The Wigan Pier Diaries: 19.3.36
Teeth on a revolving chain
In frightful exhaustion after going down the “day hole,” as, of course, when the time came I had not the strength of mind to say I did not want to go as far as the coal face.
I went down with the “deputy” (Mr Lawson) about 3 pm. and came up about 6.30 pm. L. said we had covered not quite 2 miles. I must say that I got on perceptibly better than at Wigan, either because the going was a little better, as I think it was – probably one could stand upright about one third of the way – or because L., who is an old man, moderated his pace to mine. The chief feature of this pit, apart from its being a “day hole,” is that it is infernally wet in most places. There were quite considerable streams running here and there, and two enormous pumps have to be kept running all day and most of the night. The water is pumped up to ground level and has made a considerable pool, but curiously enough it is clear clean water – even drinkable, L. said – and the pool was quite ornamental with waterhens swimming about on it. We went down when the morning shift came up, and there are comparatively few men on the shift for some reason I did not understand. When we got to the coal face the men were there with the coal-cutter, which was not running at the moment, but they set it running to show me. The teeth on a revolving chain – in principle it is an enormously tough and powerful band-saw – cut in underneath the coal face, after which huge boulders of coal can be easily tumbled out and broken up with picks before being loaded onto the tubs. Some of these boulders of coal, not yet broken up, were about 8 feet long by two thick by four high – the seam is four feet six, I think – and must have weighed many tons.* As it cuts the machine travels backwards or forwards, as desired, along the coalface, on its own power. The place where these men, and those loading the broken coal onto the tubs, were working, was like hell. I had never thought of it before, but of course as the machine works it sends forth clouds of coal dust which almost stifle one and make it impossible to see more than a few feet. No lamps except Davy lamps of an old-fashioned pattern, not more than two or three candle-power, and it puzzled one to see how these men can see to work, except when there are a number of them together. To get from one part of the coal face to another you had to crawl along awful tunnels cut through the coal, a yard high by two feet wide, and then to work yourself on your bottom over mountainous boulders of coal. Of course in doing this I dropped my lamp and it went out. L. called to one of the men working and he gave me his lamp. Then L. said “You’d better cut yourself a bit of coal as a memento” (visitors always do this), and while I was cutting out a piece of coal with the pick, I knocked my second lamp between the two of us, which was disconcerting and brought it home to me how easily you could lose yourself down there if you didn’t happen to know the roads.
We passed tubs, carrying props etc., going to and fro on the endless belt, which is worked by electricity. The tubs only move at 1½ miles an hour. All the miners at this pit seem to carry sticks, and they gave me one which was a great help. They are about two foot six long and hollowed out just below the knob, and when you have to bend really low you grip the stick by the hollow. The ground underfoot was as mucky as a farm yard in many places. They say the best way to go is to keep one foot on the trolley-rail and the other on the sleepers, if you can find them. The miners going down the roads run, bent double of course, in places where I could barely stagger. They say it is easier to run than walk when you have the hang of it. It was rather humiliating that coming back, which we did by the most direct route, took me three-quarters of an hour and only takes the miners a quarter of an hour. But we had gone to the nearest working, only about halfway to the end. Those who work at the furthest working take nearly an hour to get to their work. This time I was given one of the new crash helmets which many, though not all miners, now wear. To look at they are very like a French or Italian tin hat, and I had always imagined they were made of metal. Actually they are a kind of compressed fibre and very light. Mine was a bore because it was too small and fell off when I bent very low. But how glad of it I was! Coming back when I was tired and could not bend much I must have bashed my head twenty times – once hard enough to bring down a huge chunk of stone – but felt absolutely nothing.
Walked home with L. to Dodworth as I could get the bus more easily there. He has a two-mile walk with some pretty stiff hills going to and from work, in addition to the walk inside the mine when he gets there. But I suppose as “deputy” he doesn’t do much manual work. He has worked in this mine 22 years and says he knows it so well that he never even needs to look up [to] see when there is a beam coming.
Birds all singing. Tiny pink buds on the elms that I had never noticed before. Many female flowers on the hazels. But I suppose as usual the old maids will be cutting them all off for Easter decorations.
When I sit typing the family, especially Mrs G. and the kids, all gather round to watch absorbedly, and appear to admire my prowess almost as much as I admire that of the miners.
* A cubic yard of coal said to weight 27 cwt
George Orwell travelled to the north of England in January 1936 to report on living conditions in the wake of the Great Depression. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 while Orwell was in Spain.
In addition to a great deal of research, the book was based on Orwell’s diaries, which begin in Coventry and end in March 1936, near Barnsley. Orwell Daily is serialising that diary in real-time, eighty-seven years to the day since it was written.