Douglas West

Newspaper Lass


It was the spring of 1913 that my grandfather Bernard with his six sons and four sons-in-law moved to Douglas West to live in the new houses that had been built on the side of the hill for the Wilson and Clyde coal company.

News of the exciting discovery of a wide, rich and deep vein of soft coal spread amazingly fast throughout the surrounding countryside. Since the new mine lay west of the long established town of Douglas, the new settlement became known as Douglas West. These new homes, sparkling white in the Scottish sun, extended along the side of the mountain in two tidy rows. The houses were joined together in groups of eight with a close between each group, to allow passage to the middle road between the two long rows. Along the middle row were small garden plots, one for each miner's family.

On the kitchen side of each house stood high steel drums in a wooden enclosure ready to receive fireplace ashes. Since the homes were heated with soft coal there was a need for these receptacles. Before these homes were built there was not a village in the surrounding area, or for that matter miles around, that had the modern conveniences of electricity and indoor running water. This fact alone instantly attracted miner's from coal mines further away. Excitement ran high. Miner's wives were ecstatic and everyone was caught up in the contagious rejoicing.

Each home had a large common room that served as a kitchen, bedroom and living room. Two large beds were built cozily into the walls. Off the common room was a scullery with a stone floor, a place to do the family wash and the dirty dishes, with storage space for other items. High along one wall was a long shelf on which mum displayed lovely delicate china dishes she prized so much. A water closet was attached to the scullery. At the other end of the common room was an extra bedroom reserved for friends who spent holidays with us. An open coal burning stove in the common room provided all the heat the house required and all the family's cooking was done on it as well.

Ponies used for hauling the hutches of coal, worked in the murky depths of the new mine. My father was hired as hostler and was responsible for the continued good health of a dozen Welsh ponies. They were housed several hundred feet deep in the inky black mine in a clean whitewashed stable. Dad white-washed that stable twice a year. All the ponies were male. Dad's personal favourite was a beautiful ebony black pony he named Black Beauty. He was totally black, and his shiny coat gleamed with health. These beasts of burden laboured hard in the blackness of the Wilson and Clyde coal mine.

The only light in the mine tunnels came from the carbide lamps worn on the caps of the miners. These lamps produced long plumes of orange flame that lighted the sooty darkness around them. Pieces of calcium carbide, with water added, expelled a gas that fed the flame.

At work these ponies were hitched to six hutches of coal, each one containing one and a half tons of coal. They pulled this rake of hutches along steel rails on the mine floor a quarter of a mile. When the day's work was done the driver un-harnessed his pony, hung the harness on the white stable wall then vigour sly brushed the coal dust from his pony's coat. Next he hosed of the mud from the pony's legs, dried the legs with handfuls of dry sawdust and bedded down his animal in more dry sawdust.

Autumn deepened into winter and one cold frosty morning in December at about 5 am loud urgent knocking awakened the whole house. It was John Claus, who worked nightshift in the mine engine room; John had run all the way from the mine, his hair was dishevelled, his eyes staring wide, and his mouth hung open as he gasped for breath. "George...Black in trouble...there's been an accident...he's all jammed up...I can't get his feet. Dressing hurriedly, he and John raced to the mine. The two worried men lit their carbide lamps and descended into the jet black mine.

A mine fireman had been using Beauty, without permission, to haul hutches into position for the dayshift in an unfamiliar tunnel. The pony had stumbled causing a rake of hutches he was pulling, to lurch forward, smashing into his hind legs and pinning him against the rough wall that glittered like black diamonds.

George sent John for his probing needle and the hostler inserted it into various points along the horses back. The stricken pony registered no pain as dad continued his examination. "I believe his back is broken" dad concluded and encased the needle in its leather case. "My poor Beauty will have to be done away with" his eyes swam with tears as he slowly stood up. He turned to John, "go wake up the boss, John, and tell him we have need of the bullet and hammer"

Finally he heard running footsteps at the beginning of the tunnel...It was John returning with the needed equipment. The hostler strapped the black hood over Beauty's head, covering those soulful eyes whose gaze he could no longer meet. A single bullet was encased in the hood that lay on Beauty's forehead.

Dad stood up, his face white and grim and full of sorrow, to do the heart wrenching job of killing his favourite wee horse. In utter overwhelming misery he swung the heavy wooden hammer right to the bullet. A sharp explosion screamed along the tunnel reverberating against the silent walls...the merciful task was finished.

Beauty died instantly. Still holding the weapon of mercy, Dad turned away in his devastating grief. The hammer slid from his hand and clattered on the steel rails. He stood perfectly frozen in a moment of time, then he cupped his face in his hands, and his shoulders heaved. John stood silent and respectful with bowed head.

After disposing of Beauty Dad headed home feeling exceedingly low. He stumbled up the pit road with slow steps and a heavy heart, not caring who saw his grief. Mum had been waiting at the kitchen window and soon as she saw his drooping shoulders and distraught face she summarised what had happened down the mine. She opened the door for him and greeted him quietly "you had to dispose of Beauty?" He nodded and went straight to his armchair by the kitchen hearth heavy with despair he sat down and put his head back and closed his eyes.

Jean C Schmidt

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Original story© Jean C Schmidt 2004
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

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