Sunday, 23 November 2014

Thirty years experience with Pit Ponies by Councillor George Jelley; Ex-pony driver



 I left Yorke Street School, Mansfield Woodhouse on 22nd April 1918, at the age of 13. I commenced work on the surface at Welbeck Colliery in May of that year and retired from there on my 65th birthday on 22nd April 1970, having spent almost the whole of my 52 years working life at Welbeck.
I went underground in 1920 where I spent some 30 years of my pit life with ponies: What was it like working with pit ponies? What sort of animals were these denizens of the underworld? - I have often been asked to explain to people who have never been underground or even seen a pit pony what kind of life the pit ponies really lived. Although I am still very busy with my council duties, I find it most pleasurable and fascinating to be asked to relate my many and varied experiences with those wonderful animals, the pit ponies. In this day and age of total machine mining there is no longer a need for the pit pony. This is obviously a good thing and a mark of real progress. As an "old stager" I feel that a lot of character disappeared from the mines with the exit of the pit pony. I know with one accord everyone will say "thank goodness for that". Many vivid stories have been bandied around concerning the life of a pit pony: tales of extreme cruelty being administered by the pony drivers, overworking, being made to work with large sores on them and even the story that every pony was blinds existed for a very long time. When I first became connected with ponies as a "driver" I first found that many of these allegations were, unfortunately, true, with the exception of the story of every pony being blind. I will now try and recall some of my remarkable pit pony experiences.
Just as a lead in, a pony was not allowed to be sent into the mine until it was of 5 years of age and to be considered to be the right type of animal to be adaptable for mine work.

Having arrived underground it would be taken to the stables where it would stay for a few days to find its "pit eyes" and get acclimatised. Afterwards the pony would be "geared up" with harness (some of it not very good in my early years) and a leather protective bonnet complete with "bit". It was then taken up the "roadway" and invested with a pair of iron "limmers":  these were the shafts for pulling and "breaching" of tubs. Incidentally, gearing and "limmering" up a pony was often a hazardous undertaking, for one always remembered that the pony was unknown quality and very often resented the new "clothing" it was asked to wear, and remember that they had steel shod feet, not to mention a horrible mouth. Much consoling had to be practised before the pony would accept his raiment. When he was finally "geared" up and ready for the first encounter with the "tubs" or wagons, he would be attached to one "tub" for a short while and made to follow a pony in front of him. This was done to give the pony confidence and also to stop him "bolting" when he felt the weight of the "tub" behind him. This practice was called the "breaking in" period and it was mostly successful.

I feel I should state that only horses were allowed in the mine, therefore not any mares. Consequently we had no sex problems.

After the 1926 strike, which ended in October, the task of rounding up the ponies to take them back down the mine was a formidable one. After enjoying the glorious 1926 sunshine the ponies did not like the idea of going back down the mine. However, after a lot of chasing and "nose stroking", they were all finally "nabbed" and sent into the pit. Then began the task of getting them back to normal pre-strike working. Most of them had inflated "tummies" that had to be distended in order to restore them back to pit life.

After a day or so "drawing" one tub the pony would then be tried with two, always of course dependant on the gradient of the roadway and the reaction of the pony to the allotted task. Some ponies took to the work and conditions very quickly and a sigh of relief was given when this happened. I, personally, was quickly able to define a "rogue" from a genuine animal, perhaps one reason being that I was never afraid of horses, or at least I tried not to show any fear, for believe me the ponies could tell if you were afraid. This analysing of the ponies stood me in good stead later on in my pit life.

How could one detect the good from the bad? When I was in my early teens I was very interested in horse racing and my hero and idol was great little jockey Steve Donoghue, who was also a great horseman.
What has this to do with pit ponies you may ask?
Steve once wrote an article "how to judge the characteristics of a horse". He wrote: "if a horse has large broad head and large eyes and ears he is probably one to be trusted; if the horse has a small head and ears and is "well-eyed" do not trust him". This advice stuck with me in all my long association with the ponies. Obviously, it was not always a correct assumption of a pony's make-up.

I now come to my first encounter with a pit pony. I was ordered to go down the mine for being a "bad boy" on the pit top. That was your punishment in those days- down the pit or out of work- and I never fancied being unemployed. I went into the pit on the night shift and was at once to taste my first experience of ponies. I was sent with a pony driver who was in charge of a pony called 'Fido', a rather "doggy" name I thought. Fido was jet black with a white star on his head. He was a very nervous animal so that made two of us. After a couple of "runs" in and out of the "stall" the corporal, one Sammy Rose remarked to me "do you think you can manage him young 'un?" I replied, not very confidently, "I'll try". Sammy said "He's all yours". The roadway was narrow, Fido was fast and I was frightened. Little did I know that from that first meeting with Fido I was to be in charge of him for nearly 5 years and associated later for another 20 years.

Fido and I struck up a great partnership and later on in my narrative I will relate how he probably saved my life on at least two occasions. In my biography I have stated that if there is a heaven for pit ponies Fido will surely be there. He was a true friend. I even took my dear wife down the pit to see him.

At that time we had about 176 ponies at Welbeck, these being housed in two large stable, one on the west side and one on the east district. Before the 1926 strike the ponies had many thousands of large cockroaches as companions. They were in the ponies food mangers and on the harness. My mother used to state that I brought some home in my pit clothes; we had not any pit baths at that period. After the big strike the beetles vanished because the ponies were out of the pit and in the fields, therefore, no food was available for them.

I lost my Fido because I was asked to take charge of a villain of a pony called "Don", but more of that later for I would like to recount some of my life with Fido. After I had managed to persuade Fido that he was expected to live and work as a pit pony, we appeared to become friends. On occasions I would swear at him in "pit talk" and chastise him (although I was never cruel to him). He would answer me by snorting through his nostrils as much as to say "the same to you".

In our pit pony days competition was very keen among the pony drivers because an extra "run" of tubs that the first driver out of the "stalls" would be able to hang his pony onto would probably mean an extra bob tip for him. As an aside, from 1923 to 1924 I saved up my "tip" and having amassed the huge sum of five pounds I went to Wembley for one whole week to see the Wembley exhibition and my first cup final between my favourite team Aston villa and Newcastle United.

Now back to Fido. He was the darling of the coal face workers, but they resented me taking him into the "stall" whilst they were sat "snapping" for he would stop at every man for a crust of bread and would not move until he had been given a piece. Some of the men would swear at Fido and say "take him away George". I used to grin for I enjoyed the scene. Some of the men and pony drivers would bring an apple to work and leave it in the pocket of the coat which they would hang on a prop. Woe-betide the apple if Fido smelt it. He would sniff at the coat and then proceed to munch the apple through the coat pocket, much to the annoyance of the person whose apple it was and using abusive language they would shout "Jelly, that bloody animal of yours has eaten my apple!". I used to suggest that the apple should be carried in the snap tin, but of course it was not easy to do this. So much for some of Fido's antics.

I feel that I should comment on two rather extraordinary events that occurred to me during my long association with Fido: I was travelling down the "gate" towards the coal face with a run of empty tubs when suddenly Fido stopped. I continued to call him to "come on" but he would not move. He just stood and kept snorting through his nostrils. I went towards him, a matter of a few yards, when suddenly the roof caved in almost where I had been standing. Was it Fido's sixth sense that had warned him and probably saved my life, or was it by sheer good luck that the fall of roof missed me; one can only surmise such happenings. On another occasion when I am certain that the amazing action of Fido definitely saved me from serious injury or even from being killed was when we were coming from the coal face down an incline with a "run" of tubs of coal when I suddenly noticed that the "point" was turned against me. I sprinted to turn the "point" to allow the tubs to keep to the track. As I bent down to turn the point I slipped on a wet "sleeper" by this time Fido was almost upon me and by all the laws of average he should have been over me with the tubs but an amazing thing happened. Fido shoved his "arse" into the breach and derailed the first tub of coal which stopped the others. I somehow rolled over between the pony's legs and came out of the incident with scratches and bruises: it is easy to understand why Fido and I were such good friends. These are only a few of many incidents that were typical of a pit pony's life.

I always maintained that the lot of a pony driver was one of the most hazardous tasks in the pit at that period. It was often stated in the early days of my pit life that the management thought more of the pit ponies than they did of the lads that worked them. Whilst I would not go along with that theory, there was always a major inquest when a pony got killed.

As time passed the lot of the pit pony improved, for instance, foot baths were introduced and the pit ponies were walked through the bath at the end of the shift. The bath was filled by about 18" of water and disinfectant was put in. This method was certainly a great help in keeping the ponies feet healthy, some of them were not content to paddle in the water, they often rolled in it. The horse inspectors visited the mines periodically and this lead to improvement in the ponies harness, fodder and working hours. A good pit pony always did a lot more hours and shifts at work than the bad type. This was gradually amended and all ponies were given the same working time, with the exception of a few who simply would not do a proper stint of work.

When I was taken away from Fido, after nearly 5 years together, I was given one of the problem ponies. His name was Don. He was the craftiest animal that I ever encountered. It took me a very long tine before I mastered him. He was not like Fido, he knocked me down several times. When I had to hand Fido over to another lad I threatened him with a fate worse than death if he hurt a hair of his head. Later the lad said that Fido used to bite him. I remarked: "bring him an apple then he won't bite you".

Many years later I was put in charge of the ponies as a "corporal" and I always selected a sound and trustworthy lad to work with Fido. I believe Fido was 27 when he was to end his life as a pit pony, and thereby hangs a tale: Fido always knew when I walked down the stables, he obviously could tell my footsteps. One morning I went to his stall and I stopped dead in my tracks. The stall was empty. In rather a panic I sought out the "Ostler" who was in charge and I asked "where is Fido?". Rather sheepishly he replied "George he was so bad on his legs that I had to have him destroyed". In a fit of temper I cried "The bloody gun ought to have back-fired".

So ended the sage of a pit pony, the best pal I ever had in the pit. I still have two faded photographs of him which were taken when he was in the field during the pit holidays. I feel I should make note of the souvenirs that I used to bring home when I was single and lived with my family. They were the shoes that Fido cast during work and I brought several home and black-leaded them, polished the shoes and stood them in the hearth of the fireplace- no wonder I have always been lucky.

During my pony driving years I was involved in the death by accident of three ponies. It was considered a crime to kill a pony and the first reaction was to be called into the managers office and give an explanation as to how it happened. A severe reprimand was received and usually a fine of ten shillings was imposed. One of the causes of a fatal accident to ponies was if the driver "missed his lockers" and the pony lost control of the tubs and was unable to prevent the run of tubs from running him down or into a wrong way door.

I must apologise for the description of some of the pit slang but the older members of the mining fraternity will well understand the phrases. When we returned back to work after the 1926 strike we found that the pit had to contend with thousands of huge rats. They ate the ponies fodder and also our "snaps" if we did not use a snap tin. I often relate an untrue story about the rats: I went into the stables one morning to harness up a pony and found later that I had put the gear on a huge rat: not true of course, just pointing out how big the rats were.

One story concerning the rats which is true. When I was put in charge of all the ponies on the west district, I put a young lad named Harry Baines in charge of Fido. He came out with his "run" onto the main road almost in tears and said to me "George I am not going up there anymore". "why, what is the matter Harry?" I asked him. He then began to describe that he had seen a rat bigger than any cat he had ever seen. "Go back Harry I will come with you". Harry agreed to go back and I stood on the junction where he had seen the monster. I put out my lamp and listened for a while, suddenly I heard what sounded like little "puffs". Scared stiff I switched on my light and I saw Harry's rat. When he came out of the staff with Fido he said "Now do you believe me?" I said: "No Harry, because it was bigger even than you described it". Rather strangely no one ever saw it again. It probably crept into a large hole in the pack and died- so much for Harry's rat.

Forgetting the ponies for a while and to talk about the lads that used to work them. They were a hardy and intrepid type of person, most of them quite fearless and some of them would sell their soul for a chew of "backer". I did not "chew" myself but would often "cadge a chew" and trade for an extra run of tubs, or bribe a lad to give me a "run off" which meant a bit more tonnage for my stall men.

Intense rivalry existed among the lads; a race to get the best limmers, the straightest lockers or the first to "hang on" to a run of tubs.

To ride on the back of a pit pony was an offence under the Coal Mines Act, but this did not stop us from doing it. When the corporal or deputy called "time" there was one mad rush, like a cavalry charge. With the roadways being low and narrow riding was a very dangerous practice but as ever youth could not see any danger, to get to the stables first was all that mattered. In an attempt to catch the culprits the "Ostler" would sometimes stand in a "manhole" with a bucket of whitewash and a brush hoping to spatter the lads or ponies with whitewash and then identify them by the time he got back to the stables. It never worked, for with such a storm of dust to grope his way through, by the time he got back the lads had gone. They made sure that no sign of whitewash was on the pony. One rather amusing story concerns myself. The Ostler, old Joe Dolby, was determined to catch us riding. One day he placed a tub of sawdust at the entrance of the stables, where it was not possible to be seen from the roadway which we had to travel. On this occasion I happened to be the "front runner" and came tearing down on Fido, left-wheeled into the stables and Fido, seeing the tub, stopped dead in his tracks and propelled me over hi head and into the tub. The Ostler shone his light on me and said "Ha, I've caught the bloody ringleader!". As can well be imagined my language was not fit for inclusion here, but I saw the funny side of it too.

One outstanding feature of the mining community is their great sense of humour. Just to quote one or two of very dry quips: as we were ascending the mine one day and nearing the surface one old wag named Sam Parker remarked dryly "This is the last day of this winding rope I hope it gets us there". The remarks that followed are unprintable.

One other wisecrack that I well remember was when we were ascending the No.1 shaft a man said "I hate riding up this shaft" the wag remarked " I would rather ride up this one than down the other, a very naïve remark.

I want to comment now on some of the strange but true antics of that arch-villain of a pit pony, black Don. As I have previously stated it took me a long time to tame and understand him. I used to go home from Welbeck and go to bed around 6pm feeling angry and frustrated and also very tired, but I was determined not to be beaten by him. I often asked "why don't they shoot the black bastard" but the management would just not do that. Whilst other ponies were having to work two and sometimes three shifts, Black Don would only work one shift and reluctantly at that.

I had to take over Don when his regular driver a lad named Frank Shooter decided to go on the coal face, obviously to get more money and he would be well rid of Black Don. Frank gave me some useful tips how to deal with the horse but Don was determined to have nothing to do with me, so the battle commenced. The first time I went into his stall to put the harness on him he pinned me up against the wall of the stall. I smacked him on the nose and shoved him away from me and again tried to gear him up. The Ostler who at that time was Alf Burden said "You'll have to watch him George"; as if I didn't realise that. Don would not carry a postage stamp on his rump let alone a harness, so I put his collar on and girth band and threw the rest of the gear over his head. What a palaver to get a pony to work, and what a nightmare for a driver. Black Don tried all sorts of ruses to get out of going to work. He used to hold one foot from the floor and hobble about in his stall pretending to be lame. I eventually got wise to this trick and would say to him "You can put it down, you are going to work you crafty bastard".

I once asked Bill Reader, who was our deputy, to come and witness a unique sight. He went into the stables with me and when we got to Dons stall I spoke to the pony and said "Poor old Don" and he lifted up one foot and limped about the stall. I said to him "You can put it down you're going to work". Bill Reader just could not believe it. He would tell this tale many years afterwards to many different people.

Incidentally, no one would ever tackle Don so when in about the year 1929 or 1930 the districts were reduced and I was sent to another district and Don went the way of all flesh. Although he led me a hectic life I think that we eventually came to understand each other but unlike Fido I could never trust him. When I look back on my narrow escapes I often wonder how I am still alive.

It is most interesting to recall some of the antics of the ponies; some would delight in kicking their heels up and rattling the steel girders. One pony called "Bob" would bite your "arse" when you bent down to turn a point. In the year 1930 we at Welbeck received a batch of ponies from New Hucknall Colliery where there was no longer any use for them. I was very disgruntled when I was told by the then manager, Mr. Muschamp, that I was to take charge of them. I considered that we had some rough ponies but some of these from Hucknall were real terrors. One in particular that readily comes to my mind was a pony called "French". The Ostler , when I went to try and harness him said "George, there is only three things wrong with him- he kicks, he bites and he stinks". A charming introduction. He would give the kick that all pony drivers dreaded, the "cow-kick" when we tried to attach his shafts to the tubs. On one occasion I saw Mr. Muschamp approaching towards the spot where I was trying to work French so I deliberately unhooked him from the tubs and he began to kick and squeal and show all the tantrums that he was capable of. When I finally managed to control him Mr. Muschamp enquired what was the pony's name. I replied "It is Old French from Hucknall". When I eventually "broke him in" I passed him onto a lad named Denny Cocaine who called me everything except a bishop.

One of our most reliable ponies was called "Cobbler" who unfortunately was killed instantly by a fall of roof caused by a "rail girder" snapping and allowing the roof to fall onto the pony, thus we were deprived of the services of a valuable friend. This is to portray some of the hazards in the life of a pit pony.

One of the worst features of a pit pony's life underground was the problem of him "roofing", that being that the pony was larger than the roadway. To help alleviate this the "sleeper holes" would be dug out thus making a little more room between the pony and the roof. In later years the housekeeper would not allow the pony to be taken where it was too low for him. This was a most welcome improvement for the pony driver, because when the pony's head or "rump" used to catch the roof the pony would often dash forward and cause an added danger to the driver.

I have often been asked: "How were the ponies fed and watered when working in the districts?" The water was conveyed into the districts in water barrels with a plug in the bottom. The water was then put into metal water bins and the pony could quench his thirst whenever he needed to. The pony driver would take a bag of fodder with him when he left the stables and give it to him at snap times.

To try and cram thirty years experience into a few pages is not easy but it would take a long time and space to relate all of my pit pony life. I fully realise that my comments could only arouse the interest of perhaps people of my own age group and I can't imagine the younger element wanting to be interested, after all it is over and done with and we must look to the future not the past.

Before I conclude I feel that I must make mention of a little "story" that I often still quote. I retort "When I commenced pony driving at Welbeck I was six feet tall and in thirty years running about down the pit my legs are down to their present size".
But I still would not have changed my way of life for anything else.

Best wishes,
                Councillor G. A. Jelly
                    Ex-Pony Driver