‘In this grave is deposited the remains of the twelve undermentioned sufferers, all of whom were killed…by the snapping of the rope as they were on the point of descending into the pit. The rope was generally supposed to have been maliciously cut.’
This is the inscription on a gravestone in the churchyard of St John’s, Midsomer Norton, just a few miles from where the Somerset mining town of Radstock where I was born and grew up, and where I now once again live. In these few words it tells the terrible story of how twelve men and boys, the youngest aged just thirteen, died on that November day and it gave me inspiration for All The Dark Secrets, though I have taken the liberty of setting my tale sixty years later.
In those days the Somerset coalfield was a thriving industry, producing high quality coal, but the narrow, faulted seams were difficult to work and not high enough for pit ponies, and so-called ‘carting boys’ were employed to drag the hewed coal from the face to the roadways by means of the infamous ‘guss and crook’ – a putt attached by a rope round the boy’s waist which he then dragged on hands and knees.
My own father, who was middle-aged when I was born, had been one of the carting boys. He had left school at the age of twelve because he was clever enough to pass the ‘knowledge test’ and was soon underground carting for his collier father. It was to be ten years before he was able to escape this life as he was told by the management ‘if you go, you can take your father with you’, and Dad didn’t want to put his father out of work.
When I was young, I loved hearing Dad relate tales of those days. He told me of the winters when he never saw the light of day as he went underground before dawn and did not emerge until nightfall. Of the mice who would emerge in search of crumbs as the miners ate their cognockers of bread and cheese. And of an accident in which he almost died when his putt ran away with him down an incline and he was thrown clean over it, scraping his back raw as it brushed against the ‘roof’. Usually injured miners were taken home by one of the coal carts queuing at the pit head for their loads – there were no ambulances. But on the day of my father’s accident no coal cart was waiting, and his brother carried him home on his back – almost a mile of a steep uphill climb. Yet strangely my father was never resentful of his lot – ‘It’s just the way it was, my dear,’ he would say.
He told me too of the good times – the games they played, the concert parties, the weekly market which was a hub of activity until late at night. Besides all the usual stalls there was Smasher, the chinaware man, attracting attention by smashing crockery on the pavement, there were the quack doctors, Rainbow and Quilley, and a wagon where a dentist would pull teeth in full view of onlookers. In the evening the Salvation Army band would play, and a fair over-wintered on nearby waste ground.
All this and much more inspired me to write The Black Mountains, published in 1979 under the name of Janet Tanner. This became a quartet following the lives of a mining family through the generations.
Recently I had a longing to once again write a series of family sagas against the backdrop of my much loved home. It is so satisfying to be able to follow the people I came to know and love across the years, and share in their joys and sorrows, triumphs and adversities.
It was the Wellsway tragedy that gave me my starting point, and I began to think about the impact such an awful event must have had on the lives of the close-knit community. If it had really been an accident that would have been bad enough – times were hard for every miner’s family, and to lose a loved one who was also the breadwinner would have been devastating. But the suspicion that it was no accident would have only added to the grief, and feelings would have run very high, with speculation as to who could have been responsible for such a terrible thing, setting neighbour against neighbour.
I envisaged a terrace of mining cottages – The Ten Houses – and the families who lived there soon became very real to me. The central character of All The Dark Secrets, Maggie, is a strong young woman who loses both her father and her fiancé in the tragedy, and I hope to be able to take up her story in a future book in the series.
Next, though, I have shifted to another family from Fairley Terrace’s Ten Houses whose lives were changed for ever by the accident – two young sisters, Lucy and Kitty Day for The Miner’s Daughter. Their beloved father was amongst those killed, and their mother is forced to marry again in order to keep them out of the workhouse. But it is a disastrous marriage – the outwardly God-fearing Algernon has a very dark side. Lucy is central to the story, we see her grow from a sad little girl into a talented young woman who follows her dreams – but at what expense?
I do hope you will have enjoyed All The Dark Secrets, and want to know more about the families you have met. I certainly do!
All The Dark Secrets is available now in paperback and ebook.
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