Short Stories about Coal Mining in Fife

Miners Gala Poems
Anecdotes Mining Life
Pit Patter The Plough
Memories Lassodie
Winter Day Bowman Story
Johnston Story Nostalgic
Mr. Parker Rescue Worker
A Perambulator Tour Story of a Steelend Miner
Badges, Plates & Me Half a Century of Coal Mining
The Miners of Scotland: Some Historical Facts Poems of George Hunter
Proud of his Fife heritage Tom Malcolm Remembers
A Ventilation Engineer Remembers No Story

If you have any short stories about coal mining in Fife can you please email them to me with the author's name.


Short Stories about Miners at Work and at Play

By Charles Brister

© Charles Brister 1972

(Compiled and edited by Ron Thompson)
Sent by Chris Sparling

This is just an extract to introduce you to this great book - it's well worth a read!
The book, published by David Winter and Son Ltd., was compiled and edited by Ron Thompson.
I hope that the Publisher will undertake a reprint some day.


By Ron Thompson

It seems to me that the significance of what is written between these covers lies partly, at least, in the nature of the writer, and for that reason I will attempt here to explain why this book of short stories is now before you.

It is my one regret that this could not have come from the author himself but, alas, Charles Brister is dead, and yet, while I mourn that fact, I am deeply conscious that his passing has conferred on me the high honour of being associated with his work in this way. When a dear friend dies what more can you ask for in the way of compensation?

But the question I must bring myself to answer for you now is simply this- Why should an Englishman from the lovely coastal town of Rottingdean in Sussex have finished up his working life down a pit in the Kingdom of Fife, and then spend his last years writing about that experience from his home on a dreary council estate in the town of Methil?

There was certainly no external reason why he should commit his destiny to this bleak spot on the east coast of Scotland. None at all. In fact, as a global traveller, first as a Merchant seaman and then as a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy during the last war, he had all the experience necessary of fashionable living in exotic places to recognise that whatever else Methil had to offer it certainly wasn't environmental charm or the opportunity of enjoying the fleshpots.

In the light of that, then, his choice of Methil as the place in which to put down his roots must seem totally and utterly incomprehensible.
Decisions that stem from a compelling inner force of an almost-spiritual quality nearly always are, and rather that I should flounder for words of mine may I just repeat his own, offered once to me in explanation:
"When my ship first came to Methil in 1935 the first people I met coming out of the dockgates were a couple of young miners 'hunkered' at the roadside discussing life in general," he told me. "As I stood and listened I saw in them a deep-seated strength of character and a tremendous determination of purpose. It was an impression that was repeated time and again during my short stay. These people made we want to be one of them and that feeling became so overwhelming that in the end I had no choice at all."

In 1946 Brister redeemed that pledge by returning to Methil for good and, because it was the only job he could get, went down the pit as a trainee miner. He stayed underground for twelve years until a serious heart condition forced him to the surface and rendered him a semi-invalid for the rest of his life.

At that point he decided to devote the last of his energies to telling others what he had discovered himself as a collier in that vast Kingdom below the surface of the earth; in these subterranean vaults haunted by the unfriendly forces of Nature and far from the sight of the rest of us who go on our complaining ways under the protection of gentler influences.

What Brister attempted to do was to weave a social history of a little- understood people into a fabric of entertaining short stories based on actual experiences.

Whether he has succeeded is for others to decide. I can only tell you that as a person he was both compassionate and humble, and yet streaked with the faint arrogance of one who was convinced beyond any doubt that he was producing good work. Above all he considered himself to be a realist, and never more so than when he looked at life and the purpose of it all, and here now, in words which I have borrowed from Chapter Three of this book, the author puts his own chilling perspective:
"For there is only one life and it is so quickly spent; and we return to the void from which we came, and in a little small while we are as unknown as we were before we came into the world.
Our children may spare us a thought when they are old and nostalgia is having its way with them. Then, they too die, and we, together with our lusts and our prides, our stupidities and our strivings and our clutchings, are forgotten. For a few years more our only hope of memory is the chance reference a grandchild may make; we have become no more than the necessary adjunct to an adult remembering of childhood.
After that the final silence descends and we are no more."

Charles Brister was cast into that oblivion on the twentieth of March 1971, unaware that his act of faith in a community would find its way on to the bookshelves in this form. It was one of his final wishes, however, that others should be told of the colliery folk he loved so well. That is why this book has come about.


I only want to be known as the Unknown Miner because I'm just an ordinary working man whose name would really mean very little to anyone outside Fife.
I've been asked to write this because I was possibly Charlie Brister's closest mate from the time he came to settle in Methil after the last war.
We first met in a local hostel where we lived together for a number of years and, of course, we were down the same pit for many years - although I could never understand why he remained a miner so long.
He was an intellectual who, in many ways, was really out of his depth down the pit. But let me emphasise that he was a good miner and a dependable workmate in the best colliery tradition. It is my guess that, after being in the pits for a few years and deciding that this was the world he was going to write about, he had to stay a miner himself to gather as much material as he could for his stories; to keep in touch with the raw material as it were.
Do you know that he always carried a pad and pencil with him wherever he went, and at any odd moments you would see him taking hurried notes of something he had just seen or heard - yes, even down the pit he would scribble away. Nothing went past him. He was the most curious person I have ever met. That is why the stories in this book are so true to life. Nicky McFish and Bomber Brown and all the other characters are based on real people, and Charlie has brought them all back to me as if it were only yesterday.
Apart from his writing he was a great reader and lover of booksmostly the classics - and he kept giving me these books to read then asking me next day how I had enjoyed them. "Enjoy them?" I would say to him. "Why, I didn't even bloody well understand them!"
Yes, to have known Charlie Brister was an unforgettable experience. He really loved life, and when he was given the chance of a few more extra years by having a big heart operation he never hesitated for a second.
Although he never made it I know he would never regret that decision.

He lived for his writing. What a pity that he couldn't have read his own book.

Some photographs taken from the book are shown below:

Old Wull, home at the end of his shift, washes from the family bath in front of the fire. Men emerge from the cage into the soft afternoon sunshine while others savour the last precious moment of daylight before their downward journey into the darkness. Working in a narrow seam in very unfriendly 'country'. Wooden props keep the roof up while the miner wins coal from the reluctant 'face'.
Click on a Photograph to Zoom In

A man-riding train taking miners from the shaft-bottom to the outer reaches of the pit - sometimes a journey of several miles. Hydraulic roof supports have replaced the old wooden props in the massive mechanisation programme which has made pits safer and more productive. No longer is coal gathered at the point of a pick. Today machines do the work.
Click on a Photograph to Zoom In

The Story of the Scottish Miners
Their Struggle to be Free Men

By George Mullin, West Fife Area General Manager, N.C.B.

"Cowdenbeath & Lochgelly Times" 18 November, 1954

Mr Geo. Mullin, Area General Manager of the West Fife Area of the National Coal Board, was the speaker at a lecture organised by Fife Education Committee, in conjunction with the Education Committee of Lochgelly Co-op. Society and held in the Co-operative Hall on Tuesday night.
A fairly good attendance was welcomed by the chairman, Mr Joseph Orr, English teacher at Beath High School, Cowdenbeath.
Mr Mullin's address was both interesting and informative and there was added interest for the audience when a film on the recent mechanisation work at Bowhill Colliery was shown.
In the course of the discussion which followed the talk, Mr James Hutchison, Area Production Manager of the West Fife Area of the N.C.B., asked Mr Mullin how the social amenities of the British mining industry compared with European countries and America.
Mr Mullin replied that Britain was ahead of nearly all countries in this respect with the exception perhaps of Holland. In Russia, for instance, women still worked underground and this was something which had been abolished more than 100 years ago in this country. Miners' wages were higher in America but the British social amenities were much better than in the United States.
One point to be remembered was that the British mines were the safest in the world and British coal was still the cheapest in Europe.
One questioner referred to the work of the Labour Relations Officers. If a manager sacked a man he could not start another but had to contact the Labour Relations Officer who would contact the Labour Exchange and then send a man to the pit. Were Labour Relations Officers necessary and was it not better when the manager could start a man at the pit?
Mr Mullin replied that there was only one Labour Officer who served both West and East Fife. If Labour Relations Officers could provide additional amenities for miners and their wives and families, then he would not mind an increase in their numbers. At the moment a manager could only sack a man for "serious industrial misconduct" and he felt that this was one of the defects of nationalisation. The Welfare Officer, however, had no power to employ men.
His duty was to make the labour available but the manager had the final say.
In answer to a question by Hon. Treas. Bruce, Lochgelly, Mr Mullin said many of the old time prejudices concerning the management and the men still existed. There were many, including some of the miners' leaders in West Fife, who looked on the management as "the other side." There was only one side for, after all, the industry belonged to the nation.
Questioned about the administrative staff of the Coal Board, Mr Mullin said that in this connection the Coal Board administrative costs were much less than many other industries. There was a generalisation that the Coal Board was overburdened with staff. The ideas expressed that there were jobs created which had been unheard of before Nationalisation, that there were typists who could not type, Safety Officers who did not know what they were talking about, etc., was a lot of nonsense. The manual labour charges put up the costs not the administration.
Councillor Michael Cook, Lochgelly, referred to the welfare facilities of the miners. He asked if C.I.S.W.O. was not inclined to neglect the old towns and rather concentrate their efforts on the new townships. Lochgelly Institute, for instance, had had nothing from the Welfare Funds from 1926.
Mr Mullin agreed there was this inclination to concentrate on new towns. The answer was, of course, to make the mining industry more efficient and make a profit. If money was available things could be made much easier for the miners themselves. As things stood the miners were probably much better off for welfare than the majority of workers in big cities.
A comprehensive vote of thanks was expressed by Mr J. More, Lochgelly, who intimated that the next lecture would be on 7th December, when the speaker would be Mr W. D. Ritchie, former director of Education, now secretary of the Scottish Institute of Adult Education.

Mr Mullin's address was on the following terms -

Social and Economic changes have been brought about in the mining industry over a period of years. It is true that some of these changes have been accelerated and amplified by Nationalisation, but it would be quite wrong to give the impression that they were brought about by Nationalisation. The specific changes which have taken place since Nationalisation he would deal with later on.
The picture might be clarified by a brief historical sketch showing the changes which have taken place over the years, because the changes which have taken place since Nationalisation have their roots in the dim and distant past.


1579: In this year the Scots Poor Law ordained that a convicted vagrant might have his usual sentence of stripes and ear-burning commuted to one year's service with any private employer who would take him.
In the year 1592 an Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament which was intended to give some freedom to the miners, a freedom that some of us today would gladly accept! In this Act "the miners were exempted from all taxation, charges and proclamations, whether in time of peace or war, and all their families, guids and gear taken under Royal protection and it was declared that any wrong or oppression done to them directly or indirectly would be severely punished as done contrary to His Majesty's special safeguard." The passing of this Act was not prompted by humanitarian considerations; it arose from the need to attract new recruits to a profitable industry which was now expanding. So obviously a scarcity of labour was not unknown even in those days.

In 1597 the administration of the Act of 1579 was handed over to the Kirk Session and, in the towns, to the Magistrates, and they were empowered to take convicted tramps and their children into the mines for an indefinite period.
Any favours bestowed on the miner by the Act of 1592 were soon recalled and his freedom materially curtailed by an Act of Parliament passed in 1606 which reduced the colliers and salters in Scotland to a state of servitude; a position, in fact, little short of that of a common slave. His position differed from that of a slave only in this, that the masters had not the power to bring him out of the mine and dispose of him by public auction in the market place. Nevertheless, if the owner of the mine sold the mine to another individual, the miner was included in the sale.

In the year prior to 1606, an Act was passed in which employers were empowered to pick their own employees from the highways with the Sheriff's sanction.
In the year 1617 the children of the indigent were legislated for as in the enactment already in force for dealing with tramps.

An Act was passed in 1621 which extended the privilege already granted to mine owners to other employers to apprehend labour whatever they chose.
In 1641 Parliament ordained that masterless men must labour at reasonable rates. This Act ratifies the Act of 1606 and the powers of the masters were still further strengthened by the installation of a clause which enslaved all other classes of workers in mines, namely "watermen, windsmen, and gatesmen," and in 1698 the coal owners were empowered to retain a child slave permanently.
Some insight into the miners and customs of the Scottish miners at that time can be gleaned from the concluding paragraph of this Act of 1641 which says: "Because the said coal hewers and salters and other workmen in coal pits within this kingdom do ly from their work at Pash, Yule and Whitsunday and certain other times of the year, which times they employ in drinking and debauchery, to the great offence of God and prejudice of their Masters, it is therefore Statute and ordained that the said coal hewers and salters and other workers in coal pits in this kingdom work all the six days per week except the time of Christmas, under pain of 20 Shillings Scots to be paid to their Masters for each day's failure and other punishments to their bodies."
From this it appears that the Scottish collier of 1641 seemed to play himself as frequently as opportunity offered; a characteristic not unknown to his present day descendants!


In 1701 the Scottish Parliament introduced the Act preventing wrongful imprisonment and undue delays in trials - the Habeas Corpus of Scotland. The King was made to set forth in the preamble that he considered it to be in the interest of all his good subjects that the liberty of their persons should be duly secured and to declare that the imprisonment of persons without expressing the reason thereof or delaying to put them on trial was contrary to law; but in the body of the Statute there appeared the Clause that the benefits of the Act: "should not in any wayes be extended to colliers." They - like the vagabonds and the masterful beggars disobedient to Church censures - were debarred from the reasonable rights extended to the rest of the population.


The laws of the Scottish Parliament, which made the miners outcasts and serfs, remained in force for three-quarters of a century. At long last the British Parliament awoke to the consciousness of the fact that the mining population of Scotland was still in a state of slavery and bondage and an Act for their release, as well as for their rights of protection from wrongful imprisonment and undue delays in trials, was passed in 1755 (the Emancipation Act). But even this Act was not promoted solely by humanitarian sentiments. It derived mainly from economic necessity, for by this time it was beginning to be found impossible to keep the colliers strictly in servitude. There was also great difficulty in obtaining the necessary labour for an expanding industry.

The preamble of the Act states:
"There are not a sufficient number of colliers, coal-bearers and salters in Scotland for working the quantity of coal necessarily wanted and many new discovered coals remain unwrought, neither are there a sufficient number of salters for salt works, to the great loss of the owners, and disadvantage of the public."
Because of the inherent defects of the Emancipation Act of 1775, a belief on the part of some colliers that it relieved coal-masters of some of their obligation to them, and the fact that many of them were already in debt to their masters, the Act brought release to very few colliers. Many continued in slavery all their days unless they survived till 1799, when Parliament came to recognise the injustice and passed an Act of humanity which gave unconditional freedom to all colliers in Scotland who still remained bound to their employers, and extended to them also the existing Act relating to the fixing of wages of labourers.


Though slavery and serfdom were abolished it was long before there passed away the baneful effects of the old life in a race of men and women with natures mentally stunted, morally degraded and physically brutalised through long generations of miserable servitude and existence in hovels of dirt and wretchedness as vile as the pits in which they toiled.


Speaking of some of the colliers after their liberation, Sir Walter Scott remarked: "they were so far from desiring or prizing the blessing conferred on them, that they esteemed the interest taken in their freedom to be a mere device on the part of the proprietors to get rid of what they called head and harigold money, payable to them when a female of their number, by bearing a child, made addition to the livestock of their master's property."


The dawn of the 19th century, although it found the Scottish collier freed from his bondage, saw little improvement in his working and social conditions. More than 40 years were to pass before women and children were prohibited from working underground, and more than a century passed before housing and welfare were even given serious thought. The improvement in his lot was a slow and painful process. The improvement came from the intervention of associations of persons outside the industry, from the labours of a few influential and philanthropic men, and finally from the Associations of the Colliers themselves, who so stirred up the public conscience that the Government of the day was forced - step by step - to pass the much needed beneficial Industrial and Social legislation.


From the middle of the 19th century onwards, improvements came rapidly. After the passing of the Lord Ashley Act in 1842, prohibiting the employment of females and boys under 10 years of age, other Acts followed with equal success. Government inspection of underground workings was established by the Act of 1850 which made it compulsory for the owners to keep plans of all workings. This Act was further strengthened by two succeeding Acts - one in 1855 and one in 1860. As a result of the Hartley Disaster an Act was passed in 1862 which made it compulsory to have two shafts or outlets to every underground working. Further improvements were brought about by the Acts of 1872 and 1877, until finally a new Coal Mines Act was passed in 1911, which has been amended from time to time by additional regulations in relation to safety and efficient working of the mines. A new Mines and Quarries Bill was recently presented to Parliament, in which the mineworkers' interests are safeguarded. A significant feature is that the miners themselves, through their representatives, were consulted and helped in the framing of the Act.
Many changes beneficial to the workers have taken place in the Mining Industry within recent years, including a limitation in the hours of work to 7½ hours per day, and these will be referred to later in more detail.
The effect of many generations of serfdom has left its mark on the mining industry, and although the miners today are amongst the most highly paid workers in Great Britain, they still retain their prejudices and are inclined to look upon their employers as enemies of their particular class. It will take some time before these prejudices - which are quite unwarranted now - are eradicated.

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