An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire
Part 85 (of 91 parts) - History of Clock Face Colliery Part 2 (1930 - 1966)
An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St.Helens
Part 85 (of 91) - History of Clock Face Colliery Part 2
An Illustrated History of
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Clock Face Colliery 2
Researched and Written by Stephen Wainwright ©MMXVII
In May 1930 Herbert Cunliffe of Clock Face was awarded a university scholarship from the Miners’ Welfare National Scholarship scheme. The annual award enabled mineworkers or sons and daughters of miners to study at university. Around 2000 people applied each year and Herbert was one of 12 recipients for the 1930 award. It was a benefit of the Miners’ Welfare Fund which had been established in 1920 and funded by a levy on coal production and mining royalties. By the end of 1937 almost £17 million had been raised through the fund with the bulk of the money spent on baths, leisure and medical facilities.
On June 1st 1931, the Evening Telegraph ran the headline 'Coal Mined by Woman'. The newspaper explained how Mrs. Masie Robinson 'clad in an old raincoat and carrying an electric safety lamp in her hand' had accompanied her husband on a visit down Clock Face Colliery. London barrister J. Rowland Robinson was the Conservative candidate for Widnes and wished to inspect working conditions below ground. "Of course, I'm not nervous", Mrs. Robinson told a reporter just before the cage began its 800 yard journey downwards. The couple returned with black faces after their two hour trip and with pieces of coal that they'd dug from the face almost a mile away from the pit shaft. "It has been one of the most thrilling experiences of my life", declared Mrs. Robinson.
The above photograph looks towards Burtonwood, and shows the headgear of no. 2 upcast pit in the centre with the small no. 3 pit headgear to its left. The upcast shaft is the one through which large ventilation fans extract the foul air from the mine workings, a process that automatically replaces it by having fresh air being drawn down no. 1 shaft, hence the term downcast shaft. Underground the air can only flow in one direction with clever arrangements to ensure that this happens, and it is a serious offence for anybody to violate this principle. For example by leaving a door open between the return air tunnel, and the fresh air tunnel. The winding house for the no. 1 shaft can be seen behind the building steelwork on the left of the photo. The small no. 3 shaft was the pumping shaft through which large volumes of piped water were brought up every day. This was through the work of large pumps contained within the pump house on the right of the picture facing the shaft.
On the extreme right of the above photograph, the lower section of the colliery chimney through which the boiler's combustion products were extracted, can just be seen. The boiler also produced steam for various colliery uses including heating the offices and baths etc. Some black-looking insulated hot water pipes from that location can also be seen on the right.
The above photograph taken in 1934 shows a compressed air drilling machine inside a main underground roadway at Clock Face. The twin rails enabled the full coal tubs to be taken to the shaft bottom and then onto the surface, with empty tubs travelling in the opposite direction. The tubs were pulled by a haulage rope, which on the bottom right of the photo, can be seen hooked above the rail and attached to a secured chain. The roadway is high and well supported by the cross bars, that in later years were replaced in most collieries by arched frames. The drilling machine is well secured, having been set up to drill holes for the placement of explosive ‘shots’, in order to drive a new tunnel to the left. This is indicated by the free span of the top support bar above the drill, with the tunnel driven to open a new coal face running in that direction. Note the spare drills and very large flat shovels, specifically designed for more efficient clearing of the stone residue after the shots had been fired.
On June 1st 1935 the manager of Clock Face Colliery, T. W. Shaw, died while playing golf on Hindley Hall links, near Wigan. He appears to have been replaced by Herbert Price, who was certainly manager in 1939. On February 24th 1937, an unnamed miner was killed down the colliery after completing his normal shift and being told to undertake overtime. Joe Tinker MP raised the case in the House of Commons and Captain Crookshank, the Secretary of State for Mines, replied that there had been no contravention of the law. The usual coal cutter machineman had been absent through illness and so the miner who lost his life had simply been asked to deputise.
As stated earlier miners could take time to succumb to their injuries after suffering an accident and the death of Charles Thompson of Gartons Lane in Providence Hospital on January 26th 1939 took place seven years after he’d been hurt. Six weeks later at a meeting of Whiston Rural Council it was stated that Gorsey Lane was subject to flooding whenever there was heavy rain. As a result the colliers at Clock Face had to wade through two feet of water to reach their bicycles after finishing work. A surveyor told the meeting that the flooding was due to a lack of surface water sewers.
The above photograph is likely to have been taken in late 1938 or early 1939 and as well as the colliery yard, shows the site of the proposed new baths / offices on the opposite side of Gorsey Lane. These were planned to be constructed to the left of the path that leaves the lane and heads towards the St Helens / Widnes Railway. At the end of the path mineworkers could turn left for Clock Face Bridge, or right for Hawthorn Road in Sutton Leach. The large building on the top left of the photo served as both the colliery manager’s house and the colliery office. The manager’s family occupied the left half of the building and its upstairs bedrooms, with the office on the right, which included personnel involved in land sales, timekeeping, pay etc. The brick building to its right along Gorsey Lane, with the porch over one side is likely to have been the colliery lamp/tally room. At the end of the building you can just see the rear of the vehicle, which was used by the colliery safety/rescue team to take injured personnel to hospital, or assist in colliery incidents. The longer building to the right would likely be the building that housed the rescue team's equipment, as well as its specialised simulated training facilities, which were discussed in part 1 of these pages.
The pit-head baths were formally opened on July 29th 1939 with the Earl of Crawford presiding. The men’s baths were official opened by John E. James with Lady Balniel opening the smaller women’s section. They were praised in the St.Helens press as being’‘palatial’ and a 'boon to the housewife' and it was said that on Sunday mornings local children were allowed to use the baths as long as they brought their own towels.
Clock Face Colliery’s baths, or more accurately showers, were funded by the Miners’ Welfare Committee and the land on which they were sited, was said to have been acquired from Byron's farm. A £1,100 steel-framed walkway bridge over Gorsey Lane, that was built with asbestos sheet walls and roof, connected the no. 1 pit’s Screens house on the main colliery site to the new baths building. This enclosed walkway allowed the colliery workers to go to and from their respective pit locations safely and in all weathers.
The baths complex (pictured above) also housed a lamp room, fully-equipped rescue station & first-aid room, cycle shed, offices and a canteen. The whole scheme cost £33,618 and accommodated 1600 men and 40 'pit brow' women, the latter having their own separate facilities. Whiston Rural District Council - in whose area the colliery was then situated - extensively widened Gorsey Lane adjacent to the the baths’ frontage. Dominating the site was a high Water Tower, which housed the large water tank that serviced the baths, canteen and offices. It was located at the top of the tower to provide adequate water pressure. The award-winning gardens outside gave the colliery a 'rural' feel and were tended by pit staff.
The above photograph of the baths complex is taken from an upper level in the no.1 pit screen house looking north. Indicated on the picture are 1) Walkway; 2) Shower area (with over 100 cubicles); 3) Lamp room; 4) Locker room (with 1600 lockers); 5) Water tower; 6) Canteen; 7) Offices; 8) Small staff canteen 9) Entrance to offices; 10) Gardens. Mineworkers soon became accustomed to crossing the bridge, walking down two or three steps into the corridor and dropping their lamp off onto a long bench, before going downstairs to the lockers/showers below.
The above photograph (left) shows clerks busy in the pay office at Clock Face Colliery, which was probably staged for the camera. Mineworkers received their money in a tin at the window, which they emptied into their pockets. The photograph above right of a small canteen and rest room, was probably for the use of management and / or female staff. The main canteen was much larger, in order to accommodate the large volume of workers.
The above photograph of the Clock Face Colliery bike shed (contributed by Alan Davies) and taken c.1940 was built as part of the pit-head baths development. How many bikes can you count?
There was a strong community spirit and the Clock Face Colliery carnivals were said to be among the most talked about events in the north-west. The colliery band performed at these and other events and in a report in the St.Helens Newspaper of May 12th 1939, it was stated that:
In connection with Band Sunday, Clock Face Colliery prize band under the conductorship of Mr. J. Williams played at the evening service at Clock Face C. of E. Mission last Sunday. In the afternoon Mr. W. Stubbs, a blind man, gave an inspiring and fitting address on the nature of the occasion.
The Clock Face Colliery Band had been created soon after the opening of the Miners' Institute in 1914. It's said that a manager called Anderton obtained £500 to buy a full set of instruments for 25 players. Six miners who were members of Parson Peter's band in Parr formed the core and each Christmas the Clock Face Miners' Prize Band would go round the village playing Christmas carols. Groups of miners also played accordions on summer evenings on waste ground during the 1920s, attracting good audiences. Another well-remembered conductor of the colliery band was Richard Fairhurst. Not all members were mineworkers, as cornet player Fred Fairhurst worked on Byron's farm. Edward Taylor was secretary of Clock Face Colliery Band in 1939, which was then led by John L. Williams. Isaac Hough of Gorsey Lane passed away in June of that year and in the St.Helens Reporter’s obituary, he was credited as a pioneer of the band, in which he played euphonium for about 20 years.
The Clock Face ensemble, along with the Sutton Manor Colliery Band, played at the Athletics Sports meetings. These were organised by the Clock Face Colliery Recreation Club, which had changed its name from the Institute. The annual sports events took place on the large recreation ground opposite the Clock Face Hotel, in between the main road and Crawford Street. The programme for the 1950 sports reveals that 31 events were scheduled that year with a total prize money of £140. That is equivalent to over £3000 in today's money. The day ended with a Grand Carnival Dance in St. Aidan's School to the music of G. Roughley and his Band.
The recreation ground also hosted Clock Face Colliery Football Club which competed in the local league. Bowls was also played and in 1942 the colliery’s bowls club was first admitted to the St.Helens Amateur Bowling Association, competing in their league and cup competitions. The Recreation Club still exists and presently operates two adult football and one rugby team, plus eight junior rugby teams. In April 2012 they were awarded £49,875 from Sport England’s Protecting Playing Fields fund to convert 14 acres of farmland into pitches for football, rugby and other sports.
On May 13th 1941 53-year-old John Leyland from Orville Street in Sutton died from the injuries he’d received at the colliery on April 9th. On September 16th of that year former Clock Face Colliery miner Joseph Lingham of 291 Sutton Road died at the age of 57. Lingham had been badly injured in the mine sixteen years earlier and had never worked since. Then on August 6th 1943 George Simpkin of Chancery Lane in Parr was killed by a fall of roof while packing the coal face. During the 19th century mineworkers were occasionally taken to court for failing to turn up for work. This rarely happened in later years, apart from in wartime when coal had a greater national importance. So on October 22nd 1943 George Lea appeared in court on three charges of being absent from Clock Face Colliery without reasonable excuse and was fined £9 (about £300 in today’s money). On September 1st 1944 Samuel Pickavance of Manville Street was fined £6 for being absent from essential work without reasonable excuse. He told the court that he had been suffering from lumbago.
On December 18th 1944 the Liverpool Echo wrote about Maurice Hill who worked at Clock Face Colliery and also played right half for Stockport County FC. This was after a match in which Everton had thrashed County 6 – 1:
Footballers' lives to-day are arduous affairs. They are carrying the strain of the double harness of football on top of either Service duties or an essential job. If any who saw Maurice Hill fade out in the closing stages of the game between Everton and Stockport, at Goodison, were inclined thereby to criticism, they should know that Hill had been working below ground in Clock Face Colliery from 4 a.m. to nearly midday – not exactly the ideal preparation for ninety minutes hard graft against a side so much on top as Everton were.In September 1946 it was announced that a new dual-purpose mining safety lamp had been successfully tested at Clock Face Colliery. The lamp, known as a Spiral Arm, had been invented by Mr. C. McLuckie, head of St.Helens Mining School. A red light flashed when at least 2 per cent of firedamp gas was detected and when levels of oxygen were sensed as being unsafe, a white light indicated. The lamp also detected the presence of sewer gas down street manholes. On June 6th 1947 the London Gazette reported that Hugh Dawson, Assistant Storekeeper and Ambulance Man at Clock Face Colliery, had been awarded the British Empire Medal. At the end of March 1948 the men went on strike for a week, through a dispute over pay. Some men had been moved from a 3 feet 9 inches seam to a very low one measuring just 2 feet four inches in order to improve the quality of coal. Output had subsequently fallen and the miners claimed they were losing at least 10 shillings a day and having to work much harder. The dispute was settled when new pay rates were agreed, although much output was lost.
In 1949 a mechanical gear to load coal trucks into the pit cages was installed at the colliery. However the banksmen who operated the system found there were difficulties with tubs sometimes sticking to one another. Consequently they had to be manually separated, which led to Francis Topping losing his life. In November of that year the 51-year-old from Hall Street in Clock Face stepped forward to free two stuck tubs. However he was crushed between a truck and an upright and received fatal injuries. On June 7th 1951 Francis’s wife Mary was awarded £1,750 damages against the National Coal Board.
Also during 1949 the newly-created National Coal Board engaged in a recruitment campaign for school-leavers. 16-years-old Malcolm Ormrod of Clock Face Colliery featured in their national advertisements extolling the virtues of working in the coal industry. A photo of young C. B. Ralph also appeared in the NCB ads, as a 'mining apprentice from grammar school', who was quoted as saying that "There's plenty of variety in the work and a good career ahead if you work for it." In 1950 John Rafferty of Clock Face Colliery made the final of that year's Mineworkers’ National Amateur Boxing Championships, fighting for his pit within the Featherweight division.
Horace Pugh was the Land Sale Manager at Clock Face Colliery from the 1940s, a title that had nothing to do with land sales. Horace and his staff were instead responsible for the selling of coal to the miners and public and he also had responsibility for the coal yard and sidings that ran down the side of Gorsey Lane. His office was at the main gate opposite the baths, just to the left of the gate. When the mine closed Horace was transferred to Bold Colliery as Land Sale Manager and remained there until his retirement. However Horace began working at Clock Face as a 'Bevin Boy', one of many young men who were enlisted to work at the pit, instead of in the armed forces, as his son Alan Pugh recalls:
My father Horace Pugh originally worked at the Lancashire Associated Collieries (LAC) depot at Shaw Street station, and when they transferred to Clock Face he came with them. At the outbreak of war, he was called up into the RAF but before he could put a uniform on, he was enlisted as a Bevin Boy and worked at the colliery until his release. My grandfather, James Pugh, also worked at the mine and he was the engine driver of the loco pulling the wagons to the Widnes branch line. I often had a ride on the footplate. All very illegal of course, but try telling a seven year old kid that!In the above photograph contributed by Alan Pugh, which was taken c.1947/8, Horace Pugh is pictured standing next to his brother-in-law Frank Spakauskas who was home on leave from the Sudan and being given a tour of the mine. A brilliant photographer who was born in Pendlebury Street, Frank was contracted by MGM whilst in Kenya to take stills for 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' starring Gregory Peck. Incidentally also pictured in the photo (2nd left) is John Williams, who played cornet in Clock Face Colliery Band and was their leader for a while.
One little known fact is that Clock Face Colliery played a role in the Berlin Airlift of 1948. After Stalin's blockade was imposed on West Berlin, US Army trucks lined up in Gorsey Lane to be filled with Clock Face coal. This was then flown onto Germany from Burtonwood Air Base. One problem was that the coal was not stored in sacks but loose in the cargo holds of planes. It tended to shift in flight which caused some difficulties for the pilots.
After nationalisation of the coal mines, a Labour government in power and a national pay agreement, it was hoped that there would be industrial harmony in the mines. However for two years the issue of concessional coal led to considerable disruption in the Lancashire coalfield and in May 1949, 50,000 miners in 65 pits went on strike. When the industry was in private hands, the owners had different arrangements on a town and pit basis. During 1948 five million tons of coal at free or reduced prices had been distributed nationally to mine workers and managers. However St.Helens was the only town in Lancashire that granted concessionary coal, with Clock Face Colliery having the most generous scheme. All miners who were householders or had dependants, received a ton of coal every 28 days at 5 shillings a ton, which was much less than the retail price. The long-standing dispute was finally settled in April 1950 when it was agreed that all miners would receive 4 tons 8 cwt at 21 shillings below retail price. This would cost the National Coal Board (NCB) £136,000 per year and Clock Face miners had to accept a far-less generous concessionary scheme than the one they’d been used to.
In October 1950 Joseph Forster died at the Griffin Inn in Bold Heath at the age of eighty. For 38 years he had been an engineer at the colliery and a trustee of the Clock Face Colliery Club, as well as a school manager of the Clock Face Colliery school and that at Bold Heath. Forster had also been a magistrate on the Widnes Bench, a parish councillor for 16 years and a district councillor for 28 years.
The Mines and Quarries Act of 1954 brought in a requirement for mining qualifications for managers and under-managers, including deputies, shot firers, engineers and others in positions of responsibility. One of the most responsible positions in any pit was held by the individual in charge of the winding house who had to safely take men and materials up and down the shaft in cages. In 1905 a mistake by the winder at nearby Bold colliery had led to the deaths of five miners, including four boys.
During the 1940s and ‘50s John King held that important position at Clock Face Colliery. He entered the mining industry in 1918 at the age of 13 when he got a job at Pemberton Colliery, assisted by a reference from John Woods, Vicar of Highfield. After transferring first to Cronton Colliery, John King relocated to Clock Face where he lived at 31 Bridge Road. In 1958 as pit winder he received his Mechanic’s Certificate under the Mines and Quarries Act, shortly before moving to Sutton Manor Colliery.
On May 22nd 1955 Clock Face Colliery played its part in a special celebration at Blackpool when 600 veteran mineworkers from Lancashire paraded through the town. Every man had retired during the previous year after serving at least 50 years in the industry. Area NUM secretary Edwin Hall explained to the press that the outing was organised by the Coal Industrial Social Welfare Organisation – a joint NCB and NUM body – to thank the men for their service. The Clock Face Colliery band was one of several that provided music in the procession and some of the marchers were formerly of the colliery. The ex-miners arrived by special train and received a lunch at a civic reception hosted by the Mayor of Blackpool and 10 shillings each for their teas.
In October 1956 the NCB gave notice to 24 workers at Clock Face that, as a result of their attitude, they were going to be sacked. It was alleged that the men were not pulling their weight after a dispute at the pit. There were suggestions that they would be offered work at other pits but on the 19th of October the notices were withdrawn. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said this was as a result of them informing the coal board of a number of mechanical breakdowns, which had reduced the flow of coal.
In November 1959 the NCB magazine 'Pit Prop’ published a portrait gallery featuring the miners of Clock Face Colliery, which they called ‘The Men Below’. The photographs were taken by Frank Grimshaw, who worked for the NCB as their St.Helens area photographer and who would later be employed by the Warrington Guardian. The trio in the above picture (left) are (L-R) Eddie Lea, fitter Allan Smith and shot-firer Bill Carr. Eddie used to play rugby league for Dewsbury and at Clock Face was employed as dust suppression officer. This was a relatively new and important position, which is worthy of some detailed explanation here. By the 1950s most collieries had an individual responsible for dust suppression, but for well over 200 years it had been the responsibility of pit overmen and deputies.
In early ‘pillar and stall’ mining the usual method of extracting coal was by an individual miner and his drawer, with the latter collecting and removing the coal. These worked in a chamber of coal called a stall, which had its roof generally supported by coal pillars and wooden props. The miner would, crouching down, hand pick the coalface a couple of feet from the floor along its free length to the depth of his pick. Holes would be drilled along this length above the undercut, and explosive charges put into them. Firing the charges would result in the vertical collapse of coal over the length, with the drawer then filling the tubs and pushing them out to a haulage collection point, usually by pony. Although this primitive method created some dust, it wasn't a large amount in comparison to later methods.
The above photograph illustrates pillar and stall mining from about 1900. It shows the miner undercutting the coal seam of approximately 4 feet thick, with his very young drawer, who is possibly his son, hand-drilling the holes ready for the blasting charges. It is somewhat ironic that the improvement in working conditions that took place through using mechanised equipment and much improved ventilation created major additional problems for all of the underground workers. The mechanisation not only generated considerably more coal dust, but it also now had a finer texture. In addition the significantly improved ventilation carried the released dust out of the face area and along the many tunnels towards the uptake shaft, with various amounts settling on beams, road floors, equipment, conveyors, etc. Anybody working underground was subject to breathing in the suspended dust that was continually passing through the air.
This became the source of the terrible lung disease ‘pneumoconosis’, or ‘black lung disease’, as it was also known. Once coal dust entered the lungs it was impossible for it to come out and it progressively accumulated to a point were breathing became severely restricted. The waiting room at first Dr John Unsworth's, and then Dr Rory O'Donnell's surgery in Leach Lane in Sutton during the 1940s, ’50s and ‘60s, always had a number of the unfortunate mine workers who had this condition. Their sunken eyes, grey drawn face, with the most rasping of coughs and wheezing of breaths, was so sad to experience; especially as they knew that nothing medically could be done to reverse their terrible condition. Horace Longworth worked down Clock Face Colliery for 38 years and his daughter Margaret Braithwaite explains in her Memories of Sutton article how after her father’s death, the pathologist had described his lungs as being like “black cement”.
The second equally major problem resulting from these changes was that of coal dust explosions following a gas (usually methane) explosion. After mechanisation gas release from within the coal seam was much more frequent than in the old method of mining. There are a number of ways the gas could be ignited, but the resulting explosion would create a significant explosive force, which passed down the coal face and then into the tunnel system, which connected to the shaft. During this passage the coal dust that was lying along its length would be lifted into the air. If it is in its combustible form, as pure coal dust, it would immediately explode and ignite, continuously fuelling itself as the flame travelled towards the shaft. Over the years there have been some terrible consequences of dust explosions, with the one at the Hulton Colliery in Bolton on the 21st December 1910, in which 344 men and boys were killed, being a tragic example. Some of the victims died almost a mile from the scene of the coal face gas explosion through the effects of carbon monoxide, caused by the coal dust fire consuming all the oxygen.
The elimination of coal dust in mining was, of course, impossible, so finally after WW1 serious examination of the best methods of minimising these dangers was started. This resulted in the use of stone dust, usually limestone, in all mines to neutralise the explosive characteristics of coal dust. The principle was based on reducing as much as possible the available coal dust’s combustion levels, by mixing the two dusts to a percentage that would not ignite. The process was expensive to maintain because hundreds of tons of stone dust were required on a monthly basis, plus the cost of dedicated underground people, who you could always spot at the end of a shift with white dust on their clothing and boots. It was carried out under a strictly controlled programme of area dust sampling throughout the mine. These samples were tested by the colliery chemist, who would subsequently report on what was required in the sample areas.
The bags of stone dust, similar in size and weight to a bag of cement, were opened and hand-applied in the various roadway tunnels by being thrown into the ventilation stream of air. This would allow it to mix with the airborne coal dust in that area, eventually settling on nearby surfaces of road and equipment, with the team then moving on to the next sample area. The basic theory was that any subsequent gas explosion air movement would only lift the top amount of the settled mixture back into the air, and if mixed to the correct ratio it would not ignite.
In later years stone dust barriers were also introduced to hang from the roadway roof along its route, which if impacted by a sudden rush of air from an explosion, would release a large quantity of stone dust into the air targeted to put out the following flame. The position of the dust suppression officer at each colliery was made to specifically make one person responsible for coordinating all the activities involved, and he would report to the undermanager, but worked very closely with the overmen, deputies, and mechanisation team. Eddie Lea as dust suppression officer at Clock Face would also be involved in trying to reduce the source and amount of dust that was generated on the coal face, which would involve the cutter pick design, with water spray application if practical.
In the above photograph (left), which was also featured in Pit Prop and published here courtesy of Alan Davies, is training officer Bob Marsh. The group picture (right L-R) features Eddie Lea, Bob Marsh, Allan Smith, greaser Harry Nicholson (complete with his grease gun), and partly in shot is Bob Connolly, who worked on haulage. The role of Harry as the greaser was vital to the efficient running of the underground equipment, much of which was in poorly lit areas that were not continuously attended. He would travel all over the workings of the mine, checking on rotating equipment and applying grease to greasing points, including conveyor drive rollers, endless haulage pulleys etc. Without this work, bearings could run hot with friction (with dust a big factor), and any unscheduled stoppage would have a major impact throughout the production delivery system.
Bob Connolly's role as part of the haulage team is another important one, dedicated to getting the supplies of equipment to the various underground areas as soon as possible after their arrival at the shaft bottom. The supplies would include timber/ hydraulic props, steel tunnel arches, timber packing, pipework, stone dust and many, many more items. These would travel in tubs as far as possible, before being manhandled to their desired location and made safe. It can be appreciated that any failure to have such items in place when required, could impact upon production. The aim of Pit Prop was to publicise these key people, and photographer Frank Grimshaw really enjoyed playing his part in bringing them to the magazine’s many readers.
There are many who still recall the sight of black-faced miners walking through Clock Face village during the 1950s, including Ernie Bate:
My own recollections of the colliery back when I was a young boy in the fifties were seeing the miners walking back from their shift through the village. The men wearing clogs would ‘spark’ them at our request - no computer games in those days! Also, me and my friends were allowed into the colliery canteen, where soup, bread and a cup of tea was available for 4 old pence. I was always fascinated by the black faces of the men fresh up from the pit. Miners welfare seemed to extend to the kids of Clock Face whether their fathers were miners or not.Further improvements were made to the colliery during the 1950s and by the early '60s, the pit was producing over 160,000 tons of coal per annum and employing over 700 men. On March 27th 1965 it was reported in the Guardian newspaper how Clock Face Colliery miners had on the previous day been paid their wages. What was considered remarkable about this routine weekly event, was a Coal Board computer in Lowton had worked out the miners’ pay. It was reported that the computer would gradually be used to work out the wages of all the 42,000 employees in the North-West division of the NCB.
In October 1965 the National Coal Board, as part of its national coal mine 'streamlining' initiative, deemed the Clock Face mine to be uneconomic. It claimed that there were 'geological difficulties' and it announced that the colliery would be closing during the following year. This was despite the fact that the site had produced 169,000 tons of coal during the past year.
In the above photographs Clock Face Colliery lampman Johnny Quinn is pictured with his best friend and fellow pitman David Mercer (1st and 3rd in second photo). Johnny's son, John Quinn, incidentally, played professional football for Sheffield Wednesday. At the time of the closure announcement, Johnny had been an employee at Clock Face for forty-four years and he expressed his feelings to the St Helens Reporter:
It is like losing a member of the family. Here you are in a community that has gone on for many years. It is a very homely and friendly pit from the management right down to the workers and this feeling has prevailed throughout the years.Also quoted by the Reporter was John Brannelly of 333 Clock Face Road, who had been employed at the colliery until 1926:
Clock Face was the sort of pit people became attached to. There is a lot of deep sentimental feeling about it. The lives of a lot of people in the village were centred around the pit. Many people left their homes in the Wigan area to come and live here around 1915, when the pit belonged to the Wigan Coal & Iron Company.Eight months notice of the closure was given and there was much discontent amongst the workforce, as they believed there was still much coal underground. This anger boiled over on November 25th when the Coal Board informed the men that 200 of them were going to be moved straightaway to either Sutton Manor or Bold Collieries. So five miners took part in a sit-down strike, 2000 feet below ground and by the following day it had become nine, with most of the rest of the workforce striking in support above ground. They were protesting at the way the pit would be phased out and staff transferred. Although the NCB had promised that all miners would be transferred to other collieries, the NUM secretary at Clock Face, Paddy Meeghan, claimed that union officials in neighbouring pits had told him that there wouldn't be enough work to go round. Meeghan said the strike was intended to call the coal board's bluff. If there were alternative jobs for all 700 men, why couldn't they all be transferred at once?
In the Guardian newspaper of November 26th 1965, a large photograph of miners’ wives Elsie Elliot and Agnes McDermott, plus the latter’s 14-year-old daughter Pat appeared. The trio were shown arriving at the colliery with food and flasks of tea for the miners who as the paper put it, were staging a 'stay in' strike 2,000 feet underground. The nine men - who had ensconced themselves in an office in a brick hut - included the president, treasurer and two committee members of the union branch. Their protest, however, only lasted 48 hours.
After the colliery closed, a pump was installed to daily deliver tens of thousands of gallons of near pure water from underground to Sutton Manor Colliery and into the public water system. The site was reclaimed by St Helens Council as a community woodland and public open space in the late 1990s and is now known as Clock Face Country Park and enjoyed by many. Other than the hidden-away capped shafts, the old baths and lamp storage complex in Gorsey Lane is currently all that's left of the historic colliery. However on February 5th 2015, St.Helens Council granted planning permission for the building of 19 homes on the site.
Descriptions of mining processes and technical advice on this page are by ex-NCB engineer Harry Hickson
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