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In May of 1999 two of the last working pit ponies were retired. Hopefully Gremlin and Robbie where the last ponies to drag a load through the coal dust and darkness of a coal mine. As the world entered the 21st century it left behind the practice of sending ponies underground. A 100 years earlier more than 200,000 horses and ponies were working in British mines, according to the RSPCA. Although other figures put the numbers peaking at 70,000 in 1913, either way the numbers are enough to make anyone pause to think of all those thousands of lives spent in the darkness and cut short, both the ponies and the men who worked alongside them.
Ponies have been used almost as long as mines have been around, the first recorded use was in 1750, but the number began to climb with the Mines Act of 1842, this law banned the employment of women and boys younger than 10 underground. The sudden shortage in man power meant that mine owners began searching for another way to get the coal from the coal face to the pit head. Above ground the taller ponies and even horses could be used, but down in the darkness they needed the smaller animals. Ponies up to 11 hands were needed to move the tubs, called putters or trammers, full of coal to the collecting point known as the flat. From the flat larger ponies, up to 13 hands, would take the full loads along the main roadways to the pit bottom where the coal would be taken to the surface.
Some horses were also needed to power the whim-gins, or horse mills. Mostly on the surface this was a system of ropes and pulleys connected to a horizontal drum. A horse would be harnessed to the drum and walked round in a circle to tighten or release the rope.
One of the best known breeds for use down the mine, the Shetland pony has a long history as a small work horse. There have been a small breed of horse on the Shetland isles for over 2000 years, being an island pony they have evolved to survive in a harsh changeable environment. The larger ponies didn’t make it on the sparse grassland available, whilst the smaller animals survived. This means that even bred in milder climates and given a good quality diet they don’t grow taller than 11.2 hands, making them the perfect size for working in the smaller sections of the mine, added to this is there willing temperament and renowned strength and it’s no surprise that Shetland pony stud were set up by mine owners to provide the best pit ponies possible. During this time thousands were exported from the Shetland Isles.
One of the biggest mine pony studs was owned by Lord Londonderry, he leased Bressay Island and the small connected island of Noss. Between 1871 and 1900 the ponies were bred both her and in the North East of England to work in the mines. This line of ponies is still prized today. In 1876 a pair of ponies form his stud in Scotland was sold for an impressive 138 guineas, after winning the Durham County Show for the best pair of ponies in harness. Flash a pony purchased by Beamish Museum has a show name of Butterby Limelight, and in his ancestors are the stallions of Lord Londonderry’s stud. He was bought to fill a space in the museums stables left by the death of Pip, who when he was alive was the last Durham pit pony still alive. His death in 2009 ended an era.
The large number of ponies needed down the mine is shown in the breeding practises of the time. In the 1850s and 1860s there was a decline in the quality of the New Forest Ponies and Arab blood was introduced. This meant that the ponies were less suitable for use down the mine and is thought to be the reason that sales fell for the breed, which may have caused the shift from breeding New Forest Ponies to Dairy Cattle.
Life for the ponies varied depended on the mine, those on the surface of in opencast mines were stabled above ground after their 8 hour working day, and would have been entitled to time off during the mines annual holiday. However ponies down the shaft mine had a different sort of life. Many of the shafts were 1000m deep, the ponies would have been lowered down the shaft and some would spend the rest of their lives in the darkness, some would have been allowed back up to the surface once a year during the annual holiday.
The ponies weren’t alone in their travels up and down the roadways, boys of around 13 or 14 years old were hired after leaving school to be pony drivers. The miners were often animal orientated and would take care of their horses. An act of parliament in 1912 changed the welfare of the ponies, ponies with eye damage were no longer allowed to go underground, meaning that eye defenders were mandatory. Just like their human work mates the ponies had to have a medical certificate before they could be sent to work, and were given holidays at different times of the year. This Mine Welfare Act of 1912 was the first time the welfare of the ponies down the mine was written into law.
The work was dangerous, and both men and horses were killed in cave ins and explosions, men would risk their own lives to try and reach their ponies even if the only thing they could do was dispatch them in a humane way. Despite all the care and attention the ponies did receive it is thought that their lives were much shorter than their counterparts living above ground. However the same could be said for the humans who also went down the mines at a young age.
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