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Ken Church

Modern Ken Church, the last miner from Chewton Mendip. Mining
Ken Church is the last member of the ‘Chewton Mendip’ Church family and he remembers when there were three of four Church families living in Chewton Mendip when Ken was young. Ken provides a living link with the mining industry that predates the historical records.
Rural Somerset may not be associated with mining but there is evidence of several forms of mines in the area that go back to Roman times if not earlier.  Mendip lead was one of the attractions to the Romans and there are reports of a substance sounding like coal being burnt in the Roman baths in Bath. The earliest pits were small affairs called bell pits or addits which could be worked by hand.  There are numerous records of farmers buying leases from the land owner to prospect for coal. Sometimes they were lucky, sometimes they were not, but enough were lucky to become wealthy mine owners.
Ken was one of the ‘Bevan Boys’ in World War 2. Coal miners volunteered in their thousands to fight in World War 1 and died in similarly large numbers.  Some were conscripted as World War 1 dragged on. It was recognised that this was a waste of skilled men in World War 2 so the opposite occurred where men were conscripted to work in the mines. Ernest Bevan was the Minister of Labour and National Service at the time so the scheme was named after him.
Ken was one of the 48,000 men who were conscripted or volunteered to work in the mines and some people may think he had a lucky break. However, the author, who is an ex soldier himself but has a fear of heights and claustrophobia, would have rather been on the front line rather than the coal face. The Bevan Boys were belatedly recognised for their war work by the award of a badge and certificate which should be treated with the same respect as a General Service Medal awarded to me (Richard Loxton) for my service in Northern Ireland. The Bevan Boys did have the option of joining one of the armed services if life underground was too much. Ken was not required to join the home guard because he was a miner.
The Somerset coalfield was notorious for its narrow, twisted coal seams which may have been as little as two or three feet thick. This necessitated men, and in earlier times boys, crawling on hands and knees to hew and carry coal to the underground roads where it was put into carts to be hauled to the surface, sometimes using pit ponies.
A Somerset miner called AJ Parffit, was working in the late Victorian period until the 1930s, wrote about the medieval conditions that persisted until that age. Boys as young as twelve had to use a ‘guss and crook’ to haul ‘putts’ or ‘butts’ of coal. A guss was a loop of rope which they put around their waists and the crook was a metal hook which was attached to the ‘putt/butt’ which was a sledge with metal runners. The  ‘putt’ or ‘butt’ depending on where the miner worked, was loaded by coal by the ‘hewer’ who may have had to lie on his side in the two foot high seam to hack out the coal. This would be loaded onto the putt/butt and the ‘butty’ would drag it from the coal face to the relatively large underground roads so the coal could be taken to the surface. The hewers and butties had to work together which lead to the expression used in Wales of  ‘butt’ to mean friend or ‘mate’ and may be the origin of the American term of ‘buddy’ for friend.
Ken Church had to register for conscription in February 1944 when he turned 17 years and 8 months of age. He was due to be sent to a training pit somewhere in the north of England but he contacted the under manager Old Mills pit, a Mr Robson, and got a job there. This satisfied the terms of his conscription order so he was able to stay living at home rather than move to where ever the draft took him. His initiative meant that he started work within a few weeks before his 18th birthday and without training.
His first job was working with Charlie Hamblin from Coalford, who was an experienced miner, driving ‘roads’ through the rock looking for workable seams.This involved drilling four holes in each corner of a rectangle and one in the centre. The five holes were filled with explosives and then the charges were ignited. There were so many pits in the area that there was a danger of one mine accidentally breaking into another one. This could result in catastrophic flooding if the mine broken into had been abandoned because it would have filled with water which would have flooded the working shaft killing everyone in there. There would have been no chance to run to safety, the miners were lucky if they could walk doubled up, in many cases they had to crawl to the work place. Ken remembers how the rock was as shiny as glass where the coal had been taken away. These were perfect conditions for running water but the worst possible for trying to escape from. Being trapped and unable to escape is a common nightmare for many people but a real threat for people working underground. The mines were surveyed above and below ground to minimise this happening but the surveying was only as good as the maps of the mines. It is now acknowledged that some of the earlier workings were not mapped.
Ken and his colleague were fortunate and their explosions did not breach any underground water supplies but he and his colleague had to dig out the rubble by hand, separating the coal from the ‘muck’ or rocks. This continued until a workable seam was discovered and then exploited. Mechanisation did not change the geology and a ‘workable’ seam could have been as low as 18 inches. Some small-scale mines still existed in Ken’s day. Marsh Lane Level near Farrington Gurney was a coal mine owned by the people who worked there. This was a simple shaft cut into the hillside which produced high quality coal.
Conditions had improved by the 1940s to a certain extent and the notorious guss and crook was no longer used in Old Mills pit. A mechanical conveyor belt called a ‘shaker’ was used to convey the coal from the work face to the butts. A device similar to a chain saw was used to cut the bottom of the coal face which the miners would then hack off by hand. They worked on a ‘task and finish’ form of piece work. Each man was set a length of coal face to hack off and then he could go home.
Ken was working on what was called ‘clipping’. A long rope was looped around drums at the top and bottom of an incline which was continuously running. Kens job was to attach a loaded butts of coal by clipping it to the rope with a special metal crook. He was also responsible for unclipping the empty butts as the appeared on the downward journey.
A great incentive to the hewers was if Paulton Rovers football team was playing  away. The hewers worked at top speed to finish their allotted section of face so they could leave early to travel to wherever Paulton Rovers were playing. This left Ken with the backlog to clear.
Ken cycled to and from the pit and he had to work all hours. He worked six shifts a week. The day shift started at 6am and finished at 2pm. The Evening shift took over at 2pm and worked until 10pm when the night shift started. This meant that the first shift of the week started at 10pm on Sunday night which curtailed his social life somewhat.
He did not mind working a night shift too much because it was completely dark down the mine but he did have trouble sleeping during the day. He was so tired one shift that he fell asleep during his meal break with his sandwich in his hand. He awoke to find his hand covered in mice who were eating his sandwich. Needless to say he did not finish the sandwich but that meant he had to finish his shift a hungry man. Mice were not the only wildlife down in the pit. Wooden pit props were used and hornets would burrow into the pine trees when they were above ground and emerge from their burrows when the heat of the mine woke them up.
Charley advised Ken that they would be better off working night shifts all the time when they were digging coal. There would be a queue of digging teams waiting for butts during the day and afternoon shifts and idle time limited their earnings because they were on piece work. There were plenty of empty butts in the less popular night shifts so they could work without interruption.
Ken left mining in 1949. He  became a postman in 1951 and was the last postman to work out of the old Post office in Chewton Mendip until this closed. Ken worked in a number of other roles as a builder and had been a butcher’s boy’ in his youth.
Douglas Guy was the last miner in Chewton Mendip who was working in the Kilmersden pit when it closed in 1973. Ken Hewish, who lived at Bathway, and Willf Randell were also some of the last miners. Regretfully they are all dead except Ken so is the last person left alive living in Chewton Mendip who worked in an industry that had lasted for at least 2000 years.
 Unfortunately, Ken passed away in the Royal United Hospital on the 14th January 1915 after a short illness. It is always sad when somebody dies but Ken was also the last living link between Chewton Mendip d the mining history which dated back for thousands of years. He was also an invaluable source of local history so he is gone but will never be forgotten.
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Please refer to the acknowledgements page for a list of the contributors to this website.

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