History | Working beside pit ponies | Mike Scanlon

Tireless: Two Hunter Valley coal miners with a typical, hard-working pit horse.          Picture: University of Newcastle Cultural Collections
Tireless: Two Hunter Valley coal miners with a typical, hard-working pit horse. Picture: University of Newcastle Cultural Collections

PIT ponies were once the backbone of Hunter Valley underground mines.

Now long gone, the hard-working equines were slowly replaced after mechanisation came into pits from the early 1950s.

And now, Pit Pony Park in Waratah Street, Kahibah, honours the significant role they played in our mining history.

For the so-called ‘pit ponies’ (horses, really) were more than mere beasts of burden.

A close bond developed between most miners who worked with them, as the horses were often regarded more human than animal.

Cheap to transport items, the pit ponies were usually intelligent creatures. Some were mischievous, some were cranky, while others were just easygoing plodders.

All had names, which were sometimes very apt, as in Rex (for a regal bearing), Joker (for pranks pulled) and Nipper, because he liked to bite miners.

In the peak years of the 1930s, up to 70 horses worked underground each day at Belmont’s former John Darling Colliery. Its last horse was sold in February 1969.

The horses could last up to 22 years in harness, although often they were sold after about 15 years service. If crippled underground, the animals had a quick merciful end, being shot on site to avoid prolonged suffering.

Many more died in freak incidents, like fire or flood.

In faraway Lithgow, the newest tourist attraction is a sound and light show called Fire in the Mine, which includes the tragic story of how an underground fire took the lives of 27 horses in 1953.

The Hunter also had its share of similar tragedies.

For example, 22 pit horses drowned at the Aberdare Extended mine in 1949. 

Then there’s the famous story of Sharpo, the sole survivor of the Hamilton Pit (beneath Glebe Hill) Disaster of June 1889 when 11 miners were entombed. Twelve days after the mine collapse, a pit pony called Sharpo was found alive. For three days, the animal became a celebrity. He was a symbol of hope for the miners’ anxious families, before he refused food and died.

But let’s hear from two Hunter mineworkers who actually remember working underground with the faithful equines.

Former miner Bill Hitchcock, of Dudley, is one. His long mining career at Belmont’s John Darling (JD) Colliery began by working with pit ponies in 1944.

“I was a kid, only 16 years old. My horse was ‘Roma’, pulling empties (coal skips) around for the underground loco for two years,” Hitchock, 89, said.

“Our horses only worked the Borehole coal seam. By comparison, the shallower Victoria Seam 600ft (182m) was mechanised.

“The Borehole Seam, roughly 900ft (274.3m) down, was our deepest seam, very hot and tough.

“The blokes were stripped off to dig, wearing only helmet, socks, belt and a loincloth sort of thing.

“Somehow, Borehole dust was also different, clinging to you like a second skin.

“Each horse had a different personality. At crib (lunch time), horses might try to nudge open your crib-can and eat your lunch,” Hitchcock chuckled.

“Sadly, one time I heard a horse had played up in the cage and knocked off the safety catch during an ascent, falling to its death down the shaft.

“Each afternoon at the end of their shift, each weary horse, still wearing its heavy harness, would be brought up and trot automatically to its own stall in our surface stables.

 “In those days (the 1940s) there was even a Pit Horse Derby. I once watched a trial being run in the JD car park,” Hitchcock said.

Gavin, of Newcastle, is another mineworker who remembers working with the pit animals.

“Our horses all wore big leather skullcaps, like masks, when I worked with them from 1970 to 1972, at Stockrington No.2 Colliery, half way up Mount Sugarloaf,” he said.

“Besides eye holes in their leather headgear, a pony’s ears would also poke out through holes.

“This was because their ears were like radar in the dark. A horse could feel the sides of the mine tunnel and its head had to be protected if it bumped against a low roof. Tunnels were only six feet (1.8m) high at most.

“The horses would be stabled underground from Monday to Friday, but when Friday arvo came round and they got to the surface, they’d take off, go crazy with the freedom.

“To resume work on Monday, it could take the hostler (stableman) three hours to maybe walk 20 horses down to the various mine sections. While we waited, we’d have a kip,” Gavin said.

“At Stocky No 2, the horses weren’t used for hauling coal skips. Those days were over. Instead, they pulled material around on sleds, like cable, or if you wanted six pit props somewhere. Now it’s all roof bolting,” Gavin said.

“In England, pit horses were always small, real pit ponies. So, at Stocky I naturally expected to see big, muscular horses like Clydesdales, but strangely, they came in all sizes.

“Mine management got horses from everywhere. One I heard about had been a little girl’s pony, but, rather than it being destroyed, it came into our mine.

“Most blokes looked after them. Blokes used to bring them vegetables, or a sandwich, as a treat.

“My own favourite was Billy. He liked to lick the back of my neck. But then there was Jocko who, I believe, was a retired racehorse. Before you’d start work he’d go mad, shaking, tremendously excited, then take off at 100miles an hour and go 400 metres when you only wanted him to go 100 metres

 “Horses who were easy to work with underground were the most popular,” Gavin said.

“Once a horse had done a shift, its name was scribbled on a blackboard, telling others he now needed to be rested.” 

“But some blokes would later come along and rub the name out to re-use the same animal on their shift. That’s when I realised what the term ‘flogging a willing horse to death’ really meant.”

Gavin said his underground stables were usually in a blind stub, or small cutting, with planks used as a gate.

“Here, horses were fed mostly chaff and mixed grain in tubs. But rats might climb up the surrounding logs and if they touched, or contaminated, the food, the horses would know and not touch it. Tubs would have to tipped out and refilled,” Gavin said.

“Now, this is odd. Pits once used to close for three weeks over Christmas. The rats down the mine used to be fat, but after we came back to work we’d find dead rats everywhere.

“Three weeks with no food. They’d eaten each other.

“We found lots of tails. That was often all we found.”