My Nain, Elsie

Memories of women in a coal mining household in South Wales, by Paul Weston

Coal Miner eating supper by Bill Brandt

Coal Miner eating supper by Bill Brandt

My nain Elsie was a delicate petite coal miners' wife who bore 7 children . My mam the eldest and I the first grandson, spoilt, kisssed and smothered constantly by her broody sisters. Everywhere was black apart from the little wispy white clouds that came and went over the sitka spruce forest (planted for pit props) on the steep hill across the valley. Thick smells of coke furnaces, coal fires pouring out of domestic chimneys and factories alike, steam engines endlessly puffing and shunting to and fro 24 hours, double decker buses billowing clouds of diesel fumes almost stalling on he steep hills carrying black faced miners home from the pit in the valley. On Fridays, each shouldering a string bound bundle of ex pit props cut and split for kindling, their hobnailed boots marching in tired time, deep chested voices rumbling with weary banter.

Horse drawn carts dumping coal on the streets for miners (and me when at ~5 years old) to shovel and basket carry/drag up the many steps round to the coal house at the back! of the ‘new house’ *. I loved it - being allowed to help/be involved, constantly reminded it will “make a man” of me. Even the black all over coal dust, white socket eyed effect gave me some ‘strength’ from my grancha.

Nain later pouring glasses of Dandelion and Burdock (specially bought and delivered by the milkman on yet another horse and cart) - rare treat to us kids, for doing our bit with grancha who then smoked a pipe and waited for nain to fill the tin bath on the floor in the living room in front of the fire, kettle by kettle boiled on the range. I loved scrubbing my grancha's broad back, muscular shoulders and thick white hair with a stiff brush lathered with carbolic soap. “Harder” he’d say as the water turned pitch dark and grimy and he puffed on his pipe. Nain then cooking his ‘tea’ and doorstop slicing and thinly buttering whole loaves of white bread , before boiling up the "copper" to wash his clothes. I then got to help her turn the ‘wringing’ mangle standing on an empty wooden beer crate.

I could never understand how such a tiny frail beautiful generous women could mother 7 children by a rather rough (buy loveable) large man who liked a drink or four on paypacket day ‘down the club’, could keep going - first up in the morning to empty the ash, bucket in the coal from up the outdoor steps, then light the fire and endlessly clean the house beating carpets daily outdoors, sweeping every nook and cranny and dusting everywhere. Washing and polishing the front door step on Mondays, pegging almost daily rows of washing out (or lowering and hanging them on the indoor pulley operated ceiling mounted rack above the dinner table - and always telling me how lovely I was for holding the peg bag and chatting to her. About anything and everything.

I guess both genders suffered physically and emotionally - but the women of my family were the most impressive and always laughing.

That said, one auntie (my fave/the youngest) became pregnant out of wedlock to an Irish immigrant road mender. They married and the whole village knew why. Even though she loved her husband and mothered two more gorgeous daughters - never got over the 'family' shame and became what is now known as manic depressive. She ended up spending periods in 'Mental Institutions' being subjected to far too many ECT 'cures'. Which never helped. We all loved her to bits and her daughters were tremendously understanding and supportive.

*(The ‘old house’ was a typical terraced two up two down, in the village yards from the colliery with a brick privvy at the bottom of the ‘garden’ which emptied into the river. Newspaper for toilet roll and a diamond shaped hole in the door to let my grancha’s pipe smoke out’. The street was knocked down as uninhabitable and to make room for more pit buildings. The ‘new house’ being built on a hill a couple of villages away. It had a bathroom but grancha never once used the bath ‘It’s too bloody cold”, so carried on with the tin bath in front of the ‘living room’ fire.)

Paul Weston