As TIME went on I tackled all sorts of jobs in
the pit. You may be sure that if there was an extra shilling or two to be
picked up anywhere, and at any work, hard or easy, I was well after the
money! For months I acted as a water- drawer in the well-known Allenton
Colliery. Some pits are wet and some dry. Allenton was a very wet pit in
my time and the water was so bad in the lower workings that "drawers" were
employed at night to remove it. This was done by baling the water into
wagons; the ponies pulled these to the "top of the rise" where the plugs
below the wagons were released. This water was afterwards pumped out by
the great pumps at the pit bottom. Night after night I was the only boy on
duty at Allenton. Forty or fifty tons of water had to be removed each
night so there was no time to "dawdle"; it was hard graft for ten hours
with only a brief "piece-time" interval. And wasn't it drear and lonely! I
had to sing to keep my spirits up. I even made friends with the pit-rats--
great, grim, phosphorous-eyed creatures that gathered round you as you ate
your piece and fought each other like miniature lions for the crusts.
One night I came across a thousand of these
monstrous rats moving from one part of the colliery to another. I got it
into my head that they had made up their minds to make a massed attack on
me. Horror took possession of me and I ran shrieking to the place half a
mile away where the only other living soul in the pit was working. This
was Jamie McCulloch, the roadman. Jamie quietly stilled my fears by
assuring me that the "rodents" were harmless, that they
liked the companionship of man and that they never had been known to
attack anybody in the mines.
"Come on, Harry," he finished up, "let's hae a sing-sang thegither.
That'll keep us cheery!" And there, each seated on the ground or on a lump
of coal, we sang whatever songs we knew. Jamie was a student of poetry and
could quote long "screeds" of Burns, Walter Scott, Hogg, the Ettrick
shepherd, and Tannahill, the weaver poet of Paisley. I learned to like
these poets too, and not long afterwards I was delighted to get a loan of
several of Jamie's books the con- tents of which I eagerly devoured.
To Jamie, and another extraordinary character whom I first met in the
pits, Rab MacBeth, I think I owe my determination to keep up my singing.
At least, both men encouraged me to sing to them and their evident
enjoyment of it pleased me more than I can tell. Rab MacBeth was really a
worthy—one of the most amusing and original fellows in Lanarkshire and he
had the reputation of being just about the best all-round miner in the
shire. Big and brawny, with a voice like a bull and a laugh like a peal of
deep-toned bells, he added a most quaint touch of humour to his other
faculties. He was one of my first "gaffers." While he hewed the coal I
drew it back from the "face" and filled it into the empty hutches. We were
working, I remember, in a very wet place and while Rab was comparatively
dry, digging as he was on a sort of ledge above me, I was "plowtering"
about all day up to my thighs in water. I must have complained about the
discomfort and misery of it all—I forget how it came to arise—but Rab
stopped his hewing, looked down at me and yelled out in his great booming
voice, "Well, sing, ye wee devil! Singin' and whisky's the best things to
mix wi' watter."
Rab MacBeth's father before him had been a character in Hamilton. The
story is told about the old mart having wandered into the local "geggie"
(any portable theatre thrown up on a waste piece of ground) when the play
"Macbeth" was being produced. He had the idea that some of his own family
were being portrayed in the play. For a long time he sat and watched the
action without ever saying a word. Then when Macduff killed Macbeth, old
Rab rose in his seat, pointed a scornful finger at the dead Macbeth lying
on the stage and cried out "What a lot o' dam' nonsense! You're no a real
Macbeth or you wouldna' let a man like that (pointing in turn to Macduff)
kill you! Besides, yer accent's a wrang—I don't believe yer a Macbeth at
a'." With that he stalked out of the theatre in high dudgeon.
His son was also a great admirer of the drama; at least he was very fond
of going to see all the travelling companies that came round Hamilton way.
He was also a singer of sorts and had there been prizes for the biggest
voices, Rab, Junior, would have scooped the pool. Once he went down to the
Broomilaw at Glasgow to see his brother "Wull" away to Australia. From the
quay-side he kept on shouting good-byes in such an ear-splitting voice
that the other spectators had to put their hands up to protect their aural
organs from destruction. As the steamer moved away from the pier Rab's
stentorious shoutings to his relative became louder and louder. "Good-bye,
Wull, mind, an' write! DINNA FORGET TO WRITE, WULL! IF YE DINNA WRITE,
WULL, I'LL NEVER SPEAK TO YE AGAIN!" And so on, every command to write
getting louder and louder as the ship edged further and further down the
Clyde. At last a man standing near turned to Rab and said, "There'll be
nae need for Wull to write; just roar a bit louder, ye, and he'll hear you
Two or three years after I had been his boy at the coalface, Rab met me in
the street one day and told me that he was giving a grand competition
concert in one of the local halls and that if I would enter for the
"comics" he would see that I won the first prize. By this time I had
achieved a certain measure of fame in Hamilton and vicinity as a comedian
and Rab's confident prediction that I would win the first prize encouraged
me to put in my name for the contest. When the night came along the hail
was packed. I heard afterwards that there was fifteen pounds "in the
house" and that Rab had himself sold most of the tickets beforehand. He
himself had entered for one of his own prizes in the "bass or baritone"
section. In addition he acted as master of the ceremonies.
The first singer he announced was a tenor who started to sing, in a key an
octave too high for him, an operatic solo entitled "When Other Lips." He
had not completed the first line of the song when his voice cracked and
there was such a torrent of jeers and sneers that the poor devil was glad
to rush off the stage. After a girl had struggled through a sentimental
song another male vocalist took her place almost before the few
half-hearted cheers for the previous competitor had died away. This fellow
was a baritone and his song began with the assertion that he was a soldier
and a man. As he was a weedy individual in a solemn black suit with a
sixpenny tie attached by a hook to his collar-stud and was wearing
steel-framed spectacles, the audience simply refused to accept his
He, too, got no further than the opening bars of his song and was glad to
beat a speedy retreat to the safety of the anteroom. By this time the
audience was in high fettle. They settled down to a regular feast of
bear-baiting. But the effect upon the waiting competitors was calamitous.
They all had the wind up. Rab, as boss of the concert, ordered another man
to "go on and paralyse 'em." He refused—being already half-paralysed
himself—and ran out of the hall.
The same thing happened with the next competitor. In his extremity Rab
asked inc to take the platform, and, shaking in every limb, I did so. The
most I can say is that I got through my song, a burlesque ditty about a
man who had bought a grand new coat for ninepence, without anything being
thrown at me and that I was glad to get away from the footlights minus
By this time there were only about five contestants left in the wings. All
the others had packed up and slunk away. So Rab decided to go on himself
and sing a song. He was even less successful than the opening "artistes"
for whenever he showed face he was received with a chorus of moans,
groans, and rude noises. But Rab was brave. He stood his ground. Three
times he tried to start his vocal performance; each time he had to stop.
My own "turn" over I stood in the wings convulsed with merriment as I
watched Rah getting angrier and angrier. He began to harangue the audience
and so powerful was his voice that its tones rang out above and beyond the
combined din of the now thoroughly delighted audience. At first he accused
some of the "auld toon" men of causing the disturbance, then he went on to
state that the people in front were missing some of the finest talent ever
assembled in Hamilton—a statement which was received with screams of
derision!—and finally, losing his rag completely, he extended his fingers
to his nose and challenged any three men in the audience to come up on the
platform and fight him! As a matter of fact, one or two groups of miners
showed rather a willingness to accept his invitation when the lights in
the hail suddenly went out. The concert terminated in chaos and some free
fights. Not until several weeks afterwards did I hear that Rab himself had
given secret orders to the hallkeeper to turn out the lights soon after he
went on the platform. The wily rascal had seen how the wind was blowing
and thought this was the best end to a venture which had earned him a nice
bit of "ready" but which was a dire failure as a singing competition!
Many, many years later I was performing at the Odean
Theatre, St. Louis, and immediately I danced on to the platform to sing "Tobermory,"
a terrific voice cried out, "Come on, Harry, let them see what the wee
collier laddie frae Hamilton can dae! Harry, ma cock—up an' at them!"
I couldn't see the speaker. But I could never
mistake the voice.
"A' richt, Rab," I shouted up to the gallery, "I'll
dae ma best. See you round in the dressing-room after the show!"
Of course it proved to be my old gaffer Rab, settled
down and doin' well, like so many of his compatriots, in a great American
city. Whenever he entered my room, he rushed at me, lifted me as if I had
been a baby and shed tears of delight over our romantic meeting after
twenty years! On recovering his composure he solemnly presented me with a
pair of "galloses"—braces! Poor Rab! He died some years ago.
The mining industry in Lanarkshire has been almost
completely transformed since I worked in the pits there. Coal-cutting
machinery has done away with what might be called the individual touch in
the industry. It is quite true that we had Unions in the early days. I was
a member of the Lanarkshire Union of Miners, a strong supporter of men
like Bob Smillie and Kier Hardie. But politics were not mixed up in
industrial affairs as they are today. Besides, there seemed to be a far
greater measure of freedom for a man to work as hard as he liked and as
long as he liked for the benefit of his own pay-roll and the increased
comfort of himself and his family which the fat pay-roll represented. With
few exceptions every man in the pit in these days was a hard,
conscientious worker. He worked hard and he played hard. I would not go
the length of saying that we were all contented with our lowly lot, but we
seemed to believe in the old Scriptural injunction that only by the sweat
of our brows could we eat bread. And, by God, we sweated right enough.
As each of my brothers reached
twelve years of age they left the school and went down below. Matt was the
first for whom I found a job, and then Jock, Alec, and George followed in
due time. Matt was a chap like myself, as strong as a lion and a keen
willing worker. He and I teamed up together by and by. And didn't we make
the coal fly from the seam when we specially wanted to have a good week's
pay. As I have said, those were the days—believe me, the happy days—when a
miner was only proud of getting what he had worked for. Take all you can
get and give as little as you feel inclined seems to be the motto of too
many people all over the world today.
It's wrong! It's all wrong! It is
demoralizing in every direction. It is unjust to the good, honest workman;
it has a softening, deadening influence on the boy or man whose heart is
the slightest bit out of its natural position-,' Recently, both in Britain
and America, I have been preaching the gospel of "free trade" in brawn and
brains, the creed of letting a man earn as much as he wants to within
reasonable limitations. In America the system has been adopted very
widely. But in this country trade and industry are being hampered, and
initiative and ambition stifled by "Ca' canny, take everything and give as
little as possible!"
Matt and I worked so hard that we
came to be known as the "Coal Mawks"--the coal worms that bored away and
bored away, ceaselessly and persistently. If there was a difficult or
dangerous job we were "on it like a cock at a gooseberry"—always granted
that the money was all right, mind you! The two brothers put up some
amazing records in coal-getting. I have myself cut from five to six tons
of coal in a shift. That was at the soft coal, while at the poyt-shaw
coal, twenty-nine or thirty inches in thickness, and with little room to
swing your pick, I have reckoned a ton and a half an excellent day's work.
While still in my teens I became
a contractor. You have to be a responsible and experienced miner before
you are allowed to take on a job by contract. It was at Barncleuth and
Silverton Collieries that I got my first contract to drive a level from
Will Frew, the underground manager. The system adopted in fixing a
contract is simplicity itself. The manager takes you along to a certain
working in the mine and says, "Gie me an offer?" You examine the
coal-face, the quality of the coal, the depth of the seam, the arrange
ments for haulage and wooding, etc., and on these facts you make a quick
mental calculation. On this occasion I offered Frew to take on the job at
six-and-sixpence a fathom. "Done!" said he, and we shook hands—as binding
an agree ment as if the deed had been drawn up by a dozen lawyers and
witnessed before the Court of Sessi " "A spittle in the loof an' a shak'
o' the hand," as the old Scottish phrase has it, has sealed more
honourably kept bargains in Scotland than were ever attested on parchment
in any other country in the world.
In my day a miner's word was his
bond. It may still be. I hope so, anyhow. I suppose there are still
"contractors" in the Scottish mines, but, as I have said, the machines
have altered everything and coal-cutting is not now the real man's work
that it used to be. Incidentally, I learned long after leaving the pits
for the stage that in several of the Lanark shire collieries there were
"still places" below known as "Lauder headings" and "Lauder levels," a
tribute to my reputation and industry as a miner which I value very much