Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

Roseberry Ironstone Mine — A Miner’s Day Begins

A significant anniversary in the history of Roseberry Ironstone Mine. It was on this day in 1921 that the men at the mine received notice to cease work with the mine due to be made idle at the end of the period of notice. In fact, output fell gradually until, in 1924, it stopped completely and a ‘skeleton’ maintenance employed until the final act of closure, in 1931, when all plant and equipment were auctioned.

In the photo, you can see the site of the surface works. The cutting right of centre is the main hauling drift to the part of the mine extending under Little Roseberry. The drift for that part under Roseberry Topping was near that patch of gorse bottom left. Look closely, left of centre and the rectangular concrete foundations for an engine base and the stables can be made out.

Now I had thought I would write about the typical ironstone miner’s commute from his home in Great Ayton. But I came across this account by Bill Brighton, a miner at Eston mine in the 1920s-1940s, of his daily routine before he even sets off. A pattern which is likely to have been repeated in Ayton. His narrative paints a vivid picture of the arduous existence shared by both miner and his wife in those times:1Brighton, W. E. “Ironstone Mining in Eston.” Pages 7-9. Industrial Archaeology of Cleveland. 1996.

Supposing fuel was available and the day was beginning. The miner was on the 6.00 a.m. – 2.00 p.m. shift and waking up time was 4.30 a.m., both for the miner and his wife.

Firstly, the ‘Petty’ outside was visited for the natural body functions, no mean task in winter, especially if snow had fallen and laid deeply between the back door and the essential facility. There was also the possibility of the water cistern and pipework freezing up completely, positively a disadvantage compared to the ‘Midden’ predecessor that was still in use at the villages of Lackenby and Lazenby.

The wife would then clean out the old cinders from the previous days fire while the husband started the thankless task of putting on his working clothes, that had dried out from the little warmth remaining in the fire overnight. In the drying out procedure the trousers and boots that had been soaked with the silty grey water in the work-place during the shift yesterday, could be stood up rigidly as though being worn. The boots were stiff and the leather had to be made flexible with the hands before putting them on over toe rags, or for those who possessed them, stockings.

The next item of clothing was a singlet or undershirt before the thick, rough shirt went on, all of which had been saturated with sweat or silty water and dried out overnight. There was no washing out of a spare set because none were available and trousers, coat and boots were used until they were worn out. Then came perhaps a waistcoat, crossed scarf and jacket, but not before the miner had sat at the scrubbed, wooden topped table to have a large mug of tea and something to eat.

The food could have been bread with cold solidified fat spread on it, saved from a roast piece of beef they infrequently could afford to buy, known as dripping, or the bread could have been thinly spread with jam, the cheapest to buy being plum. Often there was nothing to go on the bread, particularly at mid-week when the household finance had all been spent and pay-day was waited for impatiently. Sometimes bacon was available and the bread could be dipped into the hot fat afterwards, giving an excellent cooked meal and any fat remaining allowed to solidify in the pan for future cooking of perhaps eggs.

The hazard involved in the early morning cooking and boiling was that the newly lit fire smoked considerably and everything smelled of smoke and tasted the same. All this of course was dependent on the miners wife managing to get the fire burning promptly without smoking, and if the wood was damp, or green, the problem did arise.

A ‘blazer’ made of sheet metal, a shovel, or even a sheet of thick brown paper stretched across the front of the fire bars would divert the draught up through the bottom grate of the fire and the increased velocity of air helped to make the fire burn brightly. The kettle was boiled first before any of the coal was put on the fire, as the flames would be stifled by it, but the old cinders could be put on to give a reasonably quick glowing base. This was also sufficient for heating up the contents of the frying pan if there were any.

The lighting of the fire and initial cooking took up to a half hour of the early morning period, bringing the time to 5 o’clock and the sound of working boots plodding about on the concrete floors of the three neighbours houses were then audible. At this stage the cluckings of the wife to the husband in hopeful encouragement, to get the miner away from the tea-pot and continue dressing, to go to his exhausting and dangerous task, began. The reluctance to face the task ahead of him was most apparent and the atmosphere in the kitchen was heavy with sympathy, worry and fear. The fear was threefold :-

  • A. That the husband would be injured or worse, killed.
  • B. That he could not face the day ahead and not go to work.
  • C. That there would be no money come pay-day.

These were three basic fears of the wives numerous worries such as feeding the family, clothing the family, paying the rent, paying for coal and paraffin, and dozens of other worries arising from managing a household with extremely limited means.

Consequently the cajoling from the wife had to be diplomatic and persuasive and went something like this :-

Wife: ” Chuck, thood best git riddy fur work”.
Miner: “Ars gine tae”.
Wife: “Watts thoo takkin fur thee Bayat?”.
Miner: “Watts thoo getten?”.
Wife: “Noot but a slice o bread and fat”.
Miner: “That, I’ll hev tae dae then”.

The wife’s cajoling paused then for two or three minutes before trying again.

Wife “Iss gitten riddy nixt dooer”.
Miner”: “ Owws the norr?

The wife says nothing but holds the miners waistcoat in front of the fire to warm it, and as a sign to her husband.

Wife: “T, Westkitts warrm”.
Miner “I, arrs cummin”.

Very reluctantly he would rise from his chair and begin to don his waistcoat, scarf, cap and jacket. Slowly he dresses but with comments about the dampness of his clothing, the state of disrepair, all voiced in low mumbling tones. Anything loud would have brought forth the gentle request from the wife “Dayent wakt bairns chuck”.

Miner: “Ars sick tae deeath ont”.
Wife : “Thool mist shift if thoo doosnt git gine”.
Miner:  “Ars gine”.

All this was delaying tactics by the miner in his deep reluctance to abuse his person both physically and mentally by entering the, dark, filthy, dangerous mine. Not a single miner of this period could truthfully say that he enjoyed his work, and I suspect the same of them all until the last local mine closed. The miner would eventually leave the house at about 5.20 a.m. and trudge dolefully up the Trustee incline to the drift mouth, about half a mile away at the foot of Eston Hills, carrying two bottles of cold, unmilked tea or water, food in sandwich form wrapped in newspaper and hopefully a spare shirt to change into. Slung over his shoulder would be a bundle of two inch by one inch, oblong, metal tokens, stamped with his number and threaded on tarred rope for hanging on to his filled waggons. In his pockets would be matches, two spare candles and a large piece of white chalk.

At this juncture the miner still had a forlorn hope of his avoiding entering the mine, and this was, that if he passed a woman he would have to return home or an accident in the mine would befall him. This was a superstition strictly accepted by all miners and their womenfolk. I personally saw it as a further ploy not to enter the mine and I confidently say that women made specially sure that they were not on the streets at 5.30 a.m., on any work day as the critical financial aspect was too great a consequence.

On reaching the drift mouth the miner then had to purchase black powder from the Powder Monkey at the Powder House, along with squibs to ignite it, then the cost of it was deducted from his earnings for that weeks work. There were no early morning jocular remarks to the Powder Monkey, or to anybody else in fact.

The powder was carried over his shoulder in a specially made tin, slung. with the inevitable tarred rope, but his preparations were still not complete. Next, using the heel of his boot, he had to dig up clay sufficient for him to stick candles on the side of the work place, and if possible more to be used a stemming for the shotholes he would laboriously drill.

His final task before entering the drift would be to pick up a set of four drills that had been newly sharpened by the blacksmith, adding more weight to his already heavy load that had to be carried up to two miles into the mine.

As he entered the watchman handed to him a leather identification tally that had to be presented on his exit after the days work.

  • 1
    Brighton, W. E. “Ironstone Mining in Eston.” Pages 7-9. Industrial Archaeology of Cleveland. 1996.



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One response to “Roseberry Ironstone Mine — A Miner’s Day Begins”

  1. Mark Taylor avatar
    Mark Taylor

    A fascinating narrative.

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