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Reigate Grammar School archives. The Pilgrim, Vol 10 No.5, (149) Summer Term 1957. Down the Pit, by M. Lake

During last Spring Term, a party of sixth formers, accompanied by Dr. Brice, Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Dorling, visited Tilmanstone Colliery in the East Kent coalfield.
After a pleasant journey, we caught sight of the headgear standing over one of the shafts, and we soon arrived at the entrance gates. Two overmen were to act as our guides, and after being equipped with electric lamps and safety helmets, we were shown the screening hall, where the coal is washed and graded.
The engine-houses were the buildings that aroused the greatest interest; the huge steam engines being demonstrated for our benefit. The drum on which the steel lowering cable was wound seemed to revolve at an almost frightening speed as the cage was hauled up from the bottom of the shaft 1,560 feet below, but we were reassured by the fact that a device called the overwind comes into action if the engines are run too fast or too far, shutting off the steam. In contrast with the somewhat dirty and gloomy old engine houses was a modern brick building housing an electric engine. This engine is now employed to haul the cages up and down a new shaft, 3,164 feet deep, which has recently been sunk.
After visiting the powder magazine where cartridges used in shot firing are stored, and a timber building where a large power driven fan is used to draw air out of the upcast shaft, we walked over to the head of the downcast shaft. After being searched for matches, we stepped into a cage having three decks, each deck carrying twelve men. At the top of the nineteen-foot-wide shaft the banksman was in charge, his job being to give bell signals to the engine-house and to the onsetter in charge of the gates at the pit bottom. Signals were exchanged; the cage bearing our party sank swiftly, and after only a short time the cage slowed up and we were at the pit bottom. A short walk along a concrete-lined tunnel, and we climbed aboard a train pulled by a miniature battery-driven engine.
This took us two miles towards the pit face, after which we walked some distance along the “main road,” the roof of which gradually became lower, to the great discomfort of the taller members of the party. Here the tunnel was prevented from caving in by the insertion of steel arches, distorted in places by the terrific pressure of thousands of tons of rock. To the left and right of the “main road” were tunnels leading to worked-out seams, and we especially noticed that the farther we walked the hotter it became. At one point jackets and shirts were discarded, to be collected on the return journey from the pit face, which we finally reached after travelling along a side road only 5 feet high.
The face itself was only 23 feet wide, large pillars of coal being left to support the roof. Nearby were conveyor belts used for carrying coal to the tubs, and large canvas air pipes were in operation to ventilate the area near the face. Our guides showed us how gas-tests were made by means of the Davy Lamp, a blue flame indicating the presence of explosive gases.
The coal obtained from this pit is not sold as household fuel, but is pulverised, after which chemicals are extracted.
The miners work in eight hour shifts, but out of 350 men employed during each shift, only 80 are actually colliers, the rest being called “drones”. Of these 80, only six men are employed to win the coal. The coal face consisting of large lumps of soft, bituminous coal, advances perhaps two yards during each shift, giving an average of 30 yards per week.
After collecting “samples”, we made our way back along the main upcast road, passing lines of stationary tubs from time to time; the tubs being moved by rope haulage. The train was waiting for us, and we were soon back at the bottom of the shaft. Before coming up, however, we were shown the pump room, where a large centrifugal pump deals with 1,500 gallons of water per minute. A feature of this mine is that the water is a red-ochre colour, and much research has gone into finding a suitable chemical to prevent a sediment forming in the pipes. On arrival at the surface, we made our way to the pithead baths, after spending over four hours underground.
It might be mentioned that it was a Saturday, the mine was not in full operation and the only personnel we met below ground were maintenance men.
Finally, we should like to thank Dr. Brice for arranging this visit, and also our guides, Mr. Dando and Mr. Reynolds, who patiently answered our many and varied questions.

(Research by Vince Croud)

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