An In-comer on Cannock Chase 1954 - 1959

This account was kindly donated by Mike Butcher



     Having survived university I now found myself in yet more digs and in a strange place, Cannock in Staffordshire, where I knew nobody. I was beginning the three years of training and experience necessary to be able to sit one more examination, this time for the Certificate of Competency to manage a coal-mine and with an extra paper to qualify for Membership of the Institution of Mining Engineers.

   Directed Practical Training (DPT) was the process by which I would finally, one day, three years away, become fully qualified if I stayed the course. I had no knowledge of the Cannock Chase coalfield when it was offered as my training area except that gathered on a coach trip to the Lea Hall Colliery shaft-sinking during the freezing process but I had no objection because I did not belong to any coalfield; Kent was overcrowded with southern lads like me and there was a tenuous social reason for being cheerful about it when the idea was mooted, although that had disappeared long before I actually got to Cannock. Having no help from the NCB I advertised for digs and got one response. It was in a convenient spot for Littleton Colliery where I was to train, in town and just a bike ride over the hill. DPT was planned around our ultimate purpose in life, be it mine management, mechanical, electrical or civil engineering, and on the experience one brought to the scheme. Most entrants were home grown, that is, they had gone down the pit at fifteen, done most jobs underground, had studied at Tech and got a Higher National Certificate. Their courses were shortened by about a year, not having to do the coal-face training again. They were older than the incomers with university degrees and mostly had wives, children and cars. My scheme ignored experience gained during the long vacations even though some of it was unique, like working on a scraper box face half-a-metre high in Holland. So I had first to do a year on the coal face, beginning with two months loading coal in the fast end of the three foot six inch 3’s face in the Brooch Seam in No 3 Pit where Bob Spruce was the Undermanager and then in No 2 Pit under the guidance of Fred Bushnell, packing, ripping, cutting, road-making and conveyor shifting where all these things were happening on 26’s and in a roadway development, both in the Benches Seam. There might have been a language problem if I had done those things in No 3 Pit on the afternoon shift; there seemed to be very little English spoken on that shift, mostly Polish. The remaining two years were made up of, let’s see how much I can remember, time with the engineering departments, (I carried the tool bag for a fitter, Bill Smith, who found himself working for me in Canada years later), two residential courses, a CEGB junior management course, annual holidays, attachment to other pits to see other types of mining operation, the Planning Department, Labour Department, reconstructions at Wyrley and West Cannock, four weeks of visits to other coalfields and three weeks manning a coal industry exhibition that went all round the Midlands. The first week of the exhibition was at Cannock Technical College. We must have done well, as the young Mr Grace would have said, because four of us were sent to Worcester (did it include Bill Pugh and Malcolm Bickley?) for two weeks to man the exhibition at the Royal Grammar School. We were billeted at the Star Hotel, the leading hotel in Worcester in those days, and had only to sign the bills for our every need to be met. It was said that it was some time before the Star Hotel’s bill was paid because no one at Division could be found brave enough to sign off the account; they had forgotten how much food and drink four young men could consume in two weeks. During term time we all went day-release one day a week to the Tech, where we were left very much to our own devices to prepare for the examination papers on mining legislation and management matters. It was this experience that convinced me that the thin sandwich course is the best way to train for any profession or trade.

            Meanwhile the training programme was progressing according to plan. I had worked on a coal-face at Littleton where I first encountered the problem suffered by all attempts to mechanise coal-getting; too little push, too little pull, too little energy, too little strength in the equipment. It was a stepped-knife plough installation where the plough went up and down the face but did not seem too interested in cutting any coal. I can still see the deputy kneeling by the conveyor. He was not praying, I think he had given up on that approach, but tossing little bits of coal onto the conveyor from the waste side. “Got to keep up the output” he said

            Coppice Colliery was an old mine working a very shallow seam under the village. Only ‘partial extraction’ was possible. They had American machines to cut and then load the coal and pit-ponies to move materials. That sounds odd now but was very practical. Though busy, the ponies loads were small, dragging a chain conveyor pan, a length of scraper chain, two wooden props and a roof bar into each heading in the course of each cycle of operations and they were not overworked. The routine in each ‘room’ was to put a vertical and a horizontal cut mid-face with an arc-shearer, drill and blast, load out with a gathering arm loader, set a girder with props under it, extend the conveyor, cut the coal and so on and on. There were several ‘rooms’ and the machines and crews followed each other round in sequence. One day I heard the Overman making a progress report to the Undermanager on the phone: “when they’ve filled out in number seven, timbered up in number four, cut number two, fired in number three, and extended the conveyor in number one, that’ll be five heads”. I’ve never been able to work out how well they were going that morning and I doubt that Mr Mason, the Undermanager, could work it out either. I never had a problem with Mr Mason, in fact he was always very polite to me after I saw him riding on the main conveyor, in those days still an offence under the Coal Mines Act he was employed to enforce. Mind you, he was not the only one to ride the conveyor in that mine.  One day I saw a pit pony riding the same conveyor, squatting on his haunches. His boy stopped the conveyor to allow the pony to alight safely. I got into trouble over a pit-pony while at Coppice. I was sitting eating my snap when a pony came sniffing round the jackets hanging on the other side of the road. Detecting an apple he crushed it in the jacket pocket and sucked out the juice. Exit left the pony, enter right the owner of the jacket. He examined the jacket and turned to me, “Were you sitting there when that expletive pony ate my expletive apple and ruined my expletive jacket?” I did not need to answer, he assumed my guilt. “You expletive expletive” he said.

            While at Littleton I was able to train for the Mines Rescue Team and though totally inexperienced they took me with them to the Divisional Final of the Mines Rescue Competition as the reserve. Littleton had been Area champions for years and had won the Divisional competition for three or four years in a row. The competition was in two parts, a gallery test in which a problem was set out for the team to deal with, and then a First Aid test. The reserve took part in the gallery test but not in the first aid competition. That was a good thing for those guys knew the first aid book inside out. Name the page and the line and they could tell you what was printed on that line. The rescue team consisted mostly of mine officials, Deputies and Overmen, (Jack Craner, Len Angell, Jack Hayward, Billy Dolphin among them} hard-drinking, hard-swearing types in the main, yet they could put tremendous effort and concentration into a thing like this. The competition took place in the Mining Department at Birmingham University. There were underground galleries on the campus. Just before it started we had a message from the Colliery Manager “Cumberbatch expects that every man this day will do his duty”. Did we heck?  Jack C, the captain, misread the mine plan and we sealed off a non-existent fire and succumbed to the noxious fumes from the pretend heating we were intended to deal with. No marks for the gallery test. The first aid tests could not save us and we finished fourth out of four. That did not stop the celebrations and on the way home we stopped at almost every pub between Birmingham and Cannock. I can still see them lifting one of the team out of the minibus, the other Jack I think it was, leaning him up against his front door, ringing the door-bell, climbing back into the minibus and driving off. I remained a Rescueman until I became an Undermanager, when my responsibilities would have been different in the event of an incident. We formed a team at Lea Hall as soon as our numbers underground demanded it and I captained that (sounds grand, doesn’t it?) until I moved to Warwickshire. During my spell as captain we took part in one Area competition. We came last but we were all beginners.

            Another brief interlude saw me working with the ‘Standard Costs Installation Team’. The theory had come down from above and the team was interpreting this into the manpower and materials requirements for every job in the pit. Littleton was the trial pit for the Area. It was introduced and the designated quantity of materials was despatched to each and every location. At the first instance of a Deputy being short of some item he had a clear choice, to stop the job and withdraw the men on safety grounds or, the course he took, to go out to the supply haulage system and take what he wanted. The knock on effect put everyone back into situation normal and by the end of the first week chaos was again the norm. After months of preparation Standard Costing was officially abandoned at the end of the second week and never heard of again.

            A normal part of the DPT programme for mining engineers was a visit to mines in a European country, often Germany. For some reason I missed out on this, perhaps because I had worked in Holland, although I did that under my own steam. Foreign students came to the U.K. in exchange. During my stay at Coppice a party of German mining students visited Cannock Chase. Some of us were detailed to spend a day and an evening with them before escorting them round Coppice Colliery. The visit took in the Mines Rescue Station where they proceeded to don helmets and to goose-step around the place. That evening we had to entertain them at Hilton Main Colliery Club with beer and sandwiches. When they got off the coach they stripped off and kicked a football around for an hour before joining us in the club-house. ‘Right’ we thought, with tomorrow in mind. The coal seam at Coppice was a bit under six feet thick, take off a roof beam and you have a travelling way on most roads about five feet high. It takes a bit of practice to travel roads like that. The German students didn’t get any practice. We arrived underground and took off at high speed to show them round. By the end of the visit we had had our compensation for their showing off the previous day.

            During my attachment in the Labour Department there was a bus strike. The busmen got no support from the miners and trucks were equipped with seats and canopies to get the men to work. Chaps like

me were detailed to be at the pick-up points to ensure that the system was working but also to observe the activities of one person who wanted the miners to come out on strike in support of the busmen. On the only occasion I saw this gentleman at the pick-up point the men ignored him. It was cold at the Pear Tree Inn at five-thirty in the morning and one of the drivers was flapping his arms around his substantial body. Someone made a comment about the job they were doing. He replied “I’d rather be at home in bed tucked under our Ada’s bum”

            I had to sit for my Manager’s ticket in the first week back from Torquay. I had taken the Coal Mines Act with me on honeymoon and put it under my pillow where it remained unread and forgotten for ten days. But it worked and I passed and became holder of that precious Certificate No. 7217. Six years on from leaving school I was at last fully qualified to manage a mine. My instructions came down from on high ‘report to Mid-Cannock Colliery and sign on as a Shotfirer’. There are many steps on most promotion ladders and it was no different for budding colliery managers. The underground safety and supervision officials were arranged thus: Shotfirer/Deputy Grade Two, weekly wage sixteen guineas; Deputy Grade One, weekly wage seventeen guineas; Overman Grade Two, weekly wage eighteen guineas; Overman Grade One, weekly wage nineteen guineas. (A guinea was twenty-one shillings, £1.05 in new money.) We all got free coal, about fifteen hundredweight a month. This was for a six day week with no payments for overtime. The week in which I started my ‘proper job’ at Mid-Cannock was, I believe, the first since the war in which they had not mined coal on a Saturday. It was ominous. Already the ambitious plans to mine two hundred and forty million tons a year were beginning to come apart. My first promotion came quickly. The nation was going down with Asian ’flu and after one week, in the absence of enough officials to operate the pit, I was given a district to run on alternate day and afternoon shifts. I was regraded straight away to Deputy Grade One.

            Mid-Cannock had been reconstructed and connected to Leacroft Colliery, with electric winders replacing steam in the shafts, diesel locomotive haulage and two-and-a-half ton mine cars hauling the coal from the production districts to the shaft. I was attached to the Leacroft section and at first in a district transferred from the Mid-Cannock Undermanager to the Leacroft Undermanager to balance the work-load. It was easy to understand how Mid-Cannock could bring itself to give away this piece of coal. Roads in coal seams have to be repaired but in the conveyor road on 64’s in the Deep Seam there were thirteen sets of repairmen. 64’s was intended to be a fast moving short development face, but the coal cutter took hours to cut the face and it took weeks to have the thing repaired when we identified the problem. The big face following us, using the main-gate we were intended to create, was actually catching up with us. Once a fortnight a great weight came on the face and instead of loading coal from the face we loaded rock from the waste side for twenty-four hours. So well informed were we that one day the roof broke down in the roadway and it was possible to walk up the dirt pile and into the Shallow seam. Who’d a-thought it? I was never less than two hours late coming out of the pit. Even on the day our first daughter was born I missed visiting hours at Stafford Infirmary. When I did eventually get there I found there was a ban on visiting because of Asian ’flu but they took pity on me, half washed and windswept from the Vespa ride at breakneck speed up the A34, and let me see them. Thereafter being late home from the afternoon shift was put to good use. I was able to get Judy one of her two-hourly feeds before climbing into bed.

            Reconstruction had not got rid of the ponies. While the coal haulage was improved the transport of materials into the districts was often worse. Material was thrown out of the mine-cars at the loading point to be reloaded onto the old-fashioned, smaller wagons. Ponies were used in the districts to haul the supplies. One Saturday morning we went into the district with the pony. The pony knew it was the weekend because most of his mates were still in the stables as he was being led out. Instead of going straight into the district we were held up by some material blocking our way. The lad let go of the pony for a moment to help clear the blockage. Too late. We looked up to see the pony galloping down the haulage road towards the stables. It would have been a waste of time going all the way back to the stables for him so we had to get by as best we could. On another occasion, during the normal working week, we found the road completely blocked with timber thrown in all directions and six feet high. The same pony stood there, good as gold, while we made a travelling way between the timber and the conveyor wide enough for him to walk through. What did he do? He climbed over the pile of timber! Shire horses had been used in the pit bottom at Leacroft, but they were gone now.

            I do not know whether I was moved because I was useless on 64’s or because I deserved further punishment or because the experience would be good for me. The district was in a seam about four feet high and the coalface was about one hundred yards long. I was now regularly on the day shift, the filling shift. The routine was to cut the coal on night- shift, load it out and set supports on the face during day shift, move the face conveyor, advance the rock packs on the waste side, move the waste-edge chocks that were there to encourage the roof between the rock packs to break down, rip the roadways and set roadway supports on the afternoon shift, cut the coal….  ‘Load the coal’ understates the work involved. The individual stints were five yards so that each filler loaded about thirteen tons of coal each shift. They had first of all to clean up all the small coal left by the coal cutter and trim all possible loose or broken coal from the face. Then the driller put holes in for the shotfirer to charge and fire. The men carried the explosives with them from the surface and had to wait their turn for the shotfirer. There was always a lack of proper material to block the shothole behind the explosives. Suitable material was not sent from the surface but had to be found out in the road, if possible. Much depended on the relationship between the fillers and the driller as to the order in which the fillers were serviced by the driller and could be expensive in chewing tobacco. When enough coal had been shifted by a filler in his stint to enable him to set a roof bar and its props (we were using timber supports) he needed the driller and shotfirer again. All this was very routine until the conveyor system stopped running for some reason between the face and the mine-car loading point or the coalface conveyor broke, an event that occurred every shift and several times each shift. It would take ten to fifteen minutes to repair it. While this was going on the fillers would load the conveyor sky high, thus making it quite likely to break again as soon as it was restarted, or they might be able to set some timber, eat their snap, or whatever. There was one chap who never stopped work. If he could not put his coal on the conveyor he piled it up alongside, all along his stint. When the conveyor restarted it took only a few minutes to shift his stockpile. He was always the first to finish his work and if there was a man short, as there often was on a Monday morning, he took an extra length. As the deputy I had to ‘keep the wheels turning’ on the district but also had those two inspections to carry out mid-shift and at shift-end, technically an inspection to declare the district safe for the entry of the next shift. I also had to measure the lengths taken by each of the fillers. I wore my lamp battery, a self-rescuer, ten detonators and an exploder, for use in any repair work on the district, on my belt, my flame safety lamp in my hand or hanging from a buttonhole when crawling through the face, my cap-lamp on my helmet and the cable, as often as not, caught round something or other. Officials were all first-aiders and we had Morphia Certificates authorising us to administer a morphia injection to a severely injured man in great pain. The morphia was kept in a locked box in the end of the First Aid canisters. There was an examination I disliked when on a weekend shift. An airway from the working level down to the Leacroft shaft bottom had to be travelled once a week. The ventilation was not very good and at a dip in the road I had to be very careful to keep the flame lamp alight. If it went out it might be impossible to relight it and I would not know the extent of the gas I had to traverse. I was always glad when I had completed that little journey. It was during this period that I parted company with my Vespa on black ice while on the way to work one Saturday morning. The bike had landed on top of me. My trousers were ripped and there was a lot of blood on one leg. I got a lift to the pit and hobbled into the Undermanager’s office to report my mishap. “Mr Shepherd, I won’t be able to do an inspection this morning”. “That’s OK, you take the detonators and so-and-so can walk the district”. “Mr Shepherd, I am going to the medical centre and then I am going home. I hope to be fit for work on Monday”. Heartless old devil! (lovely chap really)

            I had been at Mid-Cannock about nine months when I came out of the pit one day and found a note on my lamp telling me to report to Lea Hall on Saturday morning to sign on as a Grade Two Overman. Whoopee! I made sure that I was at Lea Hall early that Saturday morning. I wanted to be the first Overman on the books of this new mine.  Don Bushnell signed on the same day. Don was almost the youngest member of a huge family (nineteen we think) that grew up in Birch Lane, Brereton. One of his brothers, Fred, was the Undermanager in No 2 Pit at Littleton when I was doing my coalface training. It was difficult to be anywhere in Rugeley or the surrounding district without running into one of the family. 

            Lea Hall was a very different kettle of fish from Mid-Cannock. I saw no coal in all the time I worked there, other than the Allowance coal to keep the home fires burning, because I started there at the same moment they joined the new shafts at the bottom level. I had been on the site during a visit from Birmingham when they were freezing seven hundred feet of water-bearing strata before sinking the shafts and during my spell there as a trainee we were working on the inset at the upper level.

            One shaft was still equipped with the sinking gear and for a long time we had only one shaft at a time for transport while the other was fitted out for coal production. The number of men working underground was limited by this. An Undermanager, Reg Barber, had been appointed and the two Overmen were needed for the afternoon and night shifts, working week and week about. There was always weekend work to be done. The only shift that wasn’t worked was Sunday afternoon so Don and I worked a thirteen day fortnight, six afternoons and seven nights, month after month.

            The work was interesting, first of all in excavating and lining the shaft-side areas and when that was done there were tunnels to be driven in rock on each level. At first we had very limited facilities. Not only was the shaft capacity limited but the surface crew had to change its habits. When you are sinking a shaft there is no room down below to keep anything that is not actually in use at the moment. The surface crew sat at the pit top to answer requests for equipment and materials and to receive back whatever came up the shaft.  As we got into a  routine and knew what material was needed every yard of the way we then had to retrain  the surface crew to have this ready on demand and, as space became available in the pit, to send in material whenever we were not winding dirt out of the pit. We gradually sorted these problems and got all three shifts working the same way. A bit of competition grew up between the shifts to get the most use out of the shafts. The miners driving the tunnels were on contract and were only too willing to push on with the job if we could service them. They had a few tricks and part of my job was to ensure that the deputies insisted that the work was done strictly according to plan. This did not always happen and in that event there would be a right schmozzle on Friday afternoon when, instead of another two yards of completed work, they had to drop back and put right all the wrongs of the previous days, usually a matter of taking up the track, regrading the road and relaying the track.

            At weekends tunnel drivage stopped but there was always work to be done at a junction, where another road was to be set off some time in the future. This might involve the installation of very heavy steel beams or placing masses of concrete. Our arrangements for concreting were extremely crude to say the least. We were still using the batching plant on the surface that had mixed all the concrete for the shafts. The concrete was then sent down the shaft in mine-cars with end doors. A hole was dug in the floor and a concrete placing machine dropped in it. The concrete was tipped out of the car into the placing machine to be blown from there behind the shuttering. That was the theory anyway. It seldom went well and on more than one shift we mixed endless cars of concrete but placed none of it due to successive blockages in the placer or along the pipes. I am sure that the technology of piping concrete has moved on and I look enviously at the machines you now see on building sites, piping the stuff up countless floors in high-rise buildings. We had a plentiful supply of scaffolding and associated bits and pieces because they were building the power station alongside us and they only worked on the dayshift. If any kit was needed the afternoon shift was detailed to go over the fence and bring back the booty.

            When the two shafts were both available for man-riding the manpower began to build up, recruiting from the older pits on Cannock Chase. Eventually Frank, one of the Deputies, was made up to Overman and we all three went onto three shift working with twenty shifts every three weeks, slightly worse than before. In spite of being in charge of the mine on the back shifts they (Guess who?) would not make us up to Grade One and there were still no overtime or extra shift payments. Our average rate of pay was therefore £2.83 plus half a hundred weight of coal per shift.

            I had one very interesting ride in the shaft. I was going from surface to the inset level and as usual was checking my notebook. I arrived at the inset from below. That left me completely confused. I really did not know where I was for a moment. As I stepped off the cage the phone rang. From among his laughter I heard an apology: “Sorry Kid. I forgot you wanted the inset. I was taking you to the bottom when I remembered and turned back”. I had not felt any change of speed or direction. Some winder, some winding engineman!

            There was only one occasion when I used my knowledge of first aid at Lea Hall. We found a chap collapsed at the roadside. There were no obvious signs of injury. “Do you think he is diabetic?” Hanging on a hook above him was a snap bag, one of those wartime military gas-mask cases. They were in common use as snap bags in those days. An investigation of the bag revealed a tin of sugar. Eureka! We had solved it. We spooned the sugar into our patient and returned the empty tin to the snap bag. Just then another chap came down the road and, horror of horrors, went to the same snap bag. “Who the expletive expletive has taken my sugar?” We evacuated the sick man out of the pit. I never did find out what was wrong with him.

            The job at Lea Hall lasted fifteen months or so whereas I would have been happy for it to last for years, assuming a bit of promotion had been thrown in along the way. However an advertisement came out for an Undermanager in Warwickshire. I don’t know how I got into the frame for that, how I got an interview nor how I got the job. Fifteen months without seeing any coal was hardly the right preparation for Undermanager of a working Colliery with four coalfaces but as I would never forget my experience at Mid-Cannock I suppose the year-and-a-half gap without seeing any coal was no barrier to my progress. I left Rugeley with a heavy heart but with my beautiful bride and two daughters to comfort me.



The above is an extract from Daddad’s Story © Mike Butcher MMVII