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Erin Ann Thomas

Emylyn’s Memories

The Weekly Snippet: Selection from Coal in Our Veins

At this cue from his wife, Emylyn opened his pale, dry lips and began to spin a monologue: “My father worked a seam of twenty-four inches that ran for miles.” In a calm, even cadence and a clear Welsh accent, Emylyn told me about the mines—stories his father must have recited to him that had now been tailored by his own telling. He was a good and steady raconteur, having obviously practiced on his own children and grandchildren: “Boys in their mid-teens would work seams as thin as eighteen inches. My father would lie on his side with a pickax and a mandrill, pulling the coal out with his hands, breathing in coal dust seven to eight hours a day. His only light came from an open flame lantern.”

In 1881 a miner from Rhymni, chronicled in a volume assembled by the National Museum of Wales, explained how managers would respond to those who complained about the conditions under which Emylyn’s father mined coal: “You chew coal. It does you good. It cures healban. It’ll cure chest troubles.”

As early as 1830, coat dust was known to cause black lung, or, as it was called in the nineteenth century, miner’s asthma. It is unlikely that the manager the miner quoted above was unaware of this at that time. Although numerous miners died from cave-ins, according to one estimate this accounted for only 17 percent of all deaths. Others died from mining-related diseases, among them black lung and kidney disease from the rats.

“There was no sanitation,” Emylyn continued. “Not to be rough,” he nodded in my direction several times, “but the miners would have to relieve themselves in the mines, where the rats scuttled around on the ground. When the miners would cut themselves, because there was no way of cleaning the wounds, they would urinate on themselves. This healed things nicely.”

“In those days, they lowered the men into the mine in cages. They called it entering ‘the bowels of the earth,'” explained Emylyn. Sometimes the men would be crushed by the machinery. Once below, there were other dangers. The two methods of deep mining in Emylyn’s father’s generation would have been room and pillar and longwall, both of which are still used currently. In the room and pillar method, rooms were mined, leaving pillars of coal in between to support the roof. A lot of coal was lost in these pillars. After a whole area was mined out, miners would retreat mine, taking out the pillars and leaving the roof to collapse behind them. Longwall mining was less common in Wales; it involved working a whole coal face, propping up the roof behind with piles of rubbish as progress was made forward on the seam.

Wood and metal props were used to brace roofs every morning before mining, but cave-ins were a daily occurrence. Other hazards included flooding and the more insidious danger from gases: choke damp, white damp, fire damp (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane), as the Welsh miners classified them, each according to their menace. White damp—odorless, tasteless, and colorless—was the most feared.

“The men would bring canaries into the mines, and when the canaries fell from their roosts, they would pull each other out, but they would leave the horses. When the air was clear, they would clean out the dead, cutting the horses into pieces to send them up out of the mine.”

“Sometimes the men would be afraid. They would sing Welsh hymns, ‘Nearer My God to Thee’—ten to twelve in harmony.” Emylyn focused his eyes in the distance when he said this.

 I was relieved to know that fear was something the miners could admit to each other—one man striking out into the dark with a note. Although they couldn’t see each other, their voices joined together and echoed through the dark tunnels. There between carbon walls made of creatures a million years dead, these voices signaled that there were living men. My father sings with the deep, rich voice of a Welshman; there is strength in this sort of music.

“My father came home all black and would wash in a wooden tub,” Emylyn told me. These tubs were in the middle of living rooms and made from beer barrels sawed in half. “A miner would strip to the half and wash the top part of his body. Then he would cover and strip to the other half, washing the lower part of his body”—preserving a semblance of modesty in a family thoroughfare. “Don’t wash my back,” Emylyn’s father would say to his wife. “The men believed it would weaken them,” Emylyn explained.

 I imagined Emylyn’s father and the Davises before them relying on the strength of their backs for the meager living it provided for their families. This must have been quite a weight pressing down on a man heading into the mines, pickax in hand, always toward the possibility of death.

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