By Carole Green
Tuesday morning begins bright and sharp. By three o’clock those who have shift work are up and heading out to meet the day. Others – like his Da, having come off at midnight with a bad knee – turn back into the snug of their blankets. Having left behind the warmth of the cottage some minutes before, Harry sounds now like a train chugging along in the clear cold air which catches at his breath and makes it rise in white puffs. A curious redwing follows his progress, darting through the hedge as he crosses first the snowy fields and then the icy lanes and makes his way down the Jarrow row to meet his cousin, Robert. It is dark but a half moon hangs grinning at them in the velvet blue like a prop from one of Mr Kelley’s fabulous entertainments. Robert is a decade older than his eager cousin, and less impressed by the freshness of the day. Harry’s joking description of the moon raises only a wry smile. Robert has come off shift only five hours previous and slept through most of his dinner and breakfast. His lids are hooded as he follows laggardly behind young Harry. He crunches on a rock of cinder toffee, which his wife makes weekly and in great quantities in winter, in hopes of keeping him awake and going. He grumbles at the lad’s cheerful whistling. There is nothing to whistle about where they are heading.
The men congregate in the lee of the engine house as they wait their turn to be let down. Harry nods goodbye to cousin Robert here. Although it is Harry himself who, fourteen years old and hating the constraints of the schoolroom, has insisted on starting at the works – he is relieved that he has found a place with the pit cuddies and horses. They are docile beasts and nuzzle softly at any treats a boy can bring them. They are excellent listeners also; their soft brown eyes convey a great deal of sympathy for the problems a lad might sound off about. And they never break a confidence. Harry has told them about his impatience with school and how only last summer he discovered that he is a fair hand on the water. He has earned some good pocket money helping his cousin run the ferry crossing at Dunston. His mother’s family are a friendly lot and keep a well-stocked table; a fellow never goes hungry no matter what kind of work he gets up to. He enjoyed the order of their household and how things got done in congenial spirit. A lot seems to be accomplished with a great deal less of the shouting and moaning that fills his own house.
But Harry cannot stay on beyond August. His mother needs him at home – who else can get the old man from the pub in one piece? His brothers are too impatient with the task and inevitably it ends in a scuffle and a black eye. But Harry is different. He remembers Da when he used to romp and play with them, when he had more time in the day. It is Becky from next door taught him the trick: don’t think of your Da as he is now, think of him as he was before. Becky is a year or two younger than Harry and has bright green eyes and a small gap between her two front teeth. She kissed him once behind the outhouse the cottages share. Her lips were warm and dry like a caress. But then, before he even had time to open his eyes, she’d slapped him hard upside the head so that his ear rang. If you tell anyone I’ll knock your teeth out, Harry Clasper, she’d said. Harry believed her. Becky’s Da spends every minute he can throwing money away on the cock fights. He is not alone in his pursuits. The grind does the same to families up and down the town rows. This hauling in and scooping up of wayward men from the pubs and cockfighting pits and gaming houses is a daily ritual. Gateshead and Newcastle town are booming and if a fellow seizes the chance he need never be short of work. But the fruits of this labour do not always find their way to the ever growing families which require feeding and the cottage rows in which they cram have no land fit for cultivation. It is a sorry fact that a fair portion of wages are paid in beer from the company alehouse. It is easy to drink beyond the allotted share and tabs quickly mount up. There is a sad joke that some men worked to drink, and others drank to work. Harry understands that his Da falls into the latter category. Robert makes good money as a brusherman, setting off the charges that widen and deepen the shafts, but oh, how he hated to say goodbye to the light and, instead of becoming accustomed to it, he loathed and feared the stygian blackness more each time he went down. And so, instead of a fresh warm beer in the morning, he began taking something stronger; until that no longer had its effect and he found something more potent still. He is not a loud nor an aggressive drinker, on the contrary, as the years wear down he becomes a quiet man, sitting in the corner, knocking back the drinks at a rate which might have surprised his companions had they been counting. Trouble is it is well neigh impossible to get him off that stool and back home – timing, as Harry discovers, is everything. There is a certain point, before a kind of mad oblivion transforms him, that Da can be coaxed home for his supper. You have to address him very clearly, but respectfully, and pretend that whatever gibberish he is talking makes perfect sense. If you nod and aye convincingly then he will let you sling an arm under his and around his back and together you can amble your way to Ma’s long cooled dinner. Harry has come to discover that his Da’s ramblings are oft times lucid in their way: bits and pieces of stories from his days growing up in Dunston, and as a keelman on the Tyne. He has one-sided arguments with long lost companions about the boat and the water and what to watch out for. When he is fair sober he forgets these tales and he refuses ever to speak of the water.
And so it seems Harry’s destiny that he will follow the Jarrow Claspers into the colliery. At least for now he is not working the depths. It is his task to lead the gin-horses which wind the mechanism that draws the coal up the shaft. This work does not pay as well as that below ground, but his Da has forbidden he go down the shaft ‘till he is a year or two older. Impatient to prove himself as he is, Harry has agreed to the old man’s condition. He’s seen the wee trappers crawling out after an eighteen hour shift: they are like broken twigs, their eyes red with coal and crying, and all for a measly fivepence a day. Harry shivers as he takes over the care of the gin-horse. It stumbles clumsily as he swaps with the other boy, and he feels its weight bear down heavily upon him for a second. But then the creature straightens into its routine, the well-greased mechanism running lightly along with it. Harry can hear the heavy clang of the cage as it begins its descent. The Bensham seem is the deepest they have clawed out yet: 175 fathoms straight into the heart of Hell or so the brushermen, who blasted it open, claim. But Harry knows his cousin Robert is oddly proud to be a hewer of the deepest workings. It is almost a thousand feet to the river above and, given the direction the shaft plays out, it is likely that Jarrow church itself perches smugly upon them – constituting the other end of the religious spectrum, the men joke.
The conversation among those descending is minimal this morning but the outrage of the previous week is still fresh on the tongue. Three little girls were only last Tuesday sentenced at the Assizes to a months’ imprisonment in the House of Correction for confessedly lifting a small quantity of pig-iron from Hetton Colliery. There is no question the young ‘uns were wrong to do as they did; but the sentence is a hard one for their families to live with and it is disgusting that such a weight of law has been brought to bear upon such young offenders when mightn’t a good minute with the switch have resolved the matter? And hasn’t Billy Miller’s fall down the Bensham shaft to his death only the Friday previous been recorded by the same court as accidental, when everyone knows that the mine is short on Deputies with the new seem opening and that Billy’d overbalanced pulling in a tub when the shaftside had crumbled away? Why is there no sentencing of the owners, Thomas and Robert Brown, Esqrs., of London, to even one day’s hard labour in said House of Correction for such criminal penny-pinching? Robert spits on the ground as he listens to Black Jimmy’s impassioned speech. He doesn’t like Jimmy much – the man is too given to jabbering when the face is obstinate and refuses to yield to the pick and it is all you can do to put your back into it. But the fellow is right. The way things are, men cannot go on like this much longer. And the snivelling trappers well broke a man’s heart, even though nearly everyone did sneak the odd sweetie and kind word to the poor lads, as the waggons trundled by. Day in and day out, opening trap-doors; and the rest of the time sitting alone in the dark like toads. Even the Galloways get better treatment. It is scandalous. Black Jimmy is right, something is sure to give.
A half hour later Robert is at the coalface. He is sweating heavily and can barely see to raise his pick. He cannot afford a lamp of his own yet and candles are forbidden at this new depth. Black Jimmy’s Geordie lamp is quickly corroding in the humid conditions and Robert does not trust it. The man holds it up for closer inspection as it looks as if the flame is turning a faint blue behind the guard when Robert sees rather than hears one of the thin wires peel back from its mesh. He stretches out his hand but too late. Jimmy lowers the lamp to the ground and then the whole place goes up in one single ball of fire. A quarter mile above Harry feels the whump and has seconds to pull the horse away from the track and towards the open door as the flame shoots out the top of the workings. The banksmen are severely burned. None of the thirty-four miners working below survive; almost a dozen of these are lowly trapper boys, not yet ten years old. Forty-five gentle Galloway ponies, some eating oats in their underground stable, others still hitched to their load, are also blown clean off the face of the earth. The scene is black and chaotic. The pitmen topside are barely able to keep the women and children back from the gaping hole; they claw at the ground and wail pathetically for their lost husbands, fathers, brothers. There is no hope of rescue. The corpses, human and horse, are later brought up the shaft in nets. For some of the ponies it is the first time in a decade they have reached the surface. Now the sunshine plays across their carcasses. Harry, working the gin-horse, helps in this gruesome task of recovery. It is something he never forgets. The sight and smell of the mangled flesh will stay with him for the whole of his life and, although he will work at a colliery again, he never will go down the pit.
The Abbey public house is crammed to the rafters for the wake. A collection is set up and everything is now on the House. Harry has had a few pints more than he is accustomed to and is jostling with some bigger lads towards the back. Someone has foolishly started the rumour that there will be entertainments. The older lads are joking about Sally’s ‘hams’ and calling rowdily for some ankle and the barmaid is grumpily avoiding them. Harry blushes, uncomfortable at the crude joking. These are cousin Robert’s friends and Harry is out of his depth. Robert would have taken just the right tone, have said the right words to make light of it. Harry feels a sad pang at his absence. And then from the far corner, near the bar itself, comes an odd stomping sound. The men are squeezing back, clearing room for something. In all the shoving Harry finds himself sausaged towards the front and suddenly has a clear view of the man at the centre of the circle. He is short and squarely built and he is leaning forward banging first one foot then the other hard upon the wood floor so that he looks, like a bull, as if he is about to run at something. And then he begins to call out. His voice is loud and his words carry over the swift silence in the room. Poor horse, he calls and Harry, in a flash of comprehension, understands it is a rant unfolding about the pit horses and ponies. He has heard of such performances but has never witnessed a ranter in action before. The hair on the back of his neck and down his arms prickles as the man’s voice rings out and speaks to something deep in the guts. The man bellows and shouts and then raises one arm, his voice ascending whenever he repeats the word horse so that it becomes a braying squeel. The horror of the pit and the load and the biting harness and the furious darkness as it cuts into the ponies fills the air as the ranter brings it forth so vividly. The finger of one hand stretches upward as if apportioning blame, but those who hear his words feel themselves shouldering the guilt and the devastation in his performance; in the horses’ terrible existence and fiery death. Of course the images which flare in the mind’s eye are those of the men and boys themselves so hideously consumed by the collieries: both through their work and in their death. And so Poor horse is, on the Geordie tongue, soon Poor usand the sense of injustice cuts keenly through the room. The faces of the men crushed around the circle are red and covered in either tears or sweat, Harry cannot tell. He has never felt anything the like of it, and finds himself overwhelmed. He struggles to breathe: his body and soul held fast amongst the ranks of his neighbours which heave and buckle around him. He is dizzy and thinks he might black out. And then, reaching a crescendo, the ranter collapses into the crowd who take up his stamping and the roar and the place erupts into chaos. Then the fiddlers start up a whirling jig and soon the wild dancing spills out into the lane and the waiting night beyond: almost enough to rouse the dead.
Carole Green is a first time novelist. In her spare time she teaches English and sculls on the river Tyne. She also has a Masters in English.
This piece is part of an unpublished longer work on the life and times of Harry Clasper, an early professional rower and well-known Tyneside oarsman. He is one of the great Victorian sporting legends of Northern England. Clasper’s funeral was reportedly attended by a crowd of upwards 100 000 mourners. This extract is a brief description of his mining background and gives some context to his later development as a professional sportsman. Although fictionalised, the incident described is based on recorded fact – Robert Clasper is listed amongst the casualties of the Bensham disaster.