Working the Metropolitan

I commenced working in the Helensburgh mine in 1921. I was 14 years old. At 5 minutes to 8 in the evening the “buzzer” (the mine whistle) would sound to let us know there was work at the pit the next day. It sounded for 5 minutes. At 5 minutes to 6 in the morning it sounded again. We had to be down the shaft, 1150 feet deep and at our assigned job by 7.30am. The shaft was 15 feet in diameter, one cage went up while the other went down, each holding 12 men or two skips, empty or full.

At the bottom of the shaft there was a tunnel called “Flat Top.” It was about 200 yards long with electric light all the way. I thought it looked wonderful because there was no electric light in the town at this stage. Kerosene lamps were all we had at home.

At the end of this row of lights, there were two tunnels. One went straight north and steeply down. They called it “The Dip”. The Dip rope ran down one side and came back the other. This endless haulage rope went in for about 2 miles or more. Along the sides of the tunnel were Davy Safety Lamps of 1 candle power.

The other tunnel, or as we called them “headings”, went off to the right at the end of Flat Top. This was called “The Slant”. It went East. Another endless rope travelled on both sides of this tunnel.

My first job was coupling up the empties at Flat Top. Empties were empty skips, an almost square box-like truck about 4 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet deep. They had 4 wheels which ran on small railway lines of 24 inch gauge These skips had a steel bar running underneath the truck and hooks at each end. The skips were coupled to each other by a three linked coupling smaller than a railway coupling, but much the same idea. I worked at this job for 18/- per week.

The skips were coupled in fives and this arrangement was called “a set”. They were screwed onto the endless ropes with clips and so the empties went in and the coal came out.

The jobs in the mine were graduated. Coupling up empties was the first job, then you advanced to a “clipper”, clipping off the empties at the different Flats. Then you graduated to clipping on the coal. The next step was Flat Wheeley, then Wheeley from the face, then, if you stayed there long enough, you were elevated to miner cutting coal with pick and shovel.

The skips held 1 ton level, but 30cwt when packed up. The miners put a “token” on each skip – a piece of leather with a number stamped on it and a heavy cord attached to it so it could be hooked through holes in the skip. In this way, the weighman at the weighbridge on the surface would know what tonage each pair of miners filled for the fortnight. The contract wheeler also had his token, which he hooked onto the miners’ token so that he could receive a credit for the skips he handled.

Down the Dip, there were different Flats, each with a number. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 were worked out by the time I started. The others were 4 West, 8 East, 9 East, 10 West and 11. The endless rope that ran through the Dip was called the Band Rope. There were smaller ropes in East and West at 8 and 10, and one way ropes at 9 East and 4 West. Down the Slant the sections were called The Federal, The Capitol and the National. The endless rope went through each of these sections.

In some particular places throughout the mine, the air was clean with little dust or gas. At these points there were lamp-lighting stations where a lampman would open, prime and relight our lamps. He was the only person qualified to break the lead seal. The lamps went out very easily, just a bump and you were “in the dark” as we referred to it.

The Miners loaded the skips and then the Wheelers brought the skips the Miners had filled out to the first flat. The Flat Wheelers then took around 5 skips at a time out to the next flat. This was done with a lag horse in limbers (steel shafts which could connect to the skip with what was called a gun). One end fitted into the limbers and the other fitted into what was called the “cock hole” in the skip. The smaller ropes then took the skips to the main rope road. The Clippers clipped the skips onto the rope in lots of 20. Titter Ray did try 50 one day and had the rope “kicking” everywhere. He nearly got the sack from Sandy McGechie, the Traffic Manager. The skips were then hauled to Slant Top, then to Pit Bottom. They were then hauled up the shaft two at a time.

The coal was finally shipped out by train. They said of Helensburgh coal, it was the best in the country. It burned away leaving a fine ash like dust.

After coupling up empties for a time I was elevated to Clipper at the Capitol. At the start of work I would “rap the rope away.” This is done by shorting the two wires linked to the rope. Three shorts rang the bell three times at “pit top” in the engine room. I then went from Clipping to Flat Wheeley and finally Wheeley from the face. Here there was little air and unbelievable dust. You couldn’t even see. I would part the “brattice” (canvas sheeting diverting the fresh air, if any!) and put my hand in the skip to feel if it was full, and then dart back for more air. I was now earning 20 Pounds a fortnight, as much as my father earned as an engine driver.

After work I would take a bath in a big tub in our wash house. I would then just lie on my bed, worn out, and watch the daylight go.

Jack Hotchkis