I suppose most of us have never really thought about the working life of the pit pony?
We all just presume it was a horrible life for them, stuck down there in the dark.
But even though their working life was hard and dark, it was nice to learn today that it wasn’t as bad as I first imagined.
When the final coal pit closed, all of the ponies had good homes waiting for them, and they lived out the rest of their lives in blissful comfort.
They were grand little pitters,” said Harold an old miner.
“They came mostly from the Welsh mountains and Dartrnoor.
We had the dickens of a job finding names for them cus in them days when we had over a hundred.
You had to be very careful not to duplicate a name, as it would have caused terrible confusion.
We went through the lot: politicians, film stars, Iootballers, cricketers.
They were all recorded in the horse book in the stable office.”
The use of ponies in coal mines goes back to the 17th century, when they worked pumping and winding machinery.
Coal haulage in those dark days was the work of women and children, girls as well as boys.
And then the Act of Parliament in 1842 took females out of the mines and limited the activities of young boys in the pit.
It was at this point that ponies took over pulling tubs of coal.
There is little doubt that these animals were worked hard and existed in most miserable conditions at first.
But over the years their lot improved, and with the advent of mechanical conveyors they were employed on lighter work, taking in supplies and salvaging materials, and in the maintenance of airways and returns where mechanical haulage was not available.
When we think of pit ponies, I think we visualize small ponies working in the depths of the earth. whereas, actually, they varied in size from as little as 10-12 hands in the northern coalfields, to ponies over 15 hands working underground in South Wales.
There is a good deal of Shire horse in their blood line.
Three main features were taken into consideration when purchasing ponies for underground use:
1. The pony bad to be over 4 years old. This was the law.
2. It had to have a good temperament and be easily handled.
3. The pony had to be sound, of a maximum weight .and a minimum height. The most amount of horse in the smallest amount of space.
No mares were used underground,
In South Wales only geldings were used, but at Baggeridge and in some other pits ‘entires’ or stallions were used.
Each pony was given a name. provided with his own stall underground and fitted out with his working harness.
Usually, he worked with the same haulier, so that he became entirely familiar with his master and would obey his commands almost instinctively.
The hours a pit pony could be worked was also laid down by law.
The Pit Ponies Charter stipulates a 48-hour week as the maximum, except in very special circumstances.
A pony carrying supplies or on repair work may work only 4 hours a shift, and he must not be worked more than two shifts in 24 hours or more than three in 48 hours.
A shift was 7 1/2 hours or less and the time to get to his work was included in the shift time.
At Baggeridge, some faces were 2 to 3 miles from the main stables, which is why smaller, intermediate stables were maintained throughout the pit.
In every case, stables were situated in the intake airway, for the animals must have the fresh air as it comes down from the surface.
The stables were lit by electricity and the stalls provide ample space for the ponies to lie down.
There is no doubt that clean straw or other suitable bedding, the lime washing of roofs, walls and partitions every three months, adequate drainage, and the fact that the horse keeper examined each animal after work, cleans and grooms it, kept the ponies in good health.
It was also obvious that unless infection is brought down to them, the ponies were in an almost sterile environment.
It was important that the ponies were well-shod, for if they should lose a shoe they can not be worked until it has been replaced.
They were cold-shod, which means that the shoes are made above ground and the blacksmith goes down the mine to actually shoe the pony.
Harold reminisced about the personalities of some of the ponies he had charge of over the years.
“They were very Intelligent little osses. They knew just what was expected of them, and they knew when they’d worked their shift annul!
There was one little pitter that could hear me whistle him a mile away.
And they could smell apples; or an orange being peeled, wherever they were working and so could the miners too!”
As the head horse keeper Harold Worton was on call at all times of the day and night.
He can recall only one Christmas Day when he played Santa to his children, and that was when he was at home with the flu..
“It’s been a grand life” he said “I wouldn’t have swapped my Iittle job for all the tea in China”.
“There was little’ Toby’ he was just like a pet dog to me.
He used to put his forelegs on my shoulders and nuzzle against my cheek,
Then there was ‘Samson’, a big black stallion who got very playful at times. He used to lean on me when he was in his stall.
He took a bit of shoving over, I can tell you.”
Harold even had a picture of ‘Winston’ on his mantel shelf. “Ahh… round as a little apple he was.
Talk about a five horse motor, he’d beat them all.
When I had to part with him it knocked the duck off the pond.”
There was a long pause before Harold spoke again.
“When a pit pony comes to the end of its working life every effort is made to find it a good horne.
Before one is given away the premises was inspected by a representative of the N.C.B., or one of the animal protection societies, to ensure there is proper stabling, feeding, grazing and cleaning arrangements.
“We never let them go to horse dealers,” said Mr. Dafydd Davies. of Lady Windsor Colliery.
“We must never forget the invaluable contribution these animals have made to the coal mining industry of this country.
All the years I’ve been connected with their welfare, I’ve always been impressed by the bond of affection that exists between the pony and its handlers.
I know all of this doesn’t sound ideal and a lot of animal lovers will read all this with disgust … but…
Let me remind you of one thing: Before the pit ponies, there were little girls no higher than your hip, working long hard hours!
So, no it wasn’t ideal, but it had to be done and it was either the ponies or the children.
Shoot me if you want to, but i know which one i would choose if I had to ….. thank God, I no longer have to.