There is nothing mirth-provoking in going down a coal-mine—even though it be only a shallow incline running to one hundred and forty feet vertical below the earth ‘Get into the tub and lie down. Hang it, no! This is not a railway carriage: you can’t see the country out of the windows. Lie down in the dust and don’t lift your head. Let her go!’
The tubs strain on the wire rope and slide down fourteen hundred feet of incline, at first through a chastened gloom, and then through darkness. An absurd sentence from a trial report rings in the head ‘About this time prisoner expressed a desire for the consolations of religion.’ A hand with a reeking flare-lamp hangs over the edge of the tub, and there is a glimpse of a blackened hat near it, for those accustomed to the pits have a merry trick of going down sitting or crouching on the coupling of the rear tub. The noise is deafening, and the roof is very close indeed. The tubs bump, and the occupant crouches lovingly in the coal dust. What would happen if the train went off the line? The desire for the ‘consolations of religion’ grows keener and keener as the air grows closer and closer. The tubs stop in darkness spangled by the light of the flare-lamps which many black devils carry. Underneath and on both sides is the greasy blackness of the coal, and, above, a roof of grey sandstone, smooth as the flow of a river at evening. ‘Now, remember that if you don’t keep your hat on, you’ll get your head broken, because you will forget to stoop. If you hear any tubs coming up behind you step off to one side. There’s a tramway under your feet: be careful not to trip over it.’
The miner has a gait as peculiarly his own as Tommy’s measured pace or the bluejacket’s roll. Big men who slouch in the light of day become almost things of beauty underground. Their foot is on their native heather; and the slouch is a very necessary act of homage to the great earth, which if a man observe not, he shall without doubt have his hat—bless the man who invented pith hats!—grievously cut.
The road turns and winds and the roof becomes lower, but those accursed tubs still rattle by on the tramways. The roof throws back their noises, and when all the place is full of a grumbling and a growling, how under earth is one to know whence danger will turn up next? The air brings to the unacclimatised a singing in the ears, a hotness of the eyeballs, and a jumping of the heart. ‘That’s because the pressure here is different from the pressure up above. It’ll wear off in a minute. We don’t notice it. Wait till you get down a four-hundred-foot pit. Then your ears will begin to sing, if you like.’
Most people know the One Night of each hot weather—that still, clouded night just before the Rains break, when there seems to be no more breathable air under the bowl of the pitiless skies, and all the weight of the silent, dark house lies on the chest of the sleep-hunter. This is the feeling in a coal-mine—only more so—much more so, for the darkness is the ‘gross darkness of the inner sepulchre.’ It is hard to see which is the black coal and which the passage driven through it. From far away, down the side galleries, comes the regular beat of the pick—thick and muffled as the beat of the labouring heart. ‘Six men to a gang, and they aren’t allowed to work alone. They make six-foot drives through the coal—two and sometimes three men working together. The rest clear away the stuff and load it into the tubs. We have no props in this gallery because we have a roof as good as a ceiling. The coal lies under the sandstone here. It’s beautiful sandstone.’ It was beautiful sandstone—as hard as a billiard table and devoid of any nasty little bumps and jags.
There was a roaring down one road—the roaring of infernal fires. This is not a pleasant thing to hear in the dark. It is too suggestive. ‘That’s our ventilating shaft. Can’t you feel the air getting brisker? Come and look.’
Imagine a great iron-bound crate of burning coal, hanging over a gulf of darkness faintly showing the brickwork of the base of a chimney. ‘We’re at the bottom of the shaft. That fire makes a draught that sucks up the foul air from the bottom of the pit. There’s another downdraw shaft in another part of the mine where the clean air comes in. We aren’t going to set the mines on fire. There’s an earth and brick floor at the bottom of the pit the crate hangs over. It isn’t so deep as you think.’ Then a devil—a naked devil—came in with a pitchfork and fed the spouting flames. This was perfectly in keeping with the landscape.
More trucks, more muffled noises, more darkness made visible, and more devils—male and female—coming out of darkness and vanishing. Then a picture to be remembered. A great Hall of Eblis, twenty feet from inky-black floor to grey roof, upheld by huge pillars of shining coal, and filled with flitting and passing devils. On a shattered pillar near the roof stood a naked man, his flesh olive-coloured in the light of the lamps, hewing down a mass of coal that still clove to the roof. Behind him was the wall of darkness, and when the lamps shifted he disappeared like a ghost. The devils were shouting directions, and the man howled in reply, resting on his pick and wiping the sweat from his brow. When he smote the coal crushed and slid and rumbled from the darkness into the darkness, and the devils cried Shabash! The man stood erect like a bronze statue, he twisted and bent himself like a Japanese grotesque, and anon threw himself on his side after the manner of the dying gladiator. Then spoke the still small voice of fact: ‘A first-class workman if he would only stick to it. But as soon as he makes a little money he lies off and spends it.. That’s the last of a pillar that we’ve knocked out. See here. These pillars of coal are square, about thirty feet each way. As you can see, we make the pillar first by cutting out all the coal between. Then we drive two square tunnels, about seven feet wide, through and across the pillar, propping it with balks. There’s one fresh cut.’
Two tunnels crossing at right angles had been driven through a pillar which in its under-cut condition seemed like the rough draft of a statue for an elephant. ‘When the pillar stands only on four legs we chip away one leg at a time from a square to an hour-glass shape, and then either the whole of the pillar crashes down from the roof or else a quarter or a half. If the coal lies against the sandstone it carries away clear, but in some places it brings down stone and rubbish with it. The chipped-away legs of the pillars are called stooks.’
‘Who has to make the last cut that breaks a leg through?’
‘Oh! Englishmen, of course. We can’t trust natives for the job unless it’s very easy. The natives take kindly to the pillar-work though. They are paid just as much for their coal as though they had hewed it out of the solid. Of course we take very good care to see that the roof doesn’t come in on us. You would never understand how and why we prop our roofs with those piles of sleepers. Anyway, you can see that we cannot take out a whole line of pillars. We work ’em en échelon, and those big beams you see running from floor to roof are our indicators. They show when the roof is going to give. Oh! dear no, there’s no dramatic effect about it. No splash, you know. Our roofs give plenty of warning by cracking and then collapse slowly. The parts of the work that we have cleared out and allowed to fall in are called goafs. You’re on the edge of a goaf now. All that darkness there marks the limit of the mine. We have worked that out piece-meal, and the props are gone and the place is down. The roof of any pillar-working is tested every morning by tapping—pretty hard tapping.’
‘Hi yi! yi! ‘shout all the devils in chorus, and the Hall of Eblis is full of rolling sound. The olive man has brought down an avalanche of coal. ‘It is a sight to see the whole of one of the pillars come away. They make an awful noise. It would startle you out of your wits. But there’s not an atom of risk.’
(‘Not an atom of risk.’ Oh, genial and courteous host, when you turned up next day blacker than any sweep that ever swept, with a neat half-inch gash on your forehead—won by cutting a ‘stook’ and getting caught by a bounding coal-knob—how long and earnestly did you endeavour to show that ‘stook-cutting’ was an employment as harmless and unexciting as wool-samplering!)
‘Our ways are rather primitive, but they’re cheap, and safe as houses. Doms and Bauris, Kols and Beldars, don’t understand refinements in mining. They’d startle an English pit where there was fire-damp. Do you know it’s a solemn fact that if you drop a Davy lamp or snatch it quickly you can blow a whole English pit inside out with all the miners? Good for us that we don’t know what fire-damp is here. We can use flare-lamps.’
After the first feeling of awe and wonder is worn out, a mine becomes monotonous. There is only the humming, palpitating darkness, the rumble of the tubs, and the endless procession of galleries to arrest the attention. And one pit to the uninitiated is as like to another as two peas. Tell a miner this and he laughs—slowly and softly. To him the pits have each distinct personalities, and each must be dealt with differently.