Perhaps the most celebrated event in the history of Water Haigh colliery was the visit on Sunday 21 March 1954 of Lady Docker, and her husband, Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company, B.S.A., which was once the largest manufacturer of motorbikes in the world.
The Dockers were the “Posh and Becks” celebrity couple of their day attracting press photographers wherever they went. Born Norah Turner, Lady Docker, a former showgirl, had been married twice before she met Sir Bernard.
They were invited to Woodlesford by Bob Slater, the secretary of the Water Haigh Miners’ Outing Club which organised social and educational events for it membership.
A dinner for the Dockers was hosted by the club at the Victoria Hotel in Leeds on the Saturday night before the visit underground. Amongst the guests were the National Coal Board’s No 8 Area Production Manager, Dean Harrison, and local M.P. Albert Roberts who was a former Water Haigh miner. Also there were guests from the B.S.A. factory in Birmingham and British Associated Pictures at Elstree Studios which had both been visited by the club.
In a speech Dean Harrison described Water Haigh as “a pit where the human relationship between management and workmen is of the highest standard.”
Ernest Osborn, general manager of the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, proposed a toast to the outing club in which he praised Bob Slater as a practical idealist. “He has started something very worthwhile. The club has done a wonderful job in giving you an opportunity of seeing how other people earn their living, and what nice people they are,” he said.
The Dockers arrival at the pit the next morning in their gold-plated Daimler car brought out crowds of locals along Fleet Lane. One villager can remember seeing it pass down Leeds Road at about 9am as he was on his way to sing in the choir at Oulton St. John’s church.
The couple donned boiler suits and white helmets and were given safety lamps and walking sticks before descending 300 yards down the shaft in the winding cage. “I have butterflies in my stomach now that the time has come,” said Lady Docker. The winder, Albert Cromack from Rothwell, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “I gave our distinguished guests a gentle half speed trip.” Onsetter Edward Cook offered Lady Docker a wad of tobacco to keep the dust off her chest but she declined. “I won’t go as far as that, I think,” she said.
They were escorted on a mile long walk underground to the Flockton seam by the pit’s manager, Billy Williams, and union officials. At the face they met deputy Bill Green, 55, who had worked at Water Haigh for 35 years.
Wearing a pair of kneepads and carrying a pick Lady Docker then crawled into the 31/2 feet high seam to cut some coal. “I said I’d cut a piece of coal. And cut a piece of coal I will, ” she said. The lump, about the size of a brick, was later taken to the B.S.A. works to be polished before being displayed at the Docker’s Mayfair home in London. “It will go into my china cabinet. I shall treasure it always as proof that I’ve really been down and done my bit,” said Lady Docker.
“From now on every time I put a piece of coal on the fire I shall think of this long walk in the dust. I don’t know how you manage it.”
After the 90 minute underground visit the Dockers posed for photographers before having a sandwich lunch in the pit canteen. There were cheers when Bob Slater announced that they had invited the outing club for a cruise round the Isle of Wight on their luxury yacht Shemara. In a speech Billy Williams said: “I’ve been remarkably impressed at the way Sir Bernard and Lady Docker have got down to our way of life. They have proved themselves two of the best.”
Afterwards Lady Docker told reporters: “Until you have been underground you cannot imagine what miners have to put up with. After today I think they are wonderful.”
The visit of 33 men to Shemara, moored at Southampton, was headline news in the Daily Mirror and recorded by the Pathe Newsreel. Two years earlier they had also filmed the visit to the Elstree film studios and the 1952 Rugby League Cup Final in which Featherstone Rovers were beaten 18 – 10 by Workington Town.
Unfortunately the party on board Shemara was somewhat marred when some of them were said to have “overindulged” themselves on the caviar and champagne!