Tech talk: Coal mining - the transition to pit ponies

One of the problems that has consistently plagued underground coal mining lies in the height of the coal seam that is being mined. This was the portal (i.e. entrance) to a coal mine that we once ran a research project in, near Summersville, W Va.

Dr. Rupert and I in May 1975 at the portal of a W Va mine. (Note the kneepads).

The mine was extracting only the coal, and you can see that the entry height comes to just below our shoulder blades, which made walking into the mine (about half-a-mile or more) very tiring, since you have to walk in quite bent over. As a result, the machines that work in these low conditions, have the operators lying almost recumbent as they steer and operate them. Back in earlier times, however, before there was much machinery underground, conditions were much different. And so today I thought I would talk a little more about those early conditions and how changes began to evolve.

I’m motivated a bit in this by finding (on a market stall in Lancaster) an illustrated autobiography by James Dunn called “From Coal Mine Upwards,” that was written in 1910 by a 70-year old who began his life in a mine. As the prologue noted (abbreviated):

Over sixty years ago in a small village on the border of the Leicestershire coalfields a company of men met to discuss what was to be done with a poor lad eight years old. The richest farmer in the neighborhood said” “I should like to ask two questions before you decide. The first is, how much learning does it want to drive the plough?” and “How much learning does it need for a lad to work in the coal-pit?” The answer was very little, and to the coal pit at eight years of age I was sent to work. It was in those dismal mines, four hundred yards deep and about a mile underground from the bottom of the shaft, that I commenced to earn my daily bread.”

He was fitted with a flannel shirt, wide trousers, a cap, a smock-frock, and heavy nailed boots. He walked the two miles to the mine to be there at 6 am and he earned tenpence a day, except that the mine rarely worked more than half days, so that he made around 30 pence (when 240 pence made a pound which was worth about $4 at the time I believe) a week. After a ten to twelve hour day underground he then had to walk home.

He was lowered into the mine on a chain fitted with loops, and then walked to the working face, having been given a candle to light the way. His job was to haul at the front of a tub, so that he took off all, but his trousers, socks and boots and his flannel cap.

The man I had to work with showed me how to place a leathern belt around my loins, with a light chain attached about a yard long, which was hooked to the front of the small wagon of coal thus pulling from the front while the man pushed behind.

From James Dunn “From Coal Mine Upwards”, W. Green London, 1910. 227 pages

The mine was worked by subletting different jobs, thus a miner would work in measures of a “stint” which was two yards wide, by a yard deep to mine the coal. He loaded the tub from the face of a tunnel that he was driving into the coal, and then swopped out a full and an empty tub to continue.

Loading the coal. A sculpture in the archive at Missouri S&T

The initial rails were wooden, and the tubs were turned on steel plates at the end of the tunnel (the “flat”). Once the tubs were started back to the mine shaft, they passed through a series of folk:

this process was worked in what they called “stages”, or lengths, a man having one stage, and then two boys the next, then another miner, and then two boys, and this was continued throughout the whole length. Now it will be seen that every pair of boys were running between two men – one at each end of their stage, and the great concern of the boys was to meet the man at either end, so as not to keep them waiting. . . .(if late) The man at the other end would be waiting with his empty truck (tub) and the probability was that the boys would be beaten with his strap.

The men were paid by the ton delivered to the shaft top (a token in the tub marked who had loaded it) but the boys were paid by the day, and thus not nearly as well rewarded.

Rails were the first major improvement, transitioning from just dragging the corves on one’s back, which had been the earlier method. But the tubs had still to be moved manually. It was pictures such as this, that had led to the legislation that got women and young children out of the mines in 1842.

Woman hauling a corf, Royal Commission Report, UK, 1842.

Hauling the flat (on which a corf or two would be mounted. Note the chain) MO S&T archive

They were replaced, in large part by ponies, but there was an immediate consequence. It had been possible to use people to drag tubs along in low coal, but that doesn’t work with ponies. (And in some seams they still remained impractical).

Putting in a 2 ft 10 inch coal seam, 1929 (A Bevin Boy Remembers, Ted Holloway, Henge Publications, 1993)

The tubs were also of wood at this time, since it allowed the front planks to be removed to fill the tub, where the roof was too low to easily fill it over the walls. But the ponies had to have more height, and so the height of the roadways had to be increased (which also made it easier to walk down them). This was done by blasting a small amount of rock from the roof of the tunnel, giving the extra height. As James Dunn noted “My lot was never as hard again.”

From "The Miners," Anthony Burton, Andre Deutsch Ltd 1976

The ponies had the advantage that they could pull more than one tub at once, and with the restriction on height gone, they were more frequently made of metal. You may notice the lad riding on “the limmers.” That was, strictly speaking, forbidden, though I think we all did it.

As mines became more productive, so the ponies could not keep up with the number of tubs that had to be hauled down the access roads, and they were, in turn, replaced by long “endless” ropes of wire, to which we attached the tubs, and which then hauled them from around the face area down the mile or more to the shaft, where they were disconnected, loaded onto the skip and hauled to the surface. But I’ll talk about the first steps in mechanization next time.

One more example of how the rich of the human species prey on the poor. Time and time again we see how wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few because they are willing to abuse those who have limited options.

I'm fairly certain the owner(s) of the mine the boy worked in never spent time in the mine nor did they spend time talking with the boy or visiting his home. His plight was of no interest to them. They were too busy making money with their "brains" and trying to find ways to maintain or improve their status amongst their peers.

If the obscene family fortune created on the back of that boy and countless others like him who worked in that mine still exists today, I hope they choke on it.

But, the other side of my brain found the article interesting and I look forward to learning more about the history of coal mining.

One more example of how the rich of the human species prey on the poor. Time and time again we see how wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few because they are willing to abuse those who have limited options.

For many, its referred to as a "job", and in my experience doesn't have the socio/eco/caste system implications you appear to be assigning to it.

Thankyou Heading Out for providing such a description of how hard it was to get concentrated energy sources in the past. The pictures really sank the idea home for me.

ReserveGrowth: Perhaps in a fair world people who worked "jobs" requiring them to crawl in a coal shaft dragging a cart behind them would be recompensed with a wage sufficient to get them some of the nicest housing and food available. While the people who sit in the coal mine's office and do accounting would be paid somewhat less, as their work is less onerous. There's nothing wrong with having to do a hard day's work, like you say, but there is something unjust in doing a hard day's work then walking home to a miserly meal and a cold uncomfortable bed and I can't imagine that that boy had anything different on 30 pence a week. I tend to agree with PriorityX's analysis that wealthy people's riches usually come off the back of poor people's work.

I bet that creating a rational and effective response to peak oil and climate change would be easier than getting a widespread fair sharing of work and pay.

ReserveGrowth: Perhaps in a fair world people who worked "jobs" requiring them to crawl in a coal shaft dragging a cart behind them would be recompensed with a wage sufficient to get them some of the nicest housing and food available. While the people who sit in the coal mine's office and do accounting would be paid somewhat less, as their work is less onerous.

It is not a fair world. It never has been. If only one person out of 20 can do sums, and all 20 can do coal-cart pulling from the coal mine, the scarcity, and by extension value, does not reside with the strong backs.

Oh, give us a break. So the "brainpower" of these 18th and 19th century sociopaths-- er, Captains of Industry were how they made their fortunes, eh? Just like today, where the CEO of Goldman Sachs gets 1700x pay of an average worker bee, 'cause he's so smart, and is 1700x as "productive" as everyone else (not to mention also doing "God's work"). It has nothing to do with bribery, corruption, regulatory capture, high level political connections, or (in some cases) outright economic blackmail of taxpayers, eh? Looks like pony droppings aren't the only horsesh*t in this thread.

The richest members of the U.S. (and just about every other nation) tend to be the most greedy, amoral, corrupt and heartless bastards on the planet. And unfortunately history teaches us that it has always been this way. Some of these rich bastards are brilliant --I'll give you that much. Brilliantly EVIL.

Can't be generalized (even a "tend to be ..." doesn't justify).

Reality is complex and we form our "world view" of reality over a long period of time. the world view defines your actions. A certain very smart person might have formed a world view, through intellectual probing, that they descended from apes. A certain other very smart person might have formed a world view based on his own success - maybe he/she wrote an excellent piece of software that made him/her rich overnight and made him/her see his/her impact everywhere.

A few noteable exceptions aside (Edison, Jobs) very few of the people sitting atop the economic pyramid today are scientists, engineers or innovators (except in their own minds perhaps). Hell, even Jobs got where he is as much by clever marketing and screwing other people as by inventing anything. By and large, they are the cunning sociopaths who have managed to steal technology and ideas from other much more talented people, then bribe politicians and rig the legal system to keep it so.

Agreed, certainly co-incides with my experience. And in case you hero-worship Edison, he was among the worst. This is from Thomas Edison -

By all accounts, Thomas Edison was a wierd and often very unpleasant and egomaniacal individual.

He was also among the first to hire, and frankly exploit, intellectual workers and used their talents to create "his" inventions. Edison would come up with an idea and then turn his lab full of creative inventors on the idea, which when perfected he would then claim solely as his own. Edison was one of the first corporate IP exploiters to force his employees to sign away any rights to their participation or contributions to successful marketing of their own inventions.

One example of this was his treatment of the much more educated and talented Nikola Tesla, who outshone Edison in his own lab.

The lack of fairness in the world is why we unionized, and works both ways. In the absence of any kind of government regulation, collective violence becomes the means with which to obtain better wages and working conditions. Unfortunately, a lot of supervisors and foremen who didn't make the rules, only played by them, wound up dead.

But, then, it's not a fair world.

In the words of Richard Mellon: you can't mine coal without machine guns.

Brings back a few memories. We had about 20 in our pit in the late 50s. One of my first jobs was pony driving. Queenie was my pony, used to bring her a treat every day a carrot some grass from the side of the road a potato or maybe a nice apple. delightful animal. The only thing wrong with her she could count. Had a job taking supplies up the tail gate, had 12 tub to bring in over a mile, she would only pull 3 so it was 4 trips. I don't know how many times I have tried it with 4 and pushed like hell on the last tub so that she didn't hear the clink of the coupling, she always did and would stop dead until I had uncoupled the last tub. The ostler was nearly 70 the pit had kept him on as they were phasing out the ponies. What he didn't know about pit ponies was not worth knowing Showed me how to pack a dead pony into a tub when one got run over by a runaway tub, quiet an art never had cause to use the knowledge since. I was a raw 15 year old once asked him why in the Mines and Quarries act there was more devoted to the welfare of the ponies than there was too the welfare of the men. "They own the ponies Lad they only rent us" was his curt reply. I'll never forget his comment when we finally brought the last of the ponies out of the pit. " Well lad that the last of the ponies, now all that is left are the Asses". He never worked a day after that, took his cat with him that had been a permanent fixture in the stables, to keep down the mice and rats.

Thanks for adding a little flesh on HO's fine post. The late 1950's was really not so very long ago.

For many, its referred to as a "job", and in my experience doesn't have the socio/eco/caste system implications you appear to be assigning to it.

I do hope you are enjoying your brief visit to this planet. ;)

oops, duplicate.


For many, its referred to as a "job", and in my experience doesn't have the socio/eco/caste system implications you appear to be assigning to it.

Yes, it's a "job", and people make their own choices - but they don't make them in circumstances of their own choosing. Children wouldn't have had to work down the pit if their parents were bringing in enough to feed them. The labour of farm & factory workers in Britain built the fortunes of both "gentleman farmers" and the captains of industry. A few got filthy rich while the rest struggled to get by. So, while the 8 year old boys might have been better off with a job down pit than without one, it was their parents' poverty which put them in the situation where that was the case.

Sadly, Priority, at the end of most of the economic chains of our Western consumption there will be someone like the pit boy. We are no less culpable than the Victorian mine owners.

that's one job I'm glad I don't have.

I once visited Big Pit in the South Wales coalfield: Once a working coal mine, now kept open as a museum where you can go underground and experience a little taste of life as a miner.

Pre mechanization coal miner= Possibly the world's worst job.

Saddest of all were the underground stalls for the pit ponies, who once underground usually never saw the sun again. Well worth a visit for any UK based folk.

I have to tell you, since I started my work underground leading a pit pony, that it wasn't really that bad. There was a lot of pride in the work, which was very physically demanding in many cases. The pit ponies "came to bank" when the pit had its holidays - so they got two weeks in the fields, and after a certain age were retired back to those pastures.

It's what you are used to, though when the pit that I was first at started to close the miners were surprised that they could find work on the surface that paid nearly as much, but didn't require they go underground. (Though the shifts were longer).

Some of my family were coal miners in West Virginia in the old days but I never knew any of them personally.

Family lore has it that the mines were so bad that they were glad to take up other brutally hard and dangerous trades, such as logging with axes and mules,or sharecropping, when the opportunity arose.

I have nothing but sympathy for the desperate plight of people trapped in such circumstances,and nothing but contempt for self righteous wealthy people who get that way thru taking unfair advantage of thier employees.

I have had a bit of experience in this respect from both sides, having found myself working a couple of times -fortunately for only as very short period of time-for such employers,and having been the employer of migrant farm labor.

The employer may be making out like a bandit, if he has no competition;but if he does, more than likely,he is not making very much at all , per employee.There is a furniture factory in the nieghbor hood, and the owner has either bragged or admitted that(take your choice) that in a good year he clears a couple of million dollars.But he has a heck of a lot of money tied up that could be invested in other businesses, and he runs the furniture manufacturing operation personally.The average employee makes very little, about ten dollars per hour base with some seniority, but he gets a big health insurance subsidy,wsorkers comp, the employeers social security matching contribution, vacation,holidays,and a very modest pension if he sticks around.My guess is that the total average compensation package per hour is around fourteen to fifteen dollars.

Conditions are such in the furniture business that even when the company was having a good year,a two dollar an hour raise across the board would have put the company in the red, because there are five hundred employees.

Nearly all the farmers in my nieghborhood have gradually gone broke paying the prevailing wage for migrant labor, or scaled thier operations back , as we have , to the extent necessary to avoid hiring seasonal help.I hope our former helpers are doing ok;they did not look upon US as predators, but as the people who enabled them to take home enough otherwise unobtainable money to brighten the lives of thier wives and children.

(And yes, I do realize that in some parts of the country the farmers are big enough, and powerful enough, and few enough, and that the labrers are plentiful enough, that the laborer's plight is little better than that of a slave.)

I once shut up an entire class of thoroughly indignant know it all students, of which I was a member,after a young lady gave an impassioned, and quite accurate, account of the plight of children working in match factories during the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Being the only ag major in the class, when I got the floor, and asked what alternative arrangements the childrens parents could have made for thier sons and daughters, no one had an answer.Basically the only alternatives were two;the match factory and a long drawn out miserable early death from overwork, poor food, and chemical poisoning,or a much faster serf/peasantchilds death , from over work, poor food,and starvation,if thier miserable crops crops failed.

The crops failed frequently of course.

This bitter reality does not excuse the behavior of employers(past or present) who could have made significant improvements in the lives of thier employees and still have turned a profit.

Things are seldom as simple, or as black and white, as they seem at first glance.

I am old enough to have heard the personal testimony of people who lived thru the early days of the industrialization of the American South, which did not take place until the twenties and thirties in this ares.

They considered a ten hour day slaving over a machine in miserable conditions, under the supervision of men who might have given slave overseers a good name, for twenty dollars a week, with no benefits at all.....a golden opportunity.My uncle Scheafer commuted on foot, a round trip of twenty to twenty two miles, making his day a fourteen hour day.

My maternal grandfather worked Scheafers orchard and crops for him for his take home pay, as needed on a day by day basis, the same fourteen hours;this arrangement allowed both of them to earn a few dollars of actual cash at a time when crops were selling at a loss.

My hat is off for Heading Out;he is one of only a handful of people I would go out of my way to meet and shake his hand should the oppoprtunity ever arise.

I have nothing but sympathy for the desperate plight of people trapped in such circumstances,and nothing but contempt for self righteous wealthy people who get that way thru taking unfair advantage of thier employees.

Watch out OFM! Saying stuff like that could get you branded a bleeding-heart Liberal Socialist by Reservegrowthrulz2. Those 8-year-old miners should have been *grateful* for the wonderful "opportunities" affored them by those nice rich people. Why, they should have felt lucky to be working underground in dangerous conditions 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week for these Mighty Captains of Industry. at least until the inevitable coal dust explosion, mine collapse or Black Lung ended their short lives, that is. Oh well, it was a small price to pay for keeping these clearly Superior Intellects well provisioned in the grand style to which the were accustomed.

It IS enough to make a grown man cry to simply think about such a thing as a little kid being treated worse than a draft animal.

Unfortunately the world is and will ever be a Darwinian place.

Anyone thinking about this sort of thing really hasn't thought it all the way thru until he realizes that such a kids Momma or Daddy almost certainly did THE BEST THEY COULD by thier child.

Perspective is everything, if you want to truly understand life.Keep in mind Heading Out's comment that his own childhood work in the mines did not seem overly onerous to him; I will wager(rhetorically speaking) that some of his grandchildren consider themselves grieviously wronged if Momma insists that they help carry in groceries from the car or make thier own bed.

The kid in the mine, if he lived long enough to come to some understanding of his fate,almost certainly did consider himself lucky to be working in a mine, as he probably personally knew of other kids who literally starved or froze to death.

Now somebody will certainly label me a racist and a nazi for pointing this out,but the people who owned slaves in the American South certainly had a valid point when they claimed they took better care of thier slaves than rich European mine and factory owners of thier own day took of thier employees.( American factory and mine owners were mostly forced by a scarcity of starving laborers to pay somewhat better wages and treat thier employees somewhat better;a man could "go west" in America if pushed to it by circumstances, or hire himself out on shares as a farmer, and thus better himself-relatively speaking of course.

A reasonably well fed and housed slave could do a lot more work than one weak and sick from harsh treatment;and if he could not be usefully employed by his owner, well-he was worth a LOT of money to some other potential owner- but only so long as he was in good health of course.

Kids out of the slums were cheaper to hire than slaves were to own-it was only necessary to pay them just barely enough to stay alive-for a while. A slave with a broken arm was worth his food until he was able to work again;not so the miner.

Reality sucks, no doubt about it.

Another thing about reality is that it is never simple, never black and white.

No, the human species sucks, not reality.

Our instinct is to take advantage of anyone weaker than we are, and to ravage the resources of the planet. Some of us are fortunate enough to have an upbringing or learning opportunity which overcomes this instinct. Still, that leaves far too many humans who have no problem "justifying" their actions.

I challenge anyone to use the history of the human species to prove we deserve to continue to exist. What have we done that offsets the damage we have done to each other and the environment since the start of recorded history?

Humans, like animals, are born with instincts. Instincts that take thousands of years to evolve. We don't have thousands of years to reach a point where we instinctively understand that no human is more valuable than another and we have to care more about the other person than ourselves when working and interacting with each other.

Well we are the first species here to even contemplate whether or not our species deserves to continue. I do very much doubt the dinosaurs ever could have thought they would be the fast living birds that so enliven the wood with song as they tear about the business of living with everything they have. Pull your head out your ass and try to get some benefit out of the time you are here. No one has a clue whether we will be a full out dead end or sprout some shoot that will carry on in a totally unforeseen manner. Possibly the ability to comtemplate such things is not something that will find itself naturaly selected but regardless how that plays out, spending a lifetime moaning 'woe it is that we have ever happened' is a most futile mode of existence.

Just to bring this all back to specifics, the particular 'kid in the mine' HO was quoting wrote that autobiography at the age of 70. A Darwinian world indeed.

I believe yorkshire miner's point

I was a raw 15 year old once asked him why in the Mines and Quarries act there was more devoted to the welfare of the ponies than there was too the welfare of the men. "They own the ponies Lad they only rent us" was his curt reply.

lines up pretty close with your slave/miner comparison

Gotta say, that's as carefully worded a critique as I've ever seen.

I really enjoyed the story on transition to pit ponies.The sad truths are that in this day and age certain organizations would never stand for ponies working in that capacity. I say this as someone who works in a small underground anthracite coalmine in eastern pennsylvania.Though we may have the benefit of pneumatic driven drills to drill for our explosives, it is still a man who must push it.We know all to well what a #6 shovel is and how to use it.As for the issue of transporting the coal to the slope for it's ride to the surface our gangway buggies are still powered by men,You learn very quickly, it pays to keep your wheels well oiled.

Interesting reading from folks such as Yorkshire Miner, Old Farmer Mac and others. I remember a BBC radio 4 programme from 2008 on the salt mining in Central UK (Cheshire I think). Access was via a bucket lowered down a narrow vertical shaft. Ponies were brought in as foals and then spent their whole lives underground - as when fully grown they were too large to make the journey back to the surface.

Thanks a lot for this post, very informative, and when you learn from Yorshire miner that ponies were still used in the fifties, it gives yet another hint or perspective on the true explosion we have been riding with cheap energy ...

The last Pit Ponies in Wales only finished a decade ago . Private small scale mining could go back to this source of power but I suspect not until we are desperate.

If you want to go down a mine preserved as a museum then Big Pit, Blaenafon in Gwent is a great day out, Pit pony stalls, black smiths and coal faces, and it is still FREE. Public spending cuts coming so take your chance.

The other interesting part of the story that has not been mentioned in the comments section is that women as well as children were banned from working. How were they supposed to servive? Well they all had husbands to support them didn't they? The Taliban's ideas are not new. The idea that women should be financially independent seems to bring out the worst in the best of people. Same with children. Working is better than starving.