Wales online and Wales On Sunday featured our project with the Winding House Museum commemorating 50 years since the closure of Elliot Colliery
All quotes from the article are taken from the interviews we conducted with the ex-miners:
Rats, cockroaches, characters, and friends crushed to death – the extraordinary stories of life in a Welsh colliery
(by Will Hayward – all quotes taken from the digital installation)
‘It was the worst bloody day we had ever had –they’d closed our colliery’
Rats stealing your sandwiches, having friends die alongside you, and cockroaches climbing the walls are just some of the stories from former colliery workers recounting their lives underground.
The Life of Elliot exhibition tells the stories of some of the thousands of local people employed at the site between 1888 and 1967.
Despite closing half a century ago the memories are still fresh for many of the men and women who worked in the pits.
The stories they tell of themselves and their parents and grandparents reveal incredibly tough working conditions with boys dying in accidents and people left aged before their time.
Despite this they also speak of camaraderie, togetherness, and a sense of pride in the community and work.
On the day the pit closed for the final time and the last tram of coal was wound up the East Shaft the last fitter to come out of the cage was called Tommy John.
Men visibly wept as they drew their pay for the final time.
Les Lewis, 82, was working as a collier that day.
“It was the worst bloody day we had ever had,” he said. “They’d closed our colliery.”
This was the end of a journey he started when he was only a teenager.
He said: “I was 15 and a half when I started at Elliot’s. It was a hell of long walk in.
“I was scared because you were going down something you couldn’t understand – it was frightening.
“It was the top coal of all the valleys – we would send it to the ships because it was such good quality.
“I had an ideal miner’s body – I did not have to stoop like many men and I was a hard worker.
“We were happy to go to work on days and afternoons. When it was nights, and I worked nights for 14 years, I hated every bloody day I went down the pit.”
Brother Jim and John Durkee were also colliers. They knew what it was like to start working at a young age.
Nowadays people might use their first pay packet to buy a new iPhone or go abroad but back then it was slightly different.
“I started working at Elliot in 1960,” said Jim. “Leaving school Friday and into training on the Monday.
“Six weeks training and then down on the coal face in the West Pit in a district called L10.
“If you coughed you coughed up dust. There was four of us – two on and two off. I used to have £5 a week – I ran home and gave it to my mother.”
His brother John spoke about how life in the pit aged these young people.
He said: “When I left school I couldn’t pursue anything other than going down the pit – it absorbed school leavers.
“People became old when they went down the pit. People aged rapidly underground – people of 50 years of old were considered old people.
“My grandmother went down the pit aged 12. Children were pushing five tonnes of coal. They were worn out by the time they were in their 40s and 50s.”
Although most people would be aged by the brutal condition of pit work for some it was the death of them.
Peter Francis worked as an electrician.
“What I liked about working at the mine was working with people I knew. We are all local people. It was a good place to work really.
“The downside was the conditions – a claustrophobic existence really.
“I will tell you what made me very sad at one time. Next to the electrical shop was the first aid and the nurse came in and said: ‘Peter I want you to give me a hand’.
“A boy had got killed underground. She wanted to lift the body and that was the first time I had caught hold of a dead body.
“I knew the boy who died – I didn’t sleep that night.”
Collier David Price also knew the young man who lost his life.
“The young boy was called Dickie,” he recalled. “The roof collapsed on him – he was buried and dead.
“He was the same age as me. We used to go for a drink and play rugby together.
“They were good lads – good boys just snuffed out like a candle.
“When you put your lamp out and it was solid blackness. Now it is a lot safer.”
No one saw how pit life changed more than former blacksmith Mellard Lloyd. At the age of 93 he saw how the job evolved over time.
“I was born on November 22, 1923. My mother died of TB 10 weeks after I was born.
“When I started as a boy the colliery was man-run.
“Gradually that died away and it became machines cutting the coal.
“When I finished it was all modernised. When I finished nobody worked hard at all down there. They just pressed a button.”
Someone who can attest to it being tough in the pit was collier Don Williams. His first day of training involved a lot of shovelling.
He said: “My first shift was shovel practice. We had to shovel one side, throw it through the hole and go the other side and shovel it back.”
For Don, like so many in the colliery, it was a family affair.
“My father Roy and brother Roy were working in Elliot’s the same time I started.
“You would wake up in the morning, have a cold wash, then run down the hill to Elliot’s, go into your locker, then down the pit by half past six.
“My father was cutterman by night and me and my brother were days.
“I used to like it because I felt like I was doing a good job. The comradeship, everyone would help each other. You got to know everybody.”
Mechanic Alan Chambers agrees.
He said: “Preparing the coal cutters I was,” he said. “All that broke in number five areas used to come into us.
“You had a laugh sometimes and a joke. You would get characters and all the rest of it.
“You had rough times as well mind when people were killed by the side of you – that happened a few times to me.”
Despite the deaths, the rats, the cockroaches, the illness and the darkness there was more to pit life than hardship.
The sense of community and respect cannot be eroded even after 50 years.
Keith Tomlin was the general manager at the colliery.
He said: “I first came to Elliot’s as junior draughtsman in 1959.
“If they opened all these mines up tomorrow you would still have people going down and doing it because there was a camaraderie and respect for each other.”