHOUSE AND THE CRESSWELL TRAINING COURSE
Just as dusk was setting in, the large man with plus-fours came into the room to tell us that we were to go to Mansfield Woodhouse when the bus came back. Mansfield Woodhouse was in the outskirts of of Mansfield ( we were told ), some thirteen miles from here. My sense of direction in this part of England was, at present, very poor, but it made me wonder why we had been sent to Chesterfield if we were to end up in Mansfield. Eventually the bus came back and all of us who were left rushed into it as if we were eager to start work.
We had now commenced the last lap of our journey. The bus took us through strange country and one could discern, in spite of fading light, the huge tip heaps belonging to the various collieries either side of the road. They looked like huge mountains in the half-light and the effect was very weird.
It was after dark when we reached Mansfield Woodhouse and the bus was made to stop outside the village hall. We took our luggage out of the bus and went into the brightly lit room where certain members of the community had prepared tea and biscuits for us. This, I thought, was an extraordinarily nice gesture towards newcomers who had never seen the place in daylight. At the other side of the room some girls were checking up on our ration books and changing the addresses on our identity cards. After we finished our tea we were spoken to by the vicar and an old miner, the former giving us advice on behaviour and the latter giving advice on our work to come. I think that the vicar must have been suspicious of our morals. Our billets were given to us and Peter and I managed to get into the same billet, whilst John went elsewhere. Instructions were then given to us for the following morning. We were to assemble by the main road at 7.00 A.M. where a bus would take us to the training centre at Cresswell Colliery. By the time we had been taken to our respective billets it was nearly a quarter past eight.
Peter and I were billeted with a miner, his wife and their small daughter. As the house was small, it was quite inadequate for the number of people it now contained. It did not, however, take long to get used to it. After having had some supper we decided that it was time we went to bed. In our room we had a double-bed and two cupboards, into which we were expected to pack all our belongings. It was not long before we were both in bed. Peter slept in the middle of the bed and I slept on the edge! This happened not only on this occasion, but for the four weeks to follow, mainly because the bed sagged badly, but also because he was always the first in bed. I had not got the energy to push him over at that time of night. It had been a very busy day, but even so it was only the beginning of many experiences.
The Cresswell training course was to last a month. It was badly organised, lacking in discipline and inefficient. It was probably as bad for the instructors as it was for the trainees. As I wore glasses, I was now issued with safety glasses. We had a series of lectures combined with physical training sessions. The lectures commenced on the 9th.March, covering the following topics :-
- Shafts and Cages.
- Transport and Rope Haulage Systems.
- Horse Haulage.
- Coal Face Working.
- “Ripping” (or raising the roof of roadways).
- Safety with Machinery.
- First Aid.
- Generating Power for Electricity and Compressed Air.
The course was completed on the 30th.March.
I managed to get to Nottingham on one occasion for an orchestral concert, and at the end of the second week I went home to London for the weekend, arriving late Friday evening and visiting my brother, John, in hospital in Cambridge the following day. He had been severely injured whilst directing a military convoy in the Appennine Mountains of Italy during the winter. The roads were icy and a vehicle slid downhill, crushing him and fracturing his pelvis.
Towards the end of the course we all had to pass a gas-recognition test (required by law) and we had our first visit underground to see what what conditions were like. We were shown where a large accident had happened some years before the war when many men were killed. The manager of the training centre spoke to us before we left, and he told us that we would probably be the last to be released after the war. He then issued us with the names of the collieries to which we were being sent. I was being sent to Warsop Main Colliery and I had to go to the Town Hall where I was given a billet in Warsop Vale. Up to this time I had worn an old jacket and an old pair of corduroy trousers which I had brought from home. The only things we were issued with were a helmet. a pair of boots and a bar of soap, so I had to buy a second-hand battle-dress and a pair of industrial gloves at my own expense. I also had to buy a snap ( sandwich) tin and a water bottle. Out of my pay of approximately five pounds a week, I had to pay board and lodging. There was very little left.
Although I had been called up for National Service, I was never issued with any special identification papers to explain the work I was doing. Fortunately, the military police never stopped me.
WARSOP MAIN COLLIERY WARSOP VALE
I arrived at the billet in pouring rain. My impression of the Vale was that it was disgustingly dirty. The billet was one of a number of small terrace houses next to the colliery, The family consisted of a miner, his wife and two children. There was little room for me and I felt sorry for the family.
Warsop Main Colliery was owned by the Staveley Coal and Iron Company.
It was a very large pit placed in front of an enormous tip-heap, like the back of a dinosaur, surmounted by the aerial ropeway used for tipping the slack. This seemed to be continuously smoking and emitting an acrid smell which pervaded the entire complex. Although the colliery villages still remain, there is now no sign of the colliery itself.
I had to work on the surface for two weeks, and then I went home for the Easter weekend. My brother was briefly out of hospital, but had to return to hospital in a few days. On my return to Warsop I found myself working underground. I was not given work at the coal face because of my eyesight.
For three to four weeks I was coupling up empty tubs, or II dogging on “, in sets of six, and sending them up an incline. This was at pit-bottom. Later, I was transferred to the top of the incline where I II knocked off II clips, or released them, so that the tubs could run down a slope. Between times, I just sat in a man-hole waiting for the next set of tubs to arrive. At Whitsun I popped home again and visited my brother in hospital in St.Albans.
When I returned I moved to a new billet in Church Warsop, a mile away from the pit. I had brought my bicycle from home so it was simple for me to ride to the pit in time for the start of the 6.30 a.m. shift. On arrival at the pit, I had to go to the pit-head baths, take off my clothes and put them into a locker on the ” clean ” side of the baths, walk over to the ” dirty ” side, put on dirty clothes from a locker on that side. Between the two sides were the showers. These were used at the end of the shift. From here I fetched a lamp from the Lamp House and joined the queue waiting to enter the ” cage ” to descend down the shaft. I was told that I was working about 1,500 feet below ground.
The cage dropped down the shaft as fast as an express train and one wondered whether it would ever stop. The same routine of work continued monotonously day after day until the Pit Holiday in August. I travelled down to London on a dull morning and I had no sooner walked out of St.Pancras Station when a Flying Bomb came roaring above the roof tops, heading north up St.Pancras road. I took no chances and fell flat in the gutter. That was my first experience of a German ” doodle-bug “. News from France was good and Germany appeared to be nearing collapse ( or so we thought ).
Back at work. A Ministry of Fuel and Power official came round the pit. When he reached me he asked me what I thought of the work. Pausing for a moment to consider an appropriate answer, another man said, ” Tell the Major what you think of it “. Apparently he was a retired Major and a Member of Parliament. He wanted to know whether I would stay on after the war, and I told him that I definitely would not. He suggested that I should write a book about my experiences and impressions.
I do not intend to write a book, but I can record the impressions I had at the time.
” I estimate that about 90% of the men worked in collieries and most of those worked underground. The colliers, or coal-face, workers had the hardest job, working in hot, stuffy and cramped conditions with the inherent danger that this involved. These conditions often make them deformed for life, in addition to having their lungs filled with coal dust. Then there are the haulage workers, electricians, fitters, maintenance workers, those bringing in supplies and machinery or cutting new ” roads “and fixing steel ” rings “. There are also the safety officers. On the surface there is a Winder for each shaft, controlling the winding engines which raise and lower the cages. Most of the others are concerned with sorting, or screening, the coal, dealing with supplies of equipment, manning the lamp house and running the pit-head baths. Much of the work is very monotonous and mind destroying. They need shorter hours, longer holidays, earlier pensions, and greater safety and security at work. There is strong feeling between the workers and the management owing to past and present misunderstandings.
Most of the men and boys have little expectation of doing anything but mining. Mining is practically the only occupation for them. It is assumed that a son will follow his father and another wage-earner is always welcome. But having said that, the schools have a great deal to answer for. There is little opportunity for higher education, but the few who may be offered the chance of a grammar school place face the prospect of being branded ” different ” from the rest of the community. One cannot criticise the limited aspirations of the mining community when most of them have never had the time or the opportunity to follow intellectual pursuits. The local authority does not seem to help. Such evening classes that are available are mainly in technical subjects related to mining. There are sporting facilities such as bowling greens and football pitches, but these only seem to be available through Miners’ Welfare Schemes “.
At the beginning of September I was developing bad back pains from repeatedly bending in one direction to release the” clips” which fastened the tubs to the moving steel cable. I was allowed to go home for a few days, but the pain did not improve. My doctor sent me to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital where an x-ray revealed a curvature of the spine. I was told that I would have to attend the hospital for treatment. At the end of November the hospital said that I could resume employment, but only for light work. As a result of this, and taking into account my eyesight, the colliery decided that I was no longer any use to them. On the 7th.December, 1944, I was examined by the Medical Board in Euston Road, London, and given a Grade III which meant that, in view of the conditions existing at that time, I was not liable for service in His Majesty’s Forces. I was officially released from mining on the 2nd.January, 1945, very much earlier than most of the Bevin Boys, and I was able to use this opportunity to polish up my academic studies and start a degree course at London University later that year.