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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 2

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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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