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Coal miners in colour – crammed into the cage and heading off home

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 10, 2014

By Gavin Jones

  • Wednesbury Colliers about to be lowered into the bowels of the earth for another shift

  • Hand-tinted image of Wednesbury Colliers making their way home in the sunshine after a hard day underground

  • The Willingsworth blast furnace,

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THERE has surely never been a grimier, grubbier vocation than that of a coalminer – which makes the subtle colours of these two old postcards something of a pleasant surprise.

Both have been loaned to us by Wednesbury historian Ian Bott, and they are well over a century old. The earliest is from 1897 and bears the caption Wednesbury Colliers Returning Home. Their faces are dark with coal dust, and if you look carefully you can see that three of them are smoking pipes; the one on the right being a fine example of the long thin clay pipe popular with the working men of the time. And are those water bottle tucked under the arms of two of the men?

You can tell by the sharp shadows they're casting that this was a bright, sunny day, and the hand tinting of the ground and foliage, with splashes of muted colour to the men's workclothes, accentuates the contrast between the underground world they work in and the world above; something they would have seen far too little of with the long hours worked in those days.

The second card, slightly later but also produced by Ryder & Sons, is captioned 'Wednesbury Colliers', and was stamped by the Post Office on October 16, 1906 – at 4.45pm precisely. This one was sent to a Mr Gibbard at The Gardens, Upton House near Banbury, with the following brief message:

'How would this kind of life suit you. It looks a bit rough.'

That last bit could well have been understatement of the year, 1906. The colliers, so crammed in that it's difficult to count them but numbering at least seven, are squashed together in little more than a square yard and standing on what looks like a flimsy sheet of tin, grasping a length of overhead chain as their only support as they prepare to be lowered into the inky blackness of the shaft. The narrow rails on the ground in front of them suggest that this same shaft was used to bring the coal wagons up to the surface.

There is no way of knowing for certain which mines these two postcards portrayed, and although by the late nineteenth century the coal industry in Wednesbury had begun to decline, there were still several pits in operation in the town.

Among the best-known still in operation in the 1890s were Blakeley Wood, Coal Hall, Far Close, Hobbs Hole, Hollow Meadow, Lodge Holes, Millfield, Millpool, Moorcroft, Old Park Road and Old Fields. Another large pit was Monway Colliery off the Holyhead Road, though this was marked as disused on the Ordnance Survey map of 1902.

The last two still in use were Millfield and Millpool, both of which belonged to the Patent Shaft works, which closed down in the late 1940s.

Not too far from the Monway and Moorcroft pits was another, Willingsworth Colliery, also disused by the turn of the century but yet to be redeveloped. And on the edge of that huge area of wasteland, next to the Gospel Oak Branch of the canal, were Willingsworth Furnaces, which are shown in the third of Ian Bott's picture postcards.

The furnaces were the only ones in the Wednesbury area still up and running in 1900, and though they were closed down within a few years, they were left standing for decades, and not dismantled until the late 1940s. Ian's picture, though undated, was clearly taken when Willingsworth was still a going concern, with smoke and steam issuing from various points around the site.

Do you have similar photographs from the Black Country's industrial hey-day that you'd like to share with Bugle readers? Send them in, pay us a visit, give us a call or send an email to gjones@blackcountry bugle.co.uk.

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