A Young Surveyor at Kent’s Lane and Holditch Collieries,1941-4

Doug Johnson

INTRODUCTION:  In 1994 the Audley and District Family History Society began a long-term project to record the memories of miners who worked in the pits in the area covering Talke, Audley, Chesterton, Leycett and Silverdale.  Doug Johnson is a member of the society and responded by writing his recollections down.  The society would be happy to receive any contributions to this project, either written as in this example, or gathered through an interview.  Please contact either Ian Bailey or Stan Brassington (addresses in Introduction).

Starting Work

            I attended the Technical School at Burslem and did reasonably well.  The head got me an interview with a firm of mining and estate agents in Newcastle together with another boy.  He got the job, probably because he had a smart tweed suit and looked the part.  He wasn't any better than me at school and I felt a bit peeved.  The man in charge offered to put me in touch with the Chief Surveyor of the Shelton Iron, Steel & Coal Co who lived in a posh house in Newcastle and I eventually made arrangements to go and see him at home.  Later I had an interview at Hanley Deep Pit, where I proudly took along some of my drawings, which he didn't seem too interested in.  He offered to take me on as an articled pupil for 3 years, explaining that I really ought to be paying him, but as I would need some pocket money I would get 10s per week.  It will be forever stamped on my memory as the way he described the job and the way it turned out could not have been more different.

            I reported to Kent's Lane at 8.30 am to meet the people I was to work with in the summer of 1941.  There was an Assistant Surveyor in charge of things at Kent's Lane and a boy helper who lived in Silverdale and was a bit older than myself.  He was the one who got me into bad habits like chewing tobacco.  He could also spit further than I could.   The Assistant Surveyor was a red-haired man with a goitre and also a violent temper when roused.  He occasionally took his rage out on my colleague, who did not take the job seriously and was not really interested in surveying.  The manager at the pit was a little man who wore breeches and flew off the handle at the slightest provocation.  The belts on the longwall faces in the Spencroft seam were constantly running off the rollers, due mainly to roof falls and the belt track getting out of line.  He would demand that we would have to whitewash a new line on the coal face roof to set the props to and reinstate a straight belt.  This usually meant we two lads working nights (known as the fettling shift) to carry out his wishes.  The accessories were two old paint cans, a bag of lime, some old brushes and, of course, water.  We were trained as surveyors to project straight lines as a matter of course using safety lamps and lines of string suspended from the roof in screw eyes fixed in rawlplugs, or whatever means of suspension we could devise.  These would have to be offset, until eventually a gap was found between the maze of steel props and while the coal cutters and shot firing proceeded.  We were regarded as a bit of a nuisance.  Getting a straight line was one thing.  Lying on your back in a 2 feet 6 inch seam, painting a line on the roof with limewhite topped up with urine, was not my idea of mining surveying, but we did it and got no thanks.  The props to the new belt would be lined up and the belt pans and all the other paraphernalia re-set and bolted up and hopefully the day shift would have a straight belt running smoothly on which to pitch the coal from their stints.  (A stint usually meant about 5 yards long of coal face and the contents which were allocated to each collier for the shift.  The coal had been previously cut, bored and fired the night before.  This process always happened at night and the loosened coal was broken up, big pieces thrown on the belt by hand and the remainder shovelled on.   A collier's shovel was by other standards huge.)  The height in which they worked was reduced by the cutter slattings which lay on the floor about 9 inches thick.  They were very sharp and played havoc with your knees.

Kent's Lane: a neglected pit

            Kent's Lane, when I started, was not the foremost of modern pits.  It was run down and neglected by Shelton and its seams, particularly Spencroft, were subject to sudden roof falls which spilt out wet fireclay like porridge without warning and lives sadly were lost.  I remember one occasion when we two lads were sent to put up fresh lines in a new road being driven through the gob (waste) between two airways, when a roof fall occurred trapping us in a short stretch of road about 10 yards long.  Fortunately, there was a compressed air line, which gave us a bit of oxygen.  We kept banging on the pipe, hoping someone would find us.  The boss called at the lamp checkout at about 5.30 pm to see if we were up the pit and promptly raised the alarm when we were not.  The fall was several yards  long and by the time our rescuers reached us our lamp batteries had nearly run out.

            Eventually, Spencroft was closed and I remember the eerie task of doing the closing survey, accompanied by a fireman checking for gas every few yards.  Falls were usually preceded by what miners call bitting and in a silent place a few bits meant scamper quickly.

            When the banksman, who was a bit of a comic, looked down at my brand new size 10 steel toe capped pit boots, he used the "f"word.  It was his main adjective as it was with many pit men.  "Effing hell, two effing feet, one effing yard!"  But not our boss.  He was an altar server and when he got heated the worst adjective he used was "melting".  One day he got really upset and said bloody.  He was depressed for days because he had allowed himself to really swear!

            The offices of Kent's Lane could not have changed for a hundred years.  The glass in the windows was black with coal dust and the desks were Victorian high desks with tall stools.  The surveyors table was a huge construction in the middle of the office and, before we could roll any plans out, everything had to be dusted.

The surveyor's job

            Surveyors were a bit of a mystery to the rest of the pit and were known as "Dialers" or in N.S. accent, "Doilers".  The reason for this was their use of the Miners' Dial.  This is a compass-like instrument, the forerunner of the theodolite, for measuring angles.  The one we had at Kent's Lane was the oldest on the company and was made by a firm called Casatelli.  It had open fold-up/fold-down sights, a 360 degree face with a magnetic needle and a Vernier scale enabling angles to be read to the nearest 3 minutes.  The daft part about this was the fact that the sights had copper wires in one and a pin hole in the other.  Sighting onto an oil lamp flame several hundred yards away in the dark was a work of art and a bit inaccurate when the flame flickered.

            The prime requirement of mining surveyors in the private days before nationalisation was to assess and calculate the amount of coal mined in each seam below given areas on the surface, each month.  Not a lot of people know this!  The most important job, it follows, is to carry out, at an early stage in the mine's development, a correlation survey relating the underground development with the surface map.  Not many surveyors have the opportunity to take part in such a task.

            The man in charge of the lamps and check out was known as Peggy on account of his gammy leg.  Getting a lamp with a good battery or a safety lamp with a decent wick required stealth and craft.  He had an enormous chip on his shoulder, but always made sure the bosses' handlamps were polished until they shone!

Transfer to Holditch

            After a couple of years I was sent to Holditch Colliery which had its own surveyor,  a Welshman.  His visits underground were infrequent, but kept a tight rein on what was going on and put me in charge of the other two lads for most of the time.  He would always take charge of the quarterly surveys required by statute under the Coal Mines Act, but, after a trial period, left most of the surveying work to me.  If we were shorthanded at our busiest times, an extra surveyor came in from Hanley Deep Pit.

            Holditch was a different cup of tea to Kent's Lane.  It was the Company's show pit by comparison, well appointed modern offices, canteen and baths, well equipped workshops and high production of good quality thick coal.  The Great Row seam was the thickest. 

            The surveyor's biggest problem during working hours is travelling from district to district, via the main haulage routes.  In the 40s most of these roads were constructed with steel rings fish plated together and set approximately 2 feet 6 inches apart, boarded over with 1 inch sawn boards.  These roads could be quite narrow single track with tubs drawn on direct ropes and virtually no space at the sides, just the occasional manhole to dive into.  The ropes used to whip up and down and there were places where they had sawn grooves in the rings.  The wider roads with two tracks, one empty and one loaded, were better, but faster, especially on the gradients.  At Kent's Lane, all the haulage engines were air driven and simply controlled by the turn of a lever.  The haulage hands controlled them with great dexterity and speed and did not like to be held up by "dialers" travelling their routes like pack horses, loaded up with tackle.  It was not unusual to be reminded by a quick snatch on a journey (train of tubs) that you were "in the bloody way."  Holditch was more civilised, all the mechanical equipment was electrically driven including the conveyor belts.  There were even electric lights in some places!

Sampling air and dust - to get the "right" results

            An overseer I worked with at Holditch had the responsibility for air and dust sampling and also safety.  He was qualified fireman, and taught me some of the arts and crafts of meeting the regulations which, as most miners know, if carried out to the letter would have closed the pit.  I have often wondered how many inspectors of mines knew that also.

            In order to record the correct sampling of mine dust, mine plans were divided into 1 chain (22 yard) lengths of different colour codes.  Officially, what was supposed to happen was for the dust sampler to brush off a sample of dust from the roof, the side and the floor of the various roadways into a tin and mark this with the reference from the map.  A batch of about 24 tins each week would go to the laboratory for testing, theoretically ensuring that a good selection of samples from all over the pit was being tested for combustible matter content.  If any failed, or exceeded about 5%, the area from which the tin originated would be doused with stone dust.  A fine theory but one which would have resulted in all tins containing about 90% combustible matter, had it been carried out.  Miners hated stone dust. They thought it was more responsible for silicosis than coal dust.  And managers hated bad results.  A "good" sampler would settle down in a quiet air road, spread out a newspaper and tip on half a bag of stone dust, add a handful or so of the surrounding dust on the floor, give it a good stir, sieve it through a lamp gauze and fill the tins.  It had two advantages, a) it took about half an hour instead of all day and b) it usually produced  one or two bad samples and the rest satisfactory.  Good news for the manager and bad news for the suppliers of stone dust.  A few bags, scattered in the area decided by the tin reference, kept everybody happy.  I had many guilty thoughts about this business, but have hidden behind those who gave the orders at the time.

The boss underground

            Holditch was visited occasionally by the general manager of the company.  This was a time when the surveyor and pit manager joined the entourage,  and also the General Manager's son, who was the Agent.  I knew this gentleman well: he was our signals sergeant in the colliery platoon of the Home Guard and some unrepeatable Mainwaring-like things took place which are still good for a laugh.  The group would traverse the best parts of the pit, all carrying hand lamps with very strong beams, so their impending approach was no secret.

            One of the last jobs I did at Holditch, before joining the Fleet Air Arm, was to carry out the opening survey at the old footrail at Apedale, which was an exciting experience to see old workings opened up and put into production again.  I also did a surface survey over hundreds of acres, including the colliery tip and the environs of the colliery generally, in order to update all the original surface plans and check the correlation to the underground plans.

            By the way, after I had worn out my first and only pair of pit boots, I went over to clogs, which took a bit of getting used to, but were very comfortable and light.  There was a chap who used to make these by hand in a shed at the side of the road near Hanley Deep Pit, just by the old Port Vale ground.  I think in this particular area there was a cottage industry of boot and shoe making.  My grandfather, George Rowe, lived in the vicinity as a young man and he was then a shoemaker, also his father and grandfather, shoe and boot makers. 

Return from the forces - and out of the industry

            I should point out that the times I describe are from 1941-4.  Things had not changed much when I returned from the Fleet Air Arm in 1947.  All the stones round the roundabout at Holditch had been whitewashed and the NCB flag fluttered from the mast.  I did not feel welcome.  Staff who I worked with had naturally been promoted and resented someone who had originally been in charge of them returning to take up his old job. The staff wage for a surveyor with the NCB had risen to £2-3-6 per week in 1947, the same as an office clerk.  I was offered a rise of 5 shillings a week to go to Leycett to run the surveying side there, but turned this down to take a job in local government as a surveyor.  I seem to remember that this was the only time I had seen my master since I started at Kent's Lane.  I remember him saying that the 5 shillings would more than cover my busfare and when I appeared unhappy, he said, "Well anyway, you've got a bike haven't you?"

Mining "left its marks on me"

            Three and a bit years in the pit left its marks on me.  In 1943 during a Sunday night shift I was gassed in a heading when I had set the theodolite for a young assistant to take the reading, fearing it might be safer for him to stay at the bottom and me to hold the lamp at the top, knowing the likelihood of gas.  I went out with a bang, fell 20 yards or so down the heading and crashed into the theodolite.  I still bear the scars.

            The man in Newcastle, who crowned one of my teeth, when trying to match a front one, rattled his drawer, pulled out a selection, showed me one and said, "It'll 'ave to do, there's a bloody war on you know!"

Next - Locating Ancesters in Audley and Surrounding Areas