EPISODE 75 Insight into the life of miners… WELSH MINER’S LANTERNS IN ONTARIO BARN



alan skeoch
oct. 2018 and June 2020

NOTE:  I wrote much of this  story in 1918 when we made a startling purchase of a  pair of miners  lanterns at a farm sale.   The story gives some

insight  into the Bunmahon miners  life which  was awful. More on that life later.  This story does connect with 1960 because when I left ireland
I took a side trip (at m own expense) to England, Wales  and Scotland. making connections  with people and places my grandmother Louisa (Bufton) Freeman and
Grandfather Edward Freeman  talked  about.  Yes, there is a connection to the life  of  coal miners.  And for the real readers amongst you try to
find  a copy of “How Green Was  My Valley” in the library.
Now the Story:

Earlier I related  the heart warming story of Jack the Clydesdale whose home in Dr. Richardson’s barn is secure in spite of the auction sale. The new owner
of the farm wanted  Jack as much as she wanted the farm.

There was another unusual facet of the Richardson auction…which  is the subject of this  story.


OCT. 2018

Seemed out of place.  Two heavy  copper cylinders sat on a table outside the Richardson Barn at their Sept. 8, 2018 auction sale.   Something  clicked

in  my mind  when I noticed them so I took a quick  picture and hustled to the other auctioneer who was selling a coyote pelt and  a  horse trough that looked better than
those cylinders.

“Marjorie, you might throw a bid at those cylinders if the  price is right.”
“What are they?”
“Not sure but those  cylinders are out of place…not something found in Ontario barns…wish
I could  remember what it is about them.  Important.  But don’t go crazy in your bidding.”

“Here they are, Alan, Happy  Birthday.”
“ Now I remember…  These two copper cylinders are…
“Jim McCartney, the auctioneer called them ship’s lanterns.”
“Well he is wrong.  These  are miner’s lanterns…designed to give a very little bit
of light in the dismal  darkness of  coal mines  in South Wales.”
“Why so  big and so heavy…allow just a flicker of  light.”
“The real purpose is  to detect dangerous coal gas…explosive.  These lanterns 
were invented  after hundreds  of British  coal miners had  died from gas ignitions
underground.  A spark. A candle.  A  match.  Enough to blow a coal  mine  into a
mass graveyard..  In the 19th century these underground detonations in coal  mines
were regular events.”
“What gas are you talking about?
“Lots  of  different gas in coal  mines…I suppose the  worst was  methane trapped  
in pockets in the  coal…ignites easily,”
“How did  methane get into coal?”
“Coal was once ferns, trees, plants of  all  kinds…most once grew in the Carboniferous Era 359 million of years  ago to 299 million years  ago in
the  Paleozoic period when the earth was  really swampy and oceans were  hundreds of  feet
lower because so much water was trapped in arctic and  antarctic polar ice.  Plants  lived and
died, their  bodies  forming thick blankets  of decaying matter.  Gas was  part of he process of  decay.
These thick beds of plants eventually got covered with sediment in later  eras forming coal which 
is  a sedimentary rock formed by pressure and the absence of oxygen.   Thick  beds of coal are 
found in pockets all over the world…lots  in Canada and  the United Staes and  Britain and a massive
amount in China.”
“Slow down, Alan…do you mean this coal which  we  can buy in the store is 300 million years  old?”
“Correct…ancient as time…measured  in millions of years…that one chunk of coal.”
“So coal is plentiful but not infinite…what happens when we use all  the coal?”
“Good thinking…dreadful thinking really.  It took millions of years to press those ancient plants  into coal.  Yet
we  have  only been burning  coal for about 300 years…consumption big time.   When the coal is gone there will beNo more coal made
unless a catastrophic even happens and our trees and plants are once again covered with sediment and pressed into new coal.”
“You scare me  at times.  Get back to that methane…where does it come from?”
“Methane was  identified  back  in  18th century by  a scientist who  noticed  ‘swamp gas”
bubbled up and smelled bad.   Produced by rotting vegetation.   Deep coal mines trap
methane  pockets of  CH4 (Methane) that is released by miners. Mix methane with oxygen
and the chance of  explosion occurs.”
“Has that ever happened?”
“Don’t play around  with me…of course coal mine explosions have happened…lots  of times.
Some truly devastating.”
“Name one.”
“Universal  Colliery, Sengheydd, Wales…massive underground explosion on October 14, 1913, killed 439 miners
of the 1,000 underground at the time…and 100 horses…worst mining disaster in British  history.

Black and white photograph of the Universal Colliery, taken from a raised position, and showing crowds waiting for news
Families waiting for announcement of deaths in the Universal Colliery, Wales.  Nearly 
half  of the 1,000 coal  miners died  in the  explosion…and 100 horses.

“You mean there were 1,000 men digging coal deep  in the bowels of Wales and nearly half were killed.”
“Right.  And that is  just one example.  Coal miners  were killed or maimed  every  six hours. Mining
is a dangerous business.
“Did you say there were 200 horses  down there as well.
“I did.  So  many stories…where to begin?”
“And  what about those copper cylinders…how  do  they fit into the story?”
“Good comment…let’s deal with those things.  Look at the pictures below.

Pit Ponies, Pit Horses, pit pony history, miner Ceri Thompson, Canadian Coal Mining history, Sable Island, underground stables, Underground haulage, Coal Mining Canada

Pit Ponies, Pit Horses, pit pony history, miner Ceri Thompson, Canadian Coal Mining history, Sable Island, underground stables, Underground haulage, Coal Mining Canada

“Your lamps…I see them in those miners hands…same thing”
“Designed  to sample the air…lamp gets brighter As explosive cas appears…gives  miners warning to get the hell out fast.”
“What about those horses?  Just leave them to get killed?”
“Most miners loved their horses…living company for them in the near absolute darkness of the mine stopes  and alleyways.”
“You said  ‘most’ which means some miners were not so kind.”
“Correct.  Just like any collection of human beings there are always ‘not so nice’ miners  who abused  the horses.”
“Beat them.   There is  an amusing story about one miner who abused his horse.  The horses bolted and ran through the mine
tunnels while the miner chased after him.  Eventually the horse just disappeared much to the chagrin and anger of the miner.
“How could  a grown horse disappear in a coal mine?”
“That’s what the miner said.”
“Was the horse ever found?”
“Yes, a while later.  The horse had jogged into a side tunnel where a coal cart had been parked.  He hid  behind the cart while 
the angry miner ran back and forth cursing no doubt.”
‘How   could a horse hide in a coal mine?”
“Easy.  You have forgotten that coal mines were pitch dark most places.  The horse knew every twist and turn in the mine even
though he could not see.  Amazing.  If horses  could only laugh and whinny softly, ‘You son of a bitch, you won’t find  me here no
battery how you yell and  swear.’”
“God, must have been awful down  there in the darkness.”
“No one knows really except for the men deep in the pits.”
“Some of those coal seams were not very thick…no room for horses for sure…I saw pictures  of men pick axing coal seams while 
lying of their sides…maybe only three feet of clearance.  Horse no help there.”
“That’s where the miners kids  proved useful…small people needed.”
“Children in coal mines?”
“:Sure, some as young as six years old.  Some children spent their lives deep those pits.  A lot of them died  in explosions and roof collapse 
and accidents…and then there was black lung…dreaded killer when sharp bits of coal dust builds up in the lung.  Terrible death.

“You exagerate, Alan, little children were not miners.”
“Sure as hell were…as a matter of fact children were used in coal mines before horses.  The horses, most of them, replaced the
children when child abuse scandals became general knowledge in the 1840’s in Britain.  Children were prohibited in mines.
“Not completely.  Who would know if a kid was deep in the mine.  Absolute darkness except for  slivers of light from the lamps.
Miners were poorly paid…needed the extra cash from their children.  Many payed rent for company houses and  had  to shop in
company stores…wages barely covered expenses.  Mine owners were not always humane…they wanted  profits like any
Note re: Miner’s lamps/  left: kind of lamp given to foremen and mine execs
right: kind  of lamp given to miners and children, obvious wear, has number
wich was stated as  miners  left shift…a  way of checking who was still below.
In mine collapses and explosions this system gave identity of men still in
mine, either dead or alive.


“The first coal seams were found  on the seacoasts…thin bands  of coal…this led to problems.”
“yes, the  deeper the coal was  mined  the smaller the tunnel?”
“So , small people were best as miners…and agile people who could easily crawl on hands and  knees.”
“So, who are the smallest people?”
“Right.  Children were very useful as miners.  They did  what they were told.  They were small.  They were cheap. And they were
expendable.  Who cared what happened deep in the dark of a coal mine?”
“Surely , you exaggerate, “
“Nope, check the records.”
“I do  not have time to do  that.”
“OK, here are some comments by child miners in the 1840’s…part of a British government  investigation after a  mine
accident that killed children deep in a coal mine.”

In the 1840’s the Welsh coal  mines were investigated by a British Commission and  child labour was reduced as a result.  Some  of the  reports sent by the 
government authorities were very graphic.   “I got my head crushed…by a piece of  roof falling.” (William Skidmore, aged 9)…”I got my legs crushed some
tme snce, which threw  me off work some weeks.” (John Reece,  aged 14)…”Nearly a year ago there was  an accident and  most of us were burned. I was 
carried  home by a man.  it hurt very much  because the skin was  burnt of my face.  I couldn’t work for six months.” (Philip Phillips, aged 9)
Philip Davies had a horse for company. He was pale and undernourished in appearance. His clothing was worn and ragged. He could not read:-‘I have been driving horses since I was seven but for one year before that I looked after an air door. I would like to go to school but I am too tired as I work for twelve hours.’ Philip Davies, aged 10, Dinas Colliery, RhonddaDrammers pulled their carts by a chain attached at their waist. They worked in the low tunnels between the coal faces and the higher main roadways where horses might be used. The carts weighed about 1½cwt. of coal and had to be dragged a distance of about 50 yards in a height of about 3 feet.

“We are doorkeepers in the four-foot level. We leave the house before six each morning and are in the level until seven o’clock and sometimes later. We get 2p a day and our light costs us 2½p a week. Rachel was in a day school and she can read a little. She was run over by a dram a while ago and was home ill a long time, but she has got over it.”Elizabeth Williams, aged 10 and Mary and Rachel Enoch, 11 and 12 respectively, Dowlais Pits, Merthyr
Some horses were abused, more   often though horses were loved and  well cared for…but all the horses used in coal  mines led a  trouble filled life.  Mine ceilings collapsed  on them, picks  and shovels cut them, some miners beat them, horses suffered from black lung like the miners, explosions  killed them…In 1876, the RSPCA (Royal Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals) urged protection be provided by law.  In that year alone  there were 71,396 horses working in British mines, 2,999 of them were killed, 10,878 were injured.  “
Pit Ponies, Pit Horses, pit pony history, miner Ceri Thompson, Canadian Coal Mining history, Sable Island, underground stables, Underground haulage, Coal Mining Canada
“That’  not a horse, Alan…you said horses worked deep  int he cola mines…that’s  a pony, small one at that
“Pit ponies, often Shetlands, and full draught horses  such as Clydesdales worked underground…all sizes.  Low ceilings favoured small ponies such  as that one above.  The  animal  does not look abused…looks loved  by those teen age boys. “
“Imagine the terror felt by that horse being lowered deep into the cola mine.  Folded into a ball and lowered as much as 1,000 feet in mines that had the besthard  anthracite coal.  Miners tried to rescue the horses in mine disasters  but often could not do much
(I wish this picture was  larger.  Here is a boy, perhaps nine  or ten years old, sitting in the darkness beside a ventilation door which he had to open and  close as cartloads  of coal  drawn  by horses came by   Lonely?  Scared?) “Not a tough job, right?”
“Not tough, I guess, but would  you want to sit all alone in the darkness for twelve hours opening and closing the curtain when a horse camp by with a cartload of coal.  Lonely, perhaps frightened, perhaps proud to be part of this strange world of adults.”  The passageways  were not lit.  Pit horses soon got to know their way through the mind  passage in the absolute darkness.  Horses even knew when an eight hour shift was over and then made their way to the underground stables for their supper.  
“Lots of girls were sent underground in the early years.   Working class kids.  Pulling cartloads of coal from the coal face where men hacked at the coal or set small explosive charges in hand drilled holes.  Some girls pulled big boxes of coal using carts that had no wheels.  The use of girls in the mines ended before the use of boys ended.  Law eventually prohibited children.  “
“MAny mine owners  cheat and  use children despite the law.”“Sad to say…many kids  still worked underground.  Hard for mine owners to resist the attraction of cheap labour…payed  children  a couple of pence a day…two cents a day.  Of course a  cent had a lot higher value then.  But the pay was  never enough for a working man and his children to ever treat the poverty cycle.  As the song Sixteen Tons said they ‘owed their soul to the company store’.

(Source 25) 12 year-old John Davies at work in the Rhondda (1909)
12 year old John Davies comes  up from Rhonda mine carrying his miner’s lantern, lunch  bag and jug of water.


More than  a  century later, in 1960, I had an opportunity to visit the Welsh coal fields near Aberdare.  I had read ‘How  Green  Was  My Valley’* so had  some
idea of the  difficult life coal miners faced  n the past.  Only in 1960, however, did I become  aware that my great uncle Frank Freeman lived there in a 
place called  Ysgeborwen.    He  was a butcher and our meeting was brief, perhaps an hour, but the ambience of that coal valley cannot be forgotten.  Some of the
coal ‘pits’ were still operating and  I distinctly remember miners coming off shift singing.  Singing!  Really singing.    And  I also remember
being given a  brokeN clay pipe that had  been excavated when an old  1840  era coal seam was  being converted to an open pit mine. “The old carts
were still down there…scooped them up…that’s where this  pipe  stem came from.  Odd.  Pipes and  matches were dangerous things to
have in an underground coal  mine.”

*How  Green  Was  My  Valley” made  the Welsh coal fields famous.   Even became motion picture.  The  book was thought to 
be an accurate history of the  brutality of coal mining.  years later the book was determined to be fiction.  Based  on overheard
conversations of Welsh families living in  London.  

OCT. 2018



“Did you ever wonder where coal came from?”
“Plants … millions of plants I think…sort of hard  to believe.”
“Really hard  to believe…
“But true…millions of  dead plants over millions  of years…plants, mostly giant ferns, from the Carboniferous 
Era when the earth was warmer and the atmosphere had lots of carbon dioxide….plants love CO2.  By chance
thick beds of dead plants got trapped under water that was eventually covered with thick bands of mud.   Piles  of mud
which became slate and other sedimentary stone…heavy…the heavier the overburden the more those bands of
plants  were pressed…pressure so great that the plants became beds of  coal.  Anthracite coal was the best 
kind of hard  coal…also buried  the deepest …anthracite coal mines are often more than 1,000 feet below the surface.


Ahhh. I’m so tired. How long can this go on?
Said if you see me comin’ better step aside
A lot of men didn’t and a lot of men died
I got one fist of iron, and the other of steel
If the right one don’t a get ya then the left one will
I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine
Picked up my shovel and walked to the line
I hauled 16 tons of number 9 coal
And the straw boss said “Well bless my soul.”
(Melody 2)
Sixteen tons what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me cuz I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
Nobody knows my sorrow.

Dark As A Dungeon, song lyrics

Song: Dark As A Dungeon
Lyrics: Merle Travis(1)

Music: Merle Travis
Year: 1946
Country: USA

Come all you young fellers, so young and so fine, 
And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mine. 
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul, 
‘Til the blood of your veins runs black as the coal.
This song was originally posted on protestsonglyrics.net 
Where it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, 
Where the dangers are many and the pleasures are few, 
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines, 
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.

It’s many a man I have seen in my day, 
Who lived just to labor his whole life away. 
Like a fiend with his dope or a drunkard his wine, 
A man must have lust for the lure of the mine.


I hope when I’m gone and the ages do roll, 
My body will blacken and form into coal. 
Then I’ll look down from the door of my Heavenly home, 
And pity the miner a diggin’ my bones.
This song was originally posted on protestsonglyrics.net 

The midnight, the morning, the breaking of the day, 
Are the same to the miner who labors away. 
Where the demons of death often come by surprise, 
One slip of the slate and you’re buried alive.

A Welsh miner and pit pony partner. Photo courtesy Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenafon, Wa

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