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Colette Campbell-Jones on Stories from Underground -- Part Three

Abyss #2 -- Colette Campbell-Jones see and enlargement of the image here

We conclude our series with Colette Campbell-Jones with a few more stories from the underground. In this final installment, Campbell-Jones focuses on a few tales and experiences that inspired Abyss #2, one of her two 120" photographic murals. 


I'll talk about what went into making of the underground mural. There were fragments from a number of stories, one from an uncle, combined with current "stories" told to me by miners I spent some time with while at Tower colliery. I also incorporated my own visceral impressions when I visited down the pit. Much of a story's impact is in the way it is told; so much is lost through writing. So much of the power is in the oral transmission.

    My husband's uncle Vernon (no biological connection) and his wife Val and I sat around a table having lunch inside their glassed-in porch looking out onto the garden. Above a table was a large photograph of Vernon in his youth during a boxing championship. He held several titles. Vernon told me about being underground before the mines were modernized, before the nationalization of the industry. He worked an 18" seam -- a tunnel barely high enough to get his body into. It was very hot in that seam (sometimes the heat underground could get up into the triple digits) so Vernon took off his shirt. There was barely any room to raise his arm up to dig out the coal with his pick. When he returned home, his mother became angry with him when she saw that his back was bleeding cut up into vertical strips from scraping his back against the top of the tunnel every time he swung his pick.

     I was absorbing this story when Vernon launched into "Oh but all the fun we had."  Vernon was beaming.
    "What do you mean?" I asked.
    "All the joking and laughing," he replied.
    "That story in the tunnel sounded awful!"
    "Yeah, it was, we worked hard, and it was hot! But everything was turned into a joke... I'd go back down in a heartbeat!"
    "I don't understand, that doesn't make sense to me."
    "I went to other jobs, thought they might be safer, I was in steel and then I worked at the docks for a while but then I went back down the pit."
    "For the money?" 
    "It was more money, but that's not why I went back down the pit."
    "Why then?"
    "Those other jobs just weren't the same. You'd just do your work and that's it. The people weren't the same. I missed my buddies, we were all brothers. We looked out after each other and had fun. Nothing else was like it, the camaraderie..."
Detail from Abyss #2 -- Colette Campbell-Jones
I asked Vernon if he could give me an example of some of the ways they would have "fun." He told me about a time that while underground a group of men put Vernon on their shoulders carrying him through the tunnels, passing him around to other groups of men.

"Then they completely covered me in muck so that I was completely black, we were all joking and laughing and then we all got into a trolley and rode around the mine for hours. "

Vernon's face was one wide smile during this retelling. As I asked him more details and he said that most of what happened down there stays down there, that unless you're a miner, you'd not be able to understand.

"We don't even talk the same way down there. Things we can't repeat. When we go to the showers and put on our good clothes to leave work, we become gentlemen. Underground we are 'just the boys.'"

    I was a guest at Tower colliery, the last remaining deep shaft mine in Wales. Until its closure in 2008, it was the oldest deep shaft colliery in the world, working continuously for two hundred years. In its early years, this mine had a reputation for militancy. Each generation of miners here felt proud to be apart of this lineage and up until its closing Tower flew a red flag (in the past the flag had been dunked  in sheep blood) in remembrance of a miner, martyred during a 19th century uprising over mine safety. The miners I met at Tower were the last to maintain their jobs in this dying industry and therefore they were amongst the most skilled. They were slightly older, including Tower's union chairman having worked underground for more than fifty years. Steeped in history, Tower had been bought out from the British Coal Board by the miner's themselves (during the Thatcher years, to prevent its closure) and they now owned and operated the mine themselves. In the following decades Tower was profitable and had become one of the world's safest deep shaft mines with state of the art computer and engineering technologies.
Detail from Abyss #2 -- Colette Campbell-Jones
 Most of the men there had all received serious injuries, many had multiple. One man had lost his footing during an underground flood and fell breaking his hip. A beam fell in top of another man leaving him with a massive scar the length of his torso and only able to work on the surface. Other men had broken their backs (yet, they were still working underground) and all of them talk about  their percentages of remaining healthy lung tissue.

While underground, I walked with my chaperone Will, past the old parts of the mine as well as the new, modernized sections. Down there it's impossible to separate the history from the present. Once down the shaft, the mine is surprisingly developed -- an entire complex with tens of miles of "roads" the miners had named after the British freeway system above ground, the M4, or the M2 etc. On a couple of walls miners had painted murals more than 80 years ago in a "socialist realist" style. Deeper into the mine the sights and smells felt like a very alien and curious landscape. It seemed amazing from a geological and physics point of view. The tunnels were dug to follow the coal, like water in a cave system carving out three dimensional space. The tunnel "roads" rise and fall, following the coal. Sometimes the tunnel was wide (almost spacious) and other times it would be so low that you needed to walk with your head bent over to avoid hitting the "ceiling."  And for every foot deeper below the earth's surface the pressure increases similar to the pressure descending into the ocean. All the forces and chemistries become much more complicated "down the pit." Every time something is removed from those depths pressure is released causing some other reaction, either in the pressure of the rocks, or the pressure effecting flow of dangerous gasses and oxygen ventilation. I was told by one miner that the weather conditions outside the mine effects the pressures and conditions underground. Water was constantly trickling (or flowing) down the sides of tunnels in places and there was a very strange quality to the light. Once the shaft (elevator) leaves you at the bottom of the mine and returns to the surface, there is a profound sense of being utterly and completely cut off from the rest of the world.

My chaperone Will and I walked about a mile and a quarter to get to the working "face" where the "cutter" shears off coal and rock and which is removed by conveyer belt to the surface. Scattered along the tunnel were what looked like junk, pipes, pieces of large equipment, all kinds of industrial bits which would all be re-cycled and repurposed underground. It made the already tight spaces of the tunnel system feel even more claustrophobic. Among these piles of pipes and equipment I saw groups of men working together. Much of what the men were doing down there was fixing problems from routine maintenance to more serious issues. Every problem is different from the previous one. The men said it was a challenging and that they were never bored. They were also constantly inspecting everything for safety. Throughout, the men were kidding with each other, laughing and animated. Although it was obvious that many of them were really tired, they were making jokes about the problem, and each other. One miner said that it made others feel better and sometimes they would be physically playful with each other, gesturing like kids. Most of the men knew each other from early childhood  -- some of them spoke both Welsh and English and often they would go back and forth between both languages mixing into this conversation bits of mining history in the same sentence as talking about their child's football match. They had big personalities and they were intimate, even more than the surface workers. In a culture where masculinity is defined by physical strength, several men told me that from working 8-12 hour shifts, eating and sometimes sleeping together underground, and with all the challenges they faced over decades together, they felt that they were closer to each other than to their own wives.

Detail from Abyss #2 -- Colette Campbell-Jones
 Will and I continued to travel towards the coalface, past safe rooms along the walls there were lots of hand written notes, cartoons, communications between shifts, and even the odd little plastic dinosaur. Some of the graffiti had been written decades ago, some was even older.  Next, a huge blast of wind hit us from the front knocking Will and I to the ground. Will took this seriously because it was the high tech fire doors that had malfunctioned. They have a double locking system creating a vacuum designed to contain fire from spreading through the tunnels. Both doors accidentally opened at once instead of one at a time and the force from the vacuum sent a wind blast down the tunnel covering us completely with coal, getting through layers of clothing down to the skin.  It took me weeks to get the coal fully out of my hair, ears, and equipment.

As we continued to walk down towards the coalface, Will was already working to try to fix the problem with the fire doors. Another miner pointed out to me some very small seepages in the rock and told me to put my ear against the tunnel wall and listen. He told me that that the miners had always listened to the rock to hear the ground settling and even to hear underground springs. He told me that even with teams of engineers on the surface monitoring everything that goes on below, the miners are sometimes able to detect things shifting and foresee something happening before the engineers, by listening to the rocks.

Detail from Abyss #2 -- Colette Campbell-Jones
 "Face workers" command a lot of respect from the other men because it is amongst the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs in the mine. Face workers are highly skilled and they tend to be leaders because of their ability to think under pressure and  keep others safe.  Two days after my trip underground one of the men I had talked to at the coalface was hobbling around the lamp room on crutches. The "ceiling" had fallen in at the coalface the day before and injured his back.

Its in the colliery's lamp room that the headgear, lamps and self-rescuing equipment is stored. Standing in the corner of the room there was a very large cage, about 15ft high, by 12x5. Inside were lots of small birds. These birds had all been "retired." With new advanced equipment there was no need to use or harm them, so the miners kept them as pets. As it tuned out, many of the men were keen animal lovers. One night shift they put small cameras outside in a kestrel's nest to be entertained as the chicks hatched. Adjacent to the mines grounds, a farmer would kill foxes to protect his sheep. The miners would take in the little foxes and feed and care for them when they were hurt.

There is one more story that I have heard a couple of variations on the same basic ritual. They talked about how as young boys they idolized the miners as heroes and wanted to be old enough to go down the pit. They wanted to be belong to that group with their infectious emotions, their confidence and camaraderie. They wanted to become men. One miner told me that when he went down with his father at 15 and had worked for an hour, his hands were sore and blistered and his muscles hurt. His father told him to urinate on his hands to toughen up the skin and it would get better. That was one hour of an eight hour shift in a six day work week. After a month he had built some arm strength and it was better.   -- Colette Campbell-Jones


See Colette Campbell-Jones' work from her Stories from the Underground series here.

Read Part One of this series, where Campbell-Jones' discusses the stories behind four of her images, on photoe-eye Blog here.
Read Part Two, an interview with Campbell-Jones, here.