Civil Defence - Conditions underground - Health and Safety - Accidents - Demolition of the Chimney for the Original Electricity Plant - The Miners’ Wages - Fossils - Three Poems

Civil Defence
In the early 1950's the Company began to consider the growing threat of nuclear war.   This was during the period known as 'The Cold War', when it was considered that all works units should form Civil Defence groups to be ready should the worst happen.   In Irthlingborough a group was formed, and trained in the efficient use of fire extinguishing equipment.   Regular competitions were held during week-end courses with other works groups, and all participants were issued with lapel badges.
     At Irthlingborough lectures were given by the Mechanical Engineer on what steps to take if 'The Bomb' were dropped.   His warning was not taken seriously, and there was general agreement that the steps they took should be 'blooming big' ones.   The RTB film unit came to Irthlingborough to film the group controlling an arranged fire until the local fire brigade could arrive.   Because the Australian 'drawl' of the Sinter Plant Superintendant is not easy to understand, a caption has been added.   The man holding the hose was severely reprimanded by the director for not looking serious enough and several 'takes' had to be filmed before he was satisfied.   Evidently the hoseman had no serious expression in his repertoire, as this film clip Illustrates.
Conditions underground
The air was at a constant temperature, summer and winter, of some 62º Fahrenheit (17º Celsius), and free from harmful dust.   Explosive gas was not a problem and the tunnel roofs, which were 8 to 10 feet ( 2 to 3 m.) high, gave plenty of head-room.   It must be remembered, however, that the men worked in semi-darkness within pools of light given off by their carbide lamps.   In this regard any photograph of the underground workings cannot give a true impression of the limited amount of illumination available to the men.   Conditions, however, in the Irthlingborough Mine were undoubtedly far better than those to be encountered in the mining of other minerals, particularly coal.   
     Visitors to the mine agreed.   There were at least 16 visits from 1943 onwards, each involving up to 30 people, ranging from local schoolboys to County Councillors and members of various mining-related institutions.    Visitors, without exception, commented on the congenial conditions encountered underground.    These visits were planned to show the mechanised operations in practice, and no doubt the visitors would be taken to areas of the mine where conditions were more acceptable.    There were, however, other areas where water was present, and access involved the workers in trudging through muddy tunnels clad in Wellington boots; here, men were often paid extra wages and provided with suitable footwear.
     While, after 1949, surface workers could enjoy subsidised meals in a canteen, it was, for underground workers, a matter of taking a 20-minute break, while perched on a dry sleeper or a lump of rock, to eat their ‘snap’, the food they had carried with them (fig. 1),.
Health and Safety
At Irthlingborough no-one was ever designated as Safety Officer, although it was one of the Mine Manager's duties to ensure that safe working practices were adhered to.   The duties of the Underground Deputies who, as the name implies, deputised for the Mine Manager, also included responsibility for ensuring the safety of the men under them.   From 1953 onwards a league table of 'lost time' accident statistics was published in the Ingot News.   Irthlingborough was either top of the table with no accidents or, more often, at the bottom.   Having, by comparison with other parts of the company, a relatively small number of employees, one accident made a great deal of difference to the calculations.   Eventually, the Company decided to exclude Irthlingborough from the league table and to publish their statistics separately.
     A further initiative was the introduction of 'Good Housekeeping' competitions.   There were two in number, a Senior one for the larger works and a Junior one for the smaller.   Naturally Irthlingborough was included in the Junior competition.   A salutary report appeared in the September issue of Ingot News in 1957:-
Better news was reported in the December issue of the next year, 1958, when Irthlingborough won the Junior section of the Company's Annual Safety and Good Housekeeping Competition.   A three-man inspection team had visited Irthlingborough earlier that year and reported as follows :-
No doubt the planting of lawns and decorative trees and flowers, paid for out of the Sports and Welfare Fund, had quite an influence on this prize. The shield was presented to the Mine Manager by H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines at a celebratory dinner held in the Companys' Hostel on Monday 22 December 1958 (see illustration).
     In an attempt to encourage more workers to wear safety boots, employees' works numbers were drawn out of a hat on alternate months and the worker so drawn was visited to see what footwear he was wearing.   Mr. Arthur 'Sonny' Horn, loco driver, was the first winner of this competition, and because he was already wearing safety boots he was given a voucher for a new pair.
Miners, it must be remembered, worked with the ever-present possibility of fatal accidents or severe injury; hardly two weeks would pass without a report of injury, in some cases requiring hospitalisation.    Despite this there was a happy atmosphere underground and a genuine sense of camaraderie.    During the 50 years’ life of the mine 12 or more men lost their lives, four of them working above ground.    As time passed the incidence of fatal injuries was reduced, mainly as a result of new support rules introduced after 1960 at the demand of H.M. Inspector of Mines.    These were listed in a booklet given to each miner, with illustrations indicating the props or roof support rails to be erected in various situations, and it was the duty of the Deputy of each district to see that these rules were strictly adhered to.    In addition more men now wore safety helmets, together with safety boots fitted with steel toe-caps (made by the local firm, George Denton & Sons of Rushden under the name of Totectors ), and there was a general awareness of the inherent dangers of the job.    A foreman of the Fitting Shop, on the surface, always carried a glass eye in his pocket.   If he caught a man using a milling machine, grinder, or welding equipment without proper eye protection, he would drop the eye on the bench beside the offender, saying "take this, you’ll be needing it very soon".   The warning never needed to be used twice on the same man.
     Filmed in 1920, this silent video gives some indication of the alarmingly nonchalant attitude of some miners in the early years.
Under the mining regulations it was compulsory to provide an ambulance station (fig. 2) in every working district.    Each included a stretcher with blankets so that an injured miner could be kept warm while he was being taken to the surface, where there was an ambulance room fitted out with basic medical supplies, and a local doctor would be already in attendance.    After the Second World War ex-WD. containers, used during the War to drop supplies into France, were purchased by the Company; these were either attached to the tunnel wall or cemented into brick piers in each working district and were used to house a stretcher and blankets.    There were also hot water bottles, electric kettles and a cupboard containing rudimentary first aid equipment.    In 1946, after much discussion between the inspectorate and the local doctor, it was decided to allow chosen men, qualified in first aid, to administer morphine in certain cases.    This was supplied in ampoules of a specified strength, thus avoiding overdose, and was held in a locked cabinet in the Deputy’s cabin in each working district.    The need for such a facility had become apparent when the authorities found that many men throughout the mining industry died, not directly from the injuries received, but more often from shock due to the time-lag between the accident happening and the arrival of the injured person at hospital.    Deputies were required to be proficient in first aid and here (fig. 3) we see a Deputy administering first aid to one of his injured miners.   Stretcher cases were brought to the surface by laying the stretcher on one of the trolley locomotives but, not long before the mine closed, a covered-in ambulance vehicle was constructed in the workshops so that the injured man would not be subjected to the effect of the cool air encountered when travelling to the surface.    In the event of a severe or fatal accident the Mines Inspector in Leicester would be informed immediately, and he would arrive within two hours to visit the scene.   By that time a plan, and a full description of the event would have been prepared for him, so that he could pronounce his verdict, either as to where any blame could be attributed, or whether it should be recorded as a purely accidental occurrence.    Later, of course, in the case of a death, there would be an inquest.   On at least two occasions where the death was caused by a fall of rock from the roof, and the deputy had assured the Inspector that he had instructed the miner to erect a prop, the Inspector, whilst pronouncing the cause as accidental, informed the manager that firm measures should be taken to ensure that timbering instructions were quickly obeyed.   Invariably, when a fatal injury occurred, whether on the surface or underground, a mood of despondency pervaded the works for some time.    There was also an understandable sense of relief at the realisation that ‘it might have been me’.
There were, however, some lucky escapes shown in the following three examples.    The first is taken from a report for the week ending the 15th September, 1945.
The report for the week ending 22 April, 1944 states :-
Finally, a first-hand account where five people could have been involved in an horrendous accident.
     When the surveyor was carrying out his quarterly survey of the mine workings he always called upon the assistance of two underground Day Workers.    For these men this appeared to be an easy job, in contrast to the hard work they would normally be doing.    It would usually take three days to carry out this survey,    but on this occasion one of the Day Workers thought it would be a good idea to make the job extend a further day by lagging behind as much as possible.    Halfway through the third day time was getting short, and it was necessary to urge the men to move a little faster.    The particular Day Man lagging behind was told, in no uncertain terms, to hurry and to wind up the measuring tape while at the same time walking.    Luckily he complied immediately, and as he walked out of the tunnel to the crosscut, his co-worker with him, a length of about 40 feet (12 m.) of roof fell behind them with a loud bang.    At the time two further men were working at the face beyond the fall, so the surveyor immediately ran over the rock-fall into the tunnel, where he found to his relief that neither of these men was badly hurt, one of them suffering only a small scratch to the back of his knee.   The surveyor, on returning to his measuring work, found the two Day Workers already well ahead.   He had no difficulty in completing the work in the three days, finding it, indeed, difficult for him to keep pace with the men.   The man who had been reprimanded for lagging behind now literally shook at the knees, saying "you saved my life".   On reaching the Steps Entrance he immediately gave in his notice and was never seen again underground.    Had the roof fall occurred only moments earlier five men might have died; this would certainly have become a national news item.
Demolition of the Chimney for the Original Electricity Plant
In May 1948, the old chimney from the original electricity generating plant was felled. Before this could happen the height had to be measured by the company's survey department. It was calculated at 100 feet and pegs were set out to mark the area within which the chimney should fall. The area was cleared of Debrit and everybody from the shops & offices were invited to see the chimney fall (it was a steel chimney lined with bricks). When the chimney fell it broke through an undiscovered water pipe supplying water from the reservoir holding 60,000 gallons of water but when personnel in the office tried to ring the fire service they found that the telephone line had also been cut because one brick out of the chimney had severed the only line to the outside world. Eventually order was restored but after this, the survey department was instructed to survey the whole of the Irthlingborough works site and to record all water pipes & drainage pipes electricity lines etc.. This was begun in 1953 and a Works Plan to the scale of 1 inch to 40 feet was eventually produced.
The Miners’ Wages
From the beginning the weekly wages to be paid to each two-man team of hand miners were calculated, and paid out, in a traditional manner peculiar to the mining industry.    The total wages for each team were handed to the miner, who himself reimbursed his helper having calculated the amount due to him.    This method was used until the introduction of the P.A.Y.E. system in 1944.    After that time, although the office would now calculate the helper’s wage, and pay it directly to him, the pay was calculated, and recorded on the joint wage slip in exactly the same way as before (fig. 4).    The column on the left shows the amounts due to both men and the column on the right shows the deductions due from both men.    For example, all employees contributed one penny per week to Dr. Barnardo's and, after 1947, they also paid two pence per week to the Company's Sports and Welfare Club.    The calculations of the wages due, on the left-hand side of the wages slip, are complicated, but basically they are derived from the tonnage loaded two weeks previously.    The miner would not know what this tonnage would be, but he would have kept a careful note of how many trams had been loaded in that week and could estimate the approximate tonnage.    At this time, in 1959, the Government had imposed a total wage freeze, but employees were allowed a cost-of-living increase based on the Retail Price Index.    This can be seen on the wages slip.
The Northampton Sand Ironstone in general was well endowed with a variety of fossils, but unfortunately there were few to be found in the underground workings at Irthlingborough.    There were, however, one or two pockets where fossils were present.   Usually these were softer than the enclosing rock, being casts of the original shell, formed of calcite.   The fossils illustrated are a representative selection only. Their scientific names were supplied by the Geological Museum in London who asked to retain one fossil as a unique example of a type not so far represented in their collection.    ‘Fools Gold’ (Iron Pyrites) was often seen as small beads of a gold colour glistening in the roof.   The unusually large specimen shown below, was a unique find.
Three Poems,
These poems were among those submitted to the Company’s newspaper, Ingot News, by one of the Irthlingborough Deputies, who had a distinct flair for verse.   His name was Robert Mason, though he was always known as ‘Oscar’ to his workmates and ‘Our Rhymster’ to the editors on Ingot News.
Another poem on a more sombre note, which Mr Mason considered his best :-
Perhaps this poem could be dedicated to those men who were injured, or lost their lives, in the cause of iron ore mining at Irthlingborough.