from Klondyke to Kinnaird – Newcraighall Memories

If you compare the two maps opposite, you’ll notice that McDonald’s Restaurant is built on top of the remnants of an old slag-heap. This is where I used to work, not in McDonald’s, but 900 feet below the surface in Newcraighall Colliery, or the Klondyke, as it was known locally in the Esk Valley coalfields.

That was in the mid 1960s. When I wrote this in 2001 there was a different sort of gold-rush in Kinnaird Park. The rush is not after ‘King Coal’ any more.

Retailers want our money in Kinnaird Park, and most of the time we’re quite keen to part with it in order to acquire the trappings of the 21st century.

The main purpose of this section of the web site is a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane – a description of what it was like to work underground at the Klondyke, or Newcraighall Colliery.

As far as I know the coal mine was first excavated by monks.

This is a picture from Scotland’s Places. It shows from (right to left) the canteen, pit head baths and the footbridge across Newcraighall Road to the pit head and the cage which conveyed us miners down the shaft.

The footbridge was high enough to allow the number 14 bus to pass underneath to the terminus. The rail bridge just beyond would only allow single deckers to pass under.

There were two pits (or shafts) at Newcraighall, thus making it possible to have a circuit for forced air ventilation. The main pit was a vertical shaft like a lift shaft. Above it stood the winding engine with the large wheels which pulled the cages up and down on their wire ropes.

The Old Pit wasn’t vertical at 90 degrees but instead sloped at about 60 degrees. The cage was still raised and lowered by a wire rope – but it ran on rails on the steep rocky slope. The cage was really a metal box with a sloping front. As far as I can remember there was room for two (maybe three) standing miners and another two crouching under the sloping front. I believe the monks had to climb up ladders with baskets of coal on their shoulders.

The cage in the main shaft was able to carry many more miners, and it had short sections of rails making it able to carry small wagons (hutches) of coal to the surface. The cage would go up and down carrying full hutches up, and empty ones down. Supplies had to be taken down too, of course. These consisted largely of timber, hydraulic Dowty pit-props, explosives and bags of stone-dust.

As an ‘oncost’ worker, one of my jobs was to transport supplies on the haulage system. A continuous wire rope moved at about walking pace along the tunnels (roadways). Little convoys of about six hutches were pulled along rails by this moving wire rope. When there were no hutches on the rails, the rope just lay on the sleepers. At places where excessive wear might be caused by the moving wire rope rubbing away at the wooden sleepers, there could be a metal roller to take the strain.

The main roadways were reasonably wide and tall. They were supported by arched girders, assembled in two parts with metal fish plates and nuts and bolts holding them together at the centre, maybe eight feet or two metres above the floor. Sometimes the weight of the rocks would distort the arched girders so badly it was necessary to duck your head.

You had to take care when walking to your place of work; not only could you bang your head, you could easily trip over sleepers or rocks etc. Except at the pit-bottom and the loading bay, there were no lights other than the one on your helmet. Many miners unclipped their lamps when walking, and carried them in their hands instead. Also, if you felt cold, the lamp would warm your chest up a bit if you tucked it under your clothes.

The roadways and coal faces followed the contours of the coal seams and consequently there were a few long hills or ‘dooks’. When I worked at Newcraighall the Sea Dook was disused and flooded. This originally went under the Firth of Forth at Musselburgh. As already described, the main roadways had arched girders and a wire rope haulage pulling hutches along rails. Deeper into the workings, maybe two or three kilometres from the pit-bottom, the main haulage had its terminus at the loading bay.

I liked working at the loading bay, alongside Brian Flynn, shunting empty hutches under the hopper, and with Tiger at the controls. Tiger didn’t have any teeth and he had to eat his piece (sandwich) by tearing it into bite-size lumps with his hands. The hopper was about the size of a single decker bus or coach, and could hold hundreds of tons of coal. It was made of thick sheet metal. Its sides sloped inwards so it was narrower at the bottom. Two parallel chains at the bottom were linked by cross-pieces. This chain-conveyor was controlled by one handle; the other handle controlled how fast the empty hutches were pushed along for loading.

Top view of loading bay (The white areas are roadways through the solid rock.)

Once loaded with about a ton of coal, the hutches were pushed up a slight incline and under the return wheel for the wire rope. This wheel was maybe five feet in diameter and mounted horizontally on girders across the roof of the tunnel. Convoys of six hutches were attached to the moving wire rope by a long chain, first attached to a draw-bar at axle height and then attached to the rope by a couple of loops of chain thrown round the rope. A hook on the end of the chain prevented it from coming undone.

The hopper at the loading bay was fed by rubber conveyor belts which transported coal from the coalfaces at about as fast as you could run. The top belt was supported on rollers on a metal frame, usually about waist height. The rollers were in groups of three in a shallow U shape, to help keep the coal on the belt. Miners were forbidden from riding on conveyor belts but, of course, everyone did it. The roadways here were difficult to walk on. The conveyor belt occupied half of the width and the other half was occupied by the haulage railway. The ground could be very uneven and sometimes, when ducking under a low part of the tunnel roof, you could trip over a wooden sleeper.

Hence the temptation, at the end of a hard shift at the coalface, to jump onto the moving conveyor and sit in comfort on the rubber belt instead of labouring up or down steep, hazard-prone tunnels. You had to take care to duck under low girders whilst sitting on the belt, and you had to be sure to jump off before the belt rose up high for the loading bay’s hopper! To disembark, you could hang onto a cable on the tunnel roof, causing yourself to be swung to one side and off the belt.

There was one occasion when, at the end of my shift, I was riding the conveyor belt down a long incline (from an area below Stoneybank) and a fireman (man in charge) was puffing and panting up the slope towards me. He shouted at me “Who’s that?” but my helmet light had a pencil beam and by shining it in his eyes, I was able to conceal my identity.

Newcraighall had a reputation for being a wet pit and the word was that there was no methane gas. Some miners used this as an excuse for smuggling contraband tobacco underground. You could buy snuff in the canteen at the pithead, and snorting that could keep the terrible tobacco craving at bay. White stone dust was scattered to reduce the danger of coal dust explosions. This dust would drift deeper into the tunnels, carried by the forced ventilation, and make the walls and floor white.

Ex-councillor David Brown was a union shop-steward when I worked there. Another character was a weird, bearded character with a slight speech defect. I think he may have been an electrician. He used to travel to and from Newcraighall in a bubble car. When I first started work at the colliery, I spent a day or two at the pit-bottom and the bubble car weirdo passed a comment to the Pit Bottom Man: “I hear there’s a jessie working for us.” I was the alleged ‘jessie’ but he didn’t know it because I had my long hair tied up inside my helmet.

When the pit closed I went to work at Bilston Glen at Loanhead. This was a more modern pit with deeper levels at 2000 feet and 3000 feet. I got off the 72-man cage at the top level then traveled five miles by train to my place of work. Some miners took their redundancy money from Newcraighall then immediately got jobs at the nearby NCB brickworks. I think that Boots the Chemist currently occupies the old brickworks site. It would be nice to think that the Boots building is constructed from those bricks.

(After leaving the pits I went to the Government Training Centre at Granton and the taxpayer paid for my training to be a TV engineer and also for driving lessons.)

Should you venture into McDonald’s at Kinnaird for a ‘burger and fries, consider the disaster movie scenario of the building disappearing into an abandoned mine-shaft…