For many of the miners at Water Haigh colliery, from pit sinking and construction starting in 1908 through to the capping of the filled in shafts in 1972, it was a family affair. Sons followed fathers to the pit and in a few families three generations were working there at the same time. The women tended to stay at home looking after young children, cooking, washing, and making sure there was enough hot water for the men to bathe in after shifts, although many had to do all that and hold down a job, often in a Leeds clothing factory.
One family from Methley may hold the record for the cumulative number of years worked at the pit. Joseph Beards and his four sons were all miners at Water Haigh and there’s evidence that Joseph’s father, Thomas, may have been there when the main shafts were sunk.
Thomas Beards was born in April 1854 in the Tipton area midway between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. Part of what was famously known as the Black Country it was one of the crucibles of the Industrial Revolution where numerous coal mines fed the hungry furnaces of ironworks, glassworks, brick kilns and potteries. Thomas followed his father, William Beards, down one of the pits near Horseley Heath and in 1873 he married miner’s daughter Sussanah Millard from nearby Great Bridge. The 1911 census records that she was destined to give birth to sixteen children although only five were still alive by then.
It’s not known why Thomas moved his young family to Yorkshire in the late 1880s as the South Staffordshire coalfield still had collieries well into the twentieth century. He may have lost his job because of one of the frequent strikes for higher wages. Another possibility is that he was blacklisted by coal masters for union activity. On the other hand he could have been attracted by advertisements or word of mouth to higher pay and possibly better conditions across the Pennines. Many miners are known to have migrated to West and South Yorkshire from other coalfields. Some were employed as strike breakers although there is no evidence of this in Thomas Beard’s case. Whatever the reason, by 1891 Thomas and Sussanah were living with six children, four boys and two girls, at 6 Low Row at Methley just off the main Leeds to Castleford road. All of the colliery owned terrace was occupied by mining families as were four similar rows round the corner.
The location of the house strongly suggests that Thomas was working at the nearby Methley Junction pit. It had been sunk on a triangle of land between the Midland and North Eastern railway lines in 1854 by Benjamin Burnley who also owned the nearby Foxholes colliery and farmed 200 acres of land. After his death in 1859 the Junction pit was sold to the Henry Briggs company, a business which had started with a colliery at Flockton in the 1820s. Over the next century it expanded to become one of the major West Yorkshire coal producers. With headquarters at Speedwell Yard at Whitwood colliery near Normanton it grew to own Syndale colliery, Savile and Newmarket pits at Methley, and Water Haigh at Woodlesford.
As Thomas worked at the coal face his two eldest boys were already working underground nearby. William, who was 18 in 1891, was described as a “turn minder” at the pit bottom, a dangerous job which involved man handling loaded and empty tubs of coal. His younger brother, Enoch, was only 14 and was a pony driver hauling the tubs along underground tramways. Ten years later the family were at the same address but the two eldest boys had married and moved out. Joseph, at the age of 19, was working with his father as a hewer, as was Thomas who was 17.
Joseph Beards married Mary Annie Backhouse at St. Oswald’s church in Methley in May 1901. Her father, William Backhouse, was a locally born miner with a home at Denison Square, known as Jingo Nick, off Main Street. The young married couple moved into another house nearby to be close to her parents. In the next few years they had four sons, Joseph Harold born in 1904, Lawrence in 1906, Jack in 1908 and Bernard in 1910. Two girls would follow later – Olive in 1915 and Ruby in 1919.
From stories told to Lawrence’s only son, Robert Beards, it’s clear that Joseph transferred at some point to Water Haigh where two new deep shafts were sunk to the Beeston and Silkstone seams from 1908. They joined two shallower ventilation shafts which had been sunk a few years earlier to the Haigh Moor seam worked by Spencer pit to the south west of Oulton. Robert believes he was told his grandfather worked on the Beeston and Silkstone shaft sinkings and then stayed at Water Haigh until he retired in about 1945. He became a “butty man” in charge of a team of miners, responsible for their daily recruitment and paying their weekly wages. A wage rate book, now in the West Yorkshire archives, lists a labourer called Thomas Beards employed as a sinker during 1908. This could be Robert’s great grandfather who was also described as a labourer, rather than a miner, in the 1911 census. By then he and his wife had also moved to Denison Square. There is a chance that the wage book entry could have been referring to Joseph’s brother Thomas but he is known to have became a miner at Savile colliery where he was joined by two of his sons.
One by one as Joseph Beard’s sons left school at the age of 13 or 14 they followed their father to Water Haigh. In 1921 both Joseph Harold and Lawrence were pony drivers who soon moved to the coal face with their father. Their younger brothers were still at school then but soon they too took the daily walk through Wood Row to the Woodlesford pit. Eventually Jack became a hewer, Bernard a haulage man, and Lawrence a shotfirer and then a deputy. All of them lived through the 1926 miners’ strike when they were out of work for six months. Father and sons would all have been laid off for weeks at a time during the 1920s and 1930s when the owners shut down the pit, or parts of it, in the face of the economic depression.
None of the Beards men appear to have been directly involved in the disaster in May 1910 when six pit sinkers died following the collapse of the nearly completed Silkstone shaft. It was a different story though one evening in July 1933 when shotfiring caused an explosion of methane gas in the Top Silkstone seam. Three men died as a result of that accident and Joseph Harold Beards was one of three others who were seriously injured. His clothes were ripped off and he was badly burned. After staggering to the pit bottom he was taken to Leeds Infirmary where a few weeks later he gave evidence from a hospital stretcher to the inquest. He was never well enough to return underground and was given a job on the surface as an attendant in the pit head baths. Part of his duties involved accompanying injured men to the Infirmary and one night he was injured again after he fell into some building works there. After that he left mining altogether and retrained to become a chiropodist in Methley.
Born in 1939 Robert Beards grew up listening to family stories of Water Haigh and life in Methley. Fearful for her only son’s future after what had happened to his uncle his mother tried to deter him from following his grandfather, father and uncles to “their” pit. She concurred however when he suggested becoming an apprentice electrician at Savile colliery and he started there after he left school at the age of 15. Egged on by his father he left to join the army in 1958 where he served with the Royal Lancers in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Germany for six years. In 1964 he returned to Methley to finish his apprenticeship. Itchy feet again led him to leave and he worked for a number of employers including as the electrician at Elland Road during the Leeds United “Glory Years” under Don Revie in the late 1960s and early 70s. After that he returned to the National Coal Board at Kellingley colliery and then for a number of years at Wheldale until it closed in 1987.
Click on the links below to listen to Robert reminisce about the Beards family and their mining life.