Pit Ponies were used in mining from the mid 18th Century to the late 20th Century, with the last pit pony leaving the mines of Ellington, Northumberland in 1994. At the peak, there was 70,000 registered horses being used for mining in 1913. This then dropped to 21,000 after the nationalisation of the mines in 1947.
Before 1842, women and children were put to work down the mines. However, a change in legislation meant that women and girls were no longer allowed to work underground and boys would not be allowed to work underground until age 10. Needing a replacement for these now redundant workers, the pit ponies were brought in. Ponies were chosen because their size, strength and hardiness meant that they were able to adapt to tough underground conditions.
What was a pit pony’s job?
The horses that worked above-ground measured around 1.7 metres. For these horses, ‘working’ meant transporting large materials such as timbers to be used for roof supports. The horses that worked underground worked with a miner and had a system to transport materials between themselves. The smaller horses, usually measuring around 1.2 metres, had the responsibility of taking full coal tubs to a collection point known as the ‘flats’ and then taking the empty coal tubs back to the coalface ready to be refilled. The larger horses, generally around 1.4 metres, would collect tubs and transport them through the main roadways to the pit bottom. These tubs were then taken to the surface.
Pit pony rules and regulations
Numerous legislation have been written over the years with the aim to protect and care for pit ponies both below and above the surface. In 1887, the Coal Mines Regulation Act stated that the roadways below the surface should be wide enough for the ponies to walk through without rubbing along the sides of the wall. In 1911, the Pit Ponies Charter was written to ensure that ponies did not go below the surface until they were at least four years old, and that they had to be examined by a veterinarian before commencing work. As well as this, the ponies had to have housing that was of an adequate size and clean straw and bedding provided by a competent horse keeper. There had to be one horse keeper per 15 horses.
After the nationalisation of the mines in 1947, even more regulations were brought in with regards to how long and often the ponies could work. There was a 48 hour a week limit put in place, with these hours being split into shifts of 7.5 hours. Each pony could not work more than two shifts in 24 hours or three shifts in 48 hours, unless under exceptional circumstances. Each pony also had to have its own driver, so that they were under more stable conditions while they were working and could build a relationship of trust with their handler.
Another benefit to pit ponies of the nationalisation of the mines was that there was a ‘Pit Ponies Retirement Fund’ set up, so that once the ponies had completed their working life, rather than being put down, they were sent to live in farmers fields, with the farmers being paid a monthly fee. Mr Moore of Church View Farm in Baddesley Ensor took the last eight pit ponies used in the Warwickshire Coalfield when they retired.