A JOURNAL OF THE LIFE OF ANTHONY MUNLEY 1868-1953
Recorded by his son Anthony Munley
Anthony was the youngest son and was born at Graughill, Barnatra, Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland. The few acres were of poor quality and after paying rent they could not support a family. Three members of the family went off to America. Anthony left home while still in his teens. He had no formal education but was well versed in fishing and farming. He made his way on foot to secure a passage on a cattle boat to England. There he worked in woollen mills and as a navvy on the road works. Unless a man could use a pick or shovel with either hand he was not hired as a labourer.
Many Irishmen went over to Scotland and England in search of work and many ended up working in coalmines where conditions were really poor, and there is where Anthony was to spend his long working life.
The Bedlington Coal Company was formed in 1837 and had two pits, The Old Pit at Sleekburn and the Doctor Pit at Bedlington. They were one mile apart. The Company owned about 200 houses at Bedlington and a lesser number at Sleekburn. Anthony must have qualified for a company house and although he worked at The Old Pit, his house was No 9 Doctor Terrace, Bedlington and was to be the home for Elizabeth, his wife, and their eleven children.
Anthony and Elizabeth Downey were married at St Bede’s Catholic Church on 6th March 1897. Elizabeth and her sister Sarah came to England from East Muir, Shettlestone, Scotland to enter domestic service. Sarah married Matthew Barron who was a farm manager in Hexham, Northumberland. Elizabeth and Sarah’s parents were Patrick and Mary Anne Downey (nee Divine) who were of Irish origin.
Anthony worked as a coal hewer on piece work and always took the fore shift which was 2 a.m. until 10 a.m. The contract was for four men and often it was a family affair. The back shift was 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. with two men to each shift. Contracts were drawn each Quarter and some coal seams were better than others. Men supplied their own acetylene or oil lamps unless the district was a coal gas area when the Company supplied safety or, later, electric lamps. The coal seams varied in height from 18 inches to four feet at various levels. The coal face would average at least a mile from the winding shaft and the cage would hold twenty men and boys and descended into total darkness in about one minute. Coal cutting machines were being introduced but that was much later in Anthony’s life. Coal hewers had to use pick, shovel and explosives and load the coal into wagons which held just over a ton of coal. They affixed a leather token with their contract number on. The wagons, commonly known as tubs, were taken to the shaft bottom and raised to the surface known as the screens. Each tub was checked for weight and credited to the numbered token. If a certain amount of stone or slate was contained in the coal a monetary fine was imposed on the contractor. A man called a Checkweighman was employed to see that the coal hewers received fair play in that respect. The rate per ton of coal brought to the surface varied according to conditions and the thickness of the coal seam.
The hewer supplied picks, shovels and the cost of explosives was deducted from the amount earned each fortnight. Necessary tools were auger-like drills and a stand and handle so that hewers could drill inch diameter holes into the coal face to a depth of 2-3 feet. The explosive was placed in the aperture with a long copper rod and clay was rammed hard home with a copper rammer. The rod was pulled out and a squib was placed on the entrance of the hole and after shouting “fire” to anyone within earshot, this was lit and the hewer had time to move to a safe distance before the explosion.
The hewer’s drills and picks were sent to the surface for sharpening by the Company’s blacksmith. All tools carried the owner’s identity marks, just as cattle were branded in the Wild West.
This period would be from about 1897 and I cannot state what the average income was at that time. Men worked eleven days per fortnight, one Saturday on and one off. Wages were paid out on a Friday and usually one of the partners (Marras) signed for the collective sum and this was divided according to days worked.
Walking a mile to the Pit, another mile to the coal face and repeating the effort at the end of each shift would save any miner the trouble of joining “Weightwatchers”. Anty, as he was known, was not finished work when he arrived home. He, with some help, built two piggeries and also a washhouse in the back garden of No 9 Doctor Terrace. He also rented an allotment of over one acre. He kept and bred pigs for over thirty five years and his large family were raised on home-fed bacon and home grown vegetables. The by-product of pig manure was taken by wheelbarrow to the allotment about half a mile distant, where Anty spent part of every day. Neighbours who gave potato peelings etc. to supplement the boxings and bran to feed the pigs were rewarded with portions of sausage or black pudding after every pig killing day.
Anty used to propagate every sort of vegetable in a huge cold frame and supplied many people with cabbage plants etc. Everyone in Bedlington belonged to the Co-operative Wholesale Society and members were allowed credit and were paid dividends at each year’s ending based on their purchases. It was bulk buying in those days as everyone baked their own bread and used salt and vinegar in order to preserve foods as refrigerators were not available to working class people.
All cooking was done on a coal range in the kitchen and each family living in Company houses was given a ton of coal per month. A boiler at the side of the range provided hot water whilst the oven at the other side was used for baking etc. There was a large living room, approximately 12ft by 12ft with a scullery and walk in pantry and upstairs there were two bedrooms and an attic which was also used as a bedroom. A large water barrel caught rain water outside and a water tap was situated halfway down the terrace. Across the road were a dry WC and a midden next to it to take the ashes from the fire – which was never out apart from cleaning and repairing. Anthony had a boiler to each of two fires in the wash house so that hot water was available for washing and also to boil pig food.
As the family grew old enough they were all sent to St Bede’s School for an elementary education until the age of fourteen when the boys were to begin work in the pit. Girls helped at home until they usually went into Domestic Service.
By 1920 Edward, the eldest son, had served his time and joined his father at the coal face. Two years later, Patrick joined the team. He, however, developed itchy feet and on 26th April 1926 he paid £5 and worked his passage to Western Australia. He worked in the gold mines with a spell in the Australian Army during the Second World War. We never saw him again as he died in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia on 5th March 1957 aged 56 and was buried in Norseman.
On 3rd September 1919 Anty sustained a cruel blow when his wife Elizabeth died soon after the birth of a daughter to be named Mona. The oldest daughter, Mary, was serving her time as a dressmaker and, at the age of 18, she took over the role of homemaker for Anty and his large family. Mary fulfilled this role until she died in May 1974 in Kent. Many saints have been canonised for much less than the dedicated efforts and devotion of Mary Munley over many years.
Anty was a devout Catholic and the whole family were each present at Holy Mass. The children of school age went to church on Sunday afternoon for Benediction and Rosary. Anty never missed his night prayers and said these in Gaelic and then English and each member of his family received a mention.
In 1928 Martin decided that with strikes and low wages he had had enough of England and emigrated to Canada. He married Emily White and they had five children before they both died and were buried in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Martin died on 10th September 1959 and Emily later remarried and eventually visited England with her husband Johnnie.
Anty’s sister Ellen who went to America married Daniel Bartley and a son John was born before Ellen became a widow. She returned to County Mayo and after the death of her mother Catherine in 1909 she left John with her sister Mary to be raised at Graghil. Ellen returned to England and married Peter Barrett on 30th April 1910 at St Bede’s in Bedlington. Their daughter Catherine was born on 1st June 1911.
When Anty’s parents died he could have claimed his birth right but decided that his sister Mary should remain in possession whilst she lived. After his death his daughter Mary passed the rights to John Bartley.
Many Irishmen lived in Bedlington and were amused when Anty bought a plough and remarked that it was a useless instrument without owning a horse to pull it. His answer was that he had eight sons and thus he did not need a horse and the writer can vouch for that fact!
Anty would arise at 1 a.m. to get to work and return about 10.30 a.m. He would feed the pigs and then wash the pit dirt from his body before sitting down to a meal prepared by his daughter Mary for him and any other member on the fore shift. He would retire upstairs by about noon before any of the schoolchildren came home for their lunch. For most of the year he would arise about 4.30 p.m. and go to the allotment for about two hours work. Returning home he would have a meal and then sit down to enjoy his pipe. Sitting by the fireside he would often busy himself darning the heavy woollen stockings worn by all miners or repair boots or clothing. At about 9.30 p.m. he would retire to bed. At weekends he would go to The Black Bull or the Ex-Servicemen’s Club and enjoy a few pints of Newcastle Brown Ale. He rarely got the worse for drink as many did in those days but he enjoyed the company of friends and was a popular and respected citizen.
Eventually two of his sons, Michael and John, left home when they were married and set up their own homes. Michael married Molly Hedley in August 1931 and John married Evelyn Singleton on 29th December 1934. Both weddings took place at St. Bede’s.
The butcher who bought pigs from Anty offered a job to young Anthony (Tony) as a bus conductor on a local bus service and it lasted for two years when be was paid off. At this time Septimus (the seventh son) was due to leave school. Both boys were hired at the pit on the strength of their father’s name.
James was the youngest boy and the only one who was given a college education and went to St Cuthbert’s in Newcastle. He did well at sport and his studies but could not get a job anywhere. He was advised to apply for a commission in the Royal Air Force but was turned down because his father was a coal miner. He joined the ranks in 1936 at the age of 19 years and trained as a fitter and rigger. His brother Septimus followed his example joining the RAF in May 1937. When war was declared in 1939 Tony left home in order to join up but was unsuccessful in that respect but never returned to live in Bedlington.
Catherine married Tom Thornton in Haslemere, Surrey on 20th April, 1940 Mona married Tom Storey on 22nd April 1940 at St Bede’s and her husband joined the RAF the same year.
By this time Edward was the only family member still working in the pit as Anty was on the old age pension of 10 shillings per week. The pigs were long gone on the grounds of new Health and Hygiene Regulations but the allotment was still a great help with the family budget. Anty was given an assurance that he could reside at No 9 Doctor Terrace for as long as he lived in recognition of over 40 years with the company. However, in 1943 Edward was injured in a mine accident and was subsequently unfit for any work at the mine. He was directed into the building trade as a tea boy and sent to York. He was hardly on the train before Anty was given notice to quite the house. He was hard hit and showed it by returning to County Mayo whilst Mary and Mona, now Mrs T. Storey, went to stay with relatives. .
Both Sep and Jim went off to Ireland to bring their father back. Meanwhile Anthony Junior (Tony) had taken over a mortgage on a house in Kent which became the family home. Despite the air raids Anty settled down well in a different environment and would not enter an air raid shelter but sat and said his rosary instead. He even took over another allotment and was very proud of his tomatoes which could be grown outside in the milder climate of Southern England. One of the Capuchin Friars from the monastery at Erith, Fr Godfrey, was a frequent visitor to No 2 Methuen Road, Belvedere.
Edward eventually returned to the family home in Kent, as did Septimus. James left No 2 to marry Denise O’Brien in June 1947 in Chester. Mona and her husband Tom with baby Christine lived in the same area of Kent.
One of my dearest memories was taking my father to Chester to James and Denise’s wedding and my saddest was saying goodbye to him when I went off to Canada to begin a new life. I never saw him alive again.
“His life as gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man”.
Recorded by his son Tony, October 17th 1987 at New Plymouth, New Zealand.