Today is the first day of my new job as a trapper. It’s the 2nd November 1841. I am an eight year-old boy, living in a terraced house on the hillside of the Coity Mountain near Blaenavon. I share a street with twenty other families; most are either miners or work in the iron works.
I awoke still lying on the makeshift bed on which I fell asleep the night before. The lifeless room is cold and damp; there is no sun in the sky, just bleak, grey clouds. I look around me and all I see is the poverty and hardship that consumes my life. I place my bare feet upon the stone slabs, which feel more like ice, and prepare myself for my daily chores.
It is a long way to the mine, so I have to be up really early to do all of my chores and eat my breakfast before walking forty minutes to the mine head. I have to sweep the dust from the sitting room floor and clean the fireplace by hand. It gets so dusty and coal stained, and the bricks have been blackened by the flames. Once clean, I have to help mother fold the laundry and put the wet things on the line in our garden. We share our garden with Mrs Crotchett next door. She has four boys and her husband is a driller. We have a tin shed at the bottom of the garden, where all our tools are kept. In the garden, there is a small patch of grass on each side of a stone path and two outdoor toilets in their own brick outhouse.
Ambling down the creaky wooden stairs, I notice the door at the bottom has been left ajar, presumably by either my father or mother. Treading across the threadbare rug, which occupies the dusty slab-floored sitting room, I notice father’s clock sitting proudly atop the mantelpiece; the time is five o’clock. I enter the kitchen to find mother cooking and father sitting at the dining table reading yesterday’s paper and drinking tea. He folds his newspaper and sighs, “Another strike in the Rhondda. Come an’ have some breakfast lad. We’re to set off soon, y’know.” I eat my breakfast in silence.
I get started on my chores and just as I finish, my father calls me to join him out the front. He has two snap tins, one for him and one for me. He hands me mine, picks up a snuffbox off the mantelpiece and pushes me out of the door with his foot. I wave goodbye to mother and off we set in the cold dreary morning air, surrounded by frost and dirt. Up and down the street, it is the same view; men and boys leaving their houses, hunched over to keep warm and shuffling up the road. The mothers take care of the boys who are not old enough to work, whilst their other children work for up to eighteen hours a day, helping in any way they can.
As we slug up the hill, the frost crunches underfoot and footprints are left in the slush. Some of the boys my age jump in the slushy puddles and hoot with laughter as they do so. However, they will now have to be wet for the rest of the day and so their fathers are not happy.
The air nips at my face and hands turning my cheeks red and my fingers white. I have a coat on, but it is so old and thin that I get chills down my spine. I have no gloves as I lost them at school last winter. I have to get through this winter without a pair, or until mother knits me some. Father is no warmer than me, but at least he has the sense to keep one of his hands in his pocket as he walks. We pass Billy and Thomas Crotchett as we stroll; they wave at me and come closer. Mr Crotchett sees and shouts to father. “Joe! How are you fairing?”
Father looks across and says in a bored tone. “I’m the same as ever Andrew. Life doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many tons we shift each day. I’m getting more tired as each day passes and I hardly have the time for my wife any more. We’re worked to the bone, and I’m so exhausted by the time we’re done, that I just go and sleep.”
“I’m the same; gets me hot and bothered that I can’t even spend an hour with my wife without falling asleep in her presence. I’ve tried explaining to her, but she doesn’t even want to listen. The boys somehow have a lot more energy than me, but I suppose that’s because all they do is sit and open a door.”
Father chuckles and we saunter further up the hill in an uncomfortable silence. We don’t look each other in the eye, but concentrate on the crest of the hill. Upon reaching the top, I see the Winding Tower loom up ahead of me, bright red and ominous.
My father is a collier in Big Pit and fells the coal seams, ready for the mine carts to be loaded for the children. These children are known as putters, and it is their responsibility to take the full carts to the surface and bring the empty ones back to the workers. He looks tired today and is covered in coal dust. His hair is matted and stuck to his head and his clothes have mismatched patches covering the various holes he has managed to get when working.
* * * *
We arrive at the pit head just as small flurries of snow begin to fall. We step through into a mildly warm building and father collects his lamp; I’m given a candle and a box of matches, before we enter the caged lift and begin our descent into the ever darkening shaft. It gets colder the deeper down we get and I shiver in my tatty clothes. Clinging on to my father for warmth and support I ask him “What is it that I do daddy?”
He replies with a distant look in his eye. “You are a trapper. A trapper’s job is to open the door, when a putter or a horse approaches it, to let them pass and let air into the mine.”
He then explains to me that, as a trapper, I have to sit in the dark with one candle, and a piece of string attached to a wooden door in the mine shaft; I sit in a hollow to the side of the door for up to twelve hours a day, with no company.
I shiver again and rest my head on his side. I take in the moment and close my eyes, wishing it was me and him and no one else. The distinct rattle and scrape of the lift doors being unlocked and opened jars me awake. I had fallen asleep for the last five minutes of the descent and now it was time to go to our positions and get to work. My father kisses me goodbye, and heads off with twelve other men to the sixth level from the surface. It is a long way and gets even colder as he descends. He turns and waves at me, “Bye son. Be good, an’ don’t fall asleep lad.”
A man tells ten children to gather in a circle. He then explains he is our foreman and what we have to do, and points us to a path to the left of the lift. He tells me I have to walk over a metal bridge and walk by six lights before I get to my door. I walk with the children into the fork and count the lights as we walk. Sixteen lights later and four children disappear into another fork; twenty lights and another two go. Four other children and I keep descending down endless tunnels; we get deeper and deeper as we travel. I watch our breaths fog as we exhale and try to get them back to keep me warm. I know it is an impossible task, but it keeps me occupied. We stop by a trap door and one of the girls sits down in a hollow carved into the coal face. “This is me” she says. She pulls the door open and we trudge further into the mine. The door shuts and we are enveloped in the thick darkness.
Roughly ten metres ahead is another door, where one of the lads takes his position. We walk through the door and are greeted by darkness again. This repeats, until I am the last one left. I walk down the slippery moss stained path that’s covered in puddles. I hear the trickle of water and know I am near an overflow. I almost trip up the step that is at the bottom of the metal bridge, but I manage to catch the handrail before I do so. I tread across it and count the lights again as I step down. Six lights later, I am plummeted once more into total darkness.
Groping in my pockets, I pull out the candle and matches; I light one and see my door a little way ahead of me. I find the hollow, and sit down in a damp patch. I fumble for the string and tie it around my thumb. This is going to be a long and very boring day, but I know I must stay awake and do my job properly, or I’ll get into trouble and the carts won’t make it to the surface.
* * * *
The temperature drops considerably and as I sit in the cold and damp, I think of my stomach and how I am hungry. I can’t be thinking of that now, as I have to concentrate on doing my job. It rumbles loudly and echoes off the surface. The trundle of carts alerts me, it gets louder and I know I will soon have to open the door to allow them to pass.
Three carts later, I am once more suspended in silence and I know that darkness and silence will be my constant companions on the long road into mining. My father knew this, my grandfather knew this and now I know this; silence and darkness will always prevail. The first day of a new job is always the hardest and the longest and it rings true to my first day. Bored, hungry, cold, damp, tired, bitter; these are the thoughts that have been running through my head all day. It must be lunchtime already, but I have no sense of time here in the nothingness. I hear footsteps reverberate off the metal bridge and I sit bolt upright; I had begun to slump as my eyelids grew heavier.
A man’s voice cut sharply through the muteness. “Finley Carter?”
“Yes, that’s me.” I croaked.
He spoke with a less sharp tone. “Everyone’s stopped working. This is your lunchtime. Use it wisely. I will be back in thirty minutes to tell you to get back to work.”
“Thank you sir, I will await your return.” I said, with my throat intensely dry.
“I see you’re a bit eager lad; I like it.”
* * * *
The day has finally ended and it is time to go home. I fell asleep four times today, which is abysmal for the first day, but I only got told off three times. I cling on to the hope that I can spend some time with father and ask him about his day, but I know he will be tired and will want to bathe and rest.
All of a sudden an unearthly smell fills my nostrils, and as I walk through the passageways to the surface, it lingers on the air, until I get to the lift. I can’t place it, but I am not the only one who is confused by the smell. No one seems to understand what it is, but by the highly unpleasant aroma, it can’t be good for us. Soon though, we shall be back at the surface, where we will rest and be ready for tomorrow’s shift.
As we reach the surface, I breathe deeply, inhaling the crisp but still freezing atmosphere, which I had been long anticipating. I sneeze out the coal dust, I hadn’t realised I was filled with, and try to find my father. He is lost amongst the crowd and I start to get a little worried. More men than I had seen this morning are pouring out of the Pit Head and I get caught up in a whirlwind of voices, boots, hands and snow. I don’t know what is happening. Suddenly it’s nightmarish and I think I am about to get trampled on as I have fallen to the floor. I curl up where I lie, to avoid getting stood on, and begin to weep through tiredness and for my father, whom I think has gone home without me. As quickly as they had come, the crowd dispersed leaving me scrunched tightly, and a very red faced Colliery Master looming over me.
“What are you doing boy?” he boomed.
I sat up, dried my eyes and quivered. “I’m waiting for my father mister. I think I’ve lost him.”
“What’s your name boy?”
“Finley Carter and my father is Joe Carter.”
The man looks unkind and hulking. He has a square face and fractious green eyes. He has a superfluous scraggly beard and sideburns that make him look pompous and imposing. “Joe Carter. I know him. Is that him there with the flat cap?”
I look to where his stubby dirty finger was pointing; to the crest of the hill. “No mister. He wasn’t wearing a cap this morning. That is Andrew Crotchett.”
“Well he’s coming this way. Sort it out and get out of my sight. I don’t want you loitering around here, like some godforsaken curse.”
Andrew approaches in a flustered state. “There you are!” he cries. “Your father must’ve missed you in that crowd. We got a little way down the hill, before we realised you weren’t with us. I hope he hasn’t been any trouble Mister Sander?”
Mister Sander grunts and spits out the words, “No trouble at all.” he seems cross that I have been left behind, as if I have caused him some sort of inconvenience, just by being there. I am embarrassed and feel sorry for myself. Andrew grabs my hand, pulls me into a hug, smiles at Mister Sander and whisks me away over the crest of the hill and into my father’s open arms.
“Sorry father.” I said remorsefully.
“No, I’m sorry. I should have come back myself or called your name to make sure you were with me.” We held each other close for a few moments, before silently hauling ourselves home again.
* * * *
The most delightful of smells fills my nostrils and I know mother is making lamb cawl (broth) with potato and vegetables. I am entranced by the smell and drift into the kitchen. I reach for the pot to dip a finger in, but mother slaps my hand away.
“Not until you’ve bathed; the pair of you! You’re filthy and I won’t have you bringing coal dust into this kitchen, which I have spent hours cleaning and you dirtying the food. Now out, out, out.” She shoos me out of the kitchen and into the sitting room, where father stands shaking his head.
The fire is stoked and the kettle placed on the holder. Mother and father go to get the tin bath from the shed and I position myself on the threadbare rug, naked, but keeping slightly warm with the fire. By the time mother and father come back, the kettle water is warm enough and I have circled four times to make sure every inch of me is warm from the flames.
I watch the water splash into the tin bath and am mesmerised by the sound the water makes when hitting the tin. Soon it is filled and I get in gingerly, the heat working its way up my legs and turning them red. I sit down and let mother bathe me. She washes my hair and body until I am squeaky clean and you can see the colour of my hair; light brown. I get out of the murky water and wrap myself in a towel, where I am instructed to dry and dress, while father gets bathed.
Once we are both clean and dressed in clean clothes, we all sit around the dining table and eat our piping hot lamb cawl, with warm crusty bread. The sky becomes dark and with it comes my tiredness. I ask to be excused now that I am finished and make my way upstairs to my cold room; it is a stark contrast from the fireside. I undress and slip into my pajamas, which are cold and uncomfortable. I curl up under the blanket and soon I am fast asleep.
* * * *
The harsh grey light comes in through my window and the sound of birds tweeting fills my head. I sit up, bleary-eyed and look at the window; it is covered in condensation. I wipe the window and look at the grey sky. It’s another frosty and cold day and I’m not looking forward to it.
It is three weeks after I first started as a trapper and so far I have fallen asleep twice in the past week; I am getting better at staying awake for long periods of time. I follow the same mundane tasks of getting ready for work, doing my chores and walking to the mine. This time, I want to do something ever so differently. Instead of waiting for my parents to get up, I get up before them, creep downstairs and into the kitchen. I find the snap tins and make me and father sandwiches for lunch. I clean the worktops and make the breakfast, so we three could eat together. I then tiptoe upstairs and rouse my sleeping parents and tell them what I have done. They both look startled and I don’t know if I am in trouble or not and so I apologise and go away to complete my chores.
When I am finished with the fireplace, they still have not come down the stairs and I grow impatient. As I am about to walk up the stairs again, I hear the creak of the first step and the padding of footsteps coming down them. Mother is the first to arrive and pulls me into a hug.
“Thank you Finley. I really appreciate your extra help today. Let’s sit down and eat now. Joe where are you?”
“I’m upstairs Molly.” father’s voiced drifts down the stairs and with it comes scurrying footsteps. He appears at the door way, red faced and yawning. “Breakfast already is it?”
We sit and eat and talk about the weeks and how they have gone by quickly and how I am doing and then we lapse into silence.
* * * *
Sitting in the cold and dark I hear a low rumble a little way off. I can’t place it, but I know for sure it is not my stomach. The rumble gets louder and through the darkness, I hear screams and shouts and panicked voices echoing off the coal walls and heavy footfalls. I don’t know what is going on, except that by the miner’s voices, I can judge something bad has happened.
There is a rapid banging on my door and I yank it open in a fright. Three men run past me yelling; I catch the words “…explosion” and “…methane.” Panic rises up from the pit of my stomach and I begin to sweat. I have been told not to leave my post under any circumstances, but I need to break this rule. However, my fear roots me to the spot and I can’t move.
An almighty roar reverberates around me and suddenly rocks are pouring down from the ridge of the mine. I cower in my hollow and shut my eyes willing the explosion to stop. A voice cuts through the clamour; it was my foreman shouting at me to move. “What are you doing Finley? Can you not see what is happening around you? Everyone is leaving. Come with me now!”
“I-I’m sorry sir. You told us not to move from our position under any circumstances”
“This is a disaster. This is a time that you should be moving! Come on!” he yelled, sounding shocked that I could be so stupid as to sit with the mine coming down around me.
An aftershock brings me flat on my face and I lay still for a few moments for fear of having broken something. My foreman hasn’t noticed and carries on running. I call out to him but there is no reply. I sit up slowly and cough up black coal dust. I move my arms and legs and a sharp pain shoots up my arm from my wrist. I have fallen badly on it and I hope it isn’t broken. I hear a scream and sit upright, trying to determine from which direction it had come. It came again and I got up to follow the sound. The scream seems to appear from the left of me. I step through the wooden door and cautiously make my way down the passage, feeling my way along the walls. I feel a crack in the wall and keep following it until the wall stops.
The lights are flickering and threatening to go out. I see the passage drop off into a cavern and am about to turn back the way I had come, until I hear the scream again. I frantically search for a way to get across the gap and then I notice a beam jutting out along the centre of the hole. I edge my way towards the beam and step tentatively on it, I notice it is quite thick, but looking unstable. I start to walk along it and begin to lose my balance and so I sit down, dangling my legs on both sides, and start shuffle along it on my bottom.
I reach the other side and listen again for the screaming. It happens again, and this time the person shouts out into the darkness. “Help me! My leg is stuck under a beam.” It is a child’s voice and they sound quite young. I think it is best to go and see if I can help them, rather than to run to the surface and get help, because I don’t know if the person is very injured or will stay alive. I call out into the murky gloom to let them know that I am here. They sound delighted that there is someone with them and they call out. “Thank you. I have lit a candle and I will hold it in the air for you. Where are you, I can’t see you?”
“I’m shuffling along a beam. Can you see it?”
“Yes, I can now.” I could hear it was a girl’s voice. “I can see you. Keep shuffling. You’re nearly at the end. I’ll guide you.”
I reach the end and she guides me to her side. I look and see her right leg is trapped and is at an odd angle. She’s covered in dust and rubble and her ankle’s bleeding. “I think it’s broken” she said, gasping in pain. She screws her face up as a pain shoots up her shin bone.
I look at the beam and it doesn’t look too heavy. I try to lift it, but find it’s heavier than I first thought. I attempt to push it off, but the girl cries out in pain. I start to worry. I can’t remove the beam to save her, but I can’t leave her alone in this tunnel with a broken leg and the air getting thinner. I hadn’t noticed it before, but suddenly my chest is squeezing and I begin to wonder if this is what dying feels like.
“We must not give up” she whispers. “I’ll try to help you.” She twists her body and screams in agony, but still she persists. “Help me then!” she snaps.
I grab the beam and pull as she pushes and we both grunt with the effort. I am sweating and my hands are slipping on the beam. I grit my teeth and pull one last time, my shoulders screaming in pain; burning. I want to stop, but her leg isn’t free. I heave even harder and it comes off. The girl lies back in the dust and closes her eyes. I sit down and breathe heavily. I ask her what her name is, but she doesn’t reply. “This is no time to fall asleep. We have to get out” I struggle to say. The air is becoming thinner and I can feel the weight of thousands of tons of thick coal pressing down on me. “Wake up” I whimper, my eyes growing heavy as I say it.
I try to sit her up, to pull her to her feet, to lean her on me, to walk… No, to crawl out of this maze of walls and lights and rubble, but I am losing the strength and the will to do so. With one last effort, I manage to hoist her unconscious body into a sitting position and I hold her tightly; tighter than I hold my mother, tighter than my father; tighter than I have ever held anyone before. I hug her and rock her, tears rolling down my cheeks and splashing onto the stone surrounding us. I try not to panic, try not to think of mother and father, probably worried sick that I have gone missing yet again. I think about the time we had strolled down the hill, instead of up, and that time we had dinner with Mrs Crotchett and her family. I am now finding it hard to keep my eyes open and I think, just five minutes of sleep.
We are found four minutes later by the Colliery Master and four miners that consisted of my father, a medic, Andrew, and an unknown man. He had done a roll call and when we hadn’t answered our names, he had sent a search party and my father had insisted that he came too. I find the girl’s name out; it’s Mary Stewart. She is my age and is in my class at school. She is treated for her wound and I am given some horrible tasting medicine. After our near-death experience, we become best of friends and try to spend as much time as we can with each other.
The following year we see each other more often, as the 1842 Mines Act has been passed, which states that no girls or boys under the age of ten are to be employed underground. We spend every day with each other during the school holidays and the summer months; playing in the grass on the mountain, playing in the streams, climbing the trees and being silly with each other. This is the happiest I have ever been and I am immensely glad that I no longer have to work in the crushing dark for hours on end, with nothing but a tiny candle and silence for companionship.