From Chalk Face to Coal Face

For Sixth Form geographers in the late 1930s, their field trips down a coal mine were memorable. During the inter-war depression, St Mary’s had supported mining communities in South Wales and a lecture in 1926, by someone familiar with the industry, had made the pupils from that time aware of mining conditions. For the latter girls, it was for an outing to the mine at Radstock in the Somerset coalfield that they dressed themselves, ‘in the dirtiest of our cotton frocks’. The following account, way before the days of stringent health and safety regulations, is a combination of reports of their visits by two pupils:

‘When we reached the pithead the under-manager was ready to take us down and after waiting in trepidation, an empty cage was prepared and we all crammed in. The lift worker let us down the two thousand feet very gently, so he said, but to us the pace of the descent seemed terrific. As the mine was free from firedamp and all explosive gases, we carried open lamps as did all the miners, and even witnessed the smoking of cigarettes right up against the coal face.’

‘After walking in comparative ease for quite a distance and having met several pit ponies, we passed into a lower road. We had to walk quickly as we had over a mile to go to the coal face itself. This was very pleasant to begin with, but very soon we were obliged to walk stooping down. This was made even more difficult when we came to a slope which had a drop of nine inches a foot. This we had to rush down at breakneck speed, tripping and stumbling over the uneven ground and knocking our heads quite severely as we went along.’

‘After walking up and down hill and through never-ending passages, all the time practically on all fours, we came at last right to the coal face. The seam was about three feet in depth and we crawled the whole way along it on hands and knees. On reaching the top we sat down and talked to the miners. The most comfortable position was sitting. This we all did without a moment’s hesitation and regardless of coal and dirt. Here we found out about the miners’ work and some of us even tried a little mining for ourselves.’

‘On reaching the main passage again we were shown round the stables, which were beautifully clean and all the ponies looked happy and well-cared for. During the journey our guide told us many remarkable stories of the staunch comradeship and bravery of the miners and we admired them greatly for their courage. At last we had to come up to the surface once more.’

‘As might be expected we were filthy when we came up. Mrs Ashworth had very kindly provided a scrumptious tea which we ate with relish, seated on the lawn. I think we were the first girls to go down a coalmine from school, and I do hope that our appreciation will help to show others that the visit is such a one that should be made by all, so they can fully realise the conditions under which others work for us.’

Photo: Sixth Form girls in the late 1930s.