4. LEARNING THE ROPES (1/3)
The loading point was the place where coal was transferred from the conveyor system to the mine-car rail transport, the mine-cars
passing under a chain conveyor from which the coal descended via, a short chute. In order to keep the conveyor system running whilst the gaps between the cars
passed under the chute, a strip of conveyor belting (the mat) had to be placed over the gap to prevent spillage, hence the job of the mat-lad. At this juncture,
reference to the site sketch plan will give you a much better idea of the layout than I could put across in the way of description.
Mat Lad: A job hierarchy existed, starting with this, the lowest rank. A support wall for the loader conveyor required the use of
three “mats” as once the mine cars passed behind the wall, there was no room for access. It was the mat-lads duty to clean up any spillage and replace any mats
which for various reasons, fell into the cars and were immediately buried. Stanley knives were not around in those days so a well honed pocket knife was a necessity
when a new mat had to be cut from the nearest roll of worn out conveyor belting. Dodging the tugger (landing hauler) rope and mine cars on the empties side was a
life preserving pastime. For a young lad, the job was not arduous, coal output was spasmodic so between times there was plenty banter and horse-play.
However, the routine was boring to the Nth degree.
Token Lad: This was the first step on the promotion ladder. Whilst attaching the tokens to the minecars, (this identified the
district the coal came from for payment purposes), was his stated duty, the main job of the token lad was to keep the loading point supplied with empties and run
the full and empty sets between the loading point and the Main & Tail haulage landing. This was achieved by signalling to the Direct Hauler (tugger) operator,
coupling and uncoupling minecars, changing the points and attaching and detaching the anchor chains which secured the sets on the steep gradient. More to the point,
the token lad rode up and down the landing on the sets, unless one of the more fastidious officials was around. This rather dangerous practise eliminated a great deal
of trudging back and forth, however, it involved jumping on and off moving vehicles, just too easy for agile young lads. On a similar note, the bell signals were rarely
used as the hauler driver could see the token lad most of the time so an unofficial cap-lamp waving sequence was used. Between times, the ‘token lad’ could wander around
in the landing or nod off in a long quiet spell. Of course, these latter activities where strictly unofficial.
Landing Lad: Many months of experience had elapsed before this status was achieved. To a considerable extent, as long as sets were run
as soon as they were available, the landing lad was left to his own devices. An excavation at the outbye end of No.1 Landing housed the equipment required for the operation of his duties.
There were two sets of bell signals, a magneto telephone, controls for the full side retarders, a steel hook ‘called a cruk (crook)’ for moving the ropes, shovel, hammer and last but not least,
an array of timber formed into a seat. Statutory notices and signalling code boards were located in appropriate places. A whole new signalling language had to be memorised to do the job effectively.
The bell signals were far more efficient than the telephone as this was a ‘communal’ system where a number of phones were on a common line and when it rang it was usually for someone else.
Why two sets of bell signals? One ‘rapper’ as the signals were called, communicated with the loading point (inbye) which sent the ‘full’ sets down to the landing whilst the second rapper communicated
with the Main & Tail hauler (outbye). Perhaps at this point, a more detailed description of the landing lads refuge or ‘hole’, which was the term applied to this type of excavation, should be given.
Floor area was approximately 6ft x 6ft and height originally in excess of 6ft had reduced to something like 5ft 6in due to pressure. A curved brick curb reinforced with the top section of an arch girder
and about 18in high had to be stepped over to enter the hole. The purpose of the curb was to protect the occupant from the ever-present danger of run–away sets.
Running a set was a one man operation, apart from the hauler driver, who was situated at least half a mile away, nobody else was involved at this point. No.1 landing was ready
to run a set when 26 full minecars had been lowered down from the loader and 26 empty cars had been hauled away by the landing ‘tugger’. Landing a set from the loader was mainly done by the token lad as
the tugger was used for this purpose. Prior to the set leaving the loader, the operator signalled to the landing that it was on its way, the only action required of the landing lad was to operate the pneumatic
retarding devices which held the full set on the gradient until the hauler tail rope was attached. Incoming sets were not available on demand however, the hauler also served another landing (No.4) and there
were numerous other factors which limited the supply of empties. When a set was to be run, a regular sequence of events had to be carried through. Before sending the signals to the hauler, it was necessary
to raise the ‘bull girder’ safety device situated just outbye of the landing points, it was even more important to ensure the points were set for the empties road. The set was then ‘rapped in’, the
landing lad then made quick time, to the top end of the landing. Usually by this time, the set would be entering the bottom of the landing and the front end of the set would appear illuminated by the dim,
sparsely spaced roof lighting. When the faint image gave a lurch to the right, there was the reassurance that the set was indeed entering the empty side, otherwise it was a ‘smash-up’.
Although the set entered the landing at speed, the hauler driver knew by his indicator, and more precisely by marks on the rope drums, as to where the set was.
In order to transfer the ropes from empty set to full set, slack rope was required, and this was done by stopping the incoming set about 2yds short of the last minecar of the full set.
Usually, by the time the set had reached this approximate position, the hauler driver had reduced speed down to walking pace. A single long pull on the rope of the roof mounted rapper and
the set clattered to a stop. It was then necessary to attach an anchor chain to one of the empty sets dummy axles. This was done by lying in the dust and attaching the chain which lay between the rails
by means of a large shackle. A ‘slacken tail rope’ signal was then sent to the hauler and the set settled back, coming to a jolting halt as the chain took the strain of 26 minecars on a 1 in 30 gradient.
This action also often released the ‘spin’ in the haulage rope and the entire coupling and attaching chains would make a few violent revolutions. It was advisable to keep well clear. The safety chain was
removed and thrown over to the full side, then the Wilson coupling adaptor was detached by a well directed blow from the platelayers hammer which stood in the dust between the tracks solely for this purpose.
When released, the rope would spring at least 3ft inbye. The coupling, termed the ‘chain-end was then thrown over to the full side and the necessary attachments made. Although an anchor chain had been attached
to the full set by the token lad this was invariably slack as it was only in place as a safety measure, the pneumatic retarders being capable of holding the set in normal circumstances. It was therefore only
necessary to lie in the dust and remove the shackle. The landing lad then made his way to the outbye end of the set. At this point, because the set had been stopped short to allow slack to couple the tail-rope,
it meant the main-rope was an equal distance short of the front of the full set. Fortunately, gravity was available to solve this dilemma.
There was no safety chain on the main rope chain-end, the ruling gradients placed virtually all the load on the tail rope. Also, the uncoupling lever was at the outbye end of the minecars,
so it was merely a case of releasing the chain end coupling by lifting the lever. This done, the chain-end was thrown between the full and empty tracks. A large wooden safety chock, the aptly named ‘cheese chock’ having
stood guard between the rails of the full side was dragged to one side.
By releasing the retarders, the full set began to run down the gradient until it was brought to a halt by the tailrope. The hauler operator had his brake only gentle applied and the set
would travel far enough to allow the rope to be coupled to the set. With the ropes attached, a last minute glance at the ‘bull’ to make sure it was in the fully ‘up’ position and it was time to ‘rap’ the set away.
It was essential to have the ‘cruk’ on hand, the next couple of minutes were hectic and nerve racking ones. The ‘tighten main rope’ signal was sent to the hauler, the slack rope dragged over the rails and dust and
tightened with a jerk, the tailrope on the rollers over the far side of the rollers went bar tight then started to move as the 375 hp dragged the partially braked drum into motion. Within a few seconds the set was steadily
accelerating and the signal ‘haul outbye’ was sent. Immediately this was done the landing lad took to his heals with his ‘cruk’ to a point some midway up the landing. As the set travelled down the landing, the tailrope
fouled on the retarders which prevented it swinging over onto the midway rollers, whilst this was damaging to the rope, there was a much greater danger. Because the tailrope served two districts, there was a pair of sockets
joining the rope which allowed it to be used in such a manner, whilst it was designed to pass over the rollers and return wheels, there was a serious danger should it snag on any other equipment. Hence the frenzied activity.
The method of releasing the rope from the retarders was to straddle the rope, which was now moving at high speed, hook under it with the steel ‘cruk’ and lift it out from retarders.
A really good heave at the correct instant could occasionally lift it out of all the obstructions in one go but, in most cases, it would only partially lift out and a sprint to the next point were it was snagged had to be made
and the lift repeated. Once out of the retarders it was a relatively easy matter to lift it onto the midway rollers.
Although I never had to resort to it, if the rope had not been released in good time and the sockets could be heard bouncing over the rollers towards the landing, (they make a really load crack as
steel struck steel) the drill was to ‘rap’ the stop signal to the hauler. As to whether the machinery would have stopped in time, is another matter, I never had to put it to the test.
With the set safely on its way and the sockets making their jarring clatter more noticeable by the second as they scuttled over the rollers, they then made a 180 deg turn around the return wheel then bounce out bye.
A sweating landing lad then returned to the foot of the landing, dragged the cheese chock into position, change the ever-so important points and swing on the ‘bull’ to bring it down to the safety position.
Time for a drink of water from the tin bottle, perhaps a jam sandwich and a relaxing read before the next set is ready. No.1 landing was by far the busiest of the two districts, No, 4 landing served only one hand hewing face whereas there
was a hand hewing and a power loading (shearer) face working into No.1 landing. Some shifts were really busy, when the faces were producing well, and sets were rapped in as soon as they were available. On odd occasions, very little moved
as all manner of breakdowns could occur within the system.
Regarding hauler operations, many questions as to what was happening could be ‘read’ from the action of the rope. After the set departed the landing, it went directly outbye as far as a point called the ‘hitch’.
This was the top of a very steep section of the system which terminated at No.9 landing where the locomotives took over. The set was stopped at this bankhead and the main-rope was detached. Due to the distance from the inbye landing, even when
stopped at this point, the tailrope was tight. There was no mistaking when the set was descending into No.9 landing, the gradient at the foot levelled out considerably and with about one and a half miles of rope trailing behind it, the set was
allowed to gather tremendous speed down the inclined section. On many occasions the set did not clear the landing points and although arrangements could be made to haul them in by loco, it was quicker to haul the set back up the gradient and try again.
It was common to see sparks flying off the rope as it skidded over rollers during these rapid descents. When the rope was detached at No.9. it sagged between the rollers but, due to the distance involved, retained some of its tension.
On the inbye journey, speeds were steady all the way but again the set had to stop at the top of the ‘hitch’ to have the main rope connected. If the incoming set was required again in the same landing, then it could well
carry on straight to that location, however, very often it stopped at the ‘offtakes’ which was situated just outbye of the No.1 & No.4 junction. If the rope remained tight, then the set was awaiting a destination. On the other hand, when the rope
dropped slack, then fell totally limp over the rollers, it was a sure indication that the ropes had been disconnected and No.4 landing had possession of the set. Enough time to wander up to the loading point for a bit of company.