Everyone knows that the unemployed have got to get fuel somehow.
So every afternoon several hundred men risk their necks and
several hundred women scrabble in the mud for hours —
and all for half a hundredweight of inferior fuel.
COAL SCRAMBLING IN WIGAN
The dumpy, shawled women, with their sacking aprons and their heavy black clogs,
kneeling in the cindery mud and the bitter wind, searching eagerly for tiny chips of coal.
In winter they are desperate for fuel; it is more important almost than food.
The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell
excerpt from Part I, Chapter VI
...In Wigan there is immense and systematic thieving of coal by the unemployed. I call it thieving because technically it is that, though it does no harm to anybody. In the ‘dirt’ that is sent up from the pits there is a certain amount of broken coal, and unemployed people spend a lot of time in picking it out of the slag-heaps. All day long over those strange grey mountains you see people wandering to and fro with sacks and baskets across the sulphurous smoke (many slag-heaps are on fire under the surface), prising out the tiny nuggets of coal which are buried here and there. You meet men coming away, wheeling strange and wonderful home-made bicycles — bicycles made of rusty parts picked off refuse - tips, without saddles, without chains and almost always without tyres — across which are slung bags containing perhaps half a hundredweight of coal, fruit of half a day’s searching. In times of strikes, when everybody is short of fuel, the miners turn out with pick and shovel and burrow into the slag-heaps, whence the hummocky appearance which most slag-heaps have. During long strikes, in places where there are outcrops of coal, they have sunk surface mines and carried them scores of yards into the earth.
In Wigan the competition among unemployed people for the waste coal has become so fierce that it has led to an extraordinary custom called ‘scrambling for the coal’, which is well worth seeing. Indeed I rather wonder that it has never been filmed. An unemployed miner took me to see it one afternoon. We got to the place, a mountain range of ancient slag-heaps with a railway running through the valley below. A couple of hundred ragged men, each with a sack and coal-hammer strapped under his coat-tails, were waiting on the ‘broo’. When the dirt comes up from the pit it is loaded on to trucks and an engine runs these to the top of another slag-heap a quarter of a mile away and there leaves them. The process of ‘scrambling for the coal’ consists in getting on to the train while it is moving; any truck which you have succeeded in boarding while it is in motion counts as ‘your’ truck. Presently the train hove in sight. With a wild yell a hundred men dashed down the slope to catch her as she rounded the bend. Even at the bend the train was making twenty miles an hour. The men hurled themselves upon it, caught hold of the rings at the rear of the trucks and hoisted themselves up by way of the bumpers, five or ten of them on each truck. The driver took no notice. He drove up to the top of the slag-heap, uncoupled the trucks, and ran the engine back to the pit, presently returning with a fresh string of trucks. There was the same wild rush of ragged figures as before. In the end only about fifty men had failed to get on to either train.
We walked up to the top of the slag-heap. The men were shovelling the dirt out of the trucks, while down below their wives and children were kneeling, swiftly scrabbling with their hands in the damp dirt and picking out lumps of coal the size of an egg or smaller. You would see a woman pounce on a tiny fragment of stuff, wipe it on her apron, scrutinize it to make sure it was coal, and pop it jealously into her sack. Of course, when you are boarding a truck you don’t know beforehand what is in it; it may be actual ‘dirt’ from the roads or it may merely be shale from the roofing. If it is a shale truck there will be no coal in it, but there occurs among the shale another inflammable rock called cannel, which looks very like ordinary shale but is slightly darker and is known by splitting in parallel lines, like slate. It makes tolerable fuel, not good enough to be commercially valuable, but good enough to be eagerly sought after by the unemployed. The miners on the shale trucks were picking out the cannel and splitting it up with their hammers. Down at the bottom of the ‘broo’ the people who had failed to get on to either train were gleaning the tiny chips of coal that came rolling down from above—fragments no bigger than a hazel-nut, these, but the people were glad enough to get them.
We stayed there till the train was empty. In a couple of hours the people had picked the dirt over to the last grain. They slung their sacks over shoulder or bicycle, and started on the two-mile trudge back to Wigan. Most of the families had gathered about half a hundredweight of coal or carmel, so that between them they must have stolen five or ten tons of fuel. This business of robbing the dirt trains takes place every day in Wigan, at any rate in winter, and at more collieries than one. It is of course extremely dangerous. No one was hurt the afternoon I was there, but a man had had both his legs cut off a few weeks earlier, and another man lost several fingers a week later. Technically it is stealing but, as everybody knows, if the coal were not stolen it would simply be wasted. Now and again, for form’s sake, the colliery companies prosecute somebody for coal-picking, and in that morning’s issue of the local paper there was a paragraph saying that two men had been fined ten shillings. But no notice is taken of the prosecutions — in fact, one of the men named in the paper was there that afternoon — and the coal-pickers subscribe among themselves to pay the fines. The thing is taken for granted. Everyone knows that the unemployed have got to get fuel somehow. So every afternoon several hundred men risk their necks and several hundred women scrabble in the mud for hours—and all for half a hundredweight of inferior fuel, value ninepence.
That scene stays in my mind as one of my pictures of Lancashire: the dumpy, shawled women, with their sacking aprons and their heavy black clogs, kneeling in the cindery mud and the bitter wind, searching eagerly for tiny chips of coal. They are glad enough to do it. In winter they are desperate for fuel; it is more important almost than food. Meanwhile all round, as far as the eye can see, are the slag-heaps and hoisting gear of collieries, and not one of those collieries can sell all the coal it is capable of producing. This ought to appeal to Major Douglas. [end quoting from TRTWP by GO]
PENNSYLVANIA IS WIGAN PIER and THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER and 9.Keeping Masses Down
Reader has a shed full of coal to sell
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