CLAY MINING MEMORIES
Chris Melhuish (far left) shared the photo to the left of the Watts, Blake, Bearne & Co Mines Rescue Team from the early 1970s and his memories of working underground.
The photograph was taken at Sandygate after a training session and features from left to right: - Chris Melhuish, Ivan Cleave, Rob Gilpin, Graham Quantick, Gordon Parker and Roy Lark.
The rescue team of five miners are kitted out in their Proteus respirators, hard hats and cap lamps whilst Chris as the casualty they had to find was in his normal working overalls. The team used to take part in competitions against teams from Cornish tin mines such as Wheal Jane and Geevor.
Chris worked for both ECC Ball Clays (previously Hexter & Budge) and WBB as a miner. For ECC he worked underground in numbers 7 & 8 adits and also at Mainbow. Whilst working for WBB he worked at West Golds in number 10 adit and at Rixey Park in number 11 adit.
He enjoyed his work as a miner and as he recounted his memories of ECC names from the past flooded back such as Les Nelson, Jim Vickery, Owen Bulley, Bernard Barnett, Joss Sims, and Bob Nethercott. Although the work was hard he said that characters such as Ken Gibbs injected humour into the working day.
When he first went underground they used heavy pneumatic spades which cut the clay from the face of the tunnel. Depending on the nature of the clay (i.e. damp or dry) it would come away in various sized lumps which had to be loaded in to wagons. Each mine had a set of points which allowed filled wagons to be shunted away and empty wagons brought in for filling. When all the wagons were full and shunted in place for hauling back to the surface, a bell system notified the trammer in the gantry above the mine who set the machinery in motion to haul the wagons to the top where they were tipped into bays according to the type of clay they contained. HMD Black Ball was a type of clay that stuck in Chris’s memory as when they were on piece work they were paid 30/- a foot for digging that particular clay.
In some mines they might encounter a seam of sand which had to be removed. At great depths the sand could be compressed so hard that it was almost like rock but if ground-water had filtered down into the seam it became like porridge and spelled trouble as it might pour out into the level being worked.
Chris recalled the old mining term of “firing timbers” which was used to describe the sound made by the fibres in the timber breaking as an increase of pressure occurred. In the confines of a tunnel it sounded like a shotgun being fired. One incident that he recalled with laughter was at WBB when a young mechanic came down to fix some machinery. The miners took the break to have their snack and as they were all sat around one of the timbers of the overheads fired. The young lad screamed and ran back the tunnel as the miners carried on calmly with their lunch break.
During Chris’s time underground metal arches replaced timbers in the main drives and mining machines with rotary cutters and conveyor belts which carried the clay back to the waiting trucks replaced the heavy hand held pneumatic spades.
The last underground mine at WBB closed in 1999 and a year later the last mine of ECC Ball Clays closed and so ended an underground mining tradition that had lasted the best part of 150 years.