Pupils from Blackwell Primary School were taken on a very special visit to the National Mining Museum in Wakefield. As well as their class teachers they were accompanied by Greater Creative working party member Ian Newham and also local artist Emma Reynard. Both Emma and Ian detail the day below.
Emma: Being able to visit the National Coal Mining Museum was a great opportunity for me to gather some inspiration towards the Interpretation Boards, Greater Ctreative project. It was thought-provoking to discover what it would have been like for families working down the mines before the 1842 Miner’s Act was passed. This act prevented women and children under 10 years old from working down the mines. The museum had an actress acting out a scenario as though she was a child worker and described what jobs she and her family would have done in the mines. She was really engaging and the school children all really enjoyed this experience, many saying they found it really interesting listening to the stories and found it calming sitting in the tunnel. They also enjoyed the audience participation and that everyone got to do something and was involved in the performance.
Ian: From there we made our way to the pit ponies stables where they were introduced to several ponies and given an account of the pony’s life above and below ground. It was explained that they had never actually worked below ground but were representative of the breed that did.
Emma: Everyone loved the visit to the ‘pit ponies’ and learning what their role in the pits would have been. They had photos of previous ponies that did work in the pits at one time and had retired to the museum. The guide told us all about how the ponies were lowered down and remained in the mines for the rest of their lives, apart from a 2 week break once a year. One of the tour guides who was an ex-miner, explained to me how he used to take food down for them and how the ponies were more valuable than a man to the pits. He demonstrated to the children how the harness and helmets would have been put onto the ponies every day and how he would have to lead them with a lamp. If the lamp went out then the pony would stop walking. It was interesting to learn about the different breeds of ponies which were used in particular mines, depending on the heights, whereas the huge horses were used above ground to pull heavy loads.
When I spoke to the children and asked if they knew that there used to be a mine in Blackwell, the year 6 mostly knew about this as mining was a subject which they focused on the previous year. They had learnt about the history of mining and where aware of the child workers. They said it wouldn’t have been very nice to have to work in a mine. It would have been really hard work and painful having to crawl around in cramped, wet spaces all day. Some said that there would probably have been huge rats and what about going to the toilet? ‘I wouldn’t have liked being in the dark either, because I’m really scared of the dark’.
Some of the children spoke about family members who were miners, one girl explained that her Mum’s grandad was a miner at Blackwell, a long time ago!
Ian: Soon it was time for the event of the day , the trip underground. The requirement for groups no larger than twelve children plus a responsible adult meant that the children were split up and I was tasked with accompanying a group on the tour. We all waited patiently for our turn ,then donned our covid masks and off we went firstly to view one of the winding engines and then to the lamp cabin to pick up hard hats and torches. Several children were a bit apprehensive about continuing but the guy in the lamp cabin talked them all round. Next into the cage for the trip to the pit bottom ,quite a leisurely pace but you could feel the cold circulated air coming up the shaft.
The underground tour was very interesting and informative , a example of long wall coal cutting , drilling equipment for shot firing. The two wire signalling system was particularly intriguing to the children, as was the chance for them to experience what it felt like to work in a two foot high gallery. Most of them scrambling happily through the entrance. I took the easy route!
Emma: I spent some time with the children who didn’t want to go on the Underground Tour. I took them around the different parts of the museum. They got to experience crawling through a really dark tunnel, although a few were initially quite scared, once they had done it they wanted to have another go, then later show their friends. They enjoyed the Victorian Gallery and were shocked that women and children were lowered underground by a rope and chain, ‘What if you fell off? That’s really dangerous, I wouldn’t have liked that’. One boy said that being a miner was a really dangerous job, lots of people were injured and died. We looked at a sign on the wall which named lots of people who had died in a mining disaster and they found the youngest was 8 years old and the oldest was 64.
I really enjoyed the Mining Lives exhibition which showed what it was like to live in a pit village. It illustrated the importance of women in the mining communities and showed how miners spent their leisure time and were creative. There were some original paintings of the men working underground which I found interesting.
I took the children to the Steam Winding House where they saw a huge engine powered by steam. It was installed by Emma Lister Kay in 1876 and was used to power the cages up and down the shafts, leading to increased coal production. The children enjoyed using the very loud shaft signals which were used to let the miners know when the cage was moving up and down.
Finally, we visited the Pithead baths. They were all shocked and surprised about how people used to have to wash in tin baths at home in front of the fire. None of them had seen what an outside toilet looked like either. It explained how there were lockers for dirty clothes and clean clothes, and that the miners would have had to buy soap from the attendant. They were surprised at the showers being one huge communal space and found it scary and cold in there. We also had a look at the medical area and I was surprised to learn that after nationalisation in 1947 many pits there would have had a medical room to treat miners for injuries.
Response from one of the children that took part in the Underground Tour
It was fascinating going down into the mine. About 12 of us were packed into the cage, we all had to stand really close to each other and we all had our own little lamps and hard hats on. The lift went really slowly, we travelled 140 metres underground!
The guide (who was an ex miner) told us all about the history of mining and we had to crawl through a really low tunnel, it was dark and dusty and hurt your knees. That’s what it would have been like for children our age who had to work down the mines.
At one point we all switched off our lights for 10 seconds and it was so dark that you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face.
Before the Industrial Revolution, when people were still mining coal by hand, it would take a full day for 12 tubs of coal to be collected, but the coal cutting machines that were invented later on could extract the same amount in just 4 minutes! The guide played sounds of really loud machinery and told us that in real life it would have sounded 3 times louder. I don’t think I would have liked being a miner, it must have been a very hard life.