When there was work for all at the pit

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LIFE in Murton during the 1950s is celebrated in a new book. Here the author recalls his life as a pit boy in that decade

COAL was indisputably still king and the pit was right at the heart of the community as the gloomy post-war years gave way to the optimism of the 1950s in Murton.

ALL GONE: Murton Colliery.

ALL GONE: Murton Colliery.

Dance halls, pubs, clubs and cinemas all flourished as war-weary villagers were finally able to enjoy themselves – and there was work for all at the colliery as well.

“Barring chronic ill health, you could always find a job at the pit,” recalls former Murton miner, Pat McPartland, in his new book Back of the Shaft.

“Occasionally a lad might leave school unable to read, raising fears for his ability to understand danger signs. But a job of some sort could usually be found.”

Miner’s son Pat, who was born in Coronation Street West in 1937, left St Joseph’s School at 15 – and walked straight into a job at the pit.

After a medical and interview with the safety officer, he was passed fit to work on the belts – the usual apprenticeship for boys destined to work underground.

“The procedure at the pit head baths was the first thing I had to get used to. There were two identical levels and every man had a clean and dirty locker,” said Pat. “Before the shift began, you got out of your clean clothes, hanging them in the clean locker. Then, draped in a towel, you shuffled to the dirty locker for your pit clothes.

“The procedure was reversed on completion of the shift. The dusty work clothes were hung up and then, after a hot shower, you would slip into the clothes in the clean locker.”

Just yards from the relative calm of the baths, men toiled for hours moving coal tubs – before passing the black gold on to be sieved, shaken down and screened.

“Overall, from the arrival of coals at bank, to the selection process at the belt, it was a system of great efficiency which ran generally without interruption,” recalls Pat. “We worked under the supervision of a foreman, each at his station, hands employed in quick, flailing movements, separating stones from coal as the belt passed by.

“The overriding impression of the belts was the noise – an interminable din of squealing machinery of a level so loud it made normal conversation impossible.

“Catchy, currently popular songs – such as Shrimp Boats and Hey Round the Corner – helped keep our spirits up. At least you could hear the tune in your mind.” More onerous even than the noise, however, was the “sheer drudgery” of picking out stones from the coal for hour after hour – especially standing still all the time.

“There could be no getting used to the boredom,” said Pat. “On rare occasions when coal failed to arrive, it was possible to enjoy a few minutes respite in the bait cabin.

“All too soon, our brief interlude would be interrupted by the spasmodic chug of the jigger sending coals down to the belt. Your heart would sink at the sound.”

Despite the tedium, Pat’s first pay day at least afforded him a “faint sense” of satisfaction – especially as he was allowed to keep ten shillings after paying board. And, just a few weeks later, he was called away from the belt and put to work on something rather more interesting – coupling empty coal tubs in a narrow incline.

“It was essential to be alert at all times, as there was only about a yard between the wagon way and wall. If it didn’t stretch ability, it was still a lot less boring,” he said.

After putting in as much time handling tubs as culling stones, Pat found himself on the move again – this time heading for the Mining Training Centre at Houghton,

“It was where all pit boys were sent to prepare for work underground,” he said. “My time at Houghton lasted from the autumn of 1952 until January the next year.”

Once training had finished, Pat moved on to work the back shift in the South Drifts of Murton Colliery – accessed by a three-mile walk through Victorian-built tunnels.

“The coal face atmosphere was hot and stiffling. The men worked naked, apart from a pair of pit hoggers, their backs streaked with sweat and dust,” recalls Pat.

“The air was thick with coal dust, which glistened like a million tiny gem stones in the glare of battery lamps. It got everywhere – eyes, nostrils and mouth.”

Pat’s own job involved filling dozens of empty coal tubs – a job both physically demanding and dangerous.

“You could never afford to be careless, as danger was ever-present,” he said “I was lucky. I only had one or two inconsequential mishaps, losing a fingernail once.

“Others weren’t as fortunate. Sidney Mundin, a datal worker, was inordinately accident prone. He always seemed to be busting a finger and lost part of one once.”

Pat became increasingly dissatisfied with life down the pit, however, as the new decade beckoned – eventually handing in his notice to join the army.

“I never gave the pit a backward glance when I finished my final shift,” he said. “Once I had showered and dressed, I turned the key in my locker and left the pit baths for the last time.”

l Read more about Pat’s life underground, as well as Murton in the 1950s, in Back of the Shaft. Published by Summerhill Books, it is available at £8.99.