The Bolsover Spitfires: 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain

You may think that crowdfunding is a relatively new thing but actually it isn’t. During both the World Wars, war bonds, or the National Savings Movement as it was known during the Second World War, were often used to raise money by advertising directly to the public. However, Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, came up with a new public funding campaign to help build spitfires to defend the nation. This is part of the reason why the Spitfire still remains at the heart of the nation and our collective memory of World War Two.

Bolsover Colliery answered this call eagerly. The men who worked there and their families in the surrounding community managed to raise enough money to supply the RAF with not one, but two Spitfires! Yet at Chesterfield, the town were unable to raise enough money for one of the aircraft. The miners were able to raise so much money as they promised to give a penny for every 10 shillings they earned to another local fundraiser, Mrs Shepley of Holmesfield, as well as donating to their own Spitfire fund. The Spitfire built with the money raised from Holmesfield was named Shepley to honour the men who had died from that family.

Both of the Spitfires built from the Bolsover mining communities fundraising efforts were first flown in March 1940 and both were fitted with Rolls Royce engines manufactured in Derby. So in many ways, these planes felt very local, even though they were to fly over the Channel and fight over to the continent. The amount raised for each plane was £5,700, or £224,274 in today’s money. No one could accuse these miners of not being generous!

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Photograph of Spitfire given by the Bolsover Colliery Company, D4774/13/12

The miners at Bolsover were not the only miners who appeared to be good at fundraising. Miners in Durham also managed to raise enough money for two Spitfires. The estimated amount of money raised by the public across Britain and the Commonwealth for Spitfires by August 1940 was £3,050,000. From that figure it is clear to see just how much Bolsover had raised. The final total was round £13 million given by around 1400 funds to build 2,600 Spitfires. Most of these fought during the Battle of Britain.

So what actually happened to the Spitfires Bolsover Colliery paid to build? Only one of the planes survived the war. One of them was shot down by the Luftwaffe near Dungeness in September 1941, sadly killing its pilot. The surviving one had had two accidents during its time in service. One of these involved hitting overhead cables, another where it was tipped on its nose whilst taxiing. Unfortunately, it is not known what happened to this aircraft following it’s removal from service in 1947.

Bibliography:

‘Bolsover Colliery of the Bolsover Colliery Company’, http://www.oldminer.co.uk/bolsover.html

Bridgewater, A. N., North Derbyshire Collieries (2009) https://www.aditnow.co.uk/documents/Doe-Lea-Coal-Mine/North20Derbyshire20Collieries20Small20Update.pdf

Ferguson, N., The Battle of Britain: A Miscellany (Chichester: Summerdale Publishers, 2015)

Letter from the Royal Air Force Staff College to the manager at Bolsover Colliery detailing the Spitfires paid for by the colliery in the Second World War, November 1987, N42/1/5/10

Tebbs, A., Stories from Carr Vale and New Bolsover, Commissioned by Bolsover District Council (2014)

Watson, G., ‘Spitfire Fund: The ‘whip-round’ that won the war?’, BBC News, 12 March 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35697546

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Coal mining records

A guide to records of the Derbyshire coal mining industry (written March 1993, updated June 2020).

Development of coal mining in Derbyshire

There has been coal mining in Derbyshire since the medieval period.  Mining initially took place along the eastern edge of the county, around Dronfield, Chesterfield, Alfreton, Ripley and Heanor, where the coal seams occur close to the surface.  Production was not large, as charcoal was widely available as a source of domestic fuel, and the extent of coal mining operations depended on the interest of the private landlords under whose estates the seams lay. 

The demand for Derbyshire coal increased from the 18th century.  Local lead was now being smelted using coal fired hearths, whilst the construction of the Derbyshire canal network and subsequently the rail network, meant that both lead and coal could be distributed to wider markets far more cheaply than had hitherto been possible.  The incentive of profit attracted entrepreneurs into the coal industry and led to the formation and growth of large colliery companies.  In 1790, the partnership of Benjamin Outram, Francis Beresford, John Wright and William Jessop bought the freehold of the Butterley Hall estate (see comment below), from which they shortly took the name The Butterley Company, and began mining for coal and iron-ore.  See D503 for the large archive collection for the firm.

Coal Mining Archive Collections

Derbyshire Record Office holds a number of private family and estate collections relating to to coal mining on private lands:

  • D1881 Coke of Brookhill
  • D76 and D187 Hallowes of Glapwell
  • D2535, D126 and D513 Hurt of Alderwasley
  • D517 Miller Mundy of Shipley
  • D2536 Oakes of Riddings
  • D1763 Palmer-Morewood of Alfreton Hall
  • D255 Ray of Heanor Hall
  • D505 Rodes of Barlborough
  • D1000 Sitwell of Renishaw
  • D551 Strelley of Denby Old Hall

In some cases  these landlords worked the coal themselves, as part of their estate, in other cases they leased the right to work the ground in return for mineral rents.

The main coal mining archive held at the record office was received from the National Coal Board (NCB) in various consignments.  The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 transferred the ownership of all coal mines from the private colliery companies to the State.  The NCB records are public records, and whilst they do contain some post-1946 material, the bulk of the archive is made up of pre-vesting material inherited by the NCB from 80 collieries and colliery companies, including 1,400 plans and hundreds of photographs.  The records of each colliery and each company have not been kept together but were split up by the NCB and much material has been lost. Over 2020 and 2021 we are cataloguing and conserving this collection as part of the Wellcome Trust funded project Mining the Seams, in partnership with Warwickshire County Record Office, who are also cataloguing their coal mining records.

Between 2016 and 2017, the large archive of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Derbyshire Area was also catalogued with funding from the Wellcome Trust.  As part of the project, it is now possible to search and download our anonymised data about coal miners’ occupational ill health and accidents in Derbyshire on the Miners’ Health and Welfare Project website.

A list of archive collections for coal mining companies can be found via the online catalogue, as can a partial list of Local Studies items relating to coal mining.

Coal Mining Records

Title deeds: large number of title deeds have survived both in the family collections and amongst the records of the NCB.  The purpose of the title deed is to show proof of ownership of the mine.  In many cases there may be a whole series of  title deeds for the same plot of land, tracing its ownership back to the Middle Ages.  In such cases it is unlikely that the early deeds will even mention coal.  Many colliery companies leased the right to work the local seams from the owner of the land and lease documents are likely to survive.

Other family and estate records: if the family worked the mines on its own estates then there may be accounts relating to the amount of coal produced and the costs incurred.  If however, the family leased the mines to a private company there may be accounts relating to the amount of mineral rent received.

Company records: by the late 19th and early 20th century colliery companies were producing a huge amount and variety of records, as the industry became the subject of increasing regulation.  The researcher may find sales ledgers, letter books, production figures, minute books, managers reports, equipment inventories, and even the occasional register of pit ponies.  For those attempting to trace an individual miner there are a limited number of staff registers, signing-on books, accident report books and pay records for several Derbyshire companies.

Price lists and Wage agreements: the early 20th century saw disputes over miners’ pay claims which culminated in the strike of 1926.  The NCB archive (formerly reference N3) contains much contemporary material relating to this issue, including a large number of price lists and wage agreements.  The price list is a printed list, published by the colliery company, detailing the amount the company is prepared to pay the miner for different types of work on a particular seam.  The prices paid are normally per ton of coal produced, or per yard mined, and will vary from seam to seam.

Maps and Plans: particularly of underground workings.  These can be difficult to use, especially when they do not show many (or even any) surface working to which the underground tunnels can be related. 

The Monocled Mutineer’s early career at Blackwell Colliery

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Percy Toplis, I thought it appropriate to look into the connections he had to the local mining industry. Toplis, better known as the Monocled Mutineer, is a bit of a local celebrity for being an imposter, claiming to be an army officer, being mutineer, deserter and a criminal. With that fairly long list of wrongdoings, it is clear that Toplis was a ‘wrong ‘un’, as we’d say in Derbyshire. It is not known how real the character created by the media at the time, who viewed him as Britain’s most wanted man at the time, actually was. It is clear that he was a troubled soul from an early age.

Having been born to poor parents in Chesterfield who couldn’t afford to keep him, he was passed around family between the Mansfield and Alfreton/South Normanton area. The main guardians for him were his grandparents, who lived in South Normanton. It was here that he went to school and was known to get into trouble often for bullying other children. They cared for him until his first criminal conviction in 1908 for obtaining two suits under false pretences. It was then that his grandparents admitted that they didn’t know what to do with the boy. He was passed on to his Aunt Annie Webster, who lived in Colliery Row, Blackwell.

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Photograph of Percy Toplis

His connections with Blackwell Colliery started when he left the school at South Normanton he’d been attending until he reached the age of 13. He then took up a blacksmith’s apprenticeship at Blackwell Colliery. An apprentice to a blacksmith was expected to learn the job for around four or five years until they were deemed qualified. Their job was an important one in the daily running of a colliery. They would help to create and maintain tools, mend machinery and shoe the pit ponies. However, the thoughts of a steady job appeared too much responsibility for Toplis and he didn’t enjoy the work at all. He seldom attended and was eventually caught skipping his night shift, in favour of spending a night in the pub at the Blackwell Arms. For this he was sacked and Toplis decided to become a wander, mainly in Scotland, and partaking in petty crime.

What happened to him following the outbreak of the First World War is widely known, so this post won’t go into the mutiny he was supposedly a part of or his various attempts of defrauding soldiers’ salaries or disguising himself as an officer, although I would recommend researching into that if you wish. Instead, I have tried to look at how Percy Toplis didn’t wish to conform to the Derbyshire tradition of working at a colliery, despite living in a time when it would have probably been expected of a boy growing up around many pits in the area around Alfreton, Blackwell and South Normanton. During Toplis’ lifetime, these places were built on the unity and pride that colliery working provided within a community built around this industry. Instead Toplis became famed for not conforming to any of society expectations, instead walking his own line at every given opportunity, no matter how wrong this was.

percy toplis

Headline from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 09 June 1920

As we mark the anniversary of his death today, during a police shootout in Cumbria, after being recognised by a local constable, perhaps it is best to remember the charity given to him following his death. The Penrith Board of Guardians organised his burial in Christian ground at the Beacon Cemetery. There was opposition to this because of his many crimes but the Rev R H Law, Vicar of Christ Church, insisted upon a Christian burial, reminding others that Percy Toplis had been “violently removed from this life before he could be judged on earth.”

Bibliography:

‘How he deluded hotel guests’, Dundee Courier, 8th June 1920

Eden District Council, Percy Toplis, https://www.eden.gov.uk/leisure-culture-and-events/penrith-and-eden-museum/museum-collections/percy-toplis/

Emery, J., ‘Belonging, Memory and History in the North Nottinghamshire Coalfield’, Journal of Historical Geography, 59 (2018), pp. 77-89.

National Mining Museum, Skilled Colliery Craftsman, https://nationalminingmuseum.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/FF2-Craftsmen.pdf

Pixel Surgery, Percy Toplis Bothy, Tomintoul – The Enchanting Secret Behind the Monocled Mutineer, 17 March 2018, https://pixelsurgery.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/percy-toplis-bothy-tomintoul/

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Florence Nightingale’s Connection to Pleasley Colliery

I came across a rather unusual connection between the woman famous for nursing in the Crimean War and mining in Pleasley. At first it sounds like the two should be completely unconnected but it involves a little local legend and a connection to her father. What better time to share this story than in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale on the 12th of May 1820.

Pleasley Colliery between Chesterfield and Mansfield was once owned by the Stanton Coal & Iron Company. It opened as a small scale mine in 1872 after the mineral rights were leased from William Edward Nightingale, the father of Florence Nightingale. The Stanton Company decided to branch out into coal so that it could supply their ironworks, as well as competitors in the other local iron and steel businesses. It appeared that Pleasley was a good choice because of its location being close to Chesterfield and Mansfield, from which connections to Sheffield could also be easily made. This was helped by the wharf that was built onsite to sell commercial coal from.

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Village Scene with Pleasley Colliery in background from Maude Verney’s Pleasley watercolour sketch book [1919], D326/2/3/2

As Lord of the Manor in Pleasley, William Nightingale had the rights to any minerals found on the land but it was also his right to lease them. In remembrance of this, the first shaft to be sunk at the Colliery became known as Nightingale Pit. It was a fitting tribute despite the fact there is no evidence the Nightingales ever officially lived in Pleasley.

A local legend tells that Florence and her father dug the first hole, or sunk the first sod as it was then known, of what would develop into the Pleasley Colliery. How true this is just isn’t clear, but nonetheless, it certainly is a compelling story. Unfortunately, both William and his wife Francis often spent most of their time in Hampshire, rather than spending summers at their Derbyshire home at Lea Hurst, as they were both becoming increasingly unwell. It was Florence who nursed them in 1873, but the next year gave this role to her sister as she had to carry on running the school of nursing she’d established in London in 1860.

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Photograph of Florence Nightingale, D1575/BOX/36/81

Coal at Pleasley was first reached in 1875, three years after the mine was first opened. Whilst this would have been a time of celebration, it was somewhat short lived. Coal was reached despite problems of the shafts filling with water. To try and solve this problem, iron from the ironworking side of the Stanton Company was used to line the shafts. This was only a temporary fix and didn’t help when digging further underground. The water problems continued until 1877 when better iron equipment and a new pumping system were installed.

Following the death of William Edward Nightingale in 1874, the Pleasley estate was placed in the joint hands of Florence and her older sister Parthenope. This meant that the women, alongside Parthenope’s husband Sir Harry Verney, would inherit the mineral rights in Pleasley that were leased to the Stanton Company.

Pleasley Colliery stopped winding coal in 1973 and from then coal was sent underground to Shirebrook Colliery. It officially closed in 1983 but a shaft was left open to provide ventilation for Shirebrook. This shaft was totally abandoned in 1993. The buildings that remained standing after 1986 were then classed as Grade 2 listed. In 1996 the Friends of Pleasley Pit was formed to ensure the posterity of the site and it became a museum.

Bibliography:

‘Death of William Nightingale’, https://lifeandtimesofflorencenightingale.wordpress.com/biography/death-william-nightingale/

Bell, D., Memories of the Derbyshire Coalfields (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2006)

National Coal Board, Pleasley Colliery, 1873-1973 (1973)

Pleasley Parish Council, http://pleasleyparishcouncil.org.uk/page16.html

Pleasley Pit Trust, History, https://www.pleasleypittrust.org.uk/services

Weiss, M., Coal Mines Remembered 2 (2011)

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Clay Cross Treasures – one volunteer’s quest through the archives

It seems logical to have an introduction. I’m Phil, I’ve been volunteering now at the Record Office for 4 ½ years. Prior to this I had worked here for 2 ½ years and got very attached to the place! I couldn’t be got rid of that easily!

Over those 4 ½ years I have helped out by working mainly with first hand archive documents, which have ranged from First World War soldiers’ diaries, planning applications in Long Eaton, the Sheepbridge archive (which I have only half completed!) and the current ‘task’, which I seem to have been engaged on for many months… More of this in a minute. First some background…

I believe it was one of the archivists, who set me off on, what has for me, become something of an obsession! Becky first asked me whether I would be prepared to do it- it might take a while to complete! The task: sift through the Clay Cross Company’s archive (which up until then had not been catalogued) to seek out an original blueprint for Stephenson’s Rocket, supposedly buried somewhere in the archive!

What a challenge. I was asked to check all the boxes, ledgers, maps and plans looking for this piece of history’s legends. Becky provided a catalogue of all the places where I could locate the Clay Cross archive, and warned me that there were aspects of the collection that had simply ‘disappeared’. The recorded boxes were easy to locate in one of the main archival stores, the others (and there were lots of these) were somewhere in ‘Room Q’. Now Room Q is to be found in the basement of the new extension. It is the place where mould has a footing, dust has accumulated on archives that have arrived ‘raw’ in the record office- yet to be cleaned, and treasures lie undisturbed, awaiting discovery.

So, the search began. At first, I was merely skimming through the boxes and then returning them to the shelves. But that seemed to be wasting an opportunity, for such is the nature of life these days, it is uncertain when or if the archive might ever be catalogued. So, I asked would it be okay if I catalogued the contents of each of the boxes and identified where each part of the archive might be found?

I embarked on the journey of ‘discovery’ months ago- so many in fact, that I can’t remember exactly when I started. I have looked through all the archive, found the hiding places of much ‘lost’ material. I can say for certain that the Stephensons’ blueprint is not to be found in the Record Office. I still have a sizeable chunk of the archive to catalogue, but I have found so many treasures, so many connections to the Stephensons. It was George, that incredible man of vision, a true pioneer, who founded the Clay Cross Company all those years ago…

It has been an amazing experience and one which I have felt privileged to have been asked to do. I shall, in future blog posts, talk about some of these treasures. … One sad fact remains: the Clay Cross empire has gone, along with all of the physical signs of the collieries, blast furnaces, iron works, quarries… the legend lives on though- I hope, never to be forgotten…

Brickfall at Bondland shafts, Heage

Whilst going through some correspondence files for the Butterley Company, I came across reports for an accident. What was unusual about this accident was the amount of detail mentioned in the company’s correspondence. It gave detail from the time of the incident and included the consequences for those involved and their rescuers. The following is paraphrased from those documents found in N5/99/7.

William Ratcliffe was a brick contractor brought in to help with this work. He was first mentioned in a letter addressed to Mr Mitton, a manager at the Butterley Company’s Colliery Department, on the 20th of February, stating he was willing to continue his work helping to sink the three shafts. Within 4 days, he would unfortunately be caught up in a fatal accident.

On the 24th of February 1926, William Ratcliffe and Fred Warren were tasked with helping to brick the bottom of the Bond Land shaft. Both these men were day contractors and were not regular employees of the mine. However, they still suffered as a result of a brick fall. This shows that just how dangerous working in a mine was, regardless of who was working there.

At around 12:30 pm a loud crash of bricks, louder than the usual unloading from the hoppit (a tub lowered for bricks and debris). A man above shouted to ask if everything was alright and a response came to send someone down. Something was clearly wrong. Bernard Hurley and Benjamin Walters immediately volunteered for this. Once underground they saw the scaffold the men had been working from was tilted and a pile of bricks lay on one side. Warren was injured but standing and it soon became obvious that Ratcliffe was more seriously injured as he was crouching in pain. He had to be helped into the hoppit so that all 4 men could return to the surface. Hurley and Walters were slightly injured themselves by further bricks falling on their ascent to the surface. The brick fall continued until about 3:30pm and it was estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 bricks had fallen during that time.

Hurley and Walters were praised by the Inspector of Mines on their “prompt and plucky” rescue, which stopped a more serious situation from happening. Sadly, this was not enough to save William Ratcliffe from his injuries and he died in hospital 2 days later. He died from fractured ribs and other possible internal injuries. Fred Warren was lucky as he had head wounds but these were not of a serious nature and he survived.

Hurley and Walters were commended for their bravery that day. They went to a place of unknown danger in order to rescue their colleagues, even if they may not have known them well as they were day contractors. The Butterley Company were keen to recognise this from the start. How to do this was of some discussion. Did they deserve money or a clock or something similar for their efforts? It was certainly decided that a medal from the Mines Department would not be suitable as “many others would do exactly as “Hurley and Walters did”. The two men were eventually given a gold watch each for their efforts.

Bravery for Accident

Letter detailing the presentation ceremony for Bernard Hurley and Benjamin Walters, 8th Apr 1926, N5/99/7

The accident increased discussion about safety in the mine, especially when it came to securing the hoppit. The idea of using a double rather than single chain for this mechanism was discussed in a letter dated the 26th of March. This was done in hopes that it would help prevent further deaths like that of William Ratcliffe.

However, that was not the end of the story, certainly not for the families of those involved. An entry for a compensation arbitration court shows that William Ratcliffe’s daughter, Winifred, disapproved of the £65 she was offered for her father’s death. As he was an outside contractor, he was not entitled to as much as an ordinary worker. Still, £65, or around £1800 in today’s money, was not much for the loss of a life.

William Ratcliffe

Workmen’s compensation acts Record of agreements, arbitration cases and liability memoranda, 1899-1944, N5

Winifred, as seen in the arbitration description above was instead hoping to get £150 pounds in compensation, not the £65 that her brother’s were willing to accept. Unfortunately, she didn’t win the case and the £65 still stood. The saddest part is that by 1928, the shafts to this exploratory mine at Heage were deemed unworkable and they were filled in, making it feel that William Ratcliffe’s death was for an unworthy cause.

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My Personal Connection to Rhyl Miners’ Holiday Camp

I’ve known about Rhyl Miner’s Camp in North Wales for most of my life. A photograph of my mum aged about 4 with my grandma whilst on holiday there has been on our wall since forever. The picture must have been taken in around 1951 or 1952. Whilst the pair look happy and my mum cradles a cat, the sad part is that around a year after that seemingly happy holiday that my grandparents took my mum and uncle on, my grandma died from cancer. This of course was something my mum talks of with utter sadness that she never got to knew her own mum well enough.

However, when my parents and I decided we’d like to go to North Wales on our own holiday, not long after my mum’s brother was also given a terminal cancer diagnosis, we decided to try and find where the Miner’s Camp in Rhyl had once stood. Google didn’t provide much detail as not many people wanted to remember this long lost place that once allowed many mining families a chance for a seaside holiday. The Skegness Miner’s Camp seemed to be a more popular search term as well, so it became hard to figure out what had happened. That was until we came across a small post online detailing the new street names of the housing estate that now sits on top of the former Miner’s camp land and strangely enough, they all had a Derbyshire connection.

Upon arriving at Marsh Road, my mum instantly recognised some older buildings at the entrance to the Miner’s Camp. In fact, she remembered a lot more than she thought when standing in the place she hadn’t seen for over 60 years. The miniature railway close by was one of these things.

Rhyl Miners Camp

Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre Rhyl brochure [Mid 20th cent]. N42/6/7/1

Not much was remembered about the site, but from the brochure pictured below, it reminds me of similar caravan holiday camps we went to when I was younger! Lots of on-site entertainment and food in the canteen. At the time my mum stayed there it wouldn’t have been a large site as the Rhyl Holiday Camp had only been set up during the Second World War, compared with the one in Skegness, which had opened in the 1920s. Still, it provided many families with the opportunity to go on holiday to the seaside, my family included. In the holiday season of 1952, it was full. Perhaps this was the year my grandparents took my mum and uncle. This had been helped by the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, ensuring that workers were entitled to a certain amount of holidays with pay, ensuring that working classes could manage to get away from the dirt and grind of their jobs. It had to be accommodation suitable to their budget but was still comfortable to feel like a holiday. This meant that for mineworkers, the Miner’s Holiday Camps were the best solution.

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Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre Rhyl brochure [Mid 20th cent]. N42/6/7/1

Holiday camps were a wider part of the welfare offered to coal miners during this time. The National Coal Board had inherited a welfare system of providing housing, sport and leisure activities from the private coal companies who ran the miners prior to nationalisation. The type of activities usually differed in each area but the premise of creating a sense of community for the workers and their families remained the same whichever mine you worked for. This can be seen in a wage agreement booklet discussing the terms of the Derbyshire District Colliery Workers Holiday Savings Scheme, stipulating that all Derbyshire collieries, excluding the South Derbyshire area must abide by the same wage and holiday pay rules.

holiday pay

Wage agreement made between the colliery owners of the Derbyshire District and the Representatives of Workmen working at the collieries excluding South Derbyshire, Nov 1937. N3/B/66/2

Bibliography:

Barton, S., Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Hayes, N. and Hill, J. ‘Millions Like Us’?: British Culture in the Second World War (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999)

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Pit Ponies at Ireland Colliery

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!

Ireland Colliery Pit Ponies

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 of bad Sam

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.

Bibliography:

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)

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Welcome to the Mining the Seams Project

The Mining the Seams project is a 2 year collaborative project with Warwickshire County Record Office and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Our small team aim to shed more light on the National Coal Board collection we have, with particular focus on the medical and compensation aspects. In the future, this particularly means helping to catalogue this collection in more detail so it is more accessible to those interested in this type of industrial history.

Having graduated from the University of Derby’s MA Public History and Heritage course last November, I’m so far enjoying my time delving into a period of history I don’t usually cover. Still, this isn’t my first time here at the Derbyshire Record Office as I have been involved on and off since my internship on the Pop-Up Archives Project in 2017. It’s so great to be getting more involved in the nitty gritty of how an archives works. As someone who lives in Alfreton and has done all my life, I can’t ignore the town’s mining heritage and that some of my relations have been miners. For me this project is a way to understand what their way of life once was, particularly my maternal grandfather who I never knew but had always heard stories about him coming home black from the coal. My uncle who is now recently retired also played a role in the local Miners Strikes.

So far there isn’t much to write about other than a brief introduction to the project’s aims and introducing myself as a project archives assistant, so apologies for the very brief post! However, there will be more posts on interesting items and themes that come along, which will be posted at the beginning of every month. I do hope you can follow the project’s progress and that some of you may become volunteers when we start looking for them at the beginning of next year.

Coal and Dialect

For those of you interested in coal mining heritage, there’s a great new Coal and Dialect in the East Midlands website created by Natalie Braber and David Amos at Nottingham Trent University.

Coal and Dialect website

It includes lots of oral history snippets explaining the different terms used by miners.  So if you’d like to know what an overman or an onsetter did, or what snaking, spragging or scrufting are, then you can listen to a former miner explaining exactly what these words mean.  Do take a look!