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Pit Pony Stable. Picture Source: Paul Fillingham.

Stage 9

Pit Pony Stable

The term pit ponies was a misnomer as in some cases they were horses. However, in the East Midlands coalfields, collectively they were referred to as pit ponies. They were measured in hands (one hand equaled four inches) and the height of a colliery’s various underground roadways would determine what size of pit ponies would be used. This could range from 9 hands Shetlands to 17 hands larger horses for main roadway haulage work. Technically, a horse was over 14 hands and under that a pony.

Miner with pit pony in the underground colliery stables. Picture Source: The Coal Authority.

Pit ponies were mainly used underground for subsidiary haulage, taking tubs (narrow gauge rail trucks) to and from working places to nearby sidings or bypasses. In the past, this would include such pit-work as taking pit props into the underground coal working and bringing back tubs full of coal to the pit bottom area for travelling the shaft. They were kept in underground stables which were usually located near to the pit bottom.

In the East Midlands this process was known as ganging, the haulage lads driving the ponies being known as gangers.  Gangers and coal miners always respected the sixth sense of a pit pony and many a tale has been told over time of them saving a miners life. A pony would suddenly stop in its tracks and refuse to move. Suddenly, a roof fall (roof collapse) would occur in the roadway just ahead

Miner ganging with a pit pony in the 1950’s. Picture Source: The Coal Authority.

The peak of pit ponies in the coalmining industry was in 1913 when around 70,000 worked underground in British collieries. When the coal industry was nationalised in 1947, this figure had reduced to 21,000 and by 30th June 1965, just 4,067 remained, with 657 of these being in the East Midlands. By the end of 1970, no ponies were being used underground in the NCB North Nottinghamshire Area, the last ones being in the Dunsil seam at Teversal Colliery. However, they were still being used at eight out of twelve collieries in the NCB South Nottinghamshire Area, the last ones being at Bentinck Colliery in January 1972. The last pit ponies in the NCB North Derbyshire Area finished in 1971.

Last three pit ponies brought to the surface at Shirebrook Colliery in 1971. Picture Source: Chad newspaper collection.

Over time, pit ponies were replaced by steel rope endless haulage systems, by underground narrow gauge battery and diesel locomotives for haulage and by conveyors for transporting coal.

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The end of pit ponies also finished a local ritual of local children seeing them being brought out of the pit for annual summer holidays, the pit fortnight. Local singer / songwriter, Martin Carey aka Johnny Kedleston, recalled this ceremony in his song, ‘Tiny Giant’, which is about his maternal grandfather, David Hind, who was an Ostler at Bentinck Colliery. The Ostler was the man who looked after the pit ponies.

Pit ponies have been recalled in rhyme by some local miners who wrote poems about them including Owen Watson’s ‘Ode to a Pit Pony’ and John Stafford’s ‘Dot’. 

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