No greater collection of steam driven
winding engines could be found in the land.
Five shafts, all in a row and all on one site was unusual and formed a
huge deep pit mining colliery. From the
smaller engines of Middle Pit, Winstanley and Platt Pit to the gigantic
monoliths of Hesketh and Institute. They were a magnificent spectacle to see
and hear operating, lowering and drawing coal, men and materials with speed and
Royal Navy called them 'grease monkeys' but that job description at Whitfield
was 'oiler and cleaner'. At the age of
15 in 1949 I was just called an 'oil lad' and in my teen years it was my job to
clean, oil and grease those engines under the watchful eye of the winding
engine men (operators). They had cause
to be wary. Shortly before my arrival
one such 'oil lad' had been killed instantly in the crank race at the Middle
Pit. I eventually became a 'winder' at
the minimum age of 22 but I left the industry to pursue another career in
1960. It was during this period, the
fifties, that Whitfield was having its 'heyday' with coal production at its
highest serving the country, which was still struggling after the war years.
winders were almost a race apart and were no doubt selected for their sobriety
and trustworthiness before they developed their considerable skill. In some
cases the job ran in families with fathers and even grandfathers having done
the same job. In those days they all
worked a 7 day week in rotating shifts to cover the 24 hours at the 3 coal
drawing pits, Hesketh, Institute and Middle Pit. A spare winder to stand in occasionally would
be available and another would operate the Winstanly engine on a single day
shift. Very often they would work 12
hours between 2 of them to cover a colleague off with illness.
winders I knew were all dedicated individuals but were often 'crusty' and would
not suffer fools gladly. As an 'oil lad'
I more than once felt the brunt of their wrath if my work was perceived to be
below par. These men were responsible
for the engine houses and the engines within, showcases of cleanliness and
smooth running. They were justly and sometimes obsessively proud of their
owners and later during my time, the National Coal Board managers, would often
proudly bring VIP visitors to see the engines and were usually amazed at the
spectacle. It was said 'you could eat
your dinner off the engines'.
Hesketh engine was undoubtedly the top of the bill as a show-piece and it is of
great sadness that it is in a rusty, parlous state at this time (2017). However, it is still intact and hopefully it
may be restored sometime in the future.
The forty or more years it has been out of use has taken its toll. The sheer size and dimensions are
considerable when compared to the diameter of the car combustion cylinder which
is 2 to 3 inches in diameter with a 5 inch stroke whereas the Hesketh's 2 cylinders have an internal diameter of 36
inches and a stroke of 6 feet! The drum,
like a bobbin onto which the winding ropes (steel cables) were wound and
unwound is a semi-conical shape. This
allowed the smaller diameter part of the drum to work like a lower gear for the
rope, drawing its load out of the bottom of the deep shaft and gradually easing
and speeding up as it rose and gained momentum.
Institute engine was no less remarkable if not quite having the allure of the
more modern Hesketh engine. In fact, the
basic dimensions were the same but of a simpler and older design, being
installed in the 19th century and of a marine type sometimes used in
early steam ships. It was nicknamed the
'the Cockshead' because of the beak like pointed structure at the top of the
headgear. This was amazingly, a vertical
engine, unlike all the others at Whitfield which were horizontal. It was housed in five floors, two of which
were below ground level. The drum,
weighing 50 tons, was a simple parallel shape, like a bobbin and was suspended
on the top floor of the building. It was
a powerful experience to stand near the engine man on the ground floor,
watching and almost feeling the hot piston rods working the upward cranks to
the hissing and puffing of super heated steam. The supporting walls were
immense but nevertheless the building shuddered during the operation of the engine. The engine and engine house
were no less clean and spotless than the Hesketh with similar tiled floors to
be mopped and cleaned to kitchen standard.
oil lad was nearly always out of sight of the winder at the Institute and
oiling and greasing took place during the momentary pauses at the end of each
run (top to bottom with the cages and vice versa). The winder had to rely on
shouted signals from the lad on other floors to safely start the next run. What 'Health and Safety' would make of this
nowadays is something to ponder.
the Institute was demolished and removed.
A great loss to history.
Middle Pit, along with the Hesketh and Institute, was also coal drawing. It was a shallower shaft and the engine was
smaller but it had 3 decker cages and was extremely busy, swiftly lifting a
seemingly never ending stream of laden coal tubs.
the other two coal drawing pits, the night shift was always a busy time with
constant ongoing maintenance of the shaft and equipment and during the night
the winder himself would, during quiet times, clean various parts of the engine
that could not be accessed during daytime operations
engine has been demolished and removed.
Winstanley Pit had the smallest winding engine.
It was not used for coal drawing but was near to and secondary to the
Middle Pit and at the same depth. It was
of course mandatory to have at least 2 shafts to each mine. This had enclosed headgear with an airlock
system of doors. Fresh air was drawn
down the open Middle Pit out through a vent near the top of the closed
Winstanly Shaft by the use of a steam driven fan engine.
should be said here that a similar air flow system was operated with the other
3 shafts. The Hesketh being open and the
Institute and Platt Pits both being enclosed and air locked. A powerful small steam engine in a separate
building drew the air through this deep mine complex. Such was the importance
of maintaining a clean air flow that there was a separate engine (unused) in
another building near the Platt Pit in case of a failure or major maintenance
to the main fan engine.
was of course a legal requirement that all coal mines should have at least 2
shafts. It was equally important to have
an air flow system and a secondary means of escape from below.
these changes were embraced legally following a major disaster in 1862 at
Hartley colliery near Newcastle upon Tyne.
Almost unbelievably this deep mine had only one shaft which was divided
throughout its depth by a wooden shuttering construction which allowed one side
to be used for lowering and lifting men, materials and coal while the other
side contained vertical pipes which pumped water out of the workings below. All mines would fill with water if not pumped
out. The pump was operated by a huge
beam engine. The heavy cast iron beam, which worked in an up and down motion
over the shaft, broke off and plunged down the shaft taking with it all the
dividing woodwork and crushing it down to about a 3rd of the shaft
depth where it stopped in a tangled mess, blocking the shaft. All 204 men and boys working below perished
before a rescue could be made. The
youngest was 10 and the oldest 71. It is
hard to believe that some callous coal owners needed the law to ensure they had
two shafts. The life of a coal miner in
those days must have been regarded as cheap.
in my day coal mining was a hazardous business and many was the time that I saw
injured men (sometimes fatally) brought out of the pit on stretchers.
the Platt Pit is probably the most intact at this time and as I mentioned
before it had enclosed and air-locked headgear. To this day its distinctive
green painted enclosure panels are visible.
It shared common airways with the Hesketh and Institute.
engine was much smaller than the Hesketh and Institute engines but larger than
the Middle Pit and Winstanly engines. It
was occasionally used for materials but was mainly for safety in the fifties.
I should mention some of the personalities involved with winding engines at
that time. As I mentioned previously,
some of the winders ran through
families. My father Eddie
Sherratt was a winder at the Institute and later at the Hesketh. His father was a winder at the Institute and
so was his grandfather. The latter was
nicknamed 'Peg-leg' due to his loss of a
leg in a dreadful accident when a cage he was entering at the pit bottom
rose before he was fully inside,
destroying his leg.
Simpsons were another such family.
Father and then son (Ted) operated the Middle Pit engine, the latter during part of the time I was there as
an 'oil lad'. Another greatly experienced winder there was Cecil Johnson, a
dignified and kindly man who operated with great skill. Another father and son were Fred and his son
Alf Rhodes who operated the Hesketh and Middle Pit engines respectively.
the larger than life personalities were Tom Boulton (Hesketh) and Harry
Holdcroft (Institute). Tom Boulton's
brother, Syd, was not a winder but is
worthy of mention as not only was he a very efficient engineer, he
specialised in hydraulics and took part in promoting Whitfield's museum after
its closure as a working colliery. He
was an ex submariner.
Winter was another highly talented engineer who specialised in reshaping the
white metal bearings in the engines, a major undertaking when the drum and
spindle shaft had to be raised out of the bearing beds. There are many others
worthy of mention and to their memories I apologise.
I am not sorry to see the end of deep coal mining which has always been dusty
and dangerous, although many would disagree.
To film at Chatterley Whitfield there are a few rules and regulations you must adhere to... This film crew from Staffordshire University got it right and enabled the permission to film very easy to get.....