Frank Williams

Frank Williams is seated on the right. Others are the enginewright, Bill Tate, and his son, Harry, on the left. Next to Frank is Bill Abbishaw and behind him is the colliery electrician George Mitchell.

Frank Williams worked at Water Haigh Colliery for over 30 years from just after it started production in 1911 until a few years before nationalisation in 1947. For most of that time he was an undermanager, supervising the work of everybody underground.

Frank was born in 1877 at Garndiffaith near Pontypool in Monmouthshire where he grew up in a god fearing chapel going family. He remembered his collier father, William Williams, “shuffling about on a stool” after being crippled in accidents down the pit.

He started work at Partridge Jones and Company’s colliery at Lower Varteg when he was 11 years old. In 1898, a year after the death of his mother, and during a six month long miners’ strike in South Wales, he followed two of his older brothers and an uncle to Yorkshire where he found employment at Don Pedro pit at Loscoe near Normanton.

After a brief spell back at Llanerch Colliery near Pontypool he returned in early 1900 and stayed for the rest of his life. Encouraged by his uncle he studied for mining examinations and climbed the promotion ladder, first as a deputy, and then undermanager.

On a trip to Scarborough Frank met parlour maid Agatha Bell Shepherdson from Driffield. They married in 1903 and in the family she was known as Agnes. They lived for most of their life at 49 Aberford Road in Woodlesford, bringing up two sons and four daughters.

Their eldest son William Bell Williams started work sorting coal on the pit top “screens” at Water Haigh when he was 13 years old, and rose to overtake his father becoming manager of the pit in 1940. Four years later he had the difficult task of forcing his stubborn father to retire at the age of 67 after 56 years underground.

For many years, before and after his retirement, and up until shortly before his death in 1963, Frank Williams compiled chapters of his family’s history in a school exercise book, writing his words in longhand in much the same way as he talked.

Below is in an extract from that memoir. It was transcribed by his grandson, Robin Williams, the first in his family to go to university and who for many years was a teacher in Colne, Lancashire.


“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year.
Give me a light that 
I may tread safely into the unknown; and he replied.
Go out into the darkness, 
and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, 
and safer than a known way.”

From King George VI’s Christmas Broadcast 1939.

I came up to Yorkshire early in January 1900, and have been here ever since. When I came to Normanton I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Morgan on Castleford Road, Normanton Common, the same people I had lodged with when I came in the big strike of 1898, and I lived with them until Agnes and I got married. I got on well with Sammy and Mrs. Morgan. They treated me more as a son than a lodger. They had a daughter, Grace, about ten years of age at the time. 

After coming back to Yorkshire I went to work at Don Pedro Colliery, owned by Henry Briggs, Son and Company, Ltd. I worked in the Stanley Main seam with my brother Arthur, a man called Dave Silverwood, and a young man – Fudge Moore. The Stanley Main seam was worked by the method of Long Wall Retreating. It was all hand-getting in those days, before the days of the coal-cutting machine. 

I liked my work. It was hard work, and wages was not very good; six or seven, or perhaps sometimes eight shillings a shift. After a while my brother started work as an examiner; a sort of half-deputy. One half of the shift was spent examining one’s district, and the other half was spent in byeworking or repairing work on the roadways, or any other job that turned up. Then, a while after, Dave Silverwood left Don Pedro and went to work at Sharlston Colliery, and Fudge and I worked together until that place was finished.

Uncle Tom married my mother’s youngest sister, Agnes, and they came to Yorkshire early in their married life. He was a collier, then a deputy, and he studied mining and got his Second-Class Certificate, and became undermanager at Don Pedro several years before I came to Yorkshire. I always got on well with Uncle Tom and Aunt Agnes, especially Uncle Tom. When I first remember him he had a fine black beard. Later he shaved it off. His manner was bluff and hearty, but he was a good man, and I think had a great influence on my working life. 

Uncle Tom had three in his family: two sons, George and Alf, and one daughter, Esther. George died fairly young, in his middle twenties, of typhoid fever, and it was a sad loss to Uncle Tom and Aunt Agnes. He was the eldest son, and a lot like his father. He was still single and at home when he died, and he was a deputy at Briggs’s Haigh Moor pit at Whitwood at the time of his death. Their daughter Esther married a young man called George Sykes, and they had one boy; Ronnie. Esther and George was married a few months after Agnes and I. 

Alf, the youngest son, married a girl, called Maggie Plimmer, and they had a family of five or six. Alf died in the hard winter of 1947. They lived in Sheffield at the time.

Uncle Tom offered me a job as an examiner, and it was on the night shift. I worked at this for several months, but I did not like the night shift, so I asked him to let me go back to working at the coal, but he would not let me do that but put me on a different shift; from 3 a.m. until 11 a.m. – half nights and half days. I worked on that shift for a time and then was put on the afternoon shift from 1 o’clock until 9 p.m., and I was on that shift when we was married. 

Agatha Bell Shepherdson at Scarborough in 1902. Frank kept this photo in his wallet for the rest of his life.

Uncle Tom wanted me to go to the ambulance class which was held at the Free Church in Normanton. Its teacher was Jacob Melvin, one of the early pioneers of ambulance work at Normanton. Jacob was head storekeeper at Whitwood, and an old Volunteer, as the Territorials was called then. He also persuaded me to go to night school at Normanton and to a mining class that was held at Whitwood. I’m afraid I did not make much headway with my going to school and mining class at the time, but I did get an ambulance certificate.

Some time during this time Uncle Tom offered me a deputy’s job on nights, but I told him I’d rather stop on afternoons. But Don Pedro was got far sought into, as they say in Yorkshire. The Shale Coal was shut up and the Stanley Main was diminishing, so some of us youngest officials had to go to other jobs. I went back to work getting coal, first with a young man called Sid Jackson, and later with Dick Roberts, a North Welshman from Chirk, Denbighshire. 

Dick was a grand little chap and an excellent workman and we got on well together for about, I should think, two and a half to three years, and he went to Whitwood to work. During the later period of Dick and I working together Uncle Tom left Don Pedro and came over to Rothwell to be under manager at Swithen’s Pit. 

Dick Roberts was one of the best workmates I ever worked with. He was only a little chap but was always cheery and good-tempered. I kept in touch with him until he passed on at the age of about 90 years. I visited him many times and was always made welcome by Dick and his wife (another cheery soul) and by his family.

When I came to work and live at Rothwell Uncle Tom Jones would not let me go to the coal to work but sent me bye working, and I worked under George Hagston, the deputy, at “Tatie Main”, as it was called, or its proper name, Swithen’s Pit. It was a shallow drift sunk into a potato field and it got its nickname because the colliers said they could pick potatoes from the roof.  

It was owned by the Hargreaveses, and worked the Haigh Moor seam. It was not a deep pit, about 54 yards deep, and worked the seam from Oulton Hall to Carlton. But in its later years they was troubled a lot with water, and in 1919 it was shut up, or 1921, after a three-month strike. 

Frank Williams’ mining certificate granted by Winston Churchill in 1910.

On 7 January 1911 I was sent to work at Water Haigh. I started working nights, as assistant under manager under Mr. Jopling, who had been under manager at Whitwood Silkstone Colliery, and my wages was 50/- a week for seven 12 hour shifts, from six o’clock at night until seven the next morning.

Isaac Hodges, who was Agent for Briggs’s Collieries was responsible for this move from Swithen’s. Later I became a deputy on afternoons, and later on the day shift. I asked to be made a deputy as the deputies only worked 9 hour shifts, but I always took Mr. Jopling’s place if he was sick or on holiday. 

I did not act as deputy after October 1914, as Mr. Jopling had a slight seizure and was off work for a time, and when he started work after his illness I was his assistant. He died in 1918 and I was appointed undermanager at Water Haigh and continued at that job until I retired in 1944 after 56 years working down the pit.

I was not too happy with my job when I first went to work at Water Haigh Colliery. The old under manager was a Durham man; a man of peculiar temperament, and to me the way he treated us under-officials was a bit harsh.

He always called us by our surnames. Once he accused me of telling tales to the Agent at the time, Walter Hargreaves. I could not stand for that, and said I would see Mr. Hargreaves, who would be calling at Water Haigh that morning on his way to Whitwood, and when I got out of the pit that morning I waited until he came. When he came, and pulled up his car I went across and asked him if I could have a few words with him. He said “Yes”, and I asked him if he would let me go back to Swithen’s to work, and he said, “What’s the trouble, lad?” So I told him all my story about what I had been accused of. Well, at the end of my conversation with him he said, “You come to your work as usual, and I’ll have a word with Mr. Jopling.”

George Silkstone, who was enginewright at the time, told me they both walked nearly up to Fleet Lane, and leaned on the railings and was talking for about a quarter of an hour. What they talked about no one but themselves knew. Mr. Jopling did not speak to me for nearly a month after that, but it was never referred to again. One thing I have always remembered Mr. Hargreaves said to me that morning was; “You are the young men we shall want to make use of some day,” meaning younger men who had got their mining certificates. I never after that had any thought of leaving Water Haigh.

A lot of the men I worked with has now passed on. Benny Oakley was one of the day deputies who I got on well with. He was a very cheery chap. He died a fairly young man from tuberculosis. Benny was very fond of music and was a violin player. Then there was Tommy Robinson, who was one of the old Whitwood Silkstone deputies, as was Benny Oakley. Tommy Robinson was at Water Haigh perhaps eighteen months and then went back to Whitwood. George Ramsden, Willy Jopling, Tom Miles, Albert Cain, Sid Durham and lots of others.

When I first went to Water Haigh to work they was pulling coal with the hoppit at No. 3 Silkstone and the coal face was only about fifty yards from the pit bottom, and was ventilated with compressed air. 

No. 1 and No. 3 was connected up shortly after, and then straight work was driven through and around the shaft pillar and long wall faces opened up. They continued pulling coal at No. 3 until No. 1 pit bottom and porch was got ready, and screens and gantry, etc. was got ready at No. 1 pit top.

For the first ten years we worked mostly the Silkstone, and in that time we sunk No. 3 pit from the Silkstone to the Beeston seam, and drove straight works through the Silkstone to No. 1 Beeston. It was a wonderful experience to see all these developments going on and the output gradually growing. 

In 1923 Water Haigh had a good year. As far as I remember the output that year was over 550,000 tons: its best year, all hand-got. There was over 2,000 men and boys working underground, and nearly 500 men and boys working on the surface.

When we moved from Castleford Road we went to live at Marshall Street in Stanley, but we only stayed there three months, and then removed to Rothwell at No. 1, Glanville Terrace. 

Three of our family was born there; Esther, Eva and our Alf. Our next-door neighbour was Mrs. Turton, and Mr. and Mrs. Turton and their family was very good neighbours. They had two daughters; Doris and Mabel, and one son, Bertie. 

It was while we lived there that I started working at Water Haigh. Rothwell was a good place to live, and I have always thought that the majority of Rothwell people was very friendly folks.

We lived at Rothwell until April, 1915, and then removed to 49 Aberford Road, Woodlesford, to one of the new houses Briggs’s had built for their officials, and we lived there until 1949, and came up here on Holmsley Lane.

Our daughter Joan was born in a Leeds nursing home on 2 March 1923. We was not too comfortable at times when living at 49. Quite a few of our deputies was our neighbours, and if you got across a bit with a deputy you got across with his family too. I could never understand why some men take their troubles home and tell their wives. Tell her the good news by all means, but not your bad news, as a woman has plenty of her own.

Joan Williams outside 49 Aberford Road.

In 1919 or 1920 the output and number of men was getting bigger, and I asked Dennis Hargreaves, who was our manager at Water Haigh, if I could have some help, and he very readily agreed. So George Charlton, a young surveyor from Whitwood, came to be my mate, and was appointed under manager at No. 3 Beeston, and assistant to Dennis Hargreaves.

He had had not much experience at handling men but he was a good mate, and we could tell our troubles to one another. After about five years at Water Haigh George went to be manager at Snydale Colliery, another of Briggs’s pits, near Featherstone. 

I was again alone for a while at Water Haigh, and then George’s brother, Charlie Charlton came, just before the big strike in 1926. Charlie would be at Water Haigh for about five years, and then he went to Ardsley Colliery to be manager. Both of these brothers died fairly young men. Both of them seemed healthy young fellows, but pit work can be a worrying job. Their father was Matthew Charlton who was chief engineer for Briggs’s Collieries – a grand man, who would listen to other men’s opinion. I always liked him and had high regard for him. He would say, when talking over things: “Well, what do you think about it, Mr. Dennis?”, or “What have you to say about it, Frank?”, and he would listen very carefully before he would come to a decision.

Walter Hargreaves.

Walter Hargreaves was one of the big men at Briggs’s collieries who I greatly admired. When the Hargreaveses joined up with Briggs’s, a couple of years before I came to work at Swithen’s, he had leased all the Beeston coal under the Calverley’s Oulton Estate, of about 2000 acres. 

Mr. Hodges, who was agent at Briggs’s, and Mr. Hargreaves was very interested at the time in the Yorkshire Colliery Managers’ Association, and followed one another as president of that society, and it was owing to that friendship that Mr. Hargreaves and Arthur Currer Briggs came to an agreement that they join together to work this Beeston, and Water Haigh pits was sunk for that purpose. 

Walter Hargreaves, it always seemed to me, was a very wise and tolerant man. After Mr. Currer Briggs died he became head of Briggs’s firm and later became chairman of the company until Mr. Briggs’s two sons, Mr. Martin and Major Briggs could take over, and I believe he was chairman of the company until a couple of years or so before nationalisation, when Major Briggs was Chairman.

His son, Dennis Hargreaves, was our manager at Water Haigh from the pits being sunk until my son Billy took over from him in 1940. Dennis Hargreaves appointed himself owner’s agent and wasn’t seen much at the pit again after that. 

Eshald House, home of Dennis Walter Hargreaves and later Frank Williams’ son, Billy.

I always got on well with Mr. Dennis. He was a good boss, and did not worry us much when things was going right. Us under managers always kept him in touch with all that was going on, and could always go to him with our bits of trouble, and there was times when I told him our troubles. He would say sometimes: “Well, you have told me the bad things, Frank. Now tell me some of your good news.” 

On the whole I think Water Haigh was always a fairly happy pit, and the men who worked there was a fairly good and reasonable lot. We never had any strikes unless they was district or national ones, such as the Yorkshire strike in 1919 and the national ones in 1921 and 1926, and the Minimum Wage Strike in 1912, which lasted six weeks. 

Strikes are bad things. They cause a lot of worry during the time they are on, and after. But I have many pleasant, happy memories of Water Haigh and the men who worked there; among the colliers and bye workmen and other grades, and among the boys who was pony drivers in those early days of the colliery; men like young William Strangeway, William Hawkins, Charlie Eagland, old Alf Westmoreland, Jim Parkes, Joe Beard, the Jackson brothers, Arthur and Harry, and their father, Harry Jackson, and many others, some of them quite characters in their way. Two Man Jack, not very choice with his language, (Jack Walker was his real name). 

Frank with Gerald Hargreaves.

Richard Hall was branch secretary. For a number of years he and all his sons worked at Water Haigh some part of their working life. Dick Hall and I got on fairly well together. We had our differences. He was for the men and had to deal with their grievances, and I had to listen to the deputies’ side. If after hearing both sides there was times when we could not settle it, they, the men, would have a deputation come to the manager, and it would be settled there. We had not much money to give away at those times. A close watch was kept on all departments, such as coal getting, dead work, haulage, byework and surface costs of all kinds. But Dick was a good chap, a splendid workman, and one who would be fair in most things. His mates was Phil Cooper, his brother-in-law; a very nice man who came from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, and Sam Frith, and one time Ariel Westmoreland and Walter Walker.

Yes, Dick Hall and I got on fairly. He was the secretary of the Water Haigh Death and Convalescence Fund, and we was both on the committee until Dick died. Two was for the men’s side, Dick and Jerry Deakin, and Benny Oakley and I for the management side, and Dick was always honest and upright in all his affairs. Yes, he was a good branch secretary and always looked after the men’s interests.

He and I, I believe, was the first to suggest that we went in for the Oulton Miners’ Welfare and Sports Centre. The first suggested scheme was too ambitious. The men’s side wanted to take over Oulton Hall and make it a cottage hospital, but the Yorkshire Committee turned it down, and then Dick and I suggested we go in for the present Welfare Scheme. After much talking the men agreed, and Walter Hargreaves saw Major Horace Calverley, the owner of the proposed Sports Grounds, which included football, cricket, lawn tennis and bowling, and the field and little wood at Methley Lane end, and Hollin Hall, now the Welfare Club House, and grounds. 

Major Calverley thought it would be a good thing for the people of Oulton and Woodlesford, as he did not think that the Calverley family would ever live at Oulton Hall again. It was bought for something over £3000: seventeen acres and some poles, and the house and cottages and outbuildings. Dick Hall was the first secretary and one of the trustees. Walter Hargreaves, Dennis Hargreaves and I was the first trustees on the management side, and Dick Hall and Chris Bradley and Joe Ingham for the men’s side. 

Now there is a brick pavilion for bowls, tennis and cricket, an improved bowling green, some hard courts for the tennis, and in the club house there are many improvements. I believe it is going on very well. I have not had any active part with it since I finished work.

But to get back to Water Haigh. After Charlie Charlton left Water Haigh and went to Ardsley our eldest son, W. B. Williams, was appointed in his place and carried on until he was made the manager.

One of Frank’s final wage slips from February 1944.

Since nationalisation I understand that great changes has taken place in mechanisation at the colliery in methods of coal getting and conveying and haulage. With these methods I am not acquainted, as I finished work in 1944. 

Coal mining will always be a dirty job, but pit head baths has made it possible for miners to come home clean and tidy. The pit head baths was opened in 1935. Water Haigh was the first pit in Briggs’s firm to have them. 

Some coal-cutting machines and conveyors was there in my time, but much has been done since. Whether it is a good thing or not I don’t know. There is no doubt that machines has cut out a lot of hard work for the miner, and that is a good thing. But this is a machine-minded age, and I suppose the skill of men is as great as ever. Much has been done to prevent accidents.

I was brought up in the old way of mining, and I tend to think of those times. They was hard times: low wages and long hours and working under bad conditions, but, mostly, men made the best of them. To me the miners was grand folks. I have known some splendid craftsmen in the mining industry. But we live in a world of change, and we older ones tend to get conservative as we get older. One thing I can’t understand today is: why are people more dissatisfied than they were, because there is better houses, better sanitation, longer at school, and much better wages.

Frank and “Agnes” Williams with their daughters Eva, Joan and Esther at 97 Holmsley Lane.