Picture of George Head

George Head

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EXCEPTING at South Shields, I think I never ascended a more uncouth flight of stone steps than those which lead from the docks at Whitehaven to the high land on the southern extremity of the town. Not only are the inclined plane of considerable declination, and the steps unusually deep, but many of the latter are so much worn towards the outer part as to be absolutely perilous; at all events, whether considered impassable or otherwise, some persons, to whom I spoke on the subject, said that, though they had lived in the town all their lives, they had never been either up or down. I had a double, if not a treble object in making the ascent: in the first place, to explore the high ground on the top, the principal abode of the colliers, and adjacent to which is the point of delivery of the coal dug south of the town; next, I wished to trace the artificial line of transport of the coal from the pit to the town; and, lastly, I was on my way to the Saltham pit, to descend which I had obtained permission of the proprietors. On both sides, all the way up, on the right and on the left, are built small houses for the colliers, where, as is usually the case, in proportion to the size of the dwelling, inversely is the stock of little children: these, at all hours, sit, ten or a dozen at a time, like unfledged rooks, on perilous crags of stone, and crawl backward and forward from the little alleys which diverge at right angles from the landing places.

I observed some with red heads, others with white heads, but all with black faces, alike carelessly clambering up and down, and playing on the verge of precipices quite awful to behold. One little creature particularly, hardly able to walk, nevertheless made his way up, without any assistance, and alone—a little boy, covered by one single, very short petticoat, and it was curious to observe how cautiously he crawled on all fours, and as he travelled on the back part of his hands and his feet, carried his hind quarters high up in the air. "Do your children never tumble down these steps, and if they do, where in goodness do they stop ?" said I to a poor woman. "Oh yes, sir, very frequently," said she, "but they hardly ever hurt themselves, somebody always stops them." How special is the protection of Providence towards helpless infants: here, a step one way or the other carries a child to its cradle, or to its grave!

At the summit of these steps, a few hundred yards distant, are the staiths, from which the coal is delivered by spouts into the holds of the vessels below; as the level is full fifty feet above the water, it falls thundering downward, like a cataract, and with the force of a battering ram, more violently, I think, than under any contrivance I have seen along the coast. The wagons, previous to delivery at the staiths, descend along an inclined plane of two hundred and sixty yards in length, and of remarkable declivity, especially towards the lower extremity; the distance is traversed in one minute and a half, the full wagons being made to draw up the empty ones: on some days, upward of three hundred pass by this route, on their way to the staiths; and a collier is frequently laden from the pit in a single tide.

At the summit of the inclined plane, an admirable contrivance is resorted to, in aid of the brake wheel, than which there was formerly no other implement to counteract the force of the laden wagons on their descent: the weight of these, however, not being sufficiently compensated by the empty ones ascending at the same time, the stress on the brake was consequently very formidable; and this stress it was the object to remedy. The pistons of two large air cylinders, connected by cranks to the axle round which the rope that sustains the descending wagons is coiled, are so constructed, that, acting immediately upon the axle, they oppose an equable force to its revolution, and retard the wagons in their progress down; nay, to such a degree, as to stop them altogether, were it not that the man in charge has the means of regulating their force, by allowing the air to escape in any degree he thinks proper. This person is continually ready at his post, having a handle connected with the valve within his reach, as well as continual hold on the pole of the brake. The force opposed to the axle is rendered equable by the alternate motion of the pistons; as one of these ascends, the other descends, thus relieving one another; that is to say, as the piston of each air cylinder descends, the valve opens; as it ascends, it shuts, thereby throwing the resistance upon the axle. No sooner, therefore, is one piston hors de combat, than the other resumes the labour, and thus, both working alternately one after the other, the same force, neither more nor less, is in continual action.

The above operation refers to the last two hundred and sixty yards of the distance performed by the coal wagons, from the pit to the staiths in the town; the next half mile, in the same direction, is a long railroad, on a level, commencing from the establishment of Ravenshill, whence the wagons are drawn by horses. Ravenshill is a large coalyard, on the verge of a cliff immediately above the sea; here the coal is deposited in large quantities, screened, &c., being brought hither from the Saltham, Croft, and Wilson pits. The communication is by a shaft of twenty-nine fathoms, which descends to the level of the seashore, and thence reaches, by a tunnel of about a hundred yards in length, to the mouth of the Saltham pit; which latter excavation extends to a considerable distance under the bed of the ocean.

A boy and a horse are employed to remove the corves, or baskets of coal, from the pit's mouth; the horse, without blinds or other harness than his' traces, performs his office with the promptitude of a reasoning creature; knows when and where to turn, and constantly working within confined limits, makes use of his own eyes, and obeys the most trifling signal of his driver. A man stationed at the mouth of the pit seizes each corve, as it arrives at the top, with an iron hook, and pulls it towards him, clear of the mouth of the shaft; it is then lowered by the tackle upon a low-wheeled truck, of which five or six are linked together, and these the old horse pulls after him by his traces, or pushes, by his breast, before him, as the case may be, along the railroad. So soon as each load is ready, be instinctively proceeds on his way: arrived at the mouth of the aforesaid tunnel, fifty or sixty yards distant, the level being too low for a man to ride on his back, laying back his ears, he plunges undauntedly, at once, alone, into utter darkness.

The shaft of the Saltham coal pit is quite close to the sea—absolutely on the shingle, and one hundred and forty fathoms, or eight hundred and forty feet deep; which depth, though not so great as that of the Monk Wearmouth pit, lately completed at Sunderland, by one half, is, nevertheless, equal to twice the height of St. Paul's Cathedral. At the Saltham pit the baskets are drawn up and let down by flat rope, the same as in other places is now universally adopted; each bucket has its rope, both being wound opposite ways on the same axle. On the same axle is also a third rope, attached to a small truck, laden with pigs of iron, as a counterpoise, in order to relieve the raising engine at the first lift. The truck ascends and descends an inclined plane on rails, and its rope being just half the length of the shaft, so soon as the whole is expended, the truck being then at the bottom of the plane, and the axle revolving in the same direction, the latter gathers the rope the opposite way, and thus the truck is drawn up again.

Having arrived at the premises of the Saltham pit, I was furnished with a collier's jacket and cap, and being further provided with a safety lamp, and accompanied by a guide, we both made our appearance at the mouth of the shaft, from whence the guide hailed the men who were working below. The colliers under ground communicate intelligence and signals with the upper regions in a very peculiar tone of voice; indeed, on both sides, the words uttered are quite unintelligible, while hollow thundering noises, engendered by the echo, strike in wandering peals upon the ear. In compliance with these sepulchral sounds, an empty basket was accordingly sent up, into which we both stepped, and were immediately lowered down. The motion felt exceedingly slow; the size of the basket, strength of the chain, breadth of the rope, and all the apparatus, impressed the mind with an idea of perfect safety; the water dripped plentifully from the boarded sides all the way to the bottom. Halfway we met the other basket, in which people were ascending; our pace was here slackened, and a few compliments passed, after which we began to spin and swing a little, but soon descended as steadily as before. We were no sooner grounded, than my companion, knowing his way better, and whose eyes habitually served him in the dark, tripped away in a moment down a craggy, uneven descent, leading from the bottom of the shaft to the interior of the pit. A few lamps faintly twinkled at the bottom, but the intervening space towards the light was black as night; in fact, beyond the distance of a yard, I could see nothing at all: nevertheless I was clamorously urged to follow the leader without delay, one desiring me to put a foot here, and another there, all in the same breath; while I, perhaps obstinately, stood still waiting to distinguish an object to tread upon. All this time I held in. my hand a safety lamp, which afforded a glimmering so feeble, as to be, during these first moments of darkness, quite useless; this simple contrivance, with which some people are acquainted, and others not, is merely a small circular, ordinary lamp, screwed into a cylindrical covering of gauze wire, about ten inches long and three in diameter. In the present instance, as in the course of life it not unfrequently happens, I might have paid dearly for the exercise of self-will in defiance of wholesome advice, for I was not then aware of the danger, while remaining in the shaft, of fragments of coal falling from the top.

At last I groped my way down about ten feet, by an extremely awkward path; from whence, together with the guide, each carrying a lamp, we now commenced our subterraneous walk. The level was high enough to allow a person to stand upright, but the path was uniformly ankle deep in black mud; the atmosphere was exceedingly warm, and I found the collier's thick jacket in a great degree oppressive. As we proceeded, we were occasionally obliged to halt, and stand with our backs closely pressed against the side wall, in order to allow the trams of coal wagons to pass by on their way to the shaft.

Of these wagons, or trucks, each bearing a single large basket or corve, one horse draws a dozen linked together, along the railroad that extends through the middle of the track. The driver of these trains was generally a boy—sometimes a girl; of the latter sex thus employed, I met three or four during the morning, dressed so nearly in male attire, that, by the uncertain light, as they passed by, it was impossible to say which was which. Owing to the narrow space in the level, there was but barely room on either side, as I have already hinted, for the wagons to go by; not sufficient to allow the driver to keep by the side of his or her wagon, and at the same time pass a foot passenger going in an opposite direction. Boys and girls both adopted a similar manoeuvre on these occasions; springing nimbly up in the rear of the horse, on the near side, the right shoulder and hip were supported by the animal's hind quarters, the right foot then rested on the bed of the carriage, close to his hocks, while the left was placed upon the chain trace. In the mean time the horse proceeded with a docility and steadiness equally to be depended upon in darkness as in light.

I had not walked far, when my conductor led me into a small cavity, or hole in the wall, a sort of black chamber, in which there was a bench as well as a small table. Here he requested me to stay a few minutes, while he went to fetch another person, who would lead me through the remainder of the pit. After remaining here about five minutes, he returned again, and formally presented me to the new guide. "Now, sir," said he" very politely, "you will go along with this gentleman." Though no term in England can be more definite, according to its real meaning, than that of gentleman, and at the same time more vague taken in its common acceptation, yet, somehow or other, in ordinary life one is not used to meet a gentleman with a black face: and I confess, that—though I hope not prone to pay too much credence to colour, or overlook, under disadvantageous appearances, latent merit—I was at the first moment a little staggered by the appellation; for though the countenance of one gentleman was no less sable than that of t'other gentleman, yet both together were as black as the visage of a third gentleman whose name need not now be more particularly mentioned. The skin of every man in a coal pit, by a very simple process, soon attains the same hue; but since no discolouration of the moral qualities ensues thereby, neither are the gradations of rank forgotten, nor is the mutual respect with which the workmen regard those set above them at all diminished. Having cast a glow-worm glance ahead, and at the same time viewing my own collier's dress, I marched on, following my leader, repeating the lines of the poet,

"Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow,
And all the lest is leather and prunella."

As we proceeded, my new companion was at some pains to explain to me the mode by which a free circulation of air is obtained, by opening and closing doors as occasion may require, which doors are placed at the entrance of certain passages, through which latter the current is managed as daintily as it' it were water, and an uninterrupted draft continually attracted towards the open shaft. I was unable to comprehend the process in detail, as it depended entirely on topographical points, the which I had neither leisure to consider, nor light to distinguish. A continual stream of air is nevertheless conducted through these subterraneous labyrinths, with identically the same precaution as if it were a river. I was heated to a considerable degree from the exertion of walking over uncertain ground, nearly in darkness, as well as by the covering of thick horsecloth that I wore; I nevertheless felt the air upon my face mild and balmy; so much so that it occurred to me that the temperature of deep coal pit might be applied to medicinal purposes, as being, of all others, to an invalid, the most gentle and equable.

Although, previous to making the descent, I had anticipated very extensive subterraneous space, I was nevertheless astonished at the length of the levels, or streets, through which we passed. As we turned about continually, and as it was so dark that it was necessary to pay uninterrupted attention to the path, I cannot pretend to give, otherwise than at random, an account of distance from my own observation; but I feel very sure we had not proceeded under ground less than two miles, when we came to a party of men at work, at the spot whence the first wagons, which we encountered on the way, were despatched. As to the direction—I have a partial recollection that in one instance we went, as I was told, a thousand yards in a straight line under the bed of the sea; and then again four hundred yards more, point blank towards another point.

Here was a scene calculated at once to display in flowing colours the energy of the English labourer, and stood for some seconds really in heartfelt admiration, viewing the unconquerable bulldog spirit of our countrymen. Deep in the bowels of the earth, half a dozen human beings, covered with coal dust and streaming with perspiration—objects, perhaps, of the indolent laggard's pity, enacted the part of heroes and Christians—fathers and husbands above ground—here strained their sinews within a heated vault with reckless and undaunted fortitude. Some "hagged" the coal, breaking it in fragments with pickaxes, from the rock; others shovelled the coal so broken into hand trucks, which latter were taken in turn, arid pushed by the breast to the verge of a high bank above the level by which we were approaching, where the wagons stood ready underneath to receive the load and convey it to the shaft. These men, almost in a state of nudity, had no other covering than from the waist halfway down the thigh.

The temperature now being very warm, my conductor remarked that probably the air was impregnated with hydrogen gas; and immediately, as if solely for my edification, he unscrewed his safety lamp, taking it out of its wire case: a bluish haze rested upon the flame, which, he said, was indicative of the existence of the fluid. I was much surprised at this experiment, which I could readily have dispensed with altogether, taking his word instead—in fact, it is almost universally owing to confidence or hardihood, as well as carelessness on the part of the workmen, that coal pit explosions occasionally take place. The safety lamp, I believe, if properly attended to, has never been known to fail, for it is not only a perfect safeguard, but admonitory in its operation: when burning in a tainted atmosphere, the particles of air which enter by the divisions of the wire ignite gradually, so as first to brighten the flame, and then illuminate the whole space within: finally, the heat becomes so great, that, provided the above phenomenon be not regarded, the wire melts, and then, and not before, explosion ensues. By a recent improvement, invented by an individual of Sunderland, an extinguisher has been added, which being suspended within the lamp by a wire, the latter subjected to contact with the ignited fluid produced, as above related, no sooner melts than it drops the extinguisher. Many people assert that, not withstanding the whole credit of the invention of the safety lamp rests with Sir Humphrey Davy, a great part is due to the well-known engineer George Stephenson, by whom a modification of the principle was first adopted in practice, and with whom previous communication was held on the subject by the patentee. It is further said, as to the means which led to the discovery, that the idea was originally conceived by the said individual, who, sitting after dinner, and accidentally holding the prongs of a silver fork in a candle, observed the impediment created to the progress of the flame, and drew his inference accordingly.

We were at this time at a spot ten fathoms below the level of the shaft, whence a stationary steam engine of eight horse power is employed to draw the wagon up an inclined plane; I found it inconvenient to approach this engine, owing to the excessive heat. Near this part of the pit we came to a place where, about two months before, a considerable portion of the roof had fallen in, owing to a large chamber having been formed, leaving; a wide space of the roof without support. The avalanche fortunately was attended with no calamity, though large fragments still lay in heaps, never having been removed since the accident.

Hence we advanced a thousand yards up an inclined plane towards the stable, gaining thereby a considerable elevation; here the horses of the pit, forty-one in number, are kept, some without seeing the light of the sun for years together. We were now very near the shaft, and as to the level, exactly midway between the bottom and the top—the point where the baskets meet: here is an opening towards the shaft, consequently only halfway, or seventy fathoms, remained to be performed hence on our return to the realms of day. The accommodations for the cattle resembled those of a farmer's cart horse stable in the country, but on a larger scale, there being not less than forty stalls, or rather standings for forty horses in a line, besides two large boxes. Although the horses were most of them at work, and not above a dozen present, the place was as hot as a pinery; certainly overheated and ill ventilated. According to common report, horses in a coal pit universally keep themselves in high condition, and as I was curious on this point I paid particular attention to these; their skins were no doubt sleek, and they might be said to coat well, they were also apparently in good flesh; an effect unquestionably to be attributed to the equable temperature of the atmosphere; but nevertheless, the firm crest and tone of muscle which indicate true condition were altogether wanting. One old horse was pointed out to me, that for eighteen successive years had worked incessantly in these regions; he was sleek and fat, but his crest, and his flesh generally, was flaccid, as if he had been in a strawyard. All those I met at their work sweated a great deal, being decidedly what is termed "foggy," and, I have no doubt, after their labour, "dried ill." No straw is supplied for litter; the consequence is, that few of the horses ever lie down. It was related to me that those which, after remaining a long time under ground, are brought to daylight, are literally, and to all intents and purposes, stone blind; at first, if not very carefully attended to, running against every object in their way; nor do they recover their eyesight till, by living in a darkened stable for a few days, they become inured by degrees to the light.

After passing nearly two hours under ground, where, as I was told, upward of a hundred men are constantly employed, we prepared to ascend and revisit the light: to this end we proceeded about fifty yards from the abode of the horses, to the mouth of the black-looking abyss, by which the baskets or corves were continually going up and down. The usual vociferations or signals were no sooner made than the broad flat ropes began to move rapidly in opposite directions, and in a few seconds, as the empty corve descended from above, the laden one appeared advancing rapidly from below, bearing upward a small band of working colliers. "How many of you are there?" inquired my conductor. "Five," was the reply—upon which the corves crossed each other on their way, and a group shot ahead, affording, as the light of their safety lamps shone faintly upon their countenances, a subject worthy of Canova. The feet of the upper man, who stood high above the rest, if not supported on his neighbour's shoulders, were thereabout; and the attitudes of all underneath, crouching together, and crowded into the corve, were particularly striking and characteristic; they disappeared instantly, and the empty corve had no sooner arrived at the bottom, than it was immediately sent up again to receive us. It was not quite so easy a matter to get in here as at the top of the shaft. As the corve thus midway below is beyond the reach of the eyes of those who govern the apparatus above, a few feet of rope more or less, I presume, are not considered important; at all events, according to the oscillations of the axle above, so the corve continued to rise and fall, and finally rested full six feet below us; so that it became indispensable, holding by the chain, to swing ourselves in, the which was no sooner done than a third man having joined us, and all being ready, the signal, like the moaning of a heifer, was immediately given, and we darted upward. I was really delighted by the extreme swiftness of our ascent, by a motion as it were generated in starts and bounds, while streaming lines appeared to descend along the wet planks at the sides of the shall with inconceivable rapidity. The sensation was that of leaping into open space above, under the agency of an incalculable power, such as is presented to the mind by those illusive dreams or visions wherein the sleeping frame is borne on wings along interminable space, or transported in hurried thought through the air among the tops of lofty mountains.

At all events, one may reasonably claim a right to be imaginative on such an occasion: being quite sure, when blessed by the light of the sun, to be brought to sober reflection; one momentary glance at a looking glass is quite sufficient at least to engage the mind on a question of indentity. Ten minutes I was busily occupied within a small adjacent cottage, in the endeavour, by the assistance of yellow soap and hard scrubbing, to restore my face to its original colour, and even after all I could possibly do, I carried with me back to my inn, not only my own inward recollections of what I had seen, but outward visible tokens of the profession of the gentleman whose cap and jacket I now with thanks restored to their owner.

On viewing the stupendous mechanical purchase of the "Patent Slip," it appears remarkable at first sight, that notwithstanding a patent has been obtained for the contrivance, it consists, after all, merely of the simple application of other powers, which latter have long since been in ordinary use—namely, the windlass, the inclined plane, and the railway: in fact, the patent slip is nothing more than a gigantic windlass, by which ships are drawn up an inclined plane, upon iron rails, out of the water. Forty or fifty men, as the case may be, work at the said windlass, the vessel being thereby raised as high as is expedient; after having undergone her repairs, she is then lowered back again, and set afloat by the same process.

The windlass is double; I mean, there are handles on both sides; the latter move vertically: when manned together, fifty men are enabled to work without inconvenience. Thus a power is obtained sufficient to raise a vessel of five hundred tons' register: and so on in proportion, the actual weight of the unladen vessel being supposed to be nearly the same as her register tonnage. On observing the machinery, I found it to consist of multiplying wheels and pinions, as follows: viz., wheels and pinions, 6; duplicate, 1; broad plane pinion, 1; total, 8. The windlass catches its first gripe by a set of pins, about a foot each pin in length, with which the said broad plane pinion is furnished instead of cogs. As the pinion revolves, the pins act as levers, one after another entering the links of the chain made fast to the ship; the length of the pins and the intervening space between each being adjusted so that as one pin frees itself another enters the next link. It is singular that the fashion of the chain here used for the purpose of raising five hundred tons is precisely the same as that of the fuzee of a watch: it is, however, a double chain, the connecting rivet of each link forming the point of resistance. The aforesaid chain hauls upon a series of circular iron rods of two inches diameter, strongly riveted together.

The inclined plane is in length one hundred and eighty feet, extending from the windlass above a considerable distance into the sea; the rise is three quarters of an inch in a foot.

The iron rails are quadruple, one pair ten or twelve feet asunder; the inner pair about eighteen inches apart: these latter are furnished with a row of catches, at intervals of about a couple of inches. for the purpose of receiving the point of a short iron dragstaff, which follows the vessel while moving up the plane, in the same manner, und for the same purpose, that a similar implement it appended to a carriage ascending a hill. The vessel, previous to being dragged out of the water, is set upon a frame consisting of enormous longitudinal and transverse beams, which frame moves upon castors. In order to lay the vessel upon the frame, the latter being under water at the lower extremity of the inclined plane, the former is floated above it, and as the tide ebbs, allowed to rest thereupon.

The operation of raising a vessel from the harbour to the slip, as may be supposed, is not rapid; not faster, as I was informed, even when the men work hard, than at the rate of one foot in four minutes.

The harbour of Whitehaven is a semilunar bay, encompassed by high land all round; within, no river discharges itself into the sea. A dense cluster of piers and jetties seems to indicate the confined scale upon which the latter were originally raised; a plan by far too confined for the present increased state of shipping and commerce; from first to last, abundance of material has been expended in various angles and intersections apparently void of preconcerted design, alterations and additions made and appended at different periods, and gradually, according to the necessity for augmentation.

About a dozen years since, partly with a view to remedy these defects, an outer pier was constructed, which, extending with an ample sweep from the southern horn of the bay, seems to invite another pier similar to itself from the northern horn, whereby, according to the plan pointed out by the natural position of the cliffs, a large extent of harbour space might be contained between both.

Nevertheless, a great work, now two or three years under process, has been determined on a different plan. A massive pier has been erected, dividing the aforesaid semilunar space into two unequal parts; that is to say, excluding more than two thirds of the northern extremity. The remainder has been thus rendered still more confined than it was before, and in the mean time, owing to a bar lately risen at the mouth of the harbour, the approach of ships is more difficult than ever. In conformity to the present design, the William Pitt Coal pit preserves its independence on the outside of the harbour; which overgrown neighbouring proprietorship is, as it appears, at direct variance with the other local interests. In whatever degree influence may have been exerted over the plan of proceedings, two parties, at all events, are in severe collision; some people even assert that, were every tree still growing, and every ton of stone expended on this pier at the present moment in its native quarry, ship owners and others concerned would be better pleased than to see them where they are; whether or not the work may answer the purpose intended is a separate consideration; of itself it is magnificent and admirably executed.

Two diving bells were in constant work the whole of last summer; these were also in requisition during the present year. A few months ago, as I walked along the platform raised above the new pier, the sea at the same time rising with a heavy swell, two men were below in one of these machines; four others on the platform pumped the air into the bell through a leathern hose.

After all precautions, a man in a diving bell is certainly in a state of awful dependence upon human aid: in case of the slightest accident to the air pump, even a single stitch of the leathern hose giving way, long before the ponderous vessel could be raised to the surface of the water, life must be extinct. The waves washed heavily against the solid foundation, while the operations were silently proceeding beneath; no sound was emitted but now and then that of the air, rushing upward at intervals, gulping and bubbling, as if the earth underneath were bursting; or, occasionally, when the blow of the workman's hammer on the side of the bell furnished a preconcerted signal, either to raise or lower, or move the machine to one side or the other in the necessary direction. The effect produced by this sound upon the ear was very singular, for it appeared as if proceeding from a spot not more than a foot distant; as the intervening medium created little impediment to the transmission of sound, while the eye was without the means of judging distance, the sympathy between the sight and hearing was destroyed, and thence all notion of relative position entirely lost.

George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

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