Having a "Blast".

This page is dedicated to the memories, stories and tales of every day life at Dawdon Colliery told by those that worked there. These are their stories as told in their own words.

All are welcome to contribute, and you can e-mail your stories via our contact e-mail address on this site.


What a Great Apprenticeship!

By Tony Alder

Saturday 5th August 1978 was my 16th birthday, two days later Monday 7th August I started my first shift with the NCB. It sounds like something from the Victorian era!. At that time I was unaware that my apprenticeship would be so enjoyable as well as educational and that I would meet so many marra's (characters) along they way. I will try and remember some of them (forgive me if names not entirely correct).

That first day at 'the knack' training centre I met up with my fellow 1st year Dawdon apprentice fitters - John Edwards, Kevin Burrell, Kenny Cleminson, Davey Tunstall and George Donnelly. All but George were from Sunderland so we were known as 'Townies'. We were kitted up and sent to a classroom where our instructor went around the room asking each apprentice 'which pit we were allotted to', when we replied 'Dawdon' he said 'you lot will retire there not like these at inland pits who will have to transfer to the big coastal pits' - oh how wrong he was!

Year 1 apprenticeship was split between Wearside College and Vane Tempest training centre. Although towards the end of year 1 we did spend a couple of weeks at Dawdon with our first job being to dismantle two rows of old lockers to make space for the new lockers that would house our new three sets of overalls, net bag and the biggest nappy pin you've seen. The NCB were going to wash our overalls weekly for us. This was a great job as the amount of money we found meant we never spent any of our own money getting tea, coffee and bait in canteen.

Years 2, 3 & 4 apprenticeship were split between day release at college and time at the pit. Pit time was split between different tasks. It was now that we met Vincey Smith, fitting shop gaffa, and his multi-coloured apprentice task allocation chart. Weeks of the year had different colours allocated to your name and a quick check of the colour index indicated where you would be working any particular week. Despite being in charge of all the apprentices I'm not really sure if Vincey ever liked any of us ha ha.

The Fitting Shop is where I met people like Brian 'the business' Hughes, Billy Benson, George 'the coat' Anderson, Stan Stan the lathe man and little Raymond the only man who could drill a square hole with a twist drill!!!!!!! Other surface fitters were Spud and Lester Murphy (the best 80's hairstyles ever - Spud with his blonde tips and Lester with the best wedge ever - although I never did tell them at that time!), Mickey Shovlin a large man with flaming ginger hair, Ray Kennedy and Jimmy Whittington. Surface Loco's was a good place had a great bait cabin with fire and you could always grab an hour after your bait. The washery was a place I avoided like the plague, I spent one week there and never went back it seem to be staffed with people from a sub-culture.

After my 20 days underground training (well we only did 20 half days because each afternoon our trainer liked to 'get his down') - I got my first taste of life on the coal face on 10 North with Bobby Lowery. While working with Bobby he had gone on a Friday night out to Newcastle with lads from The Harbour and the bus left him behind so he walked all the way home along the A19 to Seaham. I'm not certain but I bet he was back in time for the 6am Saturday morning shift. Another fitter on 10 North was Billy Etherington, later to become an MP although because he was always away on union duty he was an MP on 10 North, Missing Person!

Then I was off to Southside E80 (a big hitter face as known) here I met 'Flying Kite' Brian White, Dickie Ord, Stewy Brown, Alan 'chocco' Constable and Dennis 'king dot' Rooney. Another King Dotter was Doc Patterson who looked after the underground pumps. It was once rumoured that one day Doc had said he couldn't work overtime that afternoon as a friend was being cremated, however he couldn't refuse the overtime and when asked what about the cremation he replied 'they will have to keep him on a lar leet (low light) until I get out!'

The 'G' & 'F' seams introduced me to Tony 'Ginger beard' Hepple, Dickie 'the cat' Catterill, Jimmy Connen, Billy Craggs, Brian Melenthaman (probably spelled wrong) who once lived above Dawdon chippy and another king dotter Brian 'Sas' Savage. Also Cosh Barrow who resembled Paddington bear by wearing a duffle coat underground.

A spell in the underground loco's with Charlie Walker instilled the NUM and Durham Mechanics into me. Off to the Low Main trunks and meet 'The Royal Family' - Billy Wilson, Matty Finkle and Darkie Dobson who had a fantastic underground bait cabin with a dartboard and two beds and you were always guaranteed to get out of pit at lunchtime.

Then comes one of best jobs Northside 480B with Dek Bowers, Ramsey Ardle and Andy Watson - this meant 5 days a week fust (first) shift through day shift, 13hrs friday night through saturday and 6hrs sunday, big money time.

Dek was as strong as an ox. One day after a doubler we were travelling out from 3 loader on the mail and I was sitting opposite Ramsey when he yawned I put my hand into his mouth and took out his bottom teeth. I gave them to Dek who threatened to throw them out! the look on Ramseys' face was a picture.

Some others I came across were Trevor Ray, Jimmy Dicka and Ginger John Smith.

Throughout my apprenticeship I had pleasure of working for some great gaffas who looked after me - Stan Simpson, Bobby Watson, Alan 'flipper' Phillips, Desi Smirk, Alan Black, Arty Greener, Dennis McKenna and a Deputy Engineer Keith 'the bairn' Dunn.

Below us came new sets of apprentices Eddie Shield, Neil Stoessel, Pearny, Roly Pounder, Budsy, Snagger, Wassi, Grant Lisle and Smokey Defty. Then came the final set of apprentices who appeared just to want to do as little work as possible during their apprenticeship - Steven 'Docka' Docherty and Paul 'Loopy' Gulliver. Docka arrived with a bit of a chip on his shoulder but a few times hoisted up in the fitting shop crane and the odd five gallon drum of oily water tipped on him whilst he sunbathed in the chockyard brought him down to earth.

It was at College I learned the technical part of engineering, at the pit I learned the practical part but it was my mentors throughout my apprenticeship that taught me the best lessons in life. Im sure it was those formative years that helped me get to where I am in life today and the person that I turned out to be - so for all those who helped me along the way I am eternally grateful. Marra's then and Marra's now.


Stewart- The World's Worst First Aider

By Freddie Marrin

This bit crack was given to me by Stewart Brown while having a pint  in The Kestrel pub some years ago.
Stewart and another fitter - Gordon K. were walking in bye in F seam. Gordon got his foot caught between the points in the tracks. He fell and it was clear he had a broken ankle,  judging by the shape of his leg and the screams emanating from his mouth.
Soon there was a few others surrounding Gordon and the deputy gave him a shot of morphia for the pain. Stewart helped get Gordon  on to the stretcher and proceeded to tie the straps. Gordon suddenly screamed out in agony followed by a load of expletives. Stewart said . "come on Gordon don't be a soft get you've  had a shot of morphia"  Gordon replied " you're standing on me f****ing fingers". Stuart told me that Gordon not only had a broken ankle but had severely bruised fingers as well. He said to Gordon, "tell them you did it when you fell as you will get more compo.


"Wheels On Fire, Rolling Down The Road" - The Story of "Dicka's Pig"

By Keith Binks and Neil Stoessel

For some of us young apprentices in our early days, getting to the pit and training centres could be a bit of a challenge when no transport was readily available. Whilst we were learning to drive some of us bought motorcycles and would give our "marras" a "backer" to work, however the treacherous winter weather meant that sometimes this wasn't an option. One of us however had a better idea.

Step forward Ian "Dicka" Dixon and his Reliant three wheeler, which affectionately became known as "Dicka's pig".

"Dicka's pig" was your typical Reliant Robin (plastic pig) with an 850cc engine, but to Dicka it may as well have had a Ferarri V12 under the bonnet, as he sure as hell was going to try and drive it like one. For us young apprentices in the winter months it was a life saver and very nearly a life taker too.

One of our first adventures in it occurred one lunchtime when we were at Wearside College. We had been down the pub and were late in getting back ( I believe there had been a bomb scare in the pub and we had to wait to get our coats and bags) and we needed to get back sharpish. Dicka as generous as he always was, pipes up "I'll get you back lads" and in we piled into the pig - all ten of us. How we all got in I don't know, however I remember being one of the poor sods that had to lie in the back with other's piled on top. As we set off and the pig started chugging its way back to college at little more than walking pace for what seemed an eternity but was probably no more than a few minutes, the back started filling up with exhaust fumes and those of us in the back caught the full brunt of it. We rolled out of it in the car park, coughing and spluttering and how we never suffered crush injuries is a mystery.

As the winter months descended the pig came into its own and Dicka as always would give any of us a lift if we needed it.

One evening on our way back from Dawdon, Dicka had been blasting the pig along the coast road as usual and as we approached Ryhope village we took the dip under the railway bridge a little too vigorously and suddenly there was this loud crash from the back of the pig. We turned round to see the back door had flew off and was lying in the middle of the road with the traffic at a standstill. Dicka as nonchalantly as ever just got out, picked it up and brought it back. It ended up with a couple of us having to sit in the back holding the door in place for the rest of the journey. 

Ryhope village was to see another incident for the pig, as Neil Stoessel recalls.  
"We were driving home on a freezing cold, dark winter's evening after back shift with my hair still wet from the baths and freezing to my scalp as there was no heating in the pig. As we drove towards Ryhope Village Green we skidded on some ice, clipped the kerb and in an instant the pig was on it's side and sliding along the ice downhill towards where that big pub was on the right hand side and spinning round and round as it went along. I was in the passenger seat with my face pressed up against the window about half an inch from the road surface. We were gliding across with Dicka belted into his seat up above me still trying to steer the bloody thing. It was like crashing in a bobsleigh and all you saw out of the windscreen ahead was the headlights of the emergency braking cars coming towards us, the darkness as we span away from them, then the headlights, darkness, headlights etc., as we spun round so many times I lost count. Thankfully we finally came to a stop and some blokes got out of their cars and pulled the pig off its side up onto its wheels again, with us in it. Dicka jumped out, walked round to give it a quick inspection and shouted "Thanks lads" as the pig's engine roared into life first time and we just drove off. I think I must have been in a state of shock because I didn't even try and bail out or say anything and even when he just dropped me off outside our house with his usual "See you tomorrow mate" I just sort of waved and watched him accelerate off as I still couldn't speak. Dicka had nerves of steel though - didn't bat an eyelid and he would have made a great Spitfire pilot or something similar 40 years earlier if you ask me". 

The pig did have its days of glory however, and the day Dicka "Burned Off" Tony Alder in his Mark 3 Cortina will stick in our minds for a long time. It was one morning heading in to work and we had just turned onto the Gas Works Road in Dawdon when up ahead Dicka spotted Alder. As quick as a flash he is up behind him, then with much encouragement from the rest of us in the pig, he pulls out alongside him and absolutely flies past him. The look on the faces of Alder and Eddie Shield who was in the car with him were priceless as we whizzed past flashing "v" signs and other various hand gestures at them. There then followed a pursuit to the pit yard which Dicka won, and of course when we got out we started the relentless piss taking. Alder was doing his nut with Eddie and blaming him for the embarrassment of being beaten by the pig. It transpired that Eddie upon seeing the pig coming up behind fast, had said to Alder words to the effect of "look out its the pig" which Alder misunderstood to be the Police catching him up so had slowed down and gave Dicka the opportunity to get past. Well that was their story anyway, but we were having none of it, and continued to take the piss for a long time to come. 

The pig however was to come to a sad and unfortunate end, and one day when coming through the pit baths after finishing my shift I could see a huge plume of thick black smoke in the distance somewhere along the pit road. It was obviously something quite major and attracting a lot of attention. As I came out of the baths, here comes a forlorn looking and out of breath Dicka running back into the pit shouting " the pigs on fire, the pigs on fire, call the fire brigade". Sadly the damage to the pig was fatal and so ended the story of the pig.

This is not quite the end of the tale however, as I seem to remember following the demise of the pig Dicka was able to upgrade to the Rolls Royce of plastic pigs - The Bond Bug.


Dicka relaxing in "The Dawdon Solarium" no doubt dreaming of plastic pigs


Oh To Be a Stretcher Bearer

By Paul Gulliver

It was recognised that coal mining was a dangerous occupation and I think most people who worked underground would have been involved in some incident or another. 

As a young fitter carring out general duties in the High Main and Sea Drift districts I was tasked withe the job of completing the stripping down of the pontoon section of a Dosco conveyor. The previous shift had started to remove the sections with only one pontoon left. I had been asured that the section was fully supported as the ground was not level. I climbed over to the fast side of the belt and started to chop through the nuts with a hammer and chisel. As the last nut cracked the section dropped on to my foot. I was trapped and squealing like the proverbial pig. The section had somehow twisted the steel cap in my boot backwards and was digging into the base of my toes. I feared at this time my toes had been cut off.
Quick as a flash the lads I was working with rigged up the pull lifts, released my foot and help me over to the travelling side of the conveyor. The deputy who was also the first aider started to remove my boot to reveal the damage. I was positive my toes would of been left rattling round in the bottom of my boot. But to my relieve they were all in tact. I had escaped with only a thin black bruise line across the base of my toes.
Although I had a lucky escape the Deputy suggest I get checked out at the medical centre. He asked if I could walk or would I need a stretcher. Walking would be fine I replied, however a stern voice rang out " Nay Loopy lad, thee needs the stretcher marra" . As hard as I tried to resist being carried out on the stretcher the more others insisted it was needed. Then the penny dropped, I realised why the stretcher was to be used. It was not for my safety, it was a vehicle to give the stretcher bearers an early finish or "Quickie" as it was known.
So the stretcher was brought out , I climbed on board and was gently lifted up. Unfortunately the members of the six man strecher team had not been finalised. While I was lying back there was competition on who would get to hold at least two of the handles. As the physical tussling over the handles intensified one handle was released and I was unceremoniously tipped off the stretcher.
A sense of order was soon restored and I survived an incident free, if not nervy and definitely embarrassing journey to the medical centre. Here I was given a clean bill of health.

While writing this story I was reminded of another stretcher incident but with a different ending. Former colleagues of the injured party would not be surprised at how this story ends.
A fitter, who had never been know to refuse overtime, we shall call him Sas Sausage was crawling up the face when his knee very painfully locked. After unsuccessfully trying to release the knee the only option was to carry him off the face and out bye to bank. A group of men successfully removed Sas from the face, put him on a stretcher and carried him th the shaft.
While lying on the stretcher waiting for the cage to take him to bank his knee unlocked. Sas jumped up, flexed his knee a few times and proclaimed he was fit to return in bye. To the dismay and probably annoyance of the poor lads that struggled to carry him out, they realised they would not be getting a quickie.And Sas returned to the face to complete yet another double shift.


Pit Yarns

By Paul Gulliver

I left school in 1980 and started my mining career in the September. As you will remember our first year was split between the training centre next to Vane Tempest and college. In early spring of 81 I was walking back to the training centre having had my bait in the Tempest canteen. As I neared the training centre a yellow Reliant Robin pull up , the passenger window was wound down and Smokey, still in his orange overalls popped his head out and said " Howay Loopy , you coming to Seaburn with me and Dicker" In the early days I was a quite a keen apprentice so naturally I was surprised that Smokey thought I would jump in the back of the van. I declined the offer, explaining I would be missed by the instructors. Smokey continued to try to persuade me to join them, insisting I would not be missed. But I stood firm and returned to the training centre.

How naive I was in the early days.

The second year of our apprenticeship saw us returning to Dawdon on a permanent basis to learn our craft. Here I was introduced to the Fitting shop and the characters who worked there along with the surface plant fitters. Within the first two months I would be on the receiving end of two good scuddins from a tall chap called Lester Murphy.
The second time I deserved it but the first time some unknown new so called marra grassed me up for an innocent observation I had made about Lester and shared it with him.
Anyone who can remember Lester will know he was a cracking lad, but he did have a strange accent, which I mistakenly thought was also a bit Gay. ( If you read this Lester please make note of the word mistakenly used earlier in the text). Anyway,  some joker decided to tell Lester I thought he was gay. This error was swiftly put right by me getting taught a lesson by Lester.
The second time was definitely my own fault and well deserved, but shows how working with such a great set of lads was building my confidence in the work place.
The canteen sold Extra Strong  mints loosely in white sweet bags. I had bought a quarter of these mints, but earlier that day I had discovered these white water softening tablets which were the same colour,  shape and size as the mints. I decided to put one of the tablets in with the mints and play mint roulette with the lads. Unfortunately for me when I was sharing my mints Lester turned up and helped himself to a mint. Guess who got the softener, and he was not amused. But we all thought it was hilarious. Lester then began to chase me around the fitting shop. Being a skinny slip of a lad I found it easy to keep out of his grasp,  but he never gave up and eventually caught me . Good scuddin No.2


The Liquorice Bolt

As told by Freddie Marrin

It must have been around 1979. North side  five quarter. A local wag - We will call him Harry . He was working in 10 north face I think. The under manager Mr Nightingale was in the face. He had heard the Norse Miner driving the next face was "stannin". He asked the Deputy to enquire what the problem was. Of course the Deputy delegated the task to Harry, who proceeded to walk to the end of the gate and get on the DAC to the Miner driveage . "What's wrong Wi  the miner" ? Harry enquired,  a garbled message in DAC speak was interpreted by Harry as " its the liquorice bowlt "(bolt).  Harry obediently relayed the message back to the deputy . Of course he wasn't sure and decided to not tell Mr. Nightingale the message and proceeded to find out for himself.  Harry had heard liquorice bowlt. In fact what was said was , ELECTRICAL FAULT


The Singing Shovel Players 

 As recalled by Neil Stoessel

 In 1981 an assistant engineer decided to solve the problem of having two apprentices working with the same fitter on a longwall retreater on the north side of the five quarter by telling me to come in on first shift for the rest of the week. I did as I was told and, given nobody had told me to then go back on dayshift, I basically dropped off the training rota and followed the first, back and tub-loading pattern for about eight months. When the face finally came to an end I went across to the fitting shops and asked the foreman where I should go to work next.

His answer was "Have you transferred from another colliery and can you tell me who you are first?"  When I explained I was actually now a third year apprentice I was given a quick third degree on where the hell I'd disappeared to for all those months and a massive "hairdryer" lecture / bollocking on how I was supposed to have been working on advance faces, doscos, locos, tractors, shaft pumps, mobile plant, baths boilers, the winders, in the fitting shops, etc. 

To try and calm him down I cheerily responded "Don't worry, I've learned loads of stuff" which was true but, as well as how to keep the Anderson-Strathclyde shearer, face belt, stage loader and gate belt going my new skills included doss building, mouse catching, stick chopping and the one I remember the best of all, "playing the shovel".

I learned to play the shovel from a real expert who worked on the tension end of 16 North looking after two Desford supports, digging sump holes with a windy pick and throwing timber on the belt. He was a brilliantly funny bloke and when things were quiet on first shift or tub-loading I would quickly toddle off to the tension end where he would sing this range of songs which were a mixture of 30 per cent George Formby and 70 per cent lyrics he'd made up himself while he held a shovel like a banjo and bashed his brass token on the back of it in time with the song. Most of the lads on the team had heard them all about a million times before and were sick to death of them but I was absolutely fascinated and would listen to the section men shouting over the face DACs for barks and chocks and then throw them on the face belt myself so that the shovel playing and singing could go on for hours on end.

After a few weeks I knew all the words to about a dozen songs and when face belt was standing I would proudly announce over the DAC "And now, live from the ten shilling end, it's the singing shovel players" and we would launch into shovel playing duets about getting arrested on Blackpool Pier and Private Jones's dog called Sandy Hollocks (trying to jump a ten foot pole).

One night the face belt was stood for ages and we were strumming the tokens on the shovels with perfect timing and just finishing off a song which ended with "B stands for Butter, R stands for Rice, F stands for something else it's naughty but it's nice..." when the deputy came crawling off the face and I jumped up with my arms stretched wide to greet him with the big finale of "Get off me barra...and bring us back some Blackpool rooooock!" He just shook his head, looked at me and said "Very good young un, but in case you hadn't noticed the face has been standing for an hour due to a mechanical breakdown, the fitter's been looking and shouting for you and I think you'd better get down to the machine before your day shift gaffers come in and wrap that f*****g shovel round your head." 

I crawled off as fast as my knee pads would carry me convinced that I would only be in the way when I arrived at the shearer and even more convinced that shovel playing would one day see my name up in lights at the London Palladium.


A Shocking Incident In The Pit Baths

By Keith Binks

In my very early days at Dawdon I was to work with one of the "surface" electricians - Jimmy. Jimmy was a lump of a bloke and one you wouldn't want to cross especially at the tender age of 16. There was a problem with some of the lighting in the pit baths and I was sent along with Jimmy to help him repair them. Off we went and Jimmy gave me instructions to stand next to this panel of switches and turn this switch on when he shouted "on" and off when he shouted "off". The lights were installed very high up and Jimmy had to work very high up on a platform to reach them. I was standing there when the first shout of "on" rang out. I immediately tried to turn the switch on but to my dismay it wouldn't stay on. I tried again and again and again but it wouldn't stay on. I could hear Jimmy shouting in the background but I couldn't make out what he was saying. This went on for a while when Jimmy suddenly appeared round the corner screaming blue murder at me. It transpired that the switch I was trying to turn was actually a circuit breaker in a switch board and the fact that it wouldn't go on meant there was a fault still present. I wasn't to know this, and poor Jimmy was actually trying to repair that fault, however with my constant attempts to reset the breaker I was actually giving him numerous electric shocks. To say he wasn't too pleased is an understatement. I did want to laugh as he bollocked me, but didn't dare. I was later told that "You will have a nasty accident one day with electricity lad" by one of the gaffers when he found out what had happened. Thankfully that hasn't happened to date