For example, nine men died at Beeston Main Colliery in 1847 when they broke into old workings and ignited ‘firedamp’. Apparently this explosion also did for the grand façade at Stank Hall as buildings in the area were shaken.
Firedamp is a mixture of gases including methane and is highly inflammable and explosive at the right (or the wrong concentrations). It accounted for many deaths in the days before miners had safe electrical lamps.
One way of testing the atmosphere was to take a canary into the mine. My grandfather spent his working life in the pits and towards the end of his career had worked his way up to Safety Officer. He used to tell the story of a particular canary who fell off its perch when he took it to a suspicious part of the mine, he revived it with a small oxygen canister and had a sample of the air tested. There was nothing wrong with the air, so he repeated the process. The canary fell over, was revived, the air was tested and came back clear. It turned out the canary had worked out it could get a hit of oxygen if it fell off its perch!
Mines have always been dangerous places. One of my grandfather’s first experiences underground (as a boy of 14) was being penned in by the pit ponies he was working with. They stopped him ending up under a rock fall. He later suffered a broken back after another collapse.
Mining is a profitable industry producing minerals we need, whether its coal to burn, or gold, or tin. How safe it is depends on balancing risks. The owner wants to maximise profits and safety is expensive, but they don’t want a disaster because that puts the pit out of action and costs them compensation. The problems really come when the owner is under financial pressure and cuts corners.
The best way to ensure safety is to for the workers to be organised in a trade union. Unions are portrayed as being self-serving, just wanting more money for their members. Actually the big struggles have been about safety and working conditions. Limiting the working day to ten hours, stopping child labour and bringing in the Health & Safety At Work Act.
When the miners’ strike began thirty years ago, there were still miners living in South Leeds, mostly in Middleton. They commuted to work at Kellingley and Selby by this time as the last pit – Broom Pit at the top end of Middleton Railway – closed in 1968.
The conundrum for miners and their families was the desire to save the pit, the employment, the wages in the local economy versus not wanting your sons to follow you into a dangerous profession. My grandfather ensured his sons all got a grammar school education, but he would be devastated to see that there are only a handful of pits left in Britain.
The ‘84 strike was about jobs, the government wanted to shut down most of the mines. It was about communities, the miners knew that removing the main source of employment would wreak havoc in the mining villages. And it did.
The strike was also about safe coal, although I don’t remember it ever being put in these terms. The government said British coal was too expensive and they could buy cheaper overseas. Cheaper coal either meant strip mined which tore up the land and damaged the environment, or deep mined coal from somewhere where they spent less on safety.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.