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Miners And Their Families 
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Miners and Their Families

Their Families

From:  Susan Canning
Sent: 18 September 2012 09:40
Subject:  James Henry Cook

Please find attached a copy of my granddads (James Henry Cook) long serving certificate.

There is no date, but he was born in Clowne in 1905 and died in 1979.

When I was a child we used to go and visit them at Portland St ,Clowne.

I found it in a tin after mam died and thought it might be of interest to you ....


My five-year old ears listened. I lay in bed and waited. Waited and waited. I heard a bedroom door open. Big feet pattered across the landing. The bathroom door opened.

Then it started. The sound I hated. Coughing and spitting. Coughing and spitting. Coughing and spitting. Not spitting like the big boys did when they would get great lumps of it in their mouths and try and see who could spit the furthest. Daddy’s spit was not healthy spit and I knew he had to get rid of it. It sounded bad and it was bad. He coughed and coughed until he could not cough any more. It was the same every morning.  He coughed and spat. Torturous coughing and spitting, which went on and on and on. Agony for my Daddy. And no one could help. My poor, poor Daddy.

I hid under the bedclothes, but I could still hear him.

I sneaked downstairs.

When Daddy came down, his eyes stared red with tears. Tears of frustration and exhaustion.

“Where’s the paper?” he asked

Mummy handed over yesterday’s news and Daddy tore off a long narrow strip. Methodically trying to make tiny squares, he managed to find enough saliva to stick the misshaped pieces of paper over bloody gashes cut by his sharp razor.

“Done it again, see?” he smiled.

I looked at his stained, worn-down teeth. Daddy told me they were small and brown because he chewed twist.

“What’s twist?” I asked.

He took a long silver packet from a drawer and showed me a thin, twisted, dark brown rope.

“It’s chewing tobacco,” he said.

“ Ugh! You don’t chew that do you?”

“I chew it and spit it out.”

“What for?”

”Because it helps me get dirt off my chest when I’m down the pit,” he explained.

I touched the hard rope and smelt it. I couldn’t believe Daddy chewed the stuff. It was horrible.
 As well as chewing tobacco, Daddy smoked it. I think his cigarettes and pipe made him cough more, because the smoke made me cough and splutter.

When he smoked, his cigarette stuck out between his thick stubby fingers. Fingers scarred and scratched. Blue blemishes showed where small splinters of coal had pierced his leathery hands and now lay comfortably embedded under new skin.

“Blow some rings,” I said.
I loved to watch the rippling rings chasing each other up to the ceiling then slowly fade away.

One day, Daddy told me there would be no more smoke rings. The doctor at the hospital said he had piles. I didn’t know what they were piles of. But Daddy had to have an operation. I heard him telling Mummy that he had to stop smoking or he’d be dead within a year. I didn’t want Daddy to die.

Daddy stopped smoking and had his operation. But he still coughed and spat. It was all because he worked down the pit. He told me he had new mown conyosis because he had breathed in a lot of dirt and dust. And he had M for seema, which made him breathless.

When he was fourteen, during the First World War, he started working as a ripper. He had hacked at coal with a pick for over forty years. Forty years of dust and dirt for eight hours a day. No wonder he coughed and spat.

Daddy didn’t have to pay for coal to burn on the fire. It was delivered in a lorry. The back of the lorry tipped up and the coal fell through the flap. First it fell cobble by cobble. Then faster and faster it dropped, until there was a sudden downfall onto the road.

“Black diamonds”, Daddy said as he looked at the high pile. “I dig for those black diamonds down the pit.”
The big black mountain gleamed in the sunshine. But I couldn’t see any diamonds.

Shovelful by shovelful, Daddy threw the black diamonds into his rickety wooden wheelbarrow. Pushing it again and again up the narrow path, he tipped it into the coalhouse. As the heap in the coalhouse grew higher and higher, Daddy’s breathing became heavier and heavier. He stood a while and held his chest. He wheezed, puffed and blew. He needed to rest, but there was no time to waste. The coal had to be moved quickly because his next shift started in less than two hours.

There were no buses to the pit, so he used his motorbike. The five-mile journey down a steep tangle of winding lanes took about twenty minutes when it was fine weather. But when the snow lay too thick for him to ride home, he had to push his heavy bike up the 1 in 4 gradient. Built like an ox, he had stamina. He never complained about the uphill struggle, or whether he had to rest. No one ever asked. We were pleased he was safely home.

Daddy worked shifts. He did days, ‘afters’ and nights. Mummy always got his ‘snap’ ready. Every day it was the same menu.  Four slices of bread and blackcurrant jam. No butter. Just margarine. He took a big bottle of water to quench his thirst. Sometimes he would take windfall apples for the pit ponies, who pulled the tubs of coal underground.

Mummy always cooked Daddy’s breakfast – even if it meant getting up at half past four when he was on days. He had two rashers of crispy 'flitch' bacon, fried egg with spicy brown sauce and three slices of bread, washed down with a cup of tea.

After a loving wave goodbye, Mummy stoked up the fire and went back to lie under their warm blankets and eiderdown, while a strong cage carried Daddy deep underground to long dark tunnels, leading to the coal face. He usually walked bent over because the tunnels were so low.  Then he crawled on all fours like a prowling animal when they got lower. The way was pointed by dim rays of light shining from the lamp on his helmet. The heat was intense and it could be wet. He often saw rats fighting over food scraps.

After a shift’s work, his body hung with sweat, dust and dirt. There were no baths, so he carried all of the muck home with him. Dirty rings round his white eyeballs made him look like a panda.

Daddy’s pit clothes were washed once a week - on his days off. They were left soaking in the deep boiler for a few hours then poshed. If it rained, the wooden clothes-horse that he had made and which stood as high as himself, was opened out in front of the blazing fire. It was draped with mangle-dried clothes. As the flickering flames ate slowly into the black diamonds and then rose up the sooty chimney, steam rose from the clothes. Water in the back boiler bubbled and a delicious smell of home made bread wafted from the oven.  Daddy had worked hard for his black diamonds and they were used to the full.

Daddy had accidents down the pit – as his scarred body proved. Once he was in an explosion.

“I lay down on my front and hid my face with my arms,” he said. “The flames ran across me and ate the skin off my back and my head. I was in hospital for a long time waiting for my skin to grow again.”

Daddy collected money for miners who had been in accidents. Sometimes he took me with him on his bike. We stood together at the pithead at the end of a shift. I watched the wheels of the winding gear turn round and round, wondering how long it would be before the grimy-faced miners appeared – caged like animals. A soon as they reached the surface, I stood close to Daddy with collecting box in hand and wearing my best smile. After the first collection we waited until the strong ropes hauled up more weary men. We stood there until the last cage was empty. Everyone was generous. They knew we were collecting for a good cause. Perhaps one day it would be for them.

I loved my Daddy and he loved me. But I didn’t like it when he swore. Mummy always told him to stop swearing and told me I must not swear. One day I heard her talking to Auntie Jane.

“He only swears when he gets angry,” Mummy said. “There is no need for it. But I suppose he gets it off his chest.”

I’ve woken up early today. The birds are singing and the sky is blue. The flock mattress is cosily moulded with my body and my blankets and eiderdown are so warm. How lucky I am. Everything is so peaceful.
But wait! A door opens.  Daddy’s feet patter across the landing. His daily torment begins. Coughing and spitting. Coughing and spitting. Coughing and spitting.

I hide my head under the pillow. I can still hear him. My poor, poor Daddy.

If only he could get the dirt off his chest by swearing. It would be so much easier for him if he could make it disappear with a ‘bloody’ or a ‘bugger’ instead of coughing and spitting every day.

I know someone has to dig for black diamonds, but why does it have to be him?

Maureen Crofts

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