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Nostalgia on Tuesday: ‘Bully’ for the boys

The early days of operations at Bullcroft colliery in 1912.
The early days of operations at Bullcroft colliery in 1912.
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The countryside around Carcroft, six miles north of Doncaster, was stirred on Saturday, December 9, 1911, by the strident calls of half a dozen buzzers, announcing that coal had at last been reached at Bullcroft colliery at a depth of 657 yards.

Sinking operations had begun in May, 1908, but water was soon encountered. At a depth of 70 yards the rush of water was so great the work had to be abandoned while steps were taken to overcome the difficulty. The strongest pumps seemed useless, so the freezing process worked by Germans was given a trial. The waterlogged ground was frozen to a great depth by means of chemicals, and sinking then proceeded. As soon as sinking had passed the danger zone the shaft was encircled by an iron casing and then the ground was thawed, but the casing held back the water as anticipated. This work took over a year, and it was not until November 1910 that the shafts were pumped dry, and further sinking resumed.

The coal reached on that Saturday in 1911 was the Barnsley seam, and it was nine feet thick. The Doncaster Chronicle of May 16, 1913, mentioned all the employees at Bullcroft colliery engaged in the manipulation of coal, both underground and on the surface, numbering in all about 1,800, had to become trade unionists.

The newspaper added: “The whole scene at Bullcroft was going like clockwork. The shaft was sunk to the coal measures, winding gears and the pit head apparatus was erected, and for the past 15 months coal has been drawn out from the workings, 680 yards below.”

Since the sinking commenced there had not been a single serious accident – all the more remarkable bearing in mind the danger and difficulty of dealing with a water problem. The managing director of the mine was Mr Humble and the engineer, Mr De Seifreyd, a brilliant young Pole, who ensured the work had proceeded without a hitch.

By 1913 the Bullcroft shafts were deepened to 682 yards to meet the Dunsil coal seam and there were about 1,800 hands employed, largely drawn from the mining districts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The output of the colliery averaged 18,000 tons per week but it was by no means working to its full capacity.

Prior to colliery operations there were only 40 or 50 houses in the rural Carcroft village but by 1910, 400 houses had been built and notice boards were prominently displayed in green fields, announcing ‘eligible building plots for sale’.

Bullcroft colliery was attached by a branch line, about two miles in length, to the Hull and Barnsley and Great Central Joint line extending between Aire Junction to Northern junction (Braithwell). Construction was started by Logan & Hemingway in early 1911 and the main line and all its branches were opened for goods and mineral traffic on May 1, 1916.

There was a sharp drop in the demand for coal in the mid-1920s with most Yorkshire miners experiencing periods of unemployment and short-time working. Matters came to a head in 1926 when coal owners, alarmed at falling profits, offered less wages for a longer working week. The miners coined the phrase ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day,’ and went on to strike to defend their standard of living. The General Strike followed and then the miners fought on alone until the winter when they had to give in to the coal owners and accept their terms.

During its years of existence, Bullcroft was not without tragedy and one occurred early in 1937. Kenneth Oliver, 14, was killed on January 13, 1937, whilst engaged in uncoupling tubs. Although he was working under the supervision of an adult haulage hand and was required to uncouple tubs only when the set was standing, such work it was argued, was not suitable for an inexperienced boy.

The Coal Mines General Regulations did not prescribe any course of training for boys entering the industry. In the House of Commons, Alfred Short MP for Doncaster 1935-1938 asked if the question “of accidents to children of these tender years [would] come before the Commission that is now dealing with safety in mines, and may we expect a recommendation from it upon this matter?”. Captain Harry Crookshank (Conservative) replied: “The evidence which has been put before the Commission has very forcibly brought to its notice the whole question of the safety of boys in the mining industry.”

Under the quota system imposed by the Mines Act (1930), Bullcroft mined 700,000 tons annually with a workforce of about 2,600. By the 1950s around 1,500 employees mined about 500,000 tons annually, but this gradually declined.

Pithead baths were opened at Bullcroft in September, 1951, at a cost of over £80,000. Attached to them, and opened at the same time, was a medical centre, comprising doctor’s room, nurse’s room, bathroom and waiting room, which cost £9,000, and a cycle park A Coal Board official said: “It is the aim of the Coal Board that every miner in every pit should be able to go home clean.”

Tom Cowan, secretary of the Bullcroft branch of the NUM said: “This is the greatest moment in the history of this colliery.”

Miners emerged from Bullcroft colliery for the last time on September 25, 1970. On the Monday of the following week the 700 men from ‘Bully’ were to make their way to Brodsworth colliery, a mile away. Only 40 would be made redundant – all over the age of 60. Left behind were a few salvage men. The merger was to mean the closure of two of the three Bullcroft seams. The third face would still be worked out, but all the men were to go down the Brodsworth shaft to reach the coal face under both pits.