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Working in a Durham Pit

Thomas Jordan, b 1892 (Durham). Worked in coal mining in Durham from 1906 to 1912 then enlisted in the army. Cited from Jordan’s unpublished autobiography in John Burnett, Useful Toil.

‘In 1906 my school days terminated. I had not been a very clever scholar … so I was doomed for the pits. My father when I was twelve took me one Sunday night into the pit, as he did often after that. He was a deputy overman [a supervisor] and I was company for him as he went to the coal-face … Going down in the pit cage my father told me that his father fired the furnace in there for ventilators and took him (my father) when he was seven for company…

These excursions into the pit, along with these grim galleries, awed me no end. The coal seam was about five feet high. There were railroads leading in to places where men hewed and filled the tubs coming along these rails. … My father had to go in to each of these places to test for gas and for safety of the roof. With only two of us in the district, and nearly three miles from the shaft bottom, I did not feel very good. Loud rumbles could be heard here and there in the roof. It seemed as if the stone and coal strata were about to break loose upon us … He always asked me how I liked the experience. Always I answered that I liked going in to the mine, which I did several times until I was fourteen years old. He was a fearless man and I did not wish to let him know that I was nervous or else he might have thought that I was ‘queer’.

January 1906 ushered in my parting way with schooling … I descended the mine to earn my living … The workaday activity of the coal mine was totally different from what I experienced with my father … Here now was pandemonium let loose. The empty tubs in sets of sixty hurtling their way down the steep incline and the full ones pushing their way up to the shaft bottoms; one had to jump quickly into holes to avoid being crushed to death by them.

There seemed to be wild excitement everywhere. Overmen shouting, cursing and hurrying everyone into greater effort so that the precious coal could get to the surface and meet the demand of its buyers. All was hustle and bustle, nowhere peace and quiet. The quest for the black diamond overruled sanity, order and grace. Yet men and boys did not go insane but rose above the terrible scene and became a peculiar breed of humans.

The roof of the pit where I hung the tubs on was in a deplorable condition with huge shives of stone ready to sliver down upon you… which gave me the jitters, fearing that the whole load of stone was about to fall on me.

With the passing of the years I became indifferent to the many dangers in the mine. When someone was killed I might become apprehensive for a day or two, then the incident was completely forgotten. This training was valuable to me during the First World War when men were yielding up their lives on a far larger scale.’ [1]

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[2] Extract from Thomas Jordan’s unpublished autobiography, cited in Burnett J. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1984. (102-104).


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