Ron Stoate - The Canari Project

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Ron Stoate

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Ron Stoate - Oral History Interview

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Interviewer – Michele Cordell

Interviewee – Ron Stoate

Date of interview – 28/05

Location – Fleur de Lys Institute

Transcriber – Heather Payne


MC – Ron, can you please tell me a bit about yourself and your background?


RS - I left school at 15, I started working at the pit when I was 16, along with my two brothers who were already there, and my father who was already there. I had 25 years underground altogether, with 14 years in Brittania Colliery and then I had 11 years in Penallta Colliery until its closure on November 1st 1991.


MC – And what are your first memories of working there?


RS – You’re asking me to go back a bit now!  I can’t really remember to be honest with you, it was just sort of a natural….  I do remember that I told my mother, I was doing my training, and then I told my mother I’d be going underground tomorrow, she said “You’re not!” and my twin brother was already underground because he had started straight from school; I had another job before I went underground and it was just sort of a reaction from her, I don’t think she meant it, she just wasn’t happy about it.


MC – Because of the dangers?


RS – Well the two of us and the rest of my family already down there, I think she was thinking hopefully I’d go down a different path.  That didn’t happen!  It was just a natural thing.  The pit was just down over the field from me, it was just the place to go, everybody went.


MC – Did you know of any people with disabilities?


RS – There was, I don’t think we regarded them as disabled to be frank – they did have a separate bathing accommodation for them, all in the same building – but if you were disabled, there was a disabled sort of room.  Same lockers, same showers, just in a different room.  Don’t know why that really was, because there were boys with learning difficulties, men with physical disabilities, but I can’t remember anyone ever thinking much about it to be honest, they were just working there the same as everyone else. 


MC – So they had a separate room?


3.16  RS – They did yes, in Brittania, it was a separate room. 


MC – And was there anything else?


RS – No there wasn’t – they didn’t have to go in there, it was perhaps less push and shove. In the main bath area there was something like a thousand lockers.  If you had something like a couple of hundred men from the same shift, in one bay, there might be 200 lockers in one bay and there was about 15, 20 bays and in any one shift you could get a dose of men rushing in, rushing out, so if they had offered me the opportunity of using it, I would have probably gone in there, because you could take your time!  The lockers were right next to each other, so if I was undressing and the bloke next to me was undressing, you’d be rubbing shoulders, you’d be touching each other! That’s how close it was!  That could well have been a reason why men went in there.  I honestly cannot remember any distinction being made.


MC – So were disabled workers treated any different apart from that?


RS – Nothing at all. 


MC – Did they have different roles?


RS – Yes – there were some boys there with learning difficulties, so they were obviously limited to the jobs they could do, and like a lot of the people, the screens on the top of the pit were the worst possible places to work, it was worse than underground.  It was noisy, it was dusty, it was a horrible place to work.  I went down there as a young boy, doing my training on top of the pit, I only had two or three shifts down there and I was glad of that.  There were a lot of men down there and some of them were disabled – when I say disabled, they had learning difficulties.  They weren’t severely disabled, they were just a few yards behind everyone else.  That was the worst place in the world to work, so I don’t know if that was a deliberate thing or what, I always remember those screens as being awful places to work.  And most of the blokes down there being limited with learning difficulties.  But there were boys underground with learning difficulties but they’d be on the transfer point – they could be on their own all day, they might not see anybody.


MC – Did you know of anybody with physical disabilities?


RS – I remember one bloke, I won’t say his name, but I can remember his name as well – he bathed with everybody else, he bathed with us and he worked in the same district as us, he was about the same age as my father.  His skin – he looked as if he had been burnt, I never seen anything like it, and all his skin was patchy, brown and shrivelled.  I remember him in particular – he didn’t care, and nobody else did, but he sticks in my mind. 


MC – Do you think it may have been through an accident?


RS – Well, he looked as if he had been burnt and to be honest with you I don’t know why I never asked my father about it because he was the same age and we worked in the same district as each other, so I could have said to my father about him, you know, “What happened to him?” but I never asked, and I was never told.  When I went to Penallta then, there was a bloke underground and he only had one leg, but he didn’t have to go far underground.  He could walk a long way on top and on the street you know, he could walk forever –


MC – Using crutches?


RS – No, but underground, he only had one leg and he had to man this pump all day.  He didn’t have far to go from pit bottom, only a couple of hundred yards. I never heard of him struggling or having to be helped.


MC – So how did he physically get to where he worked?


RS – He walked!  And it wasn’t easy walking underground mind, because it was rough ground you’d be walking on, and you’d have to look up as well as down, because you’d either hit your head or fall over something.  You had to walk –


MC – So did he have any kind of artificial limb, or..?


RS – He had a false leg.  They reckon that he walked from Nelson to Penallta when the snow was down. So it didn’t worry him, if he walked that distance!


MC – Did you know of anyone with visual impairment, or a hearing impairment?


RS – Not that I can remember – I mean in later years there was, I would have been more aware then, because I was involved with the Union and I would have been filling out accident forms – I would have been more involved then.  But as a youngster, or just as a workman – I just didn’t take no notice. 


MC – Everyone was treated the same?


RS – Yeah, you know – its like people working in the supermarket, everyone’s the same then aren’t they in the supermarket, or in the factory or whatever?  I did notice after the strike the empathy went then.  I can remember one particular bloke on top of the pit in Penallta, and he had slight learning difficulties.   He thought he was in charge of this, or in charge of something else, and he wasn’t.  When you go down the pit you had to hand in a check to the banksman on the top of the pit, and when you came back up he’d give you that check back.  So everybody knew, if he had that check you were down the pit, and if he didn’t you were up the pit.   Well, the chap that I’m talking about, with the slight learning difficulties, he would be waiting at the top of the pit with his hand out for you to give him the check!  And people used to shout at him “I haven’t got a check, I lost my check, you’re not having it!”  It was only leg pulling see, you had to have it and hand it in, but they wouldn’t give it to him.  And then he’d get his hair off and then he’d shout back, shouting and swearing, they’d be shouting and swearing at him, but it was only a leg pull, a bit of nonsense.  But then the management started to get a bit hostile towards him, and I remember him, as I said I was heavily involved in the Union, the Secretary of the Union, so I had to go and see the undermanager because this undermanager could be a bit of a bully, and he was on about him all the time, and in the end I said to him “Look, haven’t you got more to worry about than him? Leave the man alone mun!  You got underground to worry about, what are you worrying about him for?  He works on top, he’s not bothering you!”  There were other things he was doing, they always found him somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be or he was always doing something that he shouldn’t ought to have been doing, but in the grand scheme of things, it was nonsense you know what I mean?  But he was making a fuss of it, and in the end, I had to tell him, “For gods sake man, what’s the matter with you?” “Ah, but he’s earning decent money!” I said, “Aye, because we are earning bonus!  That’s how! If we wasn’t earning bonus, none of us would be earning any decent money!”  The management after the strike, they were young men.  Before the strike, they were tending to be middle aged men or older, and they had come up through the ranks.  These guys, after the strike, they hadn’t long come out of university, they were trying to make their mark.  That sort.  Wasn’t only trying to bully him mind, he tried to bully everybody, but he couldn’t get away with it with everybody, could he?


MC – Did you know of anybody who had an injury through working down the mine?


RS – Oh yes, a few.  When I was in Brittania, a bloke I used to work with in the face, and what happened, he had the dust, he was diagnosed with the dust. So they took him out of the face, and he was put on a transfer point.  There was a bit of a dispute going on at the face, so they decided to do a job on the belt that he was manning.  On a transfer point, you only used a switch, which stopped one belt.  A transfer point is where one belt tips onto another, and the transfer point attendant, which would have been him, was there to switch one belt on or off and to make sure it was all clean and tidy there.  Because there was a dispute on the face, they decided to do a job on the belt whilst this argument on the face was going on, and they reversed the belt to a mark, to do this job.   He put his shovel in between the belts to clean the muck that was coming back, his shovel got caught and it pulled him into the tension roller, and it pulled his arm out at the elbow.  So, a phone message came in, “We’ve got an accident out here, we need X amount of men”.  I wasn’t involved with the dispute at the face at the time, because I wasn’t a regular in that district, I was only sent in there because they were short.  So, the overman said to me, “You go out there” and pinpointed another few men, and we had to carry him out on a stretcher.  He lost his arm obviously, one of the boys had to take his arm up in a paper bag, the rest of us had to carry him out.  He died after, years after mind, of bowel cancer I think he had, which killed him in the end - nothing to do with his arm – he seemed to get on with life as he did before.


MC – Did he come back to work?


RS – No, he didn’t come back to work.  He would have been mid 50’s then, so it would have been a bit much perhaps for him to adapt with one arm, at that age.  I think you can adapt if you’re younger. 


MC – But would the company have given him a role?


RS – They could have.  Whether they would have would have been different.  That was the thing about the pit, there was always a job you could find for somebody.  You could always find them something to do, even if it was only walking around with bits of paper in their hand to take from one place to another, something like that.  In the pithead baths, there were men working in the pit head baths who would come up from underground, so there was always something they could have done.   And I’m sure if he had wanted to and they were of a mind, that they could have sorted something out.  He never came back, but he wasn’t far off retirement age anyway.


MC – Do you know if he had some kind of compensation for the injury?


RS – Well he would have done, what level it was, I don’t know.  I was 20-odd at the time, and I wasn’t involved with the Union.  My involvement was helping to carry him out of the pit. Yes, he would have had something, whatever it was, but the amount would have been due to the level of blame and the fault, age, earnings, all that would have gone into the melting pot. 


MC – Do you know if anyone who died, whether their family were compensated?


RS – No – when I was in the rescue, I had to go to a licensed mine, a private mine that was, over near Tonyrefail.  Fella over there had got buried.  He was afternoons, he went to work on the Monday afternoon, and they sent for us to go over there – he had got buried.  So they sent for us – there were 2 rescue teams in every pit see, consisting of 8 men.  You could work with 5, so if 3 men weren’t available, you could work with 5.  Anyway, we went over this mine in Tonyrefail, and we started to get him out say about 3, 4 o clock in the afternoon.  We eventually got him out at 1 o clock on the Tuesday.  He was obviously dead, we knew he was dead, and his wife was on top of the pit.  The owner had brought his caravanette to the top of the pit, so she was in this caravanette all night and all of the following day.  You never heard such a cry as when they went and told her, you know, that he was dead.   She must have known, but she was kidding herself that he wasn’t.  If he was buried all that time….   The contrast for me for that was, we were about the same age, he had two children same as me, but the following week I was going to Portugal on holiday.  And they would have been burying him, do you know what I mean?  So that was in my mind.


MC – Did you suffer any injury, or health issues?


RS – No…  I was...  I had a minor bump that might put you off for a month, few cuts and bruises, but I never, and neither did my brothers.   My father lost either one or two fingers, I can’t remember now.


MC – Did he get compensation?


RS – Yeah, he went out then onto light work outside.  I was working with him on the cutting machine on the face and he lost his two fingers, so they put him out on a labouring job then, and I was on the cutter with someone else.


MC – Was it the same wages he was on?


RS – Oh, no no no.  Men used to joke – it was half a joke it was – they used to say it was the only industry you could start off on low money, work all your life, and finish up on low money!  Because you’d go around like that.  Once you’d got too old to go in the face, you’d come out and you could go on a labouring job.  So, your money would obviously go back down again.


MC – So people with disabilities, learning disabilities, physical disabilities – they’d generally have been on a much lower wage?


RS – Yes, they would have, because they’d be labouring outside see – the face was where the money was to be earned.  We were never going to be rich, none of us were – just before the strike they brought in a bonus system and that pegged basic wage down.  There were men earning good money mind, because the bonus system topped it up, but it pegged the wages down, so the basic wage after the strike was basically what it was for years before the strike.  But, labourers would be on less again – Grade A was a face worker, Grade B would be somebody doing something outside related to the face, carrying supplies, things like that, then further out by then there’d be Grade C and that would be the lowest underground rate and most of the people who were disabled would be on that to be honest  - transfer point attendants,  cleaning up, you know what I mean?


MC – Looking back on your experiences, how do you feel about that line of work now?


RS – Well, I had 25 years there, and if I’d had to have another 25 years there, I wouldn’t have minded at all!  I was quite happy, I was.  Like I said, I never earned mega money, but I was secure, and if I had a bill drop through my door like the telly license, I knew I could do a bit of overtime this week and that would cover that, so there was that security but I found... I was 41 when I came outside the pit, I spent all my life in the pit, and when I came outside, that was an eye opener to me! And to everybody else mind!  Attitudes, money…. It was a totally different world quite frankly.  And you didn’t have that security.  I must have had half a dozen jobs in the first couple of years.  Starting a job, then that finished so I had to find a new one, then another one…


MC – Phil was saying about the camaraderie down the pit?


RS – Yes, you didn’t get that outside.


MC - You notice a difference?


RS – You’ll never get it outside.  We had a reunion the other week, back last year.  It was thirty years since the pit shut.  There was boys there from all over mind.  And it was rammed – the rugby club we held it in was rammed.  Everybody was there.  We hadn’t seen each other for thirty years – matter of fact, what we organised (I was one of the organisers of it) we had stickers so we could stick stickers on your chest with your name on, because we knew your face but I mean its thirty years since we saw you, so to remember your name is different! Rather than call everyone “Butt”, stick your name on!  And once we could see your name here, like “Dai” well it would all come back!  You wouldn’t get that outside, on buildings or factories – you wouldn’t get a thirty-year reunion with them would you, with that amount of blokes there.  And that included officials as well, it was open to everybody. 


MC – Were there any disabled people there? 


RS – Well last going off there weren’t many disabled in the pits quite honestly because from about 1980 onwards, redundancies started coming in the pits so the older blokes went first.  After the strikes, there were a lot of young blokes there.  Like I said, I was 41 when the pits shut, and I was one of the oldest there.  Redundancy had kicked in and they brought in several schemes which benefitted older blokes up until 55; after 55 the redundancy payments dropped, so anybody who could go by about 55 went.  And then slowly but surely, they brought in other schemes for the rest – because they couldn’t get blokes to finish look, so they were putting different enhancements on the table that they could take off at any time.  The redundancy scheme might be there for two years but they put an enhancement on top of that but you didn’t know how long that was going to be there – might be £10, 000!


MC – Was there anything specifically for disabled workers?


RS – They weren’t treated any different, but like I say, after the strike the empathy went and there wasn’t many disabled there anyway. Because the older blokes had gone, like. 


MC – How do you think things have changed?  Obviously lots of mines have closed now.


RS – I think things have got worse for everybody now.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re disabled or no.  There’s no loyalty to you, or no empathy to you as an employee – once you’re gone, they can’t even remember your name the next day, no matter how many years you’ve been there!  So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re disabled or not now, they just treat everybody like dirt anyway. 


MC – Any other questions?


Unknown speaker – Did they have to employ a certain percentage of disabled people?


RS – No.  I think that came in later, didn’t it?  I think they have to now – it was in.  But no, I don’t think they had to.  Again, they would make room if you’re face fitted – they would make room for you.  If you had a bad accident and you wanted to come up the pit and work on the surface, and your face fitted, they would accommodate you.  If perhaps your face didn’t fit, they would say “Well we haven’t got anything for you”.  But there was a scheme then that you could finish on ill-health, you could finish on a pension, however much that was.  Some things were beneficial – if you could finish at the pit on ill-health, when you had your free coal allowance, that stayed with you, for life.   So that stayed with you.  But if you went out redundant, under a certain age, that free coal stopped.  So, there were some benefits to going out on ill-health, plus you had a pension.  Like I said I don’t know how much that was.  But of course, again, depending on your disability, you’d have grief off the social security then wouldn’t you, they’d want you working somewhere or doing something, so…


Unknown speaker – Can I just ask, you were talking about working on the screens, what exactly did that work involve?


RS – They were separating…  it was an older scheme using different machinery working underground.  Using different machinery underground, they used to produce different coal *Unclear* At the time, all the coal would go through the screens, and any muck in that coal, big stones anything like that had to be thrown out.  So, the drams of coal would come up the pit, they’d go down to the screens, they’d be tipped upside down in a steel tumbler and they would come out then on what we used to call the tables.  Basically, you know like a tank track or a bulldozer track, big steel plates going round and round, we used to call them tables.  And they’d tip them on there, the screeching was unbelievable.  And you had to chuck all the muck out of it, then it would go into the railway wagons underneath.  Awful place. 


MC – Thank you ever so much for answering all our questions.

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