There were one or two tough characters in the pit, among them an ex-docker from Sydney Harbour, a lean long-legged Communist, who was annoyed one day because a deputy ticked him off. He pushed over a race of boxes on the main jig. A ‘race was six trucks, each holding three-quarters of a ton, and they left the seam by way of a long tunnel, inclined at an angle of one in two and a half. The race was attached to one end of a wire rope, half a mile long, and when pushed over the edge at the top, pulled up a race of empty boxes on the other end of the rope. This Bolshie pushed over the boxes without attaching them to the rope. They made a fantastic sight as they gathered speed with a comet’s tail of sparks streaming from the wheels on the iron rails. When the speed became too great, they jumped the rails, crashed to the side of the tunnel, brought the timbering down from the sides and the roof, and effectively closed the mine with all of us inside it. Fortunately there was a separate water drain, and we managed to escape by crawling through this headfirst.
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One of the people who suffered from this escapade was me, because I was one of the gang of shift-workers given the job of repairing the damage. First, we had to erect sets of props of green timber, each fourteen-foot high, and then raise a similar bar to straddle the top. These slippery props and bars were fourteen inches in diameter, and being green timber each required five men to handle. On an incline of one in two and a half and in the faint glimmer from safety lamps, this was no joke. At the top of each set, we had to erect another set of two props ten to twelve feet high and a bar, and, worse still, we had to get a third set up on top again to reach the roof, over thirty feet above the rails. The timber had to reach right up to the roof. On this job one man had his back damaged, and was away from work for eight months, another had his leg broken; I was lucky and got away with one finger squashed.
There was nearly always a dash of excitement about this coal mining. The coal was worked by driving a network of tunnels to divide the seam into pillars. Two of the best miners would get out as much coal as possible from each pillar. The tonnage which a pair of good miners would shift from one of these pillars in a day was fantastic. For a while I was trucking for a pair, Jim Devlin and Jim Hallinan. All I had to do was to push the full boxes singularly along a short lead, and jig them down a slope with a wire rope to the next level, where another trucker took them over. Each full box was replaced with an empty one. The fact that I would have sweat streaming off me the whole day while doing only this job indicates, I think, how much coal those two men could shift. As the pillar got worked out, they had to slow down, through having to spend so much time ‘listening’, the idea being to get as much coal out as possible before the roof caved in. Experienced miners could tell when this was about to happen by the faint whisper that the rock made before it parted from the roof. Sometimes, I too could hear this whisper, but usually they could hear what was complete silence to me.
For a time I drove the pony, taking up full races along the level below. That was sport. I would call to the pony, or give it a friendly slap with my hand, and it would start off at a gallop. As the last box flashed past I took a flying leap for it, jumped on the back with a foot on each buffer, and buried my face in the coal to avoid being brained when passing under the bars of the roof. To stop the race I reached down with one arm and jabbed a sprag into the rear wheel of the truck. As soon as the pony felt the slowing down of the race of boxes it would stop galloping. Every now and then the train would be derailed, and the trucks would have to be manoeuvred back on to the rails. It took a knack to lift and shift one of these trucks, with fourteen hundredweight of coal in it, back on to the line. On my first derailment I called in my giant miner friends to help me – that a trucker had called in some miners to help replace a truck on the lines provided the pit with a laugh for weeks. I soon got the knack of doing it on my own.
This was a firedamp mine, and it was eerie to lift one’s safety lamp to the roof and see the light go dim in the gas. We used to go and smoke in an air-duct tunnel. After I left, I heard that one of my friends, killed in an explosion there, was found with matches and cigarettes beside him, and it was assumed he had done it once too often. I was also told that one of my two Jims was killed by a fall of stone and the other invalided out with a damaged back.