Fife Geologist Uncovers Mine of Information
Published on 19 June 2017
Before a faint local memory disappears completely, a Fife geologist has depicted an important forgotten industry in the East Neuk of Fife, after hearing reports from a local farmer whose tractor fell into a mine shaft several years ago.
While coal mining is very much associated with the West of Fife, where the earliest mines date back to Dunfermline in the 13th Century, little is known about the industry’s significance in the East Neuk from medieval times until the late twentieth century.
Now, John McManus, a former lecturer at both the Universities of Dundee and St Andrews, has published a detailed study of the men, women and children who worked in this dangerous industry, some of whom are still living in Fife.
His book, Coal Mining in the East Neuk of Fife, pinpoints the location of some lesser known local mines, such as Radernie which closed in 1946 at the end of the Second World War. Other mines in the area included Kellie Castle Colliery, and Largoward, where the bings (mine tips) were only removed in 1973. At Peat Inn, a number of houses and fields contain the round caps, built over disused mine shafts, which owners, ignorant of their true pupose, might remove at their peril.
Reflecting on his decision to write a second book, having also written Mining between Ceres and St Andrews in 2010, John said, ‘Around four years ago, I was leading a geological walk when a farmer spoke up – “Your map has a mark on it showing a shaft top in the middle of that big field. That was exactly where we almost lost a new tractor a few years back. If we had known, we would have gone nowhere near it. Fortunately, no one was hurt’.
The comment drove home the need for better information to be readily accessible for those using the land for farming or for potential building projects, such as planners. That information exists but requires patient delving into old records, few of which are held in public libraries. The lack of knowledge about this formerly thriving industry, which fell into final long decline after the First World War, has led to unforeseen accidents with housing, vehicles, animals and people, all vulnerable to loss of ground support. As the industry began to fail, the people who worked the mines often left the area, the buildings fell into disrepair and the memories of the sites concerned faded.
As well as researching this history of the industry and the geology of the coals themselves, John also unearthed fascinating tales of the workers. He talks of the women and children (as young as six years old) who packed and lifted the boxes of coals, taking them from mines as deep as 500 feet up ladders to the surface. Often without ropes and certainly no helmets, there were no wheels on the boxes until the Industrial Revolution so it was an exhausting, claustrophobic and debilitating job. With a typical lifespan of only 40 years of age, mining was often a family affair with the father, mother and children all involved.
Of course, mining was fraught with danger. Workers relied on candles until electrical light was invented in the late nineteenth century and, although there were no major disasters in the East Neuk, explosions underground and tales of roofs falling in and killing workers are widespread. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, the UK death toll from coal mining was over one thousand people.
Working a 12 hour shift, workers received around 18 shillings per fortnight, although wages did rise on the occasions when demand for coal nationally rocketed and the industry boomed. The ‘fireman’, who went down the mine first and set light to rags on a pole to allow the gases to be burnt off, received an extra three pence a week. Women and children received nothing in return for risking their lives.
Furthermore, it was not just the mines themselves that provided employment in the area. The harbours of the East Neuk from Elie to St Andrews were important export pints for the coal mined in the area.
John continued, ‘My book is aimed at anyone with an interest in local history. Very few of the people who worked in the mines locally are still alive but there will be many who will recall their grandparents’ tales of the working down the mines. It’s crucial that we keep these stories alive, as the industry was so buoyant for such a long time, affecting so many local communities before its demise. Featuring numerous historic maps, it’s also an important book for those planning to build or farm around the East Neuk in the future’.
To be launched at J & G Innes booksellers, St Andrews on Saturday 24 June 2017, ‘Coal Mining in the East Neuk of Fife’ is published by Dunedin. The shop will also host a small window display of maps, images and artefacts, followed by an exhibition at Fife Folk Museum in Ceres throughout the month of July.
John McManus credits David Landle of Kellie , Archibald Geekie’s 1902 Memoir, the Goldsmiths of Largoward and Ian Terris as key sources of information for his book.
Coal Mining in the East Neuk of Fife, is available from many local booksellers including J&G Innes, South Street, St Andrews, from Fife Folk Museum in Ceres or direct from Dunedin – www.dunedinacademicpress.co.uk.
Professor John McManus graduated from the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, University of London. He lectured, first at the University of Dundee, then the University of St Andrews. John McManus has published more than 200 scientific papers and an earlier book, Mining between Ceres and St Andrews (Windfall Books, 2010).