The Demise of the National Coal Board

I grew up with coal fires, it was fun to help out chopping wood for kindling and then the ritual of lighting of the fire itself.  There was a really good book all about coal mining in the library at my village primary school, my first introduction to understanding geology and one of the books that got me interested in reading about how the world worked.

 

My first encounter with a coal mine came through being friends with a boy who’s father worked at the local haulage contractor who occasionally would let us ride shotgun, in this case a load of limestone fill from the local quarry at Clitheroe to the then under construction M61 Blackrod by-pass,  thence to Bickershaw ( Leigh ) and a load of smalls back to Brockhall mental hospital.

 

The company my mate’s dad worked for went bust but I was hooked on riding around in wagons so when I was 13 I plucked up the courage to approach the other small haulage company in my village for trips out and was soon employed filling the wagons up with fuel and checking the engine oil every night after school.  I spent my entire school holidays riding around in wagons but very little carting coal as the rates were so poor, if we did cart coal it was usually part of a back load to cover fuel costs.  One case in point was when Tarmac Clitheroe  was supplying base course for the York by-pass, load back from Bullcliffe Wood at the top of the hill just off the M1 Horbury & Osset and load smalls for either Chadderton or Carrington power station ( Manchester ).  Bullcliffe Wood ( a drift mine ) only had a short 30 Ton weighbridge so if you went with an artic you had to drop the trailer twice.  Another coal run was Victoria ( near Trentham Gardens ) to Carrington, using the back roads and a through a single track low bridge under the canal, Bickershaw to Brockhall was also useful and the occasional trick was to leave about a ton in the box and bring it back to tip in the yard so everyone had access to free coal.

 

One coal inclusive run I went on stands out as at the time I was off school at 16 recovering from a broken upper right arm, run empty to Fleetwood docks to load Maize for Henry Whitehurst right in Bolton ( for the horse and cart market when it was founded )  town centre, where you had to block the whole main road to back which was fortunately one way.  It didn’t end there either, the shed wasn’t high enough to put the tipper up to its full extent so you had to pull out into the main road to tip the tipper to the top a couple of times, shovel out the last bit.  Thence a quick nip over Barton Bridge, through Urmston to Carrington PS load fly ash for Stockport A6 to Dove Holes cement works nr Buxton.  Thence over the top to a pit at Mansfield to load coal for the mill at Calder Vale near Garstang, empty back to the yard at Chatburn   A long hard day with a 180 Gardner with 28 tons stretching the then drivers hours regulations to their limit.

 

Then came my formal apprenticeship so the trips out almost dried up, I left the company when I was 21 passed my HGV Class 1 and went driving, then worked as a fitter building gritters before going to work in long distance haulage for a friend of mine from tech dad.  The Scargill Miners Strike was on at the time and after I did a multi drop trip around the South Wales valley’s and saw all the closed mines.   Its probable that a lot of them were totally uneconomic, an ex miner welsh valley guy who came to live in my village told tales of lying on his side in 18 inch seams.  During the strike I encountered a young miner from Rossington ( Doncaster ), he said they had three seams, two three foot and one six foot, but the three foot seams were more productive as they were on rock whereas the six foot seam was on clay and they had to keep stopping frequently to align the coal cutting machines.

 

Due to a change in the work and problems with my back I got a start back at my original employer driving artic tippers, mostly delivering concrete aggregates from the local quarries, grain and the coal mostly connected with the local cement works.  The Ribble Cement works was built at Clitheroe primarily because it was the nearest limestone to good coal, originally it was supplied by Hapton Valley near Burnley.  Hapton Valley closed so for a time they moved to Wooley north of Barnsley. then Holditch near Newcastle under Lyme with good road access onto the A500 to the north but also fitted in as a back load on the way back from delivering cement clinker to Pittstone nr Dunstable. The only snag was long queues waiting to load at Holditch mainly precipitated by strict NCB overloading rules, they would knock you back for two hundredweight ( 100kg ) and as soon as you opened the tailboard you lost at least half a ton.

 

The then Castle Cement would check weigh you in and out on delivery using two separate weighbridges and on a 25 ton load it was always the case that you lost 200kg somewhere however clean you swept the box out and my original train of thought was that they were ripping their customers off for cement. However, on further scrutiny it was apparent that the lost weight was due to gas lost from the coal in transit for an hour and a half having been loaded almost directly from the coal face at Holditch, when you took the sheet off it was wet on the inside just like someone had sprayed five gallons of paraffin over the load. The worst weighbridge fiddle I encountered was at the now closed Ashko animal feed mill, it was often the case that when you arrived with a load of wheat direct from the farm in the afternoon they would weigh you in with an empty fuel tank.   Then they would say it won’t fit into the silo and the usual practice was for the driver to drop the trailer and nip home in the tractor unit to return to tip first thing in the morning.   Most drivers simply hooked up and tipped then tared out with a full tank of diesel so Ashko got 100kg free, I got in bad with the management because I always insisted that the gross load was re-weighed, 

 

Holditch was part of the most productive day’s work I ever did with my trusty ERF B-Series steed DGR 728W and her exceptional Rolls-Royce 265L Eagle diesel.  5 am start at yard at Chatburn, empty to Swinden quarry almost at Grassington, load 20/5 limestone for Tilcon Horwich ( situated in the old railway works and supplying adjacent company then making sections for the lining of the channel tunnel ).  Empty to Tilcon Dock Acres Carnforth load 20/5 gravel for Tilcon ( Lovers Lane ) Atherton, Empty to Holditch load coal for Castle Cement Clitheroe ( nip back to depot for quick pit stop extra fuel just in case ) empty to Swinden quarry load limestone dust for and deliver RMC Blackburn, return to yard empty.  665km and everything went perfect just goes to show what you can achieve when everything goes to plan and you don’t get pissed about by Corporate-Nazis !

 

Holdich was closed and Castle Cement switched coal supplier to Potato Pot Pit a private open cast site inland from Whitehaven, then that was worked out and they started using Columbian coal imported via Liverpool docks, then Polish coal imported via Hull and meanwhile we were doing a lot of coal work for British Fuel via their Blackburn depot leading up to the John Major Pit closures.  Stepping back in time we once used to cart coal from Wooley to British Steel at Scunthorpe on the way to return with grain from Lincolnshire.  Wooley was a nightmare to get to by road unless you used the access off the M1 services like you could before plod clamped down, the main road access and weighbridge was in the middle of nowhere at the top of a steep hill.   The actual loading point ( and tipping off if over ) was right at the bottom of the internal road, when it was wet the road was dangerous with all the coal dust slime I actually witnessed an artic jack-knife when I was there loading one such day.  Silverdale was another nightmare to get to ( this time due to weight limits ) unless you technically unlawfully used Keel services on the M6, we once hauled coal from a nearby private open cast site to Rugeley power station on the way to collect grain from around Tamworth.

 

Getting back to the British Fuel work our company collected house coal from Grimethorpe for distribution to local coal merchants around Blackburn we also supplied their depots at Chadderton, Preston and Blackpool all railway connected, I’m glad I never went to Grimethorpe after hearing about long queues.  Daw Mill was the main supplier off M6 junction 4 and through Coleshill was a bit of a ball ache but it was good loading, singles and doubles to be small plastic bagged up at Gt Harwood to sell in shops and garages. NCB Stoke area operations were concentrated on Hem Heath located opposite the old Victoria Pit ( formerly known as Florence ) near Trentham Gardens and we delivered washed smalls from there to HM Garth Prison nr Leyland.

 

I did a load to Garth and whilst discharging into the hopper got talking to the manager.  It was all the latest 1970s technology and was originally supplied from nearby Bickershaw, they had tried imported coal but it set like concrete in the hopper and they had to get the prisoners to dig it all out.  He said every time they got a new contract with a British pit it closed soon after, Hem Heath was soon to follow but perhaps that was hardly surprising for the following reasons.  It would appear that Hem Heath’s primary function was to collect coal from all the surrounding small pits for grading and then distribution, to facilitate this they had a fleet of 24 ton ERF B-Series six wheel tippers fitted with a Rolls-Royce 220 engine and a steel body.  They would have been lucky to carry 14 Tons legally and when I got there at lunchtime they were all parked up finished for the day but I expect the reason it was done like this was because all the small pits still only had a short 30 Ton weighbridge like Bullcliffe Wood back in the 1970s . By the 1990s electronic weighbridges were cheap and perhaps installing one at all the mines could have made them economic and prolonged their working life ?

 

The fact is that most of the coal being imported into the UK in the 1990s was rubbish, so bad in fact that the Liverpool dockers couldn’t be bothered to pilfer it, I got the same answer at Hull and dotted around the country were sites where good quality British coal was blended with the imported stuff.  One load I did was to take the “slack ” screenings from British Fuel at Blackburn to be blended at a site near Bolsover, in another case I took coal from a private drift mine nr Wigan to be blended at a site near Telford, an obvious increase transport cost scam.  Back in the 1980s we took coal direct to the power station from small opencast sites like Little Hullton ( Walkden ) to Padiham, Ellerbeck ( Adlington ) to Padiham, then Padiham was told it had to burn toxic Orimulsion so big local protest and then it closed.  Then it was Ellerbeck to Bickershaw to load on the train for Fiddler’s Ferry Warrington, Bickershaw closed so then it was Ellerbeck to Parkside and on the train to Fiddler’s Ferry from there.   The fact that it would have been cheaper and more efficient to take the coal direct to Fiddler’s Ferry never came into it, Agecroft sent coal there by road just before it closed in 1985.

 

It was economically criminal to close modern Parkside when it had a new nine foot seam fully developed and ready to roll but perhaps the private sector the government was expecting to buy the then British Coal were wary of subsidence claims when almost the whole of the south Lancashire coal field is hollow to some extent.  Just prior to closure Parkside was subjected to the indignity of becoming a transfer depot for house coal from other British pits, the last load I ever did before I decided to throw the towel in on Wagon driving due to my back was Trent Washery Trebles from Parkside back to a local coal merchant at Clitheroe.  I told the coal merchant that I had picked up the load at Parkside and he freaked out ” that’s no good I’ll end up with loads of slack “, I explained that in fact the load had originated at Clipstone in Nottinghamshire but I suspect that Parkside were billed with the cost of the Ton of slack screened out when I was loaded there.  I once did a load of cobbles from Clipstone to Garston docks en route to Northern Ireland, lumps of fool’s gold glinting ( Iron Sulphide ) and no wonder Ulster was said to have the highest levels of pollution anywhere in the UK.

 

Now with the underground fire closing Daw Mill British Coal is insolvent with no prospect of a buyer for its other two deep mines in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire due to the Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming fraud, are we at the end of the UK coal industry Arthur Scargill foresaw ?

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