Shale Memories

This is the transcript of an interview that took place with Mr J Wardrope, former President of the Shale Miners Union, on 24/10/75


The shale company laid on all the entertainment and built halls and houses for the workers. They laid on all the recreation facilities.


Well, when I started down the pit, the mine, 2 shillings and 1 penny per shift was the wage, 9 hours a day for two and a penny. When I first started I remember being led to the stable where the horse was and I was so small that I couldn't reach up to put the harness on it.


It was a hard time, no doubt, it was a hard time for a laddie leaving the school in those days; as I say, you only had the pit, the shale mine, the oil works.


You've never seen shale ? It's high. 9, 10, 12, 15 feet high is shale. The seams were so high as 15 feet in some places. The company would only allow you 9 feet high, the height had to be 9 feet high. Sometimes when you were firing shots, it would spread wider than it was supposed to and you got a row from the management. You would get your gunpowder for the cartridges from the COOP and keep it under your bed.


The miners could come home as clean as they went down in the morning. It was clean. Not as bad as the mines. The dust was different, coal dust and shale dust and the height of the roof in the shale, the dust got away and the air was always fresher than it was in the coal mine.


It was dangerous. When coal miners came to the shale industry looking for work, the first thing they looked at was the roof, the height you see. If a bit of shale fell from there you could be killed. Some of them just took a look at the height of the roof and left without starting work.


The Burngrange disaster happened in 1947. The Seafield miner's had been transferred to Burngrange because they were making alterations to the haulage road. There were quite a number of Seafield men lost and when I went up to Burngrange after the disaster happened, I met Mr Croydon, the manager. We could see the smoke coming out of the pit from Seafield, belching out the shaft ... the men were cornered, they couldn't get out ... we used string cloths down the pit for diverting air into certain places and you could see where they were trying to keep the flames back when the explosion happened ... the bodies were just lying there with their lamps ... they took them to Addiewell Oil Works, there were baths there, to identify them.


I went to London to see Shinwell. He was minister of the mines. I went with Nellies. The war was just finished. We left the station to meet Shinwell. We were not in the House of Commons half an hour and we got no satisfaction at all. He said, "The industry is antiquated ... out of date, antiquated."


We had a 1 and 3 pence preference to imported oil.


We had a strike in 1925. That's when I took over the Presidency of the local branch here in Seafield. We had soup kitchen's going at the time. I think that was the coldest Christmas and New Year I have ever spent. We went out and collected vegetables for the soup kitchen. We couldn't get the cabbages or leeks or anything else out of the ground without taking a pick to them.


It all started at Tarbrax really, the shut down of the industry. When I took over there was a strike at Tarbrax and they closed it down after the strike and it went right round ... Oakbank, Broxburn, Westwood .... Addiewell was lucky in a way; it had the oil works and there was another mine at Burngrange as well, but the roof was so bad that they had to shut it down.


There was a lot of gas in West Calder. I remember the wife's dad telling me that you could light the gas out at Polbeth on the surface. You could dig a hole, put a match to it and it would light.


My father and brothers all worked in the industry, on the haulage from the oil works to the bings. You had to wrap rags around your hands to prevent them from being burnt when the hot shale was emptied on to the bing.


Addiewell used to be a great place for the labour speakers, for the Socialists.


Down the pit they employed laddies to work the fire that would clear away any stale air ... 7 at night to 3 in the morning .... you took risks because your wages were that low ... you had to work like blazes .... but the company provided cheap housing ... the community spirit was good because the houses were so close.