I spent over an hour today 140 metres below ground. It was all the idea of my third cousin and fellow family history enthusiast, a day out at the National Coal Mining Museum on the A642 between Huddersfield and Wakefield.
Until the mid-1830s, our family were miners in nearby Flockton and we were hoping to find more information about why they should have left when they did, most across the Pennines to Cheshire and one branch to County Durham. We succeeded in that we found books that showed that the two Flockton seams were exhausted in 1833 and 1837.
But the personal stuff aside, it is well worth a visit and makes you realise just what a God-awfully dangerous job it was. If the fire damp or the cave-ins didn’t get you, then the pneumoconiosis would catch up with you in the end.
The ‘disasters’ bit of the museum really drives it home. I can’t remember which year it was, the 1920s I think, but there were four deaths a day (a day!) in the mines and over 400 seriously injured in the same 24 hours. You wonder how any industry could survive such a murderous workforce attrition rate.
But back to my original point, the great thing about the museum is that you can go down into what was once a working mine. Nineteen of us gathered at the pithead to don hardhats and miners lamps, while depositing ‘contraband‘, ie cigarettes or other smoking equipment and anything with batteries, so in went my camera, car keys and watch.
Which was all hokum, of course. If there was any chance of methane down there and Health and Safety would have had the place closed down in a (harmless) shot.
The hardhats were an essential though. I am well short of being a strapping six-footer, but there were places where I rattled my lid on the ceiling, the ideal height for a miner apparently being five foot four to six. Or smaller. And slimmer.
The bit that really hit home though was the early mining. Pre-1842, men, women and children would works the seams, often as a family unit. Dad would hew the coal, mum would haul the trucks of the stuff, and junior was the ‘trapper’, the one who would shut the door to keep the air flowing, opening it to let mum through.
In the dark, complete darkness. Candles were expensive, so only dad was allowed one. At one point we switched off our lamps and were literally unable to see our hands in front of our faces. The thought of having rats and mice running around in that same blackness is disturbing.
If you’re around Wakefield way, one to be recommended. And it’s free. But get there early or you’ll miss the mine trip. They happen every 15 minutes, but arriving just before noon, we had to wait three hours for our turn. And definitely make a contribution to the guides beer fund!