Mining techniques

Mining in Arigna

The coal mines were tiny by the standard of most industrialised countries. The men often had to lie on their backs in water, using a hand pick or short handle shovel to get at a thin seam of coal under a ledge of rock. It could be a three-mile walk to the coalface followed by a day of back breaking toil. You never saw a "styme" of daylight from the time you went underground that morning until you surfaced again that evening. They spoke an underground language of "sumps" and "gobs", "hutches" and "clips", "bings" of slate and "bullets" of rocks, "caps" for detonating sticks of dynamite. They worked in teams: the miners working at the coal face cut coal alongside shovellers and drawers who took it out and brushers who replaced the rock and slate to keep up the roof after the coal was removed. They were overseen by the firemen who gave the orders. Monday was their day off. Tuesdays were rough . The pitmen were under no illusions about their choice of career: as one coal miner said: " The work was hard and the pay was small and no matter how little you did , you earned it all."At the pit entrance a red light burned at the picture of the Sacred Heart. The coal miners blessed themselves at this spot before they went underground. Strangers who visited the mines out of curiosity often found the experience of the mineshaft so frightening they never got "past the picture. - Brian Leyden "The home place".
  One of the key problems of mining in the area was the narrowness of the coal seams. Coal seams in Arigna were about 20 inches high. This meant the miners had to work in extremely cramped conditions. The miner at the coal face had to lie on his side in pool of water in a “gob” (Gaelic for coal mouth). One would often hear miners refer to the fact that their clothes were never fully dry through the whole week. Once they had passed the main tunnel and entered the “branches” the miners had to crouch down as those tunnels were very low. They remained like this for the day until they had finished their shift. As well as that the noise, dust and fumes were overwhelming. Despite the back breaking work, many young aspiring miners left school at 14 years of age, to start their mining career at the easiest and lowest pay level, before working up to the more difficult but better paid position at the coal face. The coal in Arigna produced no explosive gas unlike English and Continental coal but the work was of course hazardous. Rock falls by sections of rock called "bullets" posed the greatest danger and even though accidents were rarely fatal, they were the cause of many broken limbs. The wages of the workers depended on their output but with the introduction of the coal cutting machine and the air pick, in the 1940s, the level of earnings by each team rose accordingly.  

Drift mining methods predominated in Arigna

A main tunnel “Straight road” 8 feet high by 10 feet wide was driven horizontally into the mountain and laid with twin sets of track. Smaller tunnels “Slopes” 5.6 feet high by 5 feet wide were driven from each side of this main tunnel. The “Slopes” were then linked by “branches” 4.6 feet high by 4.6 wide to form sections from which the coal was cut out. These branches were driven every ten yards apart and could be as long as one hundred yards. Both “Slopes” and “Branches” were laid with a single track.The roof of the main straight, slopes and branches were supported by timber props.

The day shift

The seam of coal in each section was cut out by a “shoveller” or face man working alongside a “drawer”. They were “piece workers” which means they were paid according to production. The face man dug out the coal, lying on his side in the seam which would never be more than 20 inches high (50cm), using a short handle pick and shovel. The face man dug a “gob” halfway through a section until he met another miner who would have started work on the other side of the section. The face man was also responsible for placing wooden props to support the rocks over the seam as he dug out the coal. The drawer loaded the coal on to a “hutch” or small wagon and pushed it from the branch through the slope on to the main straight, where it was pulled out by the haulage system to the weighing point “weigh bridge”. The drawer attached an identifying tag on the hutch to credit the team for their production.
  • A miner would produce an average of 3 tons per day (3000 kg).
  • An empty hutch would weigh about 175kg.
  • A full hutch could weight up to 550kg.
Other positions included the “putter” whose job it was to help the drawer push full hutches up hill. The “weighman” weighed the full hutches of coal outside the mine and recorded the identification marks. The “coper” emptied the hutches into coal bunkers.  

The evening shift

After the day shift, another team started work to advance the mine deeper into the mountain and keep ahead of production. Using explosives the “brushers” advanced the main tunnel, the slopes and the branches by an average of one meter per day. The “roadsman's” job was to lay down a new set of rails for the hutches to be pushed in and out of the mine as the tunnels were extended. Some of the waste rock from this development was also used as wedging to support the roof over the excavated seams. The excess had to be brought out of the mine and over time formed large mounds which were known as “Bing”. When the coal seam between the branches was completely removed, the mountain gradually moved down to fill the space created, crushing the timber props and grinding the sandstone wedging to powder. A few weeks after work finished in any area the mountain had reclaimed this space.

Coal cutting machine or Iron Man

Introduced in the 1940’s this machine created new positions in the mines.
  • Driver to operate the machine.
  • Haulage man to help move the machine between “cuts”.
  • Pillar man responsible for roof support.


Candles were the first type of lighting. Carbite lamps were used from the 1940’s and battery lamps were only in use for the last fourteen years of mining in Arigna.

Food, clothing and tools

The miners brought their own lunches from home: bread and butter and a flask of sweet tea which they preferred cold. They ate their lunch in the mine. Miners wore old clothes and wellingtons. They owned their own tools and helmets.

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