Among the Fife Miners by Kellogg DurlandPrevious Chapter
CHAPTER II - THE NIGHT SHIFT
There is a quality of strength peculiar to isolation, and it is said that the nomad of the East roving his life over the vast deserts gains a leisurely perspective of life that the western in his eternal, immoral hurry gets only in rare gleams that flash like meteors across his sky and vanish in the mist long before they touch his horizon. The Scotch mind is naturally reflective, and although the Fife miner, as an individual, does not lead an isolated life, his community is one apart from the world and in a measure a world in itself. It is ringed by hills whose unbroken tranquillity tempers the petty perplexities of the bewildering whirl of men ; the trees that rustle their secrets at the bidding of the winds whisper of a romantic and historic past; and the miner-child exploring for remote, unfished streams and shaded pools where speckled trout besport, thinks on the days when the Lindsays were masters of the hills, of his covenanting forefathers, or of the uncertain times of bonnie Mary whose spirit still lingers over the region from Loch Leven to Maryborough. It is but natural that from the dismal depths of the pit there should spring ideas and views of life and the world bearing traces of a characteristicness of the environment that has fashioned the community itself, traces which appear in the conservative opinions of the men on modern thought and advancement that reach them chiefly through the press and their pulpits. In the resting hours in the pit, theories are dissected, ideas born, and half a dozen men, grouped with picturesque ease, "hunkering" over their pipes at piece time in low, dank corners, come to their own conclusions.
For the most part Kelty miners take life seriously and consequently serious conversations were the rule It was interesting to note the efforts of the men to shape their own philosophies, to discover the rudiments of deep economic and moral truths struggling for expression through crude conceptions, convictions warring against traditionalism, and watch the workings of independent thought. They are seldom faddists. This may in part be due to the fact that they have fortunately escaped immediate contact with the apostles of new creeds and doctrines and they have never been swamped by a wave of enthusiasm having for its dynamic the magic influence of personality.
In parts of England, particularly in London, working men have had socialism in a hundred forms, read to them, preached to them, and thrown at them in pamphlets and books. In some districts, West Ham, for example, working men can quote whole pages of Marx, while in other districts they are true to the broad socialism of John Burns, which mixes the milk and cream of human kindness with all that it does. In Kelty there seems to be lacking that feeling that it is the duty of labour to redistribute the wealth of the world. To the miners, Karl Marx is but a name; Proudhon, Fourier and other French champions of labour are practically unknown, and the number of professed socialists among the miners is very small. Considering the success of the Kelty co-operative store and the strong views of many of the men in regard to wages, this at first seemed strange; but I soon discovered that most of the ideas as to definitions and meanings were crude in the extreme, and these were always stated with dogmatic simplicity. On the other hand not a few knew Tolstoy, and I noticed that Tolstoy's books in the library were nearly all much worn. None of the men would think of calling themselves anarchists, even though the word were qualified by "philosophical" or "Christian." Their liberalism is certainly more socialistic than they realise, however, and their socialism often has touches of thoughtful, harmless anarchy - in short, they have an eclectic system of philosophy that incorporates sections of several systems and calls itself something that it is not. On only two questions are the men absolutely sure - wages and the land.
One never knew what subject was to be taken up at piece time, but I soon came to look forward to the conversations of the men; whatever the topic, the opinions were always interesting, and if a man told a story it was sure to be a good story well told.
One day while I was yet new to pit life we were munching our dry breakfasts under a beautiful growth of stalactite-like fungus that dropped in snowy hangings from some beams of decaying propping. We had been eating in silence for some minutes when one of the younger men who had finished before the rest of us recalled the story of Margaret Erskine of Port Moak, one of the lesser known legends of the district. It was a fascinating story as told in the simple, homely language of the miner, and the men listened without interruption. Port Moak stands beside the old Caldie settlement at the foot of Bishop's Hill, a little above Loch Leven. One of the Erskines who, in the early part of the last century occupied the old Erskine Manse at Port Moak, married one called Margaret, who after a few years was struck down by a malady, and, supposedly, died. When she was being prepared for burial it was found that her fingers had swollen so that a certain precious ring could not be removed from her hand, and it was therefore interred with her. The cupidity of the beadle had been so roused that he determined to secure the ring. The night after the funeral he went out to the old cemetery, exhumed the body, and set about cutting away the finger to get the ring, when, to his unspeakable horror, as he hacked at the clammy flesh with his knife the body suddenly showed signs of life and rose up like one alive. He fled in wildest terror.
That night as Erskine was conducting family worship in the old manse, there came a curious tapping at the door. Looking up he said "Had Margaret been alive I would have said that was her knock.' With that he flung open the door and Margaret stepped in upon the bewildered household like Lazarus of old, arrayed in grave clothes and looking a wraith in the flesh. The knife of the beadle had seemingly set the blood in motion or stimulated the nerves. At all events the story is vouched for, and Margaret Erskine lived for several years after the episode.
As we were delayed some minutes that day waiting for wood props, we had a slightly longer time than usual. Jim turned to me in a very characteristic way and asked abruptly : "What do you think of socialism, Bill?"
The question was apropos to nothing and I was taken aback.
"I suppose there is some good in it," I answered guardedly. "Are you a socialist ? "
Jim shook his head stolidly.
"I'm no for it."
"No? what is wrong with it ? "
He shut his piece box with a sharp bang.
"What's wrang wi' it ? I'm no for it. Socialism says a' folk are equal, that everybody is as gude as every other body. That's ridiclus—there's orra folk and folk that are no orra. Some men work hard and are deservin', but ye ken fine that some men lowse twa days a week reg'lar. When they get their food and pint they're no carin' for aught else. Is it right that they should hae an equal share wi' the industrious ones? Why, some folk canna do ony work out o' the pit; it's in the pit they get the siller and they tak' the bairns frae the school afore their time and then they canna get on in the world."
"Ay, but a good lot hae families and need the siller," put in one of the others. "The wages are no sae awfu' grand and the laddies can do weel."
"That's hit, that's what I say. Every man should hae the same chance to get on, but afore he has had the chance he's no as good as every other body. If a man works he gets his siller, and if he lowses he's no deservin' o' some other body's siller."
" Ay, Jim, that sounds true, but a' men are alike in the sicht o' God."
Jim hesitated a moment before he answered: "Mony a mon mak's a gude servant but only a few mak's a gude maister."
"Some have more'n their share," took up one of the backward ones, "look at the big hooses wi' the parks."
"Ay, you've said it noo. Hit's the land that should be made equal amongst a' those who can manage it properly. A mon's hoose is his own, and so is his siller, but the land's God's and a' men hae a richt to use it. One mon's faither could fecht so he has great parks, and the other mon's faither wha cudna fecht so weel, he has nae where to go but maun tak' a wee hoosie that he's put into. Na, na, mon, that's no richt. Let 'em fecht for it noo! "
"What you say may be true, Jim, but so long as another man has the land we can't take it away from him."
"We canna tak' it awa but the government can, and mak' it free to everybody wha is industrious. Let the government tak' it and protect it, so that only God wha made it, can tak' it awa frae the men wha mak' richt use o' Ait."
"If you give the government a chance to take the land, why not give it a try at the gas works and the railroads, as the Socialists say ? "
"Weel, noo, if the government can do it as cheap as it is done noo, perhaps a little cheaper and a wee bittie better than we cud, but I'm awfu' doubtish as to that - and mon, if ye gae sae faur ye maun gae farther, for some folk will no stop satisfied there. Ye'll be pressed till ye mak' a redistribution of a' the wealth in the world."
Some of us protested that this was not necessary that it was too extreme a view, but Jim held to his position.
"Everything maun hae a point, and that's the point o' Socialism. S'pose we put a' the wealth in the world together and divide it, to every man alike, next week ye wud hae to do the same thing again. You micht be savin', but anither mon wud spend his, and then where wud ye be ? Sae long as you are gettin' a share of some other mon's wealth it sounds weel, but when the time comes to divide your purse wi' some other body, it's gey different. Socialists are aye lookin' for what they can get, and no for what they can gie. The best way to get is to gie."
"A good paradox, Jim."
"Paradox " puzzled the old man.
"I'm no carin', it's orthodox !"
The day shift men were such a good lot that after I had got to know them I was reluctant to go on to another shift where the men would be strangers, but as work was done on the night shift that is not done at any other, a change was necessary. The first glimpse that I got of the pit head by night was a striking one. The cages for the moment had stopped running, no hutches rattled through the sifting shed, no lassies flitted through semi-darkness. Only a few colliers stood about waiting to go down. In a dark corner near the shaft sat a massive figure in dripping oil-skins close to a brazier of coals burning at red heat. The trickling water from his broad hat brim fell upon the hot brazier with a spattering sizzle, sending off tiny jets of steam. The man looked more like a New England pilot fresh in from a gale, than a repairer of a coal pit shaft. He hugged the brazier and shivered. We all shivered. As we entered the cage our teeth rattled. Down below we forgot the frosty night, forgot that it was night at all. Twelve hundred feet below the surface the passing of the seasons, or the passing of day into night, registers no change in the dankness or the darkness of the pit.
During the night the cages do not run regularly and the night shift is mainly given over to repairing the roads, the shaft and the machinery. When I became a night-shiftman I took the name of brusher, brushing being the technical term for taking down sinking roofs and making the passages safe for the day men. This branch of pit work is usually let out to contractors who keep as many men employed as the work demands, paying them (at the time that I was brusher) seven and threepence per shift. The contractors undertook to keep a certain section in repair at a specially bargained-for rate. My boss was a man of the world, a man of little education but wide travel. He had been in the mines at Johannesburg, and at that time was talking of leaving Kelty for China. There were two other men in the gang, one, a frail little fellow called Dick, who being the only son of his mother and she a widow, "kept his mother." They lived together in one room, and Dick worked harder for her than many men work for their wives. An older man – Sandy - was the other. Another gang of three or four was always near by, the two parties always joining at piece time, and occasionally we joined forces over a hard bit of work.
When a brae became closed by a falling roof, the brushers were the ones sent to "redd it up." If the roof was hanging loosely so that the pinch or crowbar could be inserted and the loose rock pryed down, blasting was not resorted to; but as a rule the sinking of a roof was a very gradual process and blasting was necessary. Dick and I were generally the ones selected to do the boring for the explosive. In ordinary cases three drills were used. The first one short and heavy, the next considerably longer and finer, and the third longer still. The actual drilling was accomplished by a semi-rotary motion with the machine handle, Dick on one side, I on the other, working in unison. Sometimes difficulty would be experienced in forcing through an internal break in the rock, and occasionally it was found necessary to start a new hole after the first had been well started, for breaks are apt to divert the course of the explosive, especially if it be gun-powder. Dynamite is not used nowadays, but gelegnite or gunpowder. In most of our blasts we united the gelegnite and gunpowder in one blast, which is a barefaced infringement of the law which directly forbids such a combination of explosives. But the law if long-fingered is often nearsighted, particularly in the dark. The gelatine or more common preparation of gelegnite, comes in cylindrical rolls called spots or cats, rather more than a finger long, while the gunpowder is prepared in quarter-pound packages. Blasting gelatine is the most powerful of known explosives, containing 93 per cent. of nitro-glycerine and 7 per cent. of nitro-cotton. It is said to be about 50 per cent. stronger than dynamite. The gelegnite is a slightly less powerful composition containing 65 per cent. of blasting gelatine and 35 per cent. of absorbing cotton. Gelegnite is particularly sensitive to cold, freezing in a temperature of forty-six degrees Fahrenheit, so that it is customary to rub the cats between the hands for a moment before using them in order to make them more susceptible. This is always a risky thing to do, for a too quickly rising temperature may result in an explosion, and any number of accidents have happened in this way. Some idea of the power of this explosive may be judged from the fact that if the hand is drawn across a perspiring brow after handling the gelegnite a splitting headache results. For an ordinary blast, from one to three cats are rolled into a rough ball, a fulminate of mercury cap in the middle of it, with a squib attached projecting out of the hole. The gunpowder is then stemmed home, and it is at this point that the greatest care must be taken. An eight pound pressure on the fulminate of mercury cap explodes it, and with it goes the entire blast. Should the cap be laid bare as the gelegnite ball is being rammed to the far end of the bored hole, and the metal stemmer strike the metal cap, an explosion would be inevitable. The second night that I was with the brushers the work of charging the blast was given to me. My first efforts to gauge the force of the stemmer to seventy or seventy-five pounds, when the men were telling me to stem harder were highly amusing - to those at a safe distance. A long copper needle is placed in the hole to leave an open channel for the squib, while the charge is being packed with loose dust to the edge of the hole.
The first charge that I lighted was marked by a laughably stupid incident. The alarm had been sounded, and the men working near had retreated to a safe distance. Now a pit is not an easy place to run in under favourable circumstances. Being my first blast I was anxious that it should go off properly at the same time I wanted to be sure and put a safe distance between it and myself before it went off. Taking my lamp from my bonnet I looked as far down the passage as I could, halloed to know if all was well and receiving a far away "a' richt" held the lamp to the fuse. It sputtered green sparks, hissed and I turned in haste to make off. Following the habit of blowing out a match after it has been used, as I turned I gave a vigorous blow at my lamp putting myself in total darkness, with the hissing charge just behind me.
Gunpowder is called 'cowardly' by the men because it always takes the easiest road, hence a break in the rock may mean no damage whatever with gunpowder alone. The gelegnite goes so quickly that it cuts through anything and everything. The law prohibits the double charge because there have been cases of one explosive taking effect and not the other and when the rock has fallen and the men are clearing it away the jar of a pick or a mash against the unused explosive has sent it off. The men argue that with due caution this ought not to happen and as the double charge is so much more effective they continue to shrug their shoulders at the law.
One who has never known the pit, can scarcely realize how exposed the men are to dangers every hour in the day; the number of hairbreadth escapes that daily pass without comment; the acts of real heroism that are performed as a matter of course in the day's work, for in the pit there is no thrilling excitement that roars of battlefield glory, no gallery to play to. There are few old colliers who have not met with some accidents in their lives. I remember talking with one veteran who told me that he had been fifty-seven years in the pit and had never had an accident. I thought this very remarkable until he explained that at one time he had had three ribs broken and at another time his collar bone had been dislocated - "but those little things didn't count." Accidents occur with such awful suddenness - a rope breaks, a roof drops without a warning crack and a man falls injured, maimed, perhaps dead. And yet the sense of danger is never a consciously realised one by the men themselves. It is ever present but familiarity has made it sub-conscious - It is upon the women that these strains come.
When a woman sees her husband leave for the pit "she never knows what he will get afore he comes out." I remember of hearing a woman pass comment upon her next door neighbour who "aye tak's gude care to hae some wee bit thing to do aboot the window at the back o' twa o'clock." After a big accident the anxiety of the women is often extreme. One woman whose boast it was that she had never known what fear was, after a disaster in the town said that "it seemed as if she were all nerves, aye afeard.' One week when I was on the night shift I noted that not one piece time passed but the subject of accidents was discussed at least part of the time. When an accident occurs there is always sympathy but never surprise or, save in the case of a big disaster, any strong sense of shock. A man was hurt on a brae not far from where we were working and he was put into a hutch to be carried to the cage. As his neighbours started off with him some one shouted to know if he could "spare the rest of his tally," without the slightest consciousness of the grim humour of the request. Each man seems to feel that if there is an accident it will be the next man who will get hurt, not himself. It is a singular attitude that the men take. When they work they work hard, "because they will be a long time dead " as one said to me, and the thought of danger does not hamper them at any time.
There was on an average nearly one accident a day in the Aitken while I was there, many of them trivial to be sure, but two were fatal [According to H.M. Inspectors' Reports for 1900 there were 75 fatalities in Scotland during the year. This figure is unusually low.]. It was during the second month of my experience that the tragic Donibristle disaster occurred at a colliery only a couple of miles away. There was a sudden subsidence of ground where a group of miners were at work ; great masses of moss and water poured into the workings and four of the men were entombed. A rescue party of four set out to try and save the imprisoned men and they too were lost. Immediately there were hundreds of volunteers for other rescue parties. No one flinched, no one thought of hesitating - men were dying - every effort must be made to get at them. The rescuing parties worked heroically as rescuing parties always do under such circumstances, they worked day and night long after all hope of getting the men out alive had been abandoned; but the difficulties were enormous, the ground kept loosening and flooding in upon them as fast as the way was cleared and at last a new shaft had to be sunk. The details of the finding of the bodies are too harrowing for these pages but the unconscious heroism of the men, their willing sacrifices, their eagerness to jeopardize their lives on the slimmest cord of hope gave proof of a spirit that transcends the force of words. A parallel accident might have occurred in the Aitken yet no one was disturbed by the thought! One night a shaft repairer lost his balance and fell from the narrow scaffold where he was working. The strong current of air spread his great oil skin coat which, by an almost impossible chance, caught on a projecting arm of wood and the man was saved. I had no such narrow escape as that but one night Dick and I were rather badly shocked.
We had lighted a charge together and as the fuse began to sputter we dashed down a side level that we thought free when to our momentary horror we came full upon another charge that had been lighted by the other party. It was too late to turn back - the squib in front of us seemed on the point of going out for a moment, then as we stood in fear and trembling it suddenly took life and the spark ran home to the explosive. Fortunately we were not struck and so without a second's delay we plunged into the thick of the stifling smoke until our charge had fired when we rushed into the air current for breath. Dick and Sandy had a much narrower escape a few nights later. The squib had been lighted by Dick and after a longer wait than usual it was assumed that it had gone out, so Dick accompanied by Sandy returned to relight the squib. It is a very rare thing for a pitman to trip and fall on a level that is not obstructed by ropes or rails but just as Dick got exactly under the roof where the charge was inserted Sandy stumbled over a piece of jutting rock, sprawling full length along the level. At that instant the delayed charge blew, the great mass of rock flew outward, escaping Dick, who collapsed either from the concussion or fright, and was hurled over the prostrate Sandy. Had he not stumbled he would have received the full force of it against his head and body. Dick instinctively rolled and crawled when he fell and he had barely got from under the unstable roof before some tons of loosened rock that had been left clinging for a few seconds, dropped to the spot where he had fallen Both of these men were serious for the rest of the shift but the incident was never referred to again.
Another night word was passed from mouth to mouth that the "dook was being flooded." A tremendous stream of water from some unknown source had burst through the lower workings of the pit. The men who were at work in the section at the time were able to escape, but for some days, about seventy men were thrown out of employment. For days the water gushed in at the rate of one thousand gallons a minute, which was nearly twice as fast as the most powerful pump available could throw it out of the pit. Various strange rumours were circulated as to the possible reservoir. One recalled that there was once a loch near the village of Lochore, that at one time Lochore Castle was surrounded by water as Lochleven Castle is unto the present day, and suggested that the long hidden springs of the old loch were now finding vent through the workings of the Aitken Pit. The doom of the pit was prophesied. In time, however, the inflow ceased and only a part of the pit was temporarily sacrificed; but these little incidents which are constantly occurring indicate how precarious is the life of the miner.
With a full consciousness of these things, I joined the back shift where awaited me new and trying experiences that culminated in the " hewing " or actual mining, and completed my acquaintance with the trials and discomforts of the pit.
CHAPTER III - THE BACK SHIFT
There is something reminiscent of early days in the appearance of the pit-head girls with their high boots, short skirts encircled by a binding string to prevent their catching, half protected by blackened aprons, and old soiled shawls tied snugly round their heads and falling loosely over their shoulders. After the first hour of work their faces are covered with the dust that ever blows fiercely through the sifting shed, stirred to angry restlessness by the powerful ventilating fan whose escaping puffs send eddying whorls outward from the shaft with every ascending cage. For the most part it is heavy work for the girls, pushing and jerking the heavy empty hutches, from track to track, hurrying them back to the cages, snibbling the wheels of the loaded ones, dropping nimbly between the moving tubs that look for all the world like miniature railway waggons, performing their work with tireless dexterity, keeping the whole place in a flutter from early morning till mid evening, when, according to a factory law that almost suggests a care for these girls, the work is left to those who are better able to perform it through the night. Time was when girls worked in the pits, but now they are only allowed at the pit head, and the time is coming when even this will not be permitted.
The girls of Kelty who work may be roughly grouped in four classes: pit-head girls, girls who go to the mills at Dunfermline or Kinross, girls who go into service, and girls who become dressmakers. That is the social order of their own making. The dressmakers consider themselves superior to the domestics, who in turn look down upon the mill hands, and at the bottom of the list are the pit-head girls, the lowest paid servants of a great and wealthy company who slave for wages that vary from one shilling and two pence to one and six, and, to a very few of the strongest, two shillings a day. The pit head atmosphere is the most demoralising atmosphere that can be found in a small village. Some few of the girls who have come from good homes hold themselves entirely aloof from the others, but as a class they are a sad lot. Most of them - not all - go to the pit head directly from school, perhaps at the age of thirteen, when they fall all too easily into the ways of the older ones.
Four coal laden hutches come up with each cage, strong men drag them off and start them down the incline toward the sifting shed. One afternoon as I leaned against an iron pillar waiting for the time when the back shift men descend, I watched these girls at work with no little admiration for their strength and dexterity. A lassie in a red waist of dirty cotton snaps the steel snibble nimbly into the wheels of a heavy hutch, curbing its speed, and as she runs round the end to catch the one behind she slips by a broad shouldered young collier who is standing thumbing his pick point. With a saucy toss of her head she makes a rude familiar jest and boisterously laughs as she checks the speeding hutch. The coal in the first hutch may be destined for a port on the distant Baltic, that in the other for an inland French town; her life will probably never break the bounds of the pit district. Behind her runs a girl in an old green plush dress, a dress that had done duty on more than one high occasion when it was new, but now, old and torn it is fit only for the rough usage of the pit. With careful clumsiness she trips over the foot of one of the older men who chanced to be squatting with his back heavily than she had meant to, which was sufficient excuse for a burst of oaths that made the hardened miner tingle for very shame.
"They dinna ken any different," said one half apologetically to me.
The pit head is all they know of the world, and they are quick to follow the example of the older ones in playing for attentions. The grime and dirt that settles like a pall over everything within hail is like a dark shred of a curtain that drops over their consciences, stifling, dwarfing, killing them. They work - oh! so hard - and when the day's work is done they look about for their share of the world's fun - surely they have a share - but where are they to find it if they don't make their own good time?
Forty-two steps lead from the ground to the pit head, and of all the busy spots in or about the pit, this is the busiest. It is here that the hutches of coal are received from the cages and weighed, the coal sorted and sifted into the railway waggons that carry it to the Forth docks for exportation and to the cities where it is consumed. By the present system the miners who hew the coal are paid by weight, and every hutch is presumably weighed at the pit head As a matter of fact this is only done with a comparative few, so that it is not usual for more than six of every twenty hutches of each man to be taken to the scales.
The averaging of the pay, however, comes out so nearly the same week after week, that this need not imply any underestimation as to the amount due any one man, and indeed it is quite as likely to be an overestimation, so that on the whole the arrangement is probably just.
When I got to the "face," I began to think myself a qualified collier for that was the last phase of actual mining, the place where most of the money is earned, and it is the work which, to the uninitiated, constitutes mining. The first place that I was sent to was at the top of Spion Kop, a long hard brae which at the end of the shift was almost as hard to traverse as the work of the shift had seemed while I was at it. It certainly took nearly as much out of me. When I went to the face I went on to the "back shift," which extends from a quarter after two to a quarter after ten. In the north of England the men who work the coal have a six-hour day, but in Scotland the eight-hour day is still universal.
The two systems of mining now employed are known as the "bord and pillar" and "longwall," of which the latter is by far the commoner, and all the time that I was at the face I worked the coal longwall. The word practically explains its own meaning. Instead of the seam of coal being followed along a narrow working, it is attacked broad-side as it were, and perhaps thirty yards worked by a row of men seven or ten yards apart. By certain arrangements in the former method the miner not only gets the coal but makes all proppings and repairs, so that the face moves much more slowly than with the other method where the hewers devote all their time to getting the coal and merely stop to make themselves secure with single sprags or tree proppings, and another corps of men attend to the rest of the work. It is generally considered safer to have the face move quickly and as the men are paid by the tons they take out, the company pays one shilling fourpence half-penny for every square permanent pillar that they put up - a piece of work that may take an hour.
In the Aitken it was customary for a certain number of men to change from the fore-shift to the back shift on alternate weeks, so it happened as I rounded the head of Spion Kop on that memorable first night, puffed out of breath with the hard pull, I heard the surprised voice of roadsman Jim :
"Hi, Bill, are ye gaun to get at the coals, laddie?"
Jim had long been on the day shift regularly until now, but as he had come to work in another part of the pit he had found it necessary to accept the change-about system. I felt better to know that he was about, for I knew that he would give me advice when I needed it. When he heard where I was to work he merely said :
"Watch yersel’, Bill, or ye'll bring the coals doon o' top o' ye."
I should have heeded the warning but I did not grasp its full significance until an hour or so later when I did bring the coals down atop of me. At the longwall the face is first "holed," that is, the very bottom of the coal hard against the pavement of rock is hewn out leaving the great mass of coal hanging and a clear space of three or four inches between it and the ground. The coal is then hewed down, or in places where it is solid it is shot down with gunpowder, and part of the art of mining is in knowing when one has holed sufficiently far in without tumbling the bank of coal down before one has got safely away. At the spot where I was working the seam was five feet high, but it was only a shaking up that I got that reminded me of Jim's warning for the future. Sometimes serious accidents occur in this way when the men in their anxiety to make a good wage don't stop to make themselves secure with temporary sprags and props for which they receive nothing. In pits where big coal is mined the 'holing' is done at the top hard against the roof and the coal is then hewed down in great chunks.
That day for the first time I lifted a pick to strike in earnest, and frankness compels me to admit that I made very clumsy work of it. The coal was hard and did not yield to my repeated strokes, the pick handle jarred against my palms till they swelled, blistered and finally bled. When I gripped the shovel to fill the coal into the hutches it was with a genuine sense of relief. My, how we worked that evening! At a quarter after six we stopped for our pieces but in a quarter of an hour we were at work again. Hutch after hutch was filled and rolled into the darkness by the drawers, the perspiration tickled in black rivulets from my head and arms, painful kinks caught me in the back, but as the others kept on shovelling so I kept on. One man kept hewing away at the coal bringing down whole hutch loads at a time from places where it had been previously holed. At last when the shift was nearing an end the drawers counted up the tally and it was found that we had sent out about five tons per man. Five tons is an average shift in the Aitken, and while I was outdistanced every time at the hewing by the experienced men owing to the skill that is born only of practice and that is essential, at the filling I could always hold my own and send out from ten to fourteen hutches a shift. During the first three days my hands were in a pretty bad condition, being torn and skinned and swollen a good deal, but after the third shift the hardening process set in and they gradually lost their soreness. The strain of so much unaccustomed muscular fatigue began to tell upon my system but this was not serious, and as the muscles became tougher there were no effects of over-strain and the work settled to a dull sodden routine that demanded sheer health and dogged effort, tiring but never so exhausting as the drawing nor so dangerous as the brushing.
Soft coal was mined at the Aitken. The black dust coated the men inside and out. We spat black at the face. The broken rays of the bad smelling lamps gleamed weirdly against the strata of shining mineral that ever and anon crackled ominously as it worked loose of the pressure that had packed it together for an aeon or more. One night the air grew hot and heavy, there must have been a fall in one of the air current levels for all that drifted to our far corner stifled rather than refreshed us. Suddenly the lamps grew dim, my neighbour reached for his oil flask but his lamp was nearly full. The yellow flames flickered a lurid red turned to a leaden blue, at times approaching a phosphorescent green. Then we knew there was gas. Someone snatched a jacket and flecked it right and left till it was completely dissipated when the lamps flared up once more.
Black damp is not a gas that creates any special alarm as it takes nearly sixty per cent. to effect a loss of sensation and power, and it is readily dissipated. Fire damp is of a much more dangerous character, and it is this gas that causes most mine explosions. There is very little fire damp in Fife, but it is occasionally met with and sometimes with disastrous results.
A man who has been in the centre of a spontaneous combustion told me that he was pinned to the roof by a palpable, invisible force that held him as in a vice. He heard no sound although a report echoed down the levels for many yards, alarming most of the men in the section. The after damp of such an explosion is often more deadly than the gas of the explosion and the more treacherous because the flame of the safety lamp is not affected by it. It is in places where such gases exist that coal dust become dangerous, its finely separated particles being particularly inflammable tending to aggravate the action that culminates in an explosion.
The men grow callous to the presence of a little gas and once it is blown away they think little of it. It is the occasional occurrence of such an incident that has developed a trait in the characters of the miners that is quickly observed and admired by an outsider. It is the spirit of camaraderie, the ever willing desire to lend a hand, the watchful care for one another that never lies dormant but all unconsciously burns low, fed by the unnoticed, unspoken of atmosphere of possible danger ready to burst into being at the crux of any unforseen crisis. It is a spirit that shows itself at all times and the readiness with which the men take hold and help their fellows over hard places, un-asked and unthanked, speaks emphatically of the nearness with which they stand shoulder to shoulder with never a thought of desertion . A miner will even sacrifice wife and family to his neighbour by rushing into peril to do what he can to ward off impending danger when in the eyes of the world it might be wiser for him to think first of those who are dependent upon him. It is this spirit that breeds a sense of security which in the pits is no small matter. In such companionship a man may never seem to "know the use of fear;" for where stout hearts stand firmly together danger takes wings. Peril becomes duty, and duty howsoever hard can never be shirked. Men are wary of dangers that are seen, but in the darkness of the pit where they are unseen the men come to stand strong at all times ready for whatever comes. After years of tramping long, dark passages a miner’s walk betrays his métier. As each foot goes down it drops solidly, clingingly to whatever it rests upon, rarely slipping, never uncertain, and the man appears to forge ahead with a slow rock like a ship that is engined in exact proportion to her beam. It is in the presence of the realised but unseen danger that a man’s stuff is tried. It is then that men like to feel that all of their neighbours are brothers. As someone said to me when I first went into the pit :- "Be stuffy. If ye canna be stuffy, be as stuffy as ye can."
Jim and I had an animated discussion in regard to the pay of the men one night as we trudged homeward along the line. The glow of the northern aftermath still lingered over Benarty and the white arc lights round the pit shone clear against the sullen eastern sky. A disturbed bird was circling over the deserted Old pit and the near-by brick kiln from which glowed the blood-red reflection of the never dying fire. A strong wind held across the fields and the air felt like a storm.
"Weel, Bill, ye’ve earned your siller this nicht."
"I have certainly worked for it," I replied.
"D’ye ken how muckle ye’ll get ?"
"I hope I shall make the average but there was a lot of small stuff to-night."
"Ay’ ye’ll no mak’ the average this nicht. The average is six and eight ye ken, but wi’ a’ the billy dross at yon face ye’ll no get that unless they forget to gie it a weigh at yon pit head. For the gude coals ye’ll get two and fivepence a ton, frae that to three shillin’ ; but for the dross - twopence."
There was a sneer in his voice as he said the last words, and he spoke them slowly as if thinking on what the company and the company’s shareholders were getting.
"Twopence a ton is a small wage," I agreed. When he began again after a moment’s pause his voice was touched with a tone of melancholy.
"The company pays expenses frae that dross - almost. That sells for maybe five shillin’. Noo isn’t that terrible to mak’ men work that hard for twopence a ton that the company gets five shillin' for?"
"On the whole though you are getting good wages, Jim. You have all you want to eat and when you have paid all of your expenses you still have a good lump of money left over at the end of the year."
I knew that Jim, though an ordinary miner, was something of a capitalist in his own small way, inasmuch as he had saved enough to feu land and build his own house. Like nearly all workmen, however, he was bitter toward the company, and he did not hesitate at times to say unkind things about the men who were getting most of the profits. Jim knew his own side but not the other, in fact it probably never occurred to him that there might be both right and reason on the side of the capitalist. It is this narrow point of view, not of the men towards their employers alone, but sometimes vice versa as well, that often is the cause of misunderstandings.
Yet Scottish workmen think they have views of their own and theories, and as Jim was in every way a typical Fifer I urged him on that I might hear his side.
"Ye ken fine that the Company paid a dividend of over fifty per cent. last year. Noo what did the share-holders do that they should be entitled to a' that? "
"They risked their money before they knew that the Aitken pit and all the other pits were going to prove so profitable and they—"
"Look you here, Bill, wha is carin’ about their siller? The men risk their lives every day. When ye gae into the pit ye never ken what ye’ll get afore ye come out—"
"And remember the lean years, when the company paid no dividend at all."
"I ken naught o’ that but I ken fine that the average dividends for years hae been way up. The original shares hae been watered doon till each share is worth three, and they are noo sellin’ at near three times their first value. lf the shareholders were to get ten per cent. or even twenty per cent. in the best years that should be gude enough. The men who are the producers should get the rest; instead of that they gie the shareholders fifty-twa and a half per cent. and as if that wasn't enough they gie 'em a bonus."
Jim's view was very much the view of the workmen. It pretended to be nothing else and desired to be nothing else. Jim reckoned that the men who did the work were the ones who knew most about mining, and consequently they were the ones whose opinions should sway the action of the company. Like many miners Jim had no sympathy with the people who had never soiled their hands with work. In his estimation, their opinions were worthless. Various difficulties presented themselves to my mind, but these were not entertained by him at all.
"If you were to raise the wages of the men in the Aitken above the wages of the men employed in other pits and by other companies that don't have such big dividends, all the miners in Scotland would be wanting to work for your Company and that wouldn't do. There would be strikes everywhere."
"Ay, but they could gie us a bonus accordin' to our work. The men wha had done the most work would get the biggest lump o' money."
"And you are forgetting the people who make the market. According to the men more than half of the coal is exported, and it is sold in foreign markets at a lower price than it is sold in Edinburgh. Supply coal is now selling for from eight and six to ten and six a ton, and the better qualities of household coal for from thirteen and six to sixteen shillings. That comes rather hard on the poor people who have to get their coal by the hundredweight. In the Cowgate and Canongate in Edinburgh you find people staying in their beds all of Sunday in the winter so as to keep warm. Coal is so expensive that they can't afford to burn it for warmth."
"Hit's scand'lus, sich like prices, they should come doon tae."
"And there again you would demoralise the market and kill other companies that can't get their coal so easily."
"I'm no carin' about that. If you gang wrang that's nae reason why I should. I say it is scand'lus to mak' that dividend and keep the price o' coal up, and mak' the men work as we hae to for our wages. If the pit should be flooded the morn's mornin' there'd be nae loss to the shareholders. They are a' protected by a sinkin' fund, but we would be lowsed and maybe a lot killed - our lives are not protected but their capital is. I say that the men should a' share those profits. The workin' men will be able to run a pit for themsel's some day. Look at yon co-operative store we get our dividends reg'lar. We own the store, and support it, and we benefit by it."
"You are the company then ?"
"And what wages do you pay your men who work in the store for you? How many are getting from four or five and twenty to thirty shillings a week? And how many get above two pounds?"
"We pay 'em the average," he answered hotly ; but he saw the point.
"You are getting better wages than that, Jim - "
"But look at the work !"
"Of course it is harder work and that is why you get more of it. If some men had more than they are getting now they would be spending all of their time at the public houses. You get enough to live on easily and some over, you know how to use your money but all men don't. Come now, Jim, would the men use the money properly if they had it?"
We were almost at the crossing where our ways parted. The old man who considered himself victimised by capital stood still and as the moon near an hour high shone through a rift in the scurrying clouds full upon his blackened face I could see his eyes snap with disgust. Jim had never in his life been accustomed to looking on more than one side of a question. If he saw one side clearly he was content. He could find wrongs aplenty in the world and though he was no pessimist in regard to most things he was in every way a typical workman in his attitude toward his successful employers. They were filling their coffers with the money that he earned for them.
"Does the Coal Company speir its shareholders what they do wi' their money ?" he asked. "S'pose some men do spend their money for booz, the shareholders carina a' be angels."
Jim's back was against a wall now. He knew full well that there was something to be said for his side.
"If you think that you can run a pit for yourselves aren't you arguing for socialism ? "
"I dinna say that a' socialism is wrang. It's when ye press it to the point that i'm no for it. We need a little o' that sort o' thing but no' owre muckle. And then there's a difference between lettin' the men run the pit and lettin' the government do it. Hit's the government that ye canna trust. They micht do it cheaper but wi'out benefitin' the men wha wurk in the pit."
"It so happens that you are a workman, but how would it be if you were an employer? "
"I'd mak' a fair employer."
"Perhaps you would ; but if your money was in use at a big risk for a number of years getting no interest whatever, wouldn't you think it fair to pay your men the average market wage, to sell your goods at the average market price and keep a goodly part of your balance for your sinking fund for protection against loss and your own clear profits ? "
"Na, na. If I was drawin' fifty per cent. dividend, I would call it robbery. If it were no for the men I'd get nae profits. I'd keep ten per cent. and let them share the rest. I wouldn't ask about how they spent it or what they did wi' it. I'd have houses built fit for folk to live in, and I'd have enough of'em. Richt is richt and twa wrangs will ne'er mak' a richt. They've been reducin' and reducin' the wages, whiles provisions hae a' been up and goin' higher. Them that hae gets mair and them that hasn't gets less."
Jim's sentiments on wages were echoed by most of the men. They knew how much they had to do but their horizon was limited, and the burning sense of wrong and injustice kept them in a constant state of hatred toward the hard-heeled company that to them was the monster parasite, living off them and their labour. As we parted for the night his usual equanimity of temper returned and he bade me be of good cheer for the morrow was pay day.
"A collier is born a fortnicht afore his meat," is an old aphorism of the pits referring to the fortnightly pay system. Parallel with this is the "meikle work and little fee" adage current where miners are paid by the ton, or, as they themselves phrase it, where they " get it at their ain takin'." Every second Friday is pay day and the men then receive their pay for the fortnight ending the previous Tuesday. The crowd that surges round the office door waiting for the arrival of the gaffer with the pay "lines " is invariably a good humoured crowd. The men jest and push, laugh boisterously for the sake of the noise and grasp at any little incident for a joke. As the gaffer begins to call the names of the men there is a vain striving to get nearer him and for the first two or three minutes the bare little office just next to the smithy is like a mass of seething, boiling humanity, men are pressed together, squeezed upwards, dropped away at the edges. On one of my first pay days there was a trifling incident that occasioned a ripple of amusement. Most of the men were black from the pit, some who were about to go down were fresh and cleaner. An ordinary labourer stood just on my right, expectant and eager like the rest. Suddenly as the name of "Andra Carnegie" was called, he struggled forward to grasp the slip and the crowd gave way with a great rollicking shout. A popular name in Scotland was that at that moment. The birthplace of the steel king and Scottish-American philanthropist is but a few miles off: the workmen's train started from there every morning.
The pay lines indicate the amount due for hewing, for oncost work and so on, and the amount of deductions for house rent (in cases where the men live in houses belonging to the company), tools, blasting materials and the doctor's stipend. It is a matter of convenience to the men and protection to the company to deduct a stated sum for rent from the wages fortnightly, and the doctor who is ostensibly employed by the company receives sixpence a fortnight from each man. This entitles all of the men to his services at any and all times without further costs This scheme is now in general vogue throughout Fife and is steadily gaining in favour as the sixpence per fortnight is not a burden to the men, and if the doctor has two or three pits each employing several hundred men the plan is satisfactory to him.
When we had received our lines we straggled over the railway bridge and up the road to the Lindsay Pit a half mile or so away, where the slips are redeemed in coin of the realm. Some were of necessity wearied, some were fresh, but we all walked like men whose hearts were light. The spirit of the day was in the atmosphere, and with the clink of silver and gold, stiff joints grew easy and soreness fled. The mere satisfaction that those shillings gave was worth working for. As we filed into the little wooden office of the paying clerk, the grinding of the Lindsay wheels echoed loud in our ears, and dust from the mountain of crumbling blae blew towards us in gusts. Through a narrow window we could see shelves of small tin cups labelled conspicuously with consecutive numbers after the manner of shaving mugs in a big barber's shop. The number on each pay slip corresponded to a number on one of the cups which was supposed to contain the amount indicated on the slip. When we had counted the hard earned shillings and made sure that we had got them all we filed out at the opposite end from which we had entered. A man with a freshly bandaged stump of an arm, smelling strongly of hospital odours, stood at the door with doffed hat begging. His body that once was strong and able to do its share of work was wasted and weak and his face bore the mark of suffering. Many a penny dropped into his hat that day although the men don't countenance such barefaced begging as a rule. He had been a collier. Not one of us could tell whose limb might be missing ere the next pay day.
The wages of miners are constantly fluctuating. They are raised, reduced, battled for, begged for, struck for, seldom remaining stationary for any considerable length of time. In 1896 they had been regularly falling for several years until they reached the low water mark of an average of four shillings a day. The next year there was an increase of a little over six per cent. which amounted to about threepence a day. Slowly they crept up and in 1899 trade grew rapidly so that further increases were granted. There was an enormous boom in the coal trade which sent prices up tremendously and it was necessary to yield further to the demands of the men who spent their lives amid the dangers of the eerie pits to get out the coal for the market. For a brief season at that time the average wage rested at eight shillings but it was not for long, the reaction set in and wages began to fall and are still falling. They were at six and eightpence a day when I drew my first pay, since then there have been further reductions.
Some men not ambitious for more than an existence wage, and men in hard places, fail to come up to the average, but many others go above the average. If a miner in the Aitken pit could forget that the shareholders in the Company had received a dividend of fifty-two and a half per cent. and a bonus of one pound per share in addition he would in all probability be less discontented. But being aware of this, and being human, as he works with all his strength, giving the best of his life to produce profits which he shares so niggardly, while others who risk a few pounds - but not a hair of their heads - share so munificently, the joy that he might take in his work becomes tainted with gall. It makes him vaguely restless and uncomfortable as he toils to realise the "collier's paradise," which according to the current doggerel is :-
"Eight hours work,
Eight hours play,
Eight hours sleep,
Eight bob a day."