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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kendra Thomas from Warmland Women’s Support Services invites Cowichan residents to find out more about youth sex trafficking with an online event Nov. 16, 2020. (File photo)
Learn more about youth sex trafficking with ‘Love Bombing 101’

Nov. 22-28 is Victims and Survivors of Crime Week

Pnina Benyamini loved to be around people and people loved her. (Photo submitted)
Many facets to energetic Chemainus woman’s legacy

Benyamini taught yoga, belly dancing and more to an adoring public

Windy conditions in Nanaimo’s Lost Lake area. (News Bulletin file photo)
Wind warning issued for the east coast of Vancouver Island

Environment Canada says people ‘should be on the lookout’ for adverse weather conditions

Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone has been re-elected as chairman of the board at the CVRD. (File photo)
Aaron Stone re-elected as chairman of the Cowichan Valley Regional District

Blaise Salmon, director for Mill Bay/Malahat, elected as new vice-chairman

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. daily COVID-19 cases hits record 941 on Tuesday

Further restrictions on indoor exercise take effect

Man, 28, warned by Kootenay police to stop asking people to marry him

A woman initially reported the incident to police before they discovered others had been popped the question

Winston Blackmore (left) and James Oler (right) were sentenced on separate charges of polygamy this week in Cranbrook Supreme Court.
No more charges expected in Bountiful investigation, special prosecutor says

Special prosecutor says mandate has ended following review of evidence from Bountiful investigations

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

(Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Refuse to follow B.C.’s mask mandate? Face a $230 fine

Masks are now required to be worn by all British Columbians, 12 years and older

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Parksville’s French Creek Harbour experienced a diesel spill on Nov. 23 after a barge and fishing vessel collided. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Coast Guard cleans up diesel spill in Parksville’s French Creek Harbour

Barge carrying fuel truck collides with fishing vessel

Stock photo
Senior from Gibsons caught viewing child porn sentenced to 10 months

74-year-old pleaded guilty after police seized 1,500-2,500 images

BC Teachers' Federation President Teri Mooring is asking parents of school-aged children to encourage the wearing of masks when possible in schools. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
LETTER: Teachers union encourages culture of mask wearing in B.C. schools

BCTF President Teri Mooring asks parents to talk with children about wearing masks in school

Most Read