Pit ponies were a vital part of the coal mining way of life. They worked just as hard as the men by pulling tubs both above and below the surface, delivering coal and many other heavy jobs that their human counterparts couldn’t. This large variety of jobs required for the horses meant that they came in varying sizes. Smaller ones worked directly at the coal face, while bigger ones worked in underground spaces with larger roofs or on the surface. In the majority of mines there would have been ponies somewhere, especially as each seam had stabling for around 15 horses.
If you ask anyone who heard tales of the pit ponies, of which I have heard many myself from relatives, they would often tell you that they were often a miner’s pride and joy. Many of them were perhaps better treated than those who always lived above ground. They would be well fed and cleaned after their shift. Most importantly, their wellbeing was a priority to the regular horse inspectors who would come and check on them, ensuring they had a week off above ground if necessary. A pony driver could also be fined or sacked if he was found to be negligent towards his pony. These were often checks that weren’t carried out on horses working in other industries. Just like the men they worked alongside, any injuries or accidents were recorded in their own accident books.
Most pit ponies would have been allowed up on the surface for either holidays or weekends, as well as if they were deemed unwell by the inspectors. The majority of these were ones deemed special enough to be paraded in shows or competitions. However, during strikes, ponies would be brought to the surface for the entire strike action. After all, why not? They were hard workers too!
National Coal Board East Midland Division No. 1 Area, List of Ponies at Ireland Colliery, Nov 1960. N42/1/26/7
Whilst researching into the everyday life of pit ponies, Ireland Colliery on the outskirts of Staveley near Chesterfield brought up some interesting documents. First of all was a list from 1960 giving the names and defining features of some of the colliery ponies. If you notice their short names, this was because if there was an emergency, it was quicker and easier to say a pony’s short name. Each pony would have had this name placed above their stable. I find this piece of information, no matter how small, wonderful as it gives them all an identity and personality that shines out of the past.
Whilst on the topic of personalities of ponies, I found an amusing letter written to a Mr Bishop, probably from one of the pony keepers, about a certain pony named Sam. From the letter we can guess he was a new pony arrived at the pit. Unfortunately not much detail is given as to Sam’s short time working there other than the last line indicates “he would be no good for pit work”. I would have loved to have known more about what exactly this meant, but perhaps it just meant he was too naughty. Whatever the circumstances, you can easily imagine the pony’s temperament from this statement.
Letter to Mr Bishop detailing the removal of Sam the pony from Ireland Colliery, 24 Nov 1947, N42/1/26/7
Generally ponies were no longer needed by the 1960s due to the increased mechanisation of the coal mining process, but some did last longer than that, particularly in Wales. What didn’t change is how much miners were attached to their ponies. Many would bring treats, knowing that the job was just as dangerous for the ponies as it was for them. It’s estimated that up to a horse a fortnight was killed, often by being crushed by the tubs. When accidents like this occurred, men often risked their lives to try and save ponies, in return for the many times ponies refused to move when they sensed danger, often saving many men by doing so. It is with these small memories that pit ponies are remembered, especially during times of trouble.
Kirkup, M., Pit Ponies (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Summerhill Books, 2008)
Slaney, L., ‘Pit Ponies’, Reflections, Feb 1999, pp. 9-11.
Winter, J, 4 Oral Histories: Cyril ‘Sonny White’ (c. 1996)
Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners.