Transcript based on an interview with former mineworker (Mr Singleton) recorded in the 70’s by Roy Dyson, a teacher from Hall Park Technical Grammar School, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.
In the days before mechanisation, pit ponies were stabled underground and were used to transport materials in and coal out of the mine. The men, boys and ponies who worked together during this period endured terrible working conditions.
Fig 1: Miners with Pit Ponies underground at Brookhill Colliery, Pinxton, Derbyshire in the early 1960’s. Photo Credit – Coal Authority.
Prior to Nationalisation in 1947, colliery companies contracted unskilled labour under the ‘butty system’. A butty was a miner who had risen through the ranks and invested in men, ponies and materials which he sub-contracted to the mine. He was an intermediary between the mine-owner and the workforce. His men were paid on the amount of coal produced and when seams became exhausted, men borrowed against future production or were simply laid-off. ‘You will load coal as big as nature will allow’ is typical of the tone of a company rulebook, described by Mr Singleton a former miner, born in 1905. He goes on to talk about the boys and ponies who worked underground at Eastwood. ‘Conditions were terrible. Ponies used to go into areas with insufficient height causing back injuries’.
Fig 2: Pit ponies for sale in Ripley Market Place, Derbyshire (date unknown). Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection.
‘At New England Pit, a butty by the name of ‘Smalley’ employed a workforce of around 100 boys’ Singleton describes how the boys would queue outside Mr Smalley’s house in order to collect their pay. The house was known locally as ‘Smalley’s Penny Mansion’ on account of the fact that he would always fine the boys a penny which was deducted from their wages. Smalley also ran a large stable of ponies that worked in the mine. ‘For protection they wore a skullcap and bridle made of leather. A pony had to be three years old before it was allowed down the pit. They learned to walk with their heads down and could open [air doors] in the roadway. It knew which door needed pulling and which doors it could push. They used to be ridden, though we weren’t supposed to ride’. The ponies lived most of their life underground. ‘Females were released into the meadows to give birth and returned to the pit after recuperation. Offspring were contracted to the pit when aged three.’
Moorgreen Colliery had as many as 120 ponies. ‘The ponies had to transport the coal to the ‘main rope’ They could pull four loaded trucks up a one-in-twenty gradient and as many as ten trucks on a level seam. Singleton fondly recalls feeding ponies with apples and mentions ‘Pansy’ a pony of 31 years who was ‘as crafty as a fox’ and had worked underground for 28 years.
Fig 2: Ganger Lad driving a pit pony at an Eastwood pit circa 1910. Photo Credit – Rev Cobb collection.
Acts of kindness were tempered with brutality. Life in the dark tunnels was hard and some ponies were killed. ‘I killed one myself ’ he confesses. ‘It ran away, into a door. – If you got a ‘runner’ when the tubs got too heavy, the pony couldn’t hold them back, [they] used to run into doors and break their necks.’ ‘They had a rough time, ponies did. Because you had to get that coal out. Under private enterprise, you’d got to get it out. Didn’t matter how that pony was feeling, whenever it was tired – and they were tired because they worked night and day. You’d got to thrash him to make him do his work. Mind you if they caught you thrashing them, you’d be in trouble, but at the same time, if you didn’t thrash them and they didn’t do their work, you were still in trouble!’
‘I’ve known ponies go all day without a bite or a drink. And working in hot places you know. They used to come into the stables after coal-turning [on the] morning shift. They would have half-an hour’s walk, be put into the stables for a drink and a bit of corn, then out again on the afternoon shift.’
Fig 4: Pit Ponies being brought out at Bentinck Colliery, NCB South Nottinghamshire Area, for the last time in January 1973. Photo Credit – John Robinson (Colliery Safety Engineer).