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George Orwell > Down The Mine > Essay

Down The Mine


Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely
than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that
keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or
indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world
the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the
soil. He is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything
that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by
which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and
are willing to take the trouble.

When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal
face when the 'fillers' are at work. This is not easy, because when the
mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if
you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally
wrong impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost
peaceful. The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the
air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the
miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate
like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in
hell are if there--heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and,
above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for
there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and
electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.

When you have finally got there--and getting there is a in itself: I
will explain that in a moment--you crawl through the last line of pit
props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high.
This is the coal face. Overhead is the smooth ceiling made by the rock
from which the coal has been cut; underneath is the rock again, so that
the gallery you are in is only as high as the ledge of coal itself,
probably not much more than a yard. The first impression of all,
overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening
din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see
very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp,
but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling
men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the
fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. They are
feeding it on to the conveyor belt, a moving rubber, belt a couple of
feet wide which runs a yard or two behind them. Down this belt a
glittering river of coal races constantly. In a big mine it is carrying
away several tons of coal every minute. It bears it off to some place in
the main roads where it is shot into tubs holding half a tun, and thence
dragged to the cages and hoisted to the outer air.

It is impossible to watch the 'fillers' at work without feelling a pang
of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost
superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not
only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a
position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain
kneeling all the while--they could hardly rise from their knees without
hitting the ceiling--and you can easily see by trying it what a
tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you
are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the
shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your
arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make
things easier. There is the heat--it varies, but in some mines it is
suffocating--and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils
and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor
belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine
gun. But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They
really do look like iron hammered iron statues--under the smooth coat of
coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see
miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they
are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job)
but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders
tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and
sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter
mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the
hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell
by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up
to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all
look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man's body,
and a figure fit for a guardsman at that, just a few pounds of extra
flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible.
You can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it--the line of
bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their, huge
shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. They are on the
job for seven and a half hours, theoretically without a break, for there
is no time 'off'. Actually they, snatch a quarter of an hour or so at
some time during the shift to eat the food they have brought with them,
usually a hunk of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea. The first
time I was watching the 'fillers' at work I put my hand upon some
dreadful slimy thing among the coal dust. It was a chewed quid of
tobacco. Nearly all the miners chew tobacco, which is said to be good
against thirst.

Probably you have to go down several coal-mines before you can get much
grasp of the processes that are going on round you. This is chiefly
because the mere effort of getting from place to place; makes it
difficult to notice anything else, In some ways it is even disappointing,
or at least is unlike what you have, expected. You get into the cage,
which is a steel box about as wide as a telephone box and two or three
times as long. It holds ten men, but they pack it like pilchards in a
tin, and a tall man cannot stand upright in it. The steel door shuts upon
you, and somebody working the winding gear above drops you into the void.
You have the usual momentary qualm in your belly and a bursting sensation
in the cars, but not much sensation of movement till you get near the
bottom, when the cage slows down so abruptly that you could swear it is
going upwards again. In the middle of the run the cage probably touches
sixty miles an hour; in some of the deeper mines it touches even more.
When you crawl out at the bottom you are perhaps four hundred yards
underground. That is to say you have a tolerable-sized mountain on top of
you; hundreds of yards of solid rock, bones of extinct beasts, subsoil,
flints, roots of growing things, green grass and cows grazing on it--all
this suspended over your head and held back only by wooden props as thick
as the calf of your leg. But because of the speed at which the cage has
brought you down, and the complete blackness through which you have
travelled, you hardly feel yourself deeper down than you would at the
bottom of the Piccadilly tube.

What is surprising, on the other hand, is the immense horizontal
distances that have to be travelled underground. Before I had been down a
mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and
getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realized
that before he even gets to work he may have had to creep along passages
as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of
course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal; But as that
seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get
further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit
bottom to the coal face, that is probably an average distance; three
miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where
it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to
distances above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be,
there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even
there, where a man can stand upright.

You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred
yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight
or ten feet wide and about five high, with the walls built up with slabs
of shale, like the stone walls in Derbyshire. Every yard or two there are
wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have
buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck. Usually it is
bad going underfoot--thick dust or jagged chunks of shale, and in some
mines where there is water it is as mucky as a farm-yard. Also there is
the track for the coal tubs, like a miniature railway track with sleepers
a foot or two apart, which is tiresome to walk on. Everything is grey
with shale dust; there is a dusty fiery smell which seems to be the same
in all mines. You see mysterious machines of which you never learn the
purpose, and bundles of tools slung together on wires, and sometimes mice
darting away from the beam of the lamps. They are surprisingly common,
especially in mines where there are or have been horses. It would be
interesting to know how they got there in the first place; possibly by
falling down the shaft--for they say a mouse can fall any distance
uninjured, owing to its surface area being so large relative to its
weight. You press yourself against the wall to make way for lines of tubs
jolting slowly towards the shaft, drawn by an endless steel cable
operated from the surface. You creep through sacking curtains and thick
wooden doors which, when they are opened, let out fierce blasts of air.
These doors are an important part of the ventilation system. The
exhausted air is sucked out of one shaft by means of fans, and the fresh
air enters the other of its own accord. But if left to itself the air
will take the shortest way round, leaving the deeper workings
unventilated; so all the short cuts have to be partitioned off.

At the start to walk stooping is rather a joke, but it is a joke that
soon wears off. I am handicapped by being exceptionally tall, but when
the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody except
a dwarf or a child. You not only have to bend double, you have also got
to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and
dodge them when they come. You have, thehefore, a constant crick in the
neck, but this is nothing to the pain in your knees and thighs. After
half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You
begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end--still more, how on
earth you are going to get back. Your pace grows slower and slower. You
come to a stretch of a couple of hundred yards where it is all
exceptionally low and you have to work yourself along in a squatting
position. Then suddenly the roof opens out to a mysterious height--scene
of and old fall of rock, probably--and for twenty whole yards you can
stand upright. The relief is overwhelming. But after this there is
another low stretch of a hundred yards and then a succession of beams
which you have to crawl under. You go down on all fours; even this is a
relief after the squatting business. But when you come to the end of the
beams and try to get up again, you find that your knees have temporarily
struck work and refuse to lift you. You call a halt, ignominiously, and
say that you would like to rest for a minute or two. Your guide (a miner)
is sympathetic. He knows that your muscles are not the same as his. 'Only
another four hundred yards,' he says encouragingly; you feel that he
might as well say another four hundred miles. But finally you do somehow
creep as far as the coal face. You have gone a mile and taken the best
part of an hour; a miner would do it in not much more than twenty
minutes. Having got there, you have to sprawl in the coal dust and get
your strength back for several minutes before you can even watch the work
in progress with any kind of intelligence.

Coming back is worse than going, not only because you are already tired
out but because the journey back to the shaft is slightly uphill. You get
through the low places at the speed of a tortoise, and you have no shame
now about calling a halt when your knees give way. Even the lamp you are
carrying becomes a nuisance and probably when you stumble you drop it;
whereupon, if it is a Davy lamp, it goes out. Ducking the beams becomes
more and more of an effort, and sometimes you forget to duck. You try
walking head down as the miners do, and then you bang your backbone. Even
the miners bang their backbones fairly often. This is the reason why in
very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half naked, most of the
miners have what they call 'buttons down the back'--that is, a permanent
scab on each vertebra. When the track is down hill the miners sometimes
fit their clogs, which are hollow under-neath, on to the trolley rails
and slide down. In mines where the 'travelling' is very bad all the
miners carry sticks about two and a half feet long, hollowed out below
the handle. In normal places you keep your hand on top of the stick and
in the low places you slide your hand down into the hollow. These sticks
are a great help, and the wooden crash-helmets--a comparatively recent
invention--are a godsend. They look like a French or Italian steel
helmet, but they are made of some kind of pith and very light, and so
strong, that you can take a violent blow on the head without feeling it.
When finally you get back to the surface you have been perhaps three
hours underground and travelled two miles, and you, are more exhausted
than you would be by a twenty-five-mile walk above ground. For a week
afterwards your thighs are so stiff that coming downstairs is quite a
difficult feat; you have to work your way down in a peculiar sidelong
manner, without bending the knees. Your miner friends notice the
stiffness of your walk and chaff you about it. ('How'd ta like to work
down pit, eh?' etc.) Yet even a miner who has been long away front work--
from illness, for instance--when he comes back to the pit, suffers badly
for the first few days.

It may seem that I am exaggerating, though no one who has been down an
old-fashioned pit (most of the pits in England are old-fashioned) and
actually gone as far as the coal face, is likely to say so. But what I
want to emphasize is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to
and fro, which to any normal person is a hard day's work in itself; and
it is not part of the miner's work at all, it is merely an extra, like
the City man's daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and
fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage
work. I have never travelled much more than a mile to the coal face; but
often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than
coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that
one is always liable to miss. When you think of the coal-mine you think
of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you
don't think, necessarily, of those miles of creeping to and fro. There is
the question of time, also. A miner's working shift of seven and a half
hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least
an hour a day for 'travelling', more often two hours and sometimes three.
Of course, the 'travelling' is not technically work and the miner is not
paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to
say that miners don't mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for
them as it would be for you or me. They have done it since childhood,
they have the right muscles hardened, and they can move to and fro
underground with a startling and rather horrible agility. A miner puts
his head down and runs, with a long swinging stride, through places where
I can only stagger. At the workings you see them on all fours, skipping
round the pit props almost like dogs. But it is quite a mistake to think
that they enjoy it. I have talked about this to scores of miners and they
all admit that the 'travelling' is hard work; in any case when you hear
them discussing a pit among themselves the 'travelling' is always one of
the things they discuss. It is said that a shift always returns from work
faster than it goes; nevertheless the miners all say that it is the
coming away after a hard day's work, that is especially irksome. It is
part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an
effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before
and after your day's work.

When you have been down in two or three pits you begin to get some grasp
of the processes that are going on underground. (I ought to say, by the
way, that I know nothing whatever about the technical side of mining: I
am merely describing what I have seen.) Coal lies in thin seams between
enormous layers of rock, so that essentially the process of getting it
out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice. In the old
days the miners used to cut straight into the coal with pick and crowbar
--a very slow job because coal, when lying in its virgin state, is almost
as hard as rock. Nowadays the preliminary work is done by an
electrically-driven coal-cutter, which in principle is an immensely tough
and powerful band-saw, running horizontally instead of vertically, with
teeth a couple of inches long and half an inch or an inch thick. It can
move backwards or forwards on its own power, and the men operating it can
rotate it this way or that. Incidentally it makes one of the most awful
noises I have ever heard, and sends forth clouds of coal dust which make
it impossible to see more than two to three feet and almost impossible to
breathe. The machine travels along the coal face cutting into the base of
the coal and undermining it to the depth of five feet or five feet and a
half; after this it is comparatively easy to extract the coal to the
depth to which it has been undermined. Where it is 'difficult getting',
however, it has also to be loosened with explosives. A man with an
electric drill, like a rather small version of the drills used in
street-mending, bores holes at intervals in the coal, inserts blasting
powder, plugs it with clay, goes round the corner if there is one handy
(he is supposed to retire to twenty-five yards distance) and touches off
the charge with an electric current. This is not intended to bring the
coal out, only to loosen it. Occasionally, of course, the charge is too
powerful, and then it not only brings the coal out but brings the roof
down as well.

After the blasting has been done the 'fillers' can tumble the coal out,
break it up and shovel it on to the conveyor belt. It comes out first in
monstrous boulders which may weigh anything up to twenty tons. The
conveyor belt shoots it on to tubs, and the tubs are shoved into the main
road and hitched on to an endlessly revolving steel cable which drags
them to the cage. Then they are hoisted, and at the surface the coal is
sorted by being run over screens, and if necessary is washed as well. As
far as possible the 'dirt'--the shale, that is--is used for making the
roads below. All what cannot be used is sent to the surface and dumped;
hence the monstrous 'dirt-heaps', like hideous grey mountains, which are
the characteristic scenery of the coal areas. When the coal has been
extracted to the depth to which the machine has cut, the coal face has
advanced by five feet. Fresh props are put in to hold up the newly
exposed roof, and during the next shift the conveyor belt is taken to
pieces, moved five feet forward and re-assembled. As far as possible the
three operations of cutting, blasting and extraction are done in three
separate shifts, the cutting in the afternoon, the blasting at night
(there is a law, not always kept, that forbids its being done when other
men are working near by), and the 'filling' in the morning shift, which
lasts from six in the morning until half past one.

Even when you watch the process of coal-extraction you probably only
watch it for a short time, and it is not until you begin making a few
calculations that you realize what a stupendous task the 'fillers' are
performing. Normally each o man has to clear a space four or five yards
wide. The cutter has undermined the coal to the depth of five feet, so
that if the seam of coal is three or four feet high, each man has to cut
out, break up and load on to the belt something between seven and twelve
cubic yards of coal. This is to say, taking a cubic yard as weighing
twenty-seven hundred-weight, that each man is shifting coal at a speed
approaching two tons an hour. I have just enough experience of pick and
shovel work to be able to grasp what this means. When I am digging
trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon,
I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared
with coal, and I don't have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet
underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every
breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin.
The miner's job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to
perform on a flying trapeze or to win the Grand National. I am not a
manual labourer and please God I never shall be one, but there are some
kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to. At a pitch I could be a
tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate
farm hand. But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I
become a coal-miner, the work would kill me in a few weeks.

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different
universes people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world
apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing
about. Probably majority of people would even prefer not to hear about
it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above.
Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the
Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of
coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed;
if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the
miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as
much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface,
the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at
any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order
that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce
Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets
may scratch one another's backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on
the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we 'must have coal',
but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I
sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I
still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door
and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling
of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is
only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect
this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just 'coal'--
something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously
from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for
it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England
and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on
the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who
are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as
necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are
now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have
worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that
passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of
coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And
even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging
it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive
ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to
forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work;
it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than
anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual
worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also
because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience,
so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we
forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch
coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own
status as an 'intellectual' and a superior person generally. For it is
brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only
because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain
superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets
and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for
Infants--all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to
poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full
of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles
of steel.

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