Bradley Wiggins

Miner David Amos and Linguist Natalie Braber on Poetry in Pit Talk

24 April 17 interview: James Walker

If you don’t know your ‘elephant’s tab’ from your ‘Monday hammer’, fear not. Seventh generation miner David Amos and linguist Natalie Braber have all the gobbings you need to understand Pit Talk...

photo: David Sillitoe

Miners have their own unique language. Let’s hear some…
David: ‘Gob it’, in coal mining language, means throw something away. Gob can have two other meanings; mouth or to spit, but gob also refers to the waste area behind the coalface when the coal has been extracted – the gobbings. Sometimes known as the gob or the goaf. Hence the term ‘gob it’.
Natalie: I really like descriptive terms. There’s a shovel called a ‘banjo’ because of its shape, as well as an ‘elephant’s tab’ – again this is to do with the shape of the shovel, but it also has an element of East Midlands language, as ‘tab’ means ‘ear’.

Another great description is for the heaviest hammer, which some of the miners referred to as a ‘Monday hammer’, said by some to be “as popular as Monday”, so not used if it could be avoided. Others stated it was because if you used it on a Monday, you would be too tired to work on a Tuesday.

So there’s some ambiguity over the usage of words?
David: There is no universal mining language in Britain, although most ex-miners would recognise most general mining terms such as ‘chock’, ‘panzer’, ‘shearer’, ‘gate’, etc. In many cases, mining language differs within regions, and in some cases from pit to pit. Annesley and Newstead pits were right next to each other, the return roadway from the coalface was known as the Feeder Gate at Annesley, at Newstead it would be the return or supply gate. The classic example of a difference from one mining region to another is for miners’ lunch: in the East Midlands it is universally known as ‘snap’; in the north-east coalfield of Durham and Northumberland it was ‘bait’; and in the Scottish coalfields it was known as ‘piece’.

The pits were integral in helping to build communities. Does this sense of solidarity still exist now they’ve all been closed down?
David: The sense of solidarity in mining communities probably only exists now in very small pockets. Then again, this has been under attack since the mass closures dating from the late fifties. By 1970, most pits left open were what are known as receiving pits, and many miners travelled from former mining communities to work. Many Derbyshire miners worked in the Notts coalfield in the seventies and eighties following the closure of their pits in the sixties, travelling daily to work. I think it would be fair to say that a miner in the eighties would argue that the close knit community wasn’t what it was in the fifties, likewise a former miner in the twenty-first century may hark back to the seventies and see a different sense of community from what exists know.

Natalie: Now the mines have all closed this sense of community has been endangered – many men and families have had to leave the village or region for employment. But in the past there would have been a strong sense of community – this was also the case for miners who moved in large numbers when their mines closed down. For example, when I first visited Thringstone, I noticed that the Miners’ Welfare was called The Rangers Club. Coming from Glasgow myself, there is an obvious association, but I didn’t realise that the social club was given this name for the large number of Scottish miners who had moved down to the region to work in the mine.

Language is often forgotten but is a crucial part of our identity

What defines mining culture for you?
David: Having the craic was a major issue. It involved quick-witted responses to insults, constant leg pulling, the use of humiliation, all being used as a form of character building. When you were made to look an idiot in a debate down the pit, the idea was not to threaten someone with violence or sulk off, but to come back with a better argument the next time. There was a distinct identity with work in coal mining which is perhaps not the same nowadays. Not only did you learn a trade, but you also learned the unwritten rules of life – the difference between wanting and needing something, cutting the cloth accordingly etc. One thing I think we have lost is the ability to be able to take the steam out of a situation before things start to fester. Things couldn’t be allowed to fester at a pit because there were bigger issues to think about.

Natalie: Many of the men I spoke to said you needed humour to be able to cope with the terrible and dangerous working conditions. Many of the men commented on the ‘brotherhood’ of miners. And outside of the pit, there would be much socialising together – in the social clubs, sports groups, allotments, communal holidays, brass bands, painting, singing and poetry.

Do you have a favourite pit poem or song?
David: One of my favourite pit poets is the late Owen Watson from Heanor, who worked at Coppice Colliery which closed in 1966. His mining poems, in broad Heanor dialect, were portrayed in the 1975 publication Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner. My favourite Owen Watson poem is A Miners Dream, where a miner has a nightmare of the afterlife, going to both heaven and hell and caring for neither. I also like A Working Man, written by Rita McNeill, which is often played at miners funerals.

Natalie: David and I recently attended a concert given by The Pitmen Poets, sons of miners from the north-east. They sing some of their own songs but also mining songs that are sung around the country. In the time I’ve been working on the project, I’ve also had the opportunity to read poetry and short stories written by the miners we interviewed – mostly reflecting on their time down the pit. These can be very moving.

What is the Pit of Nations?
David: It refers to Gedling Colliery (1902-1991) to the east of Nottingham. Following World War Two and during the fifties, many different nationalities went to work at Gedling pit. The pit needed manpower and migrants from many parts of the world came to work there to earn a living. In many cases they had to take dirty, manual jobs that other people didn’t want. There was a large congregation of African-Caribbean miners who worked there from the fifties through to the eighties. Their part in the story of coal was excellently portrayed in Coal Miners of African-Caribbean Heritage: Narratives from Notts, coordinated by Norma Gregory.

What do you hope to achieve from this project?
Natalie: There’s a couple of books coming out, but we’re also keen to raise the importance of ‘pit talk’ – many heritage groups collect artefacts, but language is often forgotten. It’s a crucial part of our identity and needs to be preserved before it disappears. I’m also happy to hear from miners who would like to get involved in our projects and attend our events. Email natalie.braber@ntu.ac.uk to be added to the mailing list.

Pit Talk in the East Midlands and Images of the Coalfields will be published by Bradwell Books in June 2017.

Tales and Rhymes from the Mines: An Evening of Pit Poetry and Songs, Tuesday 25 April, 6pm - 9pm, Tin Hat Centre, Selston, NG16 6BW, £6.

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