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This article has been contributed.
Although I’m in my seventies, I’m Young Davie Dalton, or at least that what I was when I nearly lost a leg and a bit of an arm with the pit ponies.
I’d been sent to Douglas Castle Colliery, the bit down near Castle Dangerous managed by Tam Hamilton. I was to be there for three months between getting my mining engineering degree from university and going on the management training course with the National Coal Board, the NCB. I was BIG DEAL - until I went to work for Tam.
Tam Hamilton had been at school with my dad and I’d known him from around the village since I was a boy.
The mine was just and incline and no more than a hole in the ground compared to Ponfeigh or Kames at Muirkirk. It was next to what had been the kitchen garden of the old castle. You’ll know that castle, it was there in the time of the Good Sir James Douglas in the twelfth century. I think the mine had been started about then to mine coal for the castle. It hadn’t changed much since.
Hamilton hadn’t been there all that time but he’d worked his way from picking stones from the coal to mine manager by studying at night. Now here I was coming with a shining new degree and the promise of great things laid on a plate for me by the NCB.
My grandfather had driven the winding engine that raised and lowered the men and hutches, tubs the English called them, and I was looking round with interest as I crossed the surface rail tracks to Hamilton’s office that morning. The office wasn’t much more than a shack with a chair and a table in it and a wee fireplace in the corner with two bits of coal smouldering away, trying to look like a fire.
Hamilton lifted his pipe as I came in. ‘So you’ve got one of these university degrees,’ he said. ‘I suppose the Coal Board have sent you here to see how to mine properly.’
‘Well I’ve worked on some of the modern mechanised mines, Mr Hamilton,’ I told him.
‘Mechanisation, oh, aye, well the only thing that’s mechanised about here are the pit ponies, so you’d better go and drive one of them, eh?’
As I got to the door, he added, ‘Just tell the ostler that Dick Turpin hasnae come to work.’
I couldn’t remember any Dick Turpin from the village but there were always new people coming so I thought nothing of it.
In the stables at the bottom of the incline I told the ostler what Hamilton had said. The Ostler nodded and told me, ‘Black Bess is all harnessed ready, just get her out and I’ll show you where to go,’ he told me. Dick Turpin and Black Bess! How daft could I have been?
I was lucky I was looking around in the stable as I went into Bess’s stall. The stable was like a wide hospital corridor. All white and brightly lit and spotless. The harness and feed were stacked against one wall, there was a long drain down the middle and the ponies stalls were on the other side. There was no smell because the first place that was ventilated was the stable. Since the ventilation takes the temperature of the air about thirty metres down, the air was pleasantly cool on a warm summers day and warm when the sleet was flying in winter.
After crawling through sludge on the mechanised faces, covered in dust when the machines started and working in mud and fog when the dust sprays were turned on, it wasn’t like being underground at all.
I was still looking round in surprise when I got to Bess and maybe that’s what saved me.
Bess’s head came round and her teeth almost slashed my arm open. If I’d been wide awake I’d have jumped back from those teeth and Bess would have caught me with a kick. By the time her hooves were back on the ground and her back was arched to have another swipe I was back in Hamilton’s office.
‘Och maybe Bess didn’t know you were planning to be one of the big bosses,’ he said, ‘Or then again, maybe she did, eh? Well, we’ll have to find you something more in keeping with your engineering qualifications, maybe you could go and help to grease the ropes, eh?’
I looked at him, then thought, you’ve got no more exams to worry about, go with the flow and relax. I could hear Hamilton chuckling as I left to go underground again. Dad nearly choked on his tea and roared with laughter when I told him.
As I waited in the stable for the man who worked on the ropes, the ostler came to me, ‘Don’t take it too hard about Bess, she’s always a bit difficult and the ponies talk among themselves and they would ken you’re new.’
I looked at him sceptically.
‘Oh, aye,’ he insisted, ‘if one of the drivers ill treats his pony, it doesn’t matter which one he gets, it’ll no’ make his work easy. Oh, aye, they talk among themselves never you fear.’ But how would a pony know a mining graduate was coming to drive Black Bess on Monday morning?
The rope we had to grease was endless, like a fan belt or a chair lift at the ski slopes. It ran in a tunnel about a mile long with two rail tracks in it, one for the empties going in and another for the fulls coming out. There was a siding at the end of this rope where the ponies picked up a train of six hutches, just boxes on wheels that held half a ton.
In the morning, the drivers took the ponies from the stables to the siding along another tunnel. Then, that travelling tunnel was calm and orderly but between two and half past you stayed out of it because the ponies could tell the time. As the ponies came into the siding at two o’clock, they stood waiting patiently as always but as soon as they heard their trek chain uncoupled, it was the Charge of the Light Brigade. If for any reason you happened to be in the tunnel and heard a pony coming, you dived into the nearest cubby hole or flat down in the dirty water in the drain. The water had all kind of things in it, including whatever the ponies had done to relieve themselves but you didn’t hesitate, the pony wasn’t stopping and you could see the sparks as the trek chain rattled round the tunnel rock, the steel rails and water pipes.
At the siding at the end of the rope was a kind of lunch club, just timber planks against the sides of the tunnel, where the drivers ate their sandwiches and tormented each other and anybody else who happened to be there. The price of entry was a jam sandwich for the ponies. If you had no jam sandwich, nobody spoke to you.
The drivers were in their late teens and as full of nonsense as that age group always is. They were supposed to walk with the pony but the tunnels had been mined just high enough to let the pony pass, so the driver had to stoop and no teenager is going to walk stooped in a tunnel all day. The lads hooked the trek chain on to the wee train of six tubs, climbed into the first hutch, gave a whistle and the pony set off. At the inside, where they collected the full hutches, the pony stopped, the driver got out, unhooked the trek chain, turned the pony and hooked on the full train. There was no empty for him to get into so he balanced on the trek chain for the ride out. The only time he got his hands dirty was hooking on the chain and he had no exercise to use up his energy and spent the time thinking up devilment for break time, or any other opportunity that came along.
In that lunch club, one of the older men, who now did odd jobs, told me that when he was a driver, his pony stopped half way in but at a place where the roof was too low for him to get out. He tried shouting at the pony but it had no effect so he started to plead and that’s when he heard the whump, whump. The pony moved forward and stopped again. He got out and a few feet away lay two or three slabs that had just fallen from the roof. How did the pony know? Maybe it heard noises we can’t hear, or maybe the Coaly Ghost spoke to it. Believe me there is a coaly ghost in every coal mine but that’s a story for another day.
We were sitting in this lunch club when Jim, one of the drivers said, ‘you ken they can see in the dark.’ He went to the end of the siding and changed the points to the wrong way, then climbed into the first empty and told us to put out our lights. In the pitch dark, and believe me there is no dark like down the mine, it feels like velvet. Jim whistled for Susie, his pony, to start and you could hear the wheels rumble, rumble, then stop. When we put on our lights, the front wheels were about a foot short of the crossing. Could the pony see in the dark, or had she seen Jim change the points and knew they were wrong. If she did, how did she stop just there?
Another day, we were sitting at break when Jim said he wasn’t feeling too good and wondered if I could take his pony in for a turn. ‘Of course he can, he’s got a university degree,’ one of the others insisted.
How could I refuse?
Susie, his pony, was a gentle sort of beast so I got up. ‘She’s already hooked on, ready to go,’ Jim told me.
I wasn’t going to get inside an empty and ride because there was likely to be some trickery involved somewhere, so I took Susie’s lead rope and started off. The trek chain went clink. The couplings went klink, klink, klink, klink, klink, klink and Susie stopped. I tried coaxing. Susie wasn’t listening. I looked along the rails in case Jim had put a rock on the track. Nothing. I looked at the wheels in case he’s stuck a sprag in one of the wheels to stop it turning. Nothing. Fortunately I counted the tubs. There were seven coupled on, not six. Now, I’m not saying the ponies could count to ten, or that they could multiply, but they knew the difference between six and more than six.
As soon as she heard the last coupling being taken off, Susie walked away. By the time we were on our way back out, I was talking to her. What my university professor would have said I don’t know but I knew when Susie agreed with what I was saying and when she didn’t. Daft? You had to be with those quiet beasts plodding along to feel their sympathy.
When I got to surface, of course, Hamilton was there. ‘I don’t know what kind of mathematics they teach at university,’ he said. ‘But even a pit pony kens there’s only five couplings between six hutches. Heh, heh, heh.’
Let me finish by telling you about the holidays. The mine closed for two weeks from the first Friday after the second Monday in July, something like that. On that Friday, the ponies were brought to surface. It was midsummer when the sun only goes down late and maybe the sunlight hurt their eyes and that’s why the ponies jumped and danced about. I wouldn’t know, but for the next two weeks, they ate grass and lay around while those of us who had volunteered to work over the holidays sweated like slaves underground. Hamilton sent us to replace pumps in places that had been mined the Good Sir James’s time, four foot high and a foot deep in mud and the only way to get the new pump in was to heave and push. After that the old pump had to be manhandled back out. By the last Friday, we were bushed. That morning Hamilton told us to go and catch the ponies to take them underground. Then he went off.
‘We’re no’ catching these things too early because, if we’re finished before ten, Hamilton will have another job for us in some muddy hole at the back o’ the mine,’ someone said. It seemed a good idea at the time but those of you who have had anything to do with horses or even sheep will know what’s coming. About eight o’clock, one of the youngsters turned to his pal, ‘I could ride one of those ponies better than you,’ he said. ‘I’ll race you from there to that tree for ten bob,’ his pal told him. ‘Make it a pound and you’re on.’ There were side bets, naturally. ‘We’ll just get them in a corner and separate two,’ we agreed. Only the ponies weren’t part of the agreement. We got them in a corner all right, but then they wouldn’t separate, they came at us in a bunch, in line ahead, in line abreast, in two lines.
‘Why did you no’ stop one,’ someone asked his pal.
‘Because I’m no’ John Wayne and Ava Gardiner wanae on it’s back.’ He was told.
By ten, when we sat down for our break the ponies had seen all our moves.
Hamilton appeared. ‘I thought you might be finished,’ he told us. ‘You chaps have worked that weel I was going to say you could go home once you’d caught them.’
By ten that night, we were only fit to walk after the ponies. Then someone happened to mention he was getting hungry and we realised the ponies had only had twenty minutes peace to eat and they might be hungry as well. One of the lads dashed down to the stables and brought out some corn. I offered it to Susie and she came like a lamb. The rest just followed.
In spite of being tired and hungry, I felt sad. I’d have been better pleased if the ponies had disappeared over the hill. They were much better company than the mechanical machines in the mechanised sections.
On Saturday, I was walking in the street with my dad when Hamilton came past. ‘I believe you’ve been showing our graduate how to get coal out of the mine,’ Dad said. ‘Aye and I hope he’s learned some horse sense as well, eh?’ Hamilton said.
I left them both laughing.
© D. G. Dalton August 2011
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