Musings of a Magpie Mind: Priorities: Pigeons, whippets and prize veggies

My grandfather was a pitman. So were his brothers and some of his cousins.

Granddad’s pet priorities.

My grandfather was a pitman. So were his brothers and some of his cousins. Those who didn’t put in a 10 hour shift, six days a week at the coalface, worked in the Tyneside shipyards, building ocean liners for the Atlantic trade or battleships for the Royal Navy and for Japan’s Imperial Fleet.

Two of granddad’s cousins decided to emigrate and try their luck in the Nova Scotia mines, but when the seams there started to run out, they caught a train to the West Coast and ended up working up in the Nanaimo coalfield. The arrival of the Greenwells there virtually coincided with a bloody confrontation between the mine owners and the pitmen, who were encouraged by American union agitators to strike for better wages, a higher standard of work-safe regulations and the vision of union benefits.

So at that time, Ladysmith was the scene of bloody turmoil, rioting, arson and the eventual expulsion of some miners from their little company homes by the unscrupulous and uncompromising mine owners. The provincial government naturally sided with the bosses and reinforced their strike breaking efforts by sending in a company of armed militia. After a year, the strike petered out. The miners lost the battle.

It was an accepted fact of working life that conditions in the Vancouver Island coal galleries weren’t just wet, humid and dust-choked. They were also dangerous, because adequate safety measures were frequently ignored by company supervisors. ‘Firedamp’, a lethal combination of methane, hydrogen and swirling coal dust could seep along the shafts and be detonated by a slight spark from a pick or the presence of a candle flame, in the days before the safety lamp was invented.

This happened so often that the death toll over the years in the Nanaimo pits was horrendous. Sadly the accident rate was just as bad in the coal fields of Durham County where my family worked, back in those Edwardian days. It was there that my granddad, one Friday shift, was buried under a rock fall caused by a firedamp explosion. At the age of 28 his injuries condemned him to constant pain and a rickety wooden wheelchair for the rest of his short life. He never walked again.

Until that moment he had been a hard working Geordie coal miner, proud of his ability to put in a 60-hour week of back-breaking labour, mostly crouched in a shaft deep underground, and to provide a comfortable though sparse living for his little Scottish wife and their two bairns — my Dad and his younger sister.

Everything changed after that accident. Now living on a pittance of a pension, which his wife and son tried hard to supplement in their own small way, granddad could no longer take an evening stroll down to his little patch of garden in the village allotments. Nor could he spend his Sundays looking after his flock of racing pigeons in the loft down there without help. These were hard lessons to learn for such an independent man. But at least, whenever he was pushed out for a walk in the sunshine, he was always accompanied by Tex, his little dog. Tex was a whippet, fast and fleet as a greyhound, and a favourite breed among Geordie miners.

A hundred years or so ago, before the first world war, the ladder of the British class system was firmly in place. And on the lower rungs, with his flat cloth Sunday cap and white muffler, was the English, Scottish and Welsh pitman; always ready to enjoy the evening hours and his one day off. Up north, each Sunday might start with a pint with mates in the local pub, but after the mid-day meal, most of the lads would change out of their best duds and head down to the surrounding fields, where great swatches of fenced land were subdivided into little areas of cultivated soil, each liberally strewn with horse manure.

The crops grown there were mainly vegetables, the bigger, the better, because every summer at the local village hall, prizes were awarded for the best cabbages, turnips, sprouts and other greenery. There were even classes for flowers — roses, chrysanths and dahlias — but the really serious competition was focused on the size and quality of the veggies. The growers had their own secret feeding formulas and the engraved silver cups up there on the stage were as much coveted as the cash prizes.

These little tilled allotment patches were also the scene of another home grown fascination — pigeons — the racing kind that were housed in multi-caged structures, called lofts.

To be continued

» Bill Greenwell prospered in advertising for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.