A Trip to a Coalpit


Taking one vessel in the years pre-1940 as an example. The old Iona, a wooden sloop, was owned by the Pearson family who also owned two brickyards. Pearson's "Old Yard" situated between Suchs and Sandersons at Barrow Haven. Such's had a creek. Also Pearson's "New Yard" on the western bank of the Barrow Haven just through the railway bridge. Pearson also managed another yard, Blyth's of Ings Road, Barton, which had a jetty, Iona was used to handle the brick and coal trade of all three yards. A yard with three kilns wanted a load of coal every six weeks, about 90 tons. Iona took bricks to the brick wharves at Hull and fetched coal from pits along the Wakefield-Leeds Canal. 90 tons of coal in Iona just about filled her level full with the coamings, Charlie Atkinson, who was mate on Iona when Dick Green was captain when she was "as full as an egg", it didn't put water on decks though even in the fresh water canal. Coal is bulky, not heavy!

So here you are, Iona, could be Comrade or Amy Howsen, but we will stay with Iona. 30,000 or more bricks at 3 ton/1000, discharging at Houghton's or such a wharf, freight rate for that short trip, 3 shillings per 1000. After livering, your orders are to load coal at Ashley Pit and take it to Such's. Any foreman who had ordered coal would have estimated his requirements in good time, he, like all other foremen, would have the state of the tides in mind. No good getting a shipload of coal near your yard if the vessel couldn't get on the jetty or into the creek because the tides were 'knocking off'. Demurrage had to be paid if the vessel wasn't able to earn! The crew. too. would know when they had to get to the yard.

Once livered you drop out of the Old Harbour, anchor just below Sammy's Point if there is a strong ebb but as soon as the ebb eases and we are on the flowing tide then Iona has to go 'uphill', be sailed up river to get into Goole Docks and take the Aire and Calder. If you do not make Goole on that attempt then it means anchoring and waiting for the next tide.

Once through the Ocean lock and into the docks complex Iona is taken into the Barge Dock, there it becomes part of a string of vessels, usually 7 or 8, waiting for the Leeds tug. This tug is not the King Tug type that busies itself around the Hull River and Docks but a small square sterned steam tug in all respects like the craft that pulls the Tom Puddings about from colliery to power station. The mast is lowered, it has to be down to exit the docks but before that is done the leeboards are lifted out using a peak halliard and placed on deck on port and starboard sides and resting against the gunnell channelling ridge. They tilt inboard and the mastway board having been removed the mast comes down between them. When asked how he or Dick got about the ship, Charlie says it was a 'scramble', but the older woodern sloops had a gunnel about 6 inches wideand with the mast gear hanging over the leeboards it was fairly easy, 'not too bad' he says, to use that gear for handholds and move along that wide gunnel. Iron ships only have a narrow raised strip running along the edge of the deck.

Just after clearing the dock and out into the canal the cog boat, minus the oar, is left in the care of the old lady at the Dog and Duck, this at the colossal expense of 6d. She will watch for your return and push the boat out to you as you pass. I have read in other articles about the canals and leeboards and boat, both, were left ashore at a convenient yard but Dick Green did it his way. The mast was not raised until all the locks had been passed and Iona was nearing the pit. Iona being light was put at the head of the string next to the stern of the tug, no heavy towing type hawsers but a criss cross of ordinary ropes; from port side Iona to starboard side of tug, port side of tug to starboard side of Iona. Anyone who has seen the Tom Puddings perhaps with the rounded false bow on the first square pudding will recognise that the rounded bow of Iona tight up to a tug helped maintain the maximum efficience of the tug propellers. It also gave Iona a nice even tow and as Charles says 'you could go and have a cup of tea'. The rest of the string, with the loaded ones on the end, had to stand to the tiller and prevent any wandering that might cause problems.

It was a 12 hour tow to Leeds (the Leeds-Goole tug was bringing a string from Leeds in like fashion). After settling down to the passage the locks taken in turn were Pollington, Whitley, Ferry Bridge, Bulholme then as Castleford Junction approached each skipper had to give his name and ships name to the keepers. Dick Green was well known and would shout "Dick" - "Iona". Joe Oldridge however stood upon his dignity and would announce himself as "Captian Joseph Oldridge of the sailing Sloop Iona"!

Through Castelford which was open if there was not a lot of 'fresh' down the tug went into the right hand, Leeds lane as it were. Then Kippax lock was passed, the house at that time was built over the lock and Charles says it must have been a noisy existence in that house with the lock in frequent use. At all the locks there was considerable activity in cramming as many of the tow as could be managed into the locks, some of which were quite large.

After Kippax and approaching Ashley Cut, so called because there was some width there to allow vessels to get to Ashley Pit, the mast would go up and at the pit the inboard leeboard would be dropped, the hatches come off and the coal taken on. Once the coal was loaded, hatches on, the leeboard put back on deck and the mast lowered, the ship was turned ready for return. The pit wasn't too far from the lock and if the expexted pull hadn't appeared then Ione could be pulled manually, 'bow-yanking' is the term I beleive. My brother-in-law saw hisfather and brother do this with Earles's Alfred when loaded. The rest was straight foreward enough a pull from the Leeds-Goole tug back into Goole, pick up the boat and sail Iona from Goole to Such's Creek at Barrow Haven. A bit of 'grub' and a snatch of sleep now and again, the vessel being worked to try and arrive at the yards, off the jetty or creek, at about high water. Dick preferred to enter the creek stern first, this to facilitate an easy exit. Coal ships I went to, to whip or wheel, had entered Hoe Hill or Sanderson's Creek 'head first' as it were and the time or two that I was whipping it meant that the coal dust from the baskets blew away from forward and not into the whipper's eyes. I prefer to wheel!

Back to Iona - First of all, having moored the vessel in the creek in such a position that the open hold would be about opposite the gap board in the creek bank, then it was covers off, hatches off, including the half hatches with their beam and fore and aft irons. The boom, gaff and mainsail were swung off to port, the derrick was set up and rigged with the gin pulley using a light chain to swing it from the top of the derrick, the wire from the forward roller was threaded through it with a sling with two hooks on ready to take the coal basket handles, all ready for livering. The hooks were, maybe still are, called 'Tash' hooks. Webster says 'tash' is a variation of the word 'tache', a buckle or clasp but wether this has any connection I do not know. There are these tems used on the waterways. When bagged materials are livered by using a chain with a ring on the end through which the chain is passed and put around the neck of the sack it is using a 'snotter'; the clamps or clanches for large pieces of chalk or slag we know about and barrels are lifted out using 'can' hooks. Presumably these haven't a pointed hook as we imagine it but have a wider broader and almost like four fingers of ones hand being 'hooked' on the ends of a barrel on the 'chime'. To go on.....

The round mouth and big coal shovels were redied and then the crew could look at the level full hold and contemplate digging down through that lot down to the Shutts. Some skippers used the gaff for the derrick, they just unlaced the sail and used the peak halliard to raise and lower the gaff which had now become the derrick. Jack Simpson, for one, thought it quite unnecessary to have a derrick pole cluttering the ship up. He was keen on economy, he didn't like buying ropes either!

If the vessel had entered the creek in the night time then there might have been time for a catnap then something to drink and eat before about 6am to 6.30am. Brickyards started work at about that time, the yard foreman would have been down and a livering gang told off. Tile makers and their turners out, maybe the brickmill gang and in a small yard it would be all hands to work. These men would dig out the clay which plugged up the gap, remove the grasp boards, put a plank onto the deck and use it to carry a small box horse or fish box aboard and place it on the deck about opposite the gap. It was just about of the height of the coamings, it would take the baulk if the yard had one. A baulk was just a longer plank with scantlings, side pieces, bolted on which provided a longer wider and less flexible wheeling plank, but it still flexed when a man with a loaded barrow was on it. An ordinary plank was about 16-18 foot long and 11 ins wide and it flexed noticeably when a loaded barrow was wheeled over it or even when a man with a barrow used it to return to the ship. The baulk would be positioned and the gang would carry three planks up placing them together over the hold, coamings to coamings.

The middle plank was immediately opposite the baulk end and close up to it. A bitting piece, a wedge shaped piece of metal, not solid but the depth of a plank at one end and tapering to nothing at the other, was put at the shoreside baulk end to give smooth run off onto the irons. The barrows had small iron wheels and ran along narrow lenghts or iron across the yard and into the kilns.

The gang decided who was whipping, usually a man and a lad, sometimes the foreman would depute some lucky person to get into the hold with the crew and start loading the coal baskets and speed things up a bit. This to get the job well under was as it were. The wheelers each had a coal barrow and baskets and as soon as a basket was full the whippers hove it up just far enough to allow the wheeler to swing the full basket sideways and onto his barrow. His empty basket which had been put on the planks behind him was hung on a hook at the end of the heaving wire and passed down into the hold. The man with the load set off down the baulk, across the yard into the coal sheds where the coal was tipped in as thick a layer as possible. Once the three men in the hold had got down to the shutts the two crew were left to it. With a clear 'floor' and a big wide shovel they could keep the whippers and wheelers busy! One ploy was that when the coal 'face' sloped down then the basket edge was placed against it, held in place by the fillers knee whilst he scooped coal down and in, quickly filling the basket.

At about 8am a half hour breakfast was taken when work went on apace until 12.00 when the 1 hour dinner break was taken. Work went on all the afternoon and with a lot of luck if the tides were right, the ship would be livered by about 5pm. One thing about coal ships was that their coal lockers were always full and they were never cold in their cabins. I haven't spoken about the wheelers taking their loads into the coal sheds when the bottoms were full. There, planks were laid on top of that coal and the barrows wheeled into the sheds. The wheelers had to duck under the doorway and crouch under the low roof as they went along the planks. If a kiln was on high fires this was very warm work. Sweat and coal dust was an abrasive mixture. Back at the creek the crew cleared away ready for the next trip. In Iona's case it could be bricks from the same yard, from another yard in the group or back to the coal pit for another load. If it was bricks then the crew would have to hand them, taking them from wheelers and passing them to the man or men stowing them in the hold. Another day, another dollar. Other vessels belonging to Barraclough's, Oldridge's or any of the main individual owners would have had orders given them or had sought and gained work on the river. Copper ore to Farmers Co., maybe, there was a deal of such trade at these times. How two men lived, provisioned themselves and managed when away a week or more is perhaps a matter for another time. For instance, Dick Green seemed to live on his mother's homemade loaves, large lumps of cheese and butter. He would not have margarine!

After livering the coal, or if interupted by the rising tide, the brickyard gang would have taken the baulk, planks and gear away and re-plugged the gap with clay. If they had been lucky and livered the coal in one day then it would be home and the copper on, filled from the brickyard well or the pump in the yard if living in Barton but after a bath it was usually the case that we woke up with coal dust in the corner of ones eyes. Coal dust was pervasive stuff. What the crew did, I don't know. A bucket of hot in the hold I suppose if they couldn't get home. The water tanks in these vessels didn't hold a lot but as Charlie says "If you didn't get home, you did as best as you could".

If the livering wasn't completed and some coal remained in the hold then it meant the gang had to return to the ship the next day, re-rig and crew and gang were covered in coal dust again. More of a nuisance was that if there was any water in the creek, on an ebbing or rising tide, then wheeling off was tricky. Any movement of the lightly loaded ship perhaps caused by the weight of a man with his loaded barrow could cause a little rolling motion opening up a gap between the staging planks and the baulk end. If the wheel of the loaded barrow hit that then load, barrow and basket were overside. The wheeler did his best not to go with them. At the yards with jetties, particularily those with long ones, the wheeling gang would be in two halves, then the men wheeling off the ship and along the jetty could be met by the men who wheeled across the yard and into the kilns. These men would put their barrow with upturned basket down and falling into step with the oncoming wheeler would reach across and take the hales (handles) of the loaded barrow and without stoppong or losing any momentum would go on into the yard and kilns. The relieved wheeler would have picked up the other barrow and headed to the ship for another load. No stopping! This was hard work, piece work at its worst. A day of this could net about 12 shillings in the 30's. Some of the men might then have a half night up on the kilns as well. A few extra shillings didn't come amiss. But they were back in the yard the next day. The crews didn't make a fortune, they were on the well known system, 'thirds', but would possibly do better than a brickyard worker.

Written by Charles Watkinson of Barton upon Humber.

There is a 108 page document entitled "The Barton Area Brick and Tile Industry" available from The Ropewalk or the Visitor Centre at the Humber Bridge viewing area priced 5.00. In this you can find the above story and much more about the brick and tile industry in Barton.

The Brick and Tile Story


copyright 2003 Dazxtm