Memories of an old miner

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Well-known Lochgelly couple, Mike and Sheena Cook, gave us this fascinating account of life as a miner as written by Archibald Cook in 1896. Mike's father, Michael, had Cook Square named after him. More mining stories are featured in the fantastic Scotttish mining site. Click http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/mmartin/fifepits/

"Lochgelly has been long known as a mining village. I am myself among the oldest miners in it and belong to the oldest race of miners born on the Earl of Minto's estate. Whole three generations of us were all born, lived, and died in a little old row of houses called Launcherhead. It was around this place that all the mining operations were carried on but mining in the old days was on a very small scale.

At the time of which I am writing - in the days of my grandfather - there were only ten miners in Lochgelly. But a miner and his wife both wrought together. The man howked the coals and his wife carried them to the bank in a creel, through the workings and up a long stair. When the man was sick or died, the woman had to become both miner and bearer.

Such was the case with my grandmother. She was left a widow with five young children, three girls and two boys. My father was only six months old and my uncle Baldie was two years. So there was nothing for her but to go and dig her own coals. She put her two boys in her coal creel, carried them down the stair and laid them at the stoop side, until she digged her coals, and carried them to the bank.

When she rested she gave my father a drink and my uncle a few spoonfuls of stoved potatoes, for they all prepared the following day’s provision at night before going to bed.
My grandmother wrought on till her family was able to work with her.

Sir Gilbert Elliot was the holder of the estate at that time and he openly declared that Hannah Hodge had more coals to the bank every year than any miner on his works. She was a general miner and drove stone, as well as coal, mines. She drove a great part of the Day level leading from the river Ore to the extreme west of the Earl of Minto’s estate, so that the water travelled out to the Ore itself.

She wrought where a light of no description would burn. The only light she got was the reflection from fish heads. And her family carried the redd out on their backs. My father carried redd before he was nine years of age. Wages varied from one and sixpence to two shillings per day. That was about the year 1776.

Their work and their mode of living was their constant fireside talk. This made me well acquainted with their ways. Sir Gilbert Elliot was very friendly with all his workers. He invited them all up to Lochgelly House and gave them a grand ball every year. They were all very happy and friendly with one another.

About that time there was a man and his son, of the name of Chisholm, an Englishman, who took a lease of Lochgelly work and carried it on as long as he lived. He got married to my aunt Betsy Cook, the oldest daughter of this female miner. They had two sons.

For all his long experience he did not improve the system of working anything. But after his sons got up to manhood, they did make improvements and increase the output. Their first machinery was a windlass which did away with the carrying of the coals up the long stairs. They also got wooden rails laid on the pit roads and the women drew the coals along instead of carrying them on their backs. This was a great step in advance for them.

As time rolled on Chisholm's son got married to my aunt Helen Cook. This was father and son married on two sisters, a marriage that does not often take place. The next step in advance taken by Chisholm's sons, William and Stewart, was to set up a gin. This brought their daily output up to 25 tons, the highest point they ever reached.

William never was married but Stewart had two sons, William and Henry. Henry was a joiner. They both went to America and are now independent. My aunt Helen had a son called Henry, who wrought along with William and Stewart.

After Mr John Henderson got a lease of Lochgelly work he engaged him and he was over 40 years underground manager in Lochgelly. Mr Henderson fitted up machinery and raised the output to between 30 and 40 tons per day. He put down a pit, that was known as the Little Crafty Pit. The Company’s School is built right on the top of it.

He then put down a pit on the side of the Kirkcaldy road. This is the Lochend Pit which has given a lot of trouble for some time back. They studied then to sink pits on the side of the public road, because their sale for coal was all land sale. I have seen as high as 20 carts round the pithead at four o'clock in the morning, they came from south and far to the north of it waiting on the pit starting.

The coal grieve's name was Henry Mitchell. I have heard them talk of a man from Perth who came for coals. They had risen in price from the time he had been there before and he was anything but pleased at the change. Henry said "You must mind coals is coals now." "Man" he says "I am glad at that for the last I got was stones." It is nothing uncommon now to get stones.

I never wrought in Lochend Pit but I had a sister that wrought there, and I carried her breakfast from Launcherhead before I went to school. I believe John Hunter in Main St, is the only man living that wrought in it and he was only a boy at that time.

Mr Henderson next sank what was known as the Little Dean, and the West Pit now known as the Newton Pit. The output of coal between the two pits was from 40-45 tons. In the year 1840 there were forty miners employed on Lochgelly work.

It was about that time Lochgelly Company leased the minerals. They improved the system of working and made great alterations in the machinery and workings in every respect. They introduced the Longwall System instead of Stoop and Room and this did away with a great part of the manual labour. They also fitted up haulages that could bring 30-40 hutches at a time.

In 1847 the annual output of coal was 14,000 tons and now it is over 400,000 tons. This is great progress in the mining industry in the Lochgelly since the day the output was ten tons. What a difference between meeting a miner's wife with about a hundredweight on her back and meeting a haulage race with 30-40 hutches each carrying seven or eight hundredweight!

There is comfort in the life of miners since that time although there is room enough for improvement. Still more is this true of a miner's wife. They are ladies now compared with what they were at that time. They were the pumping and winding machines and haulages too! And more content then than they are now! They suffered starvation and knew no better. Thank God these days of misery are past. For, although life at the best is only a struggle, yet we share in some of its comforts now.

In 1847 the blast furnaces were erected and the ironstone pits were opened up. This brought a great number of men about the place both miners and labourers. But the native ironstone was poor and had to be supplemented from other places. The work could not be carried on with profit and the Company agreed to blow out the furnaces. And so it has been a Sale work ever since.

I may now give a short record of what a miner's life is worth. Judging from myself who have served the Lochgelly Company for 61 years without a single charge being brought against me, a miner is little valued after he has given his whole life's service.

There is surely some reason here that there should be a provision made for old age either by the State or by the employer, in the way of old age pensions or otherwise. Is it not sad to see many old men working away till they have reached the allotted time, namely three score years and ten, and upwards for there is no doubt that both the state and the employer have reaped the benefit of their labour?

In order to show what a miner can produce in the course of his life time supposing him to work 53 years and to be a steady man, working in moderation, I shall give my own experience. And this will satisfy every reasonable miner or workman in the county of Fife.

I began as a miner in 1843, and wrought steadily up to 1869. Then I met with an accident of rather a serious nature and was told by the highest medical authorities in Edinburgh Infirmary that I would never work anymore. I had a hope I would and we have to thank God for such a Companion. It often seemed like hoping against hope.

However I got through, and I began again in 1873. I said "If ever I dig another ton of coal or work another day I will chalk it down." My average output from 1873 to 1896 was 660 tons of coal besides 108 tons of small coal per year. I had always to pay a boy for filling and drawing them. I only claim the credit of removing them from their natural bed.

I am quite safe to state that average all through as I was abler the first part of my lifetime. My average working time was four and a half days weekly. My output of coals for fifty three years 32,980 tons with 5,724 tons small coal making a total of 40,704 tons. The ton here is of course 22 hundredweights and that is a ninth more on every ton.

The three generations of us must have removed a great amount of coal on the Earl of Minto's estate. It might be worthy of his notice, reason might say. And I have now to fall back on my fellow workmen that in a great measure follow the same occupation. We tried to better our condition a number of years ago and I was one of the old pioneers who laid the foundation of the working men's success in Lochgelly.

I mean the Co-operative Society where I have been treated with sympathy and feeling. I only wish that the business may always prosper in the same steady way, thanks to the Managing Committee and the Management.

I may now say what Lochgelly was like 67 years ago. As far as my recollection goes it was a very thinly populated place. There were only a few scattered houses here and there and they were mostly all thatched houses. When passing through it the only thing you would have heard was the clatter of a handloom. You will hear no such thing now.

All around the Cross and Main St. was only garden or else waste ground. The first building at the Cross was by a man of the name of Walter Miller who was a Jew. He built on the East side of Church St. and opened a grand draper's shop fronting Main St.

Bailie Dick carried on his fleshing business in his Gighouse all the time he was in business. On the West side of Church St, our much respected doctor, Dr Neill, built all those grand shops on Church St. and Main St. The present Co-operative Flesh Shop was the Provision Store since ever I recollect. Mrs Ferguson carried on the business after the death of her husband John Ferguson.

When we come to the Moor there was but one old thatched house belonging to David Chisholm who was born, lived to be an old man, and died, in the same house. The first house built in the Moor was what was known as the Friendly Society Hall. It was built in 1838. And now every bit of ground around for building purposes is built only by Lochgelly Coal Company.

The building trade has been carried on very steadily ever since that time. From what is known as the Spale Inn, about a mile and a half north from the Cross there was not a house on the roadside till you came to Knockhill House. And now it is built nearly all the way. This shows how steady the building trade has been. And still there is an outcry for more house accommodation.

In 1850 the population in Lochgelly only numbered 1000. Now it is over 6000 and steadily increasing. It was found that there was a great want of church accommodation and it was agreed to build the Old Church in which Mr Landale, our late manager took a great interest, as he always did in anything for the benefit of Lochgelly.

In 1856 this Church was endowed and erected into a parish church. The Free Church was built about the same time. In 1856 the Union Bank of Scotland was erected. And in 1875 the Roman Catholic Chapel.

The Police Act was adopted in 1877 and in 1880 the water was brought from Lochore while the gas work was erected in 1887. The Volunteers were raised in 1859 for the purpose of protection to our industrious little Burgh.

The next step in progress and I may say in economy was the forming of a Co-operative Store. A few men belonging to the place met two or three times before enrolling members' names. After we got a small number, we started business in a very humble way. The stock consisted entirely of groceries.

The shop belonged to Thomas Hugh who kindly granted it at a rental of nine pounds. Alexander Thomson was appointed manager and he wrought very hard, and so did all the Committee.

The shop had so little accommodation that everything had to be carried to it from a cellar at the back, but the business very rapidly grew to be a large one. The Balance Sheet for the fourth quarter of the first year’s trading showed the turn over to be 963.14.1 and the Members' Share Capital 184.18.4, while the membership numbered 125.

Ten years after the business started it was found the premises were too small, and the property where the Beef Shop and Reading Room now are was purchased. It was all rebuilt to suit the requirements and benefits of Co-operative Trading as the membership was steadily increasing.

In 1877 a disastrous fire broke out during the night and practically nothing was saved. Fortunately the Stock and Building were covered by insurance. In 1884 the Directors added to their extensive business a Fleshing Department. It has proved entirely successful.

The other parts of the building are converted into a Reading Room and Recreation Rooms. The Reading Room is regularly supplied with all the daily newspapers and leading magazines of the day. In the Library there are 1700 volumes carefully selected from the best authors and available to the public. In the winter a course of Lectures on interesting subjects is provided for the benefit of the members.

The Reading Room is thus quite an Exhibition in itself. The latest addition to the Society's Central Premises in Bank St. was opened in November 1903. These premises are thoroughly equipped and there is a first class staff of servants, all civil and obliging.

As showing what proportions the business has attained from its small beginnings it may be mentioned that the turnover for the past year was 138,399-7-5 while the Membership was 2256 with a Share Capital of 50,997-13-3. These figures bear striking evidence of the prosperity which has attended the Store.

Each Department too is filled with the highest class of goods, which shows the great progress since beginning with a barrel or two of herring and a small stock of groceries. And now we can say we have premises second to none in Fife and managed too by one of our townsmen who served his apprenticeship in it as a grocer and is now manager of the whole business with the full confidence of the Society.

It is an old saying that a prophet has no honour in his own country. But that does not hold for good in this case for Committee Members and Directors of Management are all prophets of their own country.

The Society's buildings are an ornament to Lochgelly. They are furnished too with a clock that can be heard striking the hour as well as the quarters all round the Burgh.

This progress in business as well as in the mining industry and in the building trade since 1837 speaks volumes for the quiet and industrious population of Lochgelly.

It is all given all given to the best of my power from my own recollections.

Lochgelly is the original happyland