The scene is deep underground in a Welsh coal mine, Pwll Mawr, Gwent. A miner is at the coalface, ‘setting’ a wooden pit prop to hold up the roof, whilst he works to extract the coal. This is a temporary solution to hold back the millions of tons of rock above him. You can see the modern steel frames (with the spaces between them filled by wooden beams) further down the ‘roadway’.
Wood has been a vital part of mining since the Middle Ages. Indeed, a laboratory at Nottingham University used dendrochronology to establish that oak timbers found in a pit at Coleorton, Leicestershire dated from 1450.
During the First World War, the German Navy threatened the importation by sea from Sweden and Russia of the huge quantities of softwood pit props needed to keep the Scottish coalfields of Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire in production. Britain did not grow enough suitable wood of its own to keep the coal supply flowing. Indeed, in the 1960s UK forestry interests were still planting the rapid-growing Sitka spruce for use as pit-props, and large quantities of pit-props and pit-bars were being imported from France! Much of the thousands of acres of conifer plantations covering the Brecon Beacons, Bannau Brycheiniog, in South Wales, and the Peak District in Derbyshire were originally planted to ensure that both the then-thriving coalfields of South Wales and South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire would have a 'strategic reserve' of timber for use in the mines.
A wooden prop needs to be replaced after two or three years, as the rate of failure increases markedly after this time. The death-knell for the large scale use of the pip prop was the introduction of steel prop and roof arches from the 1920s, onwards. The modern ‘mechanised’ pit, with it’s self-advancing roof supports (as installed at Ormonde Colliery, Loscoe, Derbyshire, before it’s unfortunate closure due to geological problems) was the future.
The National Coal Mining Museum of Wales, Amgueddfa Lafaol Cymru, Blaeafon, Gwent, offers an amazing glimpse of life and work underground. Descending 300ft, you and your party will undertake a 50 minute journey through Pwll Mawr, back in time, to a harder, harsher way of life. As my brother always said (for we are a coalmining family), 'There's blood on the coal'.
'Bucket list' candidate, I think!