More Notes on the Winding Engines and Mine Shafts of Chatterley Whitfield Colliery

More Notes on the Winding Engines and Mine Shafts of Chatterley Whitfield Colliery

In the time of its operation Whitfield Colliery was like a small city in that it was almost totally self sufficient in its successful quest to claw vast amounts of coal from miles underground. It provided all the fuel to power its steam producing boilers to run the steam engines and steam driven turbines in its two powerhouses. The latter generated all the electricity needed for much other machinery and lighting both above and below ground. Coal cutting equipment, amongst other things, needed electrical power and ‘winding engines’ consumed vast amounts of steam.

In this account I try to expand on my previous article on winding engines from my relatively short experience as an ‘oil lad’ through to ‘winding engineman’ in the 1950’s. It is mainly for the benefit of those who were not closely involved with the work of the colliery but have an interest in its bygone glory. Some who were involved may enjoy recalling their part in it but it does not purport to be an engineering classic.

The organisation and working in and around the mine shafts was a combination of timing, expertise and safety. Each shaft had two cages and when one was wound to the surface the other unwound to the pit bottom, creating a balance to some extent. Cages were loaded with tubs full of coal at the pit bottom and hauled, by winding, more than, in the case of Hesketh, a third of a mile upwards and then unloaded at the pit head.

It was a tough job done by tough men. The noise of machinery, the clanging of metal upon metal and the shouted orders and directions, not to mention the sheer physical strength involved, all combined to make a very busy scenario. Although occasionally if someone ‘missed a beat’ or a breakdown occurred ‘all hell would be let loose’ to put it right. A bit like a car production line coming to a halt it could cause congestion right back to the coal face where colliers would be less than sympathetic.

The ‘Banksman’, with a team of assistants, was the authorised person in charge of the pit head and his control was absolute to ensure the safety and smooth running of the operation. He would signal the winding engineman in the winding house by the use of an electric push button to lift or lower the cage when removing laden coal tubs and replacing them with ’empties’.

The banksman’s responsibilities became even more acute when loading or unloading men. He would also be responsible for questioning and searching (patting down) each and every person, including high ranking managers, for contraband, matches, cigarettes etc., before they could enter the down-going cage. Although chewing tobacco such as the well known ‘Twist’ was allowed. Nothing was regarded more seriously than the possibility of a naked flame below ground where there could be undetected pockets of ‘coal damp’ (methane gas). Even accidentally taking contraband down the mine was likely to result in instant dismissal. I never met a miner who disagreed with this.

The operation at the pit bottom was similar in many ways and the man in charge, called the ‘Onsetter’ had sole control. Like the banksman above he also made push button signals to the engineman to move the cage.

Only when clearly understood signals were made from both top and bottom
would the remote winder operate his engine. The signals were set by law but a close understanding between the banksman, onsetter and winder, was essential to ensure smooth running. The winder, seated at the engine control (levers), was able to see the exact positions of the cages in the shaft at all times via a mechanical indicator and markings on the side of the winding drum.

At the surface, due to the heavy weight of the laden coal tubs, the cage had to rest on retractable legs in order to line up the rails upon which the coal tubs ran. Indeed, for safety, they had to be placed under the cage when men entered or exited. Again, this was the job of the banksman. The ‘legs’ were a device which the banksman could set under the cage at the top of the shaft so that the cage sat firmly in position. A certain amount of neat juggling between the banksman and the winder was required as the cages were double-decked and, in the case of the ‘Middle Pit’, triple decked. It is not difficult to imagine the nimble juggling needed to cope with two and three decker cages, each loaded with either full tubs or empties. Naturally both cages, at top and bottom, moved in opposite directions and the remote winder would have to visualize these movements as he responded to the signal. The winding ropes, albeit made of steel, had a certain elasticity and when the cage surfaced it would rarely be precisely level due to the variable weight of the coal tubs, hence the ‘legs’.

You may wonder what would happen if the winder was taken ill or collapsed, or what if the engine malfunctioned. What then was to stop one cage from smashing through the headgear and the other from plunging into the pit bottom. This would be called an ‘overwind’ and would undoubtedly cause great damage and possibly loss of life. There were in fact multiple safety features to prevent this kind of accident and fortunately numerous of these were in effect long before my time. I will describe some of those features, all of which were a great credit to their inventors. The ‘Davy’ safety lamp was not the only remarkable invention.

The ‘King Hook’, named after its inventor, Tom King, was a remarkable device which in the event of an ‘overwind’ would instantly detach the winding rope from the cage which would be grasped and suspended high in the headgear, preventing it from falling back into the shaft.

There was also an ingenious mechanism attached to the winding engine to prevent overwinding. It was controlled by ‘governors’ (spinning weights which opened or closed by centrifugal force). This device was designed to measure the speed of the engine, being ever more critical in the final revolutions as the cages neared top and bottom. An excess of speed, variable, would instantly apply the powerful brakes to bring the engine to a stop. Additionally there was a ‘slow running’ device which was designed to measure the speed even more acutely when men were carried in the cages. A slight misjudgement by the winder, fortunately quite rare, would cause discomfort to the men in the cages when the brakes were applied. This once happened when I was operating an engine at the Middle Pit and unfortunately for me the departing miners could see into the winding house. One or two of them made short but unprintable comments! The engine braking systems were also designed to fail safe. If the steam power was to drop or fail the brakes would automatically apply by use of great weights beneath the engine. Indeed all these devices were designed to fail safe.

The winding ropes were a marvel of engineering manufacture. Multi core continuous shaped strands of high tensile steel gave a smooth outer diameter to ensure clean passage over the headgear wheel channels and around the engine drum. The ropes were visually inspected inch by inch not less than once in every 24 hours by an authorised and qualified engineer who would watch the very slow passage of the whole of the rope at the pit head, looking for any broken or misshapen strands. It was rare to find any defect but such an event would mean immediate condemnation of the rope and necessitate a hugely expensive replacement.

The pit shafts were the subject of continual inspection and upkeep. Specialist ‘Pit Fettlers’ would, usually during the night shift, stand on top of the cage attached to safety lines and examine the whole shaft as they were slowly lowered using signals to the watchful banksman. Shaft walls and the fixed steel guide ropes through which the cages traversed were examined. This also took place once in every 24 hours and again called for tough men to do an unpleasant and often damp job.

An essential element to the safety and efficient running of the shaft, engines and other mainly surface operations was a group of engineering specialist fitters (quite apart from the machine, repair and welding shops). They were experts in fitting new steel ropes such as winding ropes and miles of haulage ropes used below ground to haul coal, materials or men. As an ‘oil lad’ I was sometimes called upon to labour during the splicing of heavy steel ropes below ground. It was useful overtime cash for me at the time. The same team repaired any and every breakdown on the surface and some below ground. They would dissemble and restore turbines in the powerhouses and maintain steam engines of all shapes and sizes.

The foreman of this team during my time, in the 1950’s was a personable man named Sid Powell, supported by deputy engineers Jack Cartlidge and Harry Harvey who, under the overall colliery chief engineer were authorised to carry out the many safety and essential procedures I have described. Sid Powell had direct supervisory authority over all the enginemen and would visit each engine-house daily.

There were many men in the life of this giant colliery whom I have not been able to mention. To those worthies I apologise.

Ray Sherratt