This colliery was located very near to the River Tyne and the Staiths. It was sunk in 1874 but closed after 12 months and remained idle for 15 years until reopened in 1890. The mine employed 400 men and boys to work the Beaumont seam at 45 fathoms and the Brockwell seam at 74 fathoms. All of the shallower seams had been exhausted in previous centuries. Dunston Pit closed finally in 1947.
Pit Screens at Dunston Colliery
James Fitspatrick and his brother Bob worked at Dunston Pit from 1938 to 1942, they worked on the screens sorting the stones from the coal.
They were in a big, cold building with a corrugated roof, which was broken in places so the weather - wind rain and snow - came blowing through. At night the whole place was lit by a ghostly green light.
At the top of the building was the tipler, a machine which emptied the coal tubs onto a steel belt. Their job was to take out the stones and help the two men in charge to weigh and bag the coal. The iron belt pushed the coal towards the waggons which were under the screens. The machinery screeched and the noise was deafening. The young people who worked there hated the place, they likened it to Dante's Inferno. As they became used to the noise it had a hypnotic effect and lulled them into a trance-like stupor. This would be shattered by one of the bag-men throwing a stone or lump of coal at their frozen hands.
During the time the pit was waiting on, which meant no coal was coming up the cage, they would go downstairs to the bait cabin where a big open fire was blazing. The cabin was in a dreadful state, full of old coal sacks, bits of bait and some big, sprightly mice. They put their bottles of cold tea on the hob to warm up, if they forgot to loosen the cork, the bottle burst with the heat. An old man called Cloughie looked after this cabin.
During the winter months, they would get so sleepy in the warm cabin that Jack Lowes, the keeker, a slang name for a gaffer, would bang a lump of iron on a girder to wake them up and get them back to work. If this failed, he would appeal to their patriotism, "Come on lads, don't you know there's a war on?" Feeling ashamed they would go back to work.
One the lads working on the screens at that time was a local artist and would draw pictures of horror - Dracula and Frankenstein - all over the place. Another twist to his macabre humour was to hang bits of wire with faces on them in dark places. It was a frightening experience to feel these horrid figures touching their faces as they passed them in the dark. Another lad, nicknamed Tarzan, would swing on the topmost girder and drop into a moving coal truck below. To show his flexibility, he would, on occasion, drop 20 ft and at the last moment catch another girder to break his fall.
The conditions and existence were so insufferable that all the lads longed for the day when they would be able to go down the pit proper.
Above the screens, but part of the same building, was the coal cleaning plant where the small coal or duff was cleared of stones. This was done by taking the small coal along a series of rubber conveyor belts higher and higher until it was stored and crushed in a hopper at the very top of the building. Bill, the man in charge of the plant, had a wooden leg from an accident down the pit, and he patrolled the stairs up to the hopper. One lad always called him Captain Blythe, and was often heard to say, "I see Captain Blythe is on the bridge again".
The whole machinery of the plant was driven by two big fly-wheels with a shaft running between. One day when attending the plant, James got too near the shaft, his coat coiled around it and he was swung of his feet, his head just missing the floor. He went round and round with the shaft until he coat tightened and started to slow the fly-wheels down. He shouted frantically. Scullion, a screen lad, stopped the plant and untangled his coat. He was laid out on the stinking concrete floor covered in blood, and later dumped in a coal lorry and taken home.
As the country was at war they worked a Saturday shift 2a.m. to 8a.m. some of the youngsters didn't go to bed that day. They sometimes went to the ' Imperial' or 'Albert' cinema and often would fall asleep, paying the admission price just for a good sleep.
Some miners think pits like Dunston should be kept as museums, exactly as they were, so that the children of today could find out what it was like to work down the pits in 'The Good Old Days'!
In the photo of miners at Dunston Colliery in 1920 do you have any names? my grandfather Michael Gettings worked here at that time with some of his brothers.
Posted by: Andrew Holmes at December 9, 2007 10:32 PM