It’s the Pits

Francesca has a look at a coal miner’s life a hundred years ago, ahead of the publication of her novel, Heartbreak in the Valleys on Wednesday

In the post a couple of days back, I had a look at a working-class woman’s life a hundred years ago. Today, I thought I’d look at the life of a working-class man, a coal miner, to be exact. While it’s true women worked double the hours in the home, the life of pitmen was no bed of roses, but a backbreaking, health compromising slog.

Big Pit at Blaenavon, as it is today

Shift patterns varied a little, so these are all examples, but they tended to be eight hours a day by this time. In previous years, they’d have been longer. There were often three shifts, the morning (around 6am till 2pm), the afternoon (2pm till 10pm) and the night shift (10pm till 6am). Those who worked underground, which would have been the majority, faced eight hours in a cramped space, their immediate area lit only by a lamp, breathing in cold dust and noxious gases, among them black damp (including carbon dioxide), white damp (including carbon monoxide) and firedamp (which was highly flammable and caused many explosions).

Any food or drink they took down would have to be consumed in these gritty conditions. One account I found described taking bread and dripping (a staple of working-class diets at this time) in newspaper. To drink, they’d often take a tin water bottle containing tea (which presumably went cold quickly).

The chances of an early death were high. The local newspapers of the time are full of reports of fatal accidents. I came across over 20,000 results searching over only the four years of World War 1. Being knocked over by a runaway tram was extremely common, as was being crushed by a roof fall. Pit cages (in which men travelled down to the shafts) were occasionally known to crash and kill the occupants. Then there were the explosions, caused by the gases that accumulated, particularly firedamp. If you survived an explosion, but didn’t get out of the pit quickly, afterdamp, the toxic gas left, would quite likely see you off.

If you managed to avoid or survive the many misfortunes that could befall you in the mine, your health would likely still be compromised by an inflammatory skin condition or a respiratory disease. The latter could include pneumoconiosis, asthma, emphysema and lung cancer. One of my great grandfathers had emphysema recorded on his death certificate, and he hadn’t worked in the mine for forty years.

Abertysswg today

In 1902, there was an explosion in the McLaren Colliery in Abertysswg, Monmouthshre, the place I based my fictional village in Heartbreak in the Valley on. Sixteen men were killed, half of whom were under thirty, the youngest being seventeen. The worst ever mining accident in the United Kingdom took place at Senghenydd Colliery, near Caerphilly, in 1913. The explosion killed 439 miners.

A few years ago, on a trip out from the Writers’ Holiday in Caerleon, I visited Big Pit at Blaenavon. It’s been closed as a mine for forty years and is now a tourist attraction. Going down to the tunnels gave only a tiny taste of what it was like to have worked there. At one point our guide, a former miner, turned off the lights to give us some idea of what being trapped in real darkness would be like.

It’s not something I’d want to experience for more than a few seconds.

Link: Big Pit, Blaenavon

ABOUT HEARTBREAK IN THE VALLEYS

The world was crumbling, but her love stayed strong

November 1915. For young housemaid, Anwen Rhys, life is hard in the Welsh mining village of Dorcalon, deep in the Rhymney Valley. She cares for her ill mother and beloved younger sister Sara, all while shielding them from her father’s drunken, violent temper. Anwen comforts herself with her love for childhood sweetheart, Idris Hughes, away fighting in the Great War.

Yet when Idris returns, he is a changed man; no longer the innocent boy she loved, he is harder, more distant, quickly breaking off their engagement. And when tragedy once again strikes her family, Anwen’s heart is completely broken.

But when an explosion at the pit brings unimaginable heartache to Dorcalon, Anwen and Idris put their feelings aside to unite their mining community.

In the midst of despair, can Anwen find hope again? And will she ever find the happiness she deserves?

“Heartbreak in the Valley is a fabulous debut. Rich with well drawn characters, twists and turns, sense of history and place…  it was hard to put down. I loved it!” Author Rosie Hendry

Available on:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2XUSTyB

Kobo: https://bit.ly/2XZ0RGI

Apple: https://apple.co/2KsIfqJ

 

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Welcome to our own Francesca Capaldi and Heartbreak in the Valleys

Today Francesca is popping in to answer a few questions

 

Tell us about your setting and why you chose it?

Abertysswg today

The setting came out of the initial idea. Since that was to do with a miner being discharged from the army, it seemed likely he’d come home to a mining area. And since it was based on my own great grandfather Hugh’s experience, and he was from the Rhymney Valley, that seemed like the perfect choice. However, I didn’t even consider Hugh’s actual place of residence at the time as the basis of my imaginary village. He was living in New Tredegar. I immediately knew I wanted to set it in a village based on one up the road, Abertysswg. This is where my other great grandparents were living, along with my great great grandfather. I’d visited it a couple of times, once with my mother, who was born there, and later with one of my children, so had a better idea of its layout. It was built around 1900 as a ‘model village’, according to newspaper reports, for the workers of the McLaren pit. The houses were placed on the hillside overlooking the colliery in the dip of the valley.

As I researched the village, largely via the Welsh local newspapers which can be accessed online, I discovered there was quite a community here. The funds for both the hospital and the Workmen’s Institute were raised by the villagers themselves, through subs. Health care continued to be paid for by subs, a kind of early national health system. The Workmen’s Institute, far from being just for the men, laid on all sort of talks and social activities. It also contained a library. Studying the village was like researching my own past, knowing that my grandparents and some of their family members would have partaken of these activities.

Abertysswg with red outline showing roughly where the colliery was.

I took the decision to rename the village Dorcalon (which literally means ‘heartbreak’) because I wanted to be flexible with some details and dates. For instance, there was a mining disaster in Abertysswg in 1902, but I needed one in 1915. Where real places are concerned, I do try to be as accurate as I can. My village does sit in the same spot on the map though, with Rhymney up the road and New Tredegar down the road. The other useful aspect of picking somewhere real as a basis is that it’s easier to be consistent with places like chapels or shops.

The pit itself was closed in 1969 and is long gone. I’ve never seen it in reality, but have seen plenty of photographs which give me an idea of what it must have been like to live with such a brooding presence. It’s a character in itself.

Where do your ideas come from?

As with Heartbreak in the Valleys, quite a few of my ideas have been sparked by my family, including a serial I wrote for The People’s Friend and several short stories. A few have come from my own childhood, living on the Sussex coast. Often something will occur that makes me think, there’s a story there. Stories in the media and overheard snatches of conversation are good too.

Do you have a favourite writing place?

Whitstable – where I’ve often sat to write

If I could, I’d sit by the beach for ever, writing, but since I don’t have a seaside shack at my disposal, I tend to sit in the dining room at home so I’m overlooking the garden. I go on week-long writing retreats with writing friends every now and again, and invariably a seaside location is picked by us all. On occasion the house will overlook the sea, which is marvellous. I’m the one most likely to take my notebook down to the beach or to a café overlooking it, to write. There is something soothing about the water and the lapping of the waves.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished the second Valleys book, which is now with the publisher. I’m not sure yet whether they’ll want a third in the series, so I’ve gone back to another saga I was writing, again set in the First World War. This time it’s set by the seaside (surprise surprise!).

 How do you select the names of your characters?

For Heartbreak in the Valleys I looked at the 1911 census, a list of top names in different decades and an online list of Welsh names. I think there are possibly more Welsh names in my novel than there would have been in that area at the time, judging by the census, but I’m unrepentant! The local newspapers were also handy for this.

 

ABOUT HEARTBREAK IN THE VALLEYS

The world was crumbling, but her love stayed strong

November 1915. For young housemaid, Anwen Rhys, life is hard in the Welsh mining village of Dorcalon, deep in the Rhymney Valley. She cares for her ill mother and beloved younger sister Sara, all while shielding them from her father’s drunken, violent temper. Anwen comforts herself with her love for childhood sweetheart, Idris Hughes, away fighting in the Great War.

Yet when Idris returns, he is a changed man; no longer the innocent boy she loved, he is harder, more distant, quickly breaking off their engagement. And when tragedy once again strikes her family, Anwen’s heart is completely broken.

But when an explosion at the pit brings unimaginable heartache to Dorcalon, Anwen and Idris put their feelings aside to unite their mining community.

In the midst of despair, can Anwen find hope again? And will she ever find the happiness she deserves?

“Heartbreak in the Valley is a fabulous debut. Rich with well drawn characters, twists and turns, sense of history and place…  it was hard to put down. I loved it!” Author Rosie Hendry

Book Links

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2XUSTyB

Kobo: https://bit.ly/2XZ0RGI

Apple: https://apple.co/2KsIfqJ

 

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