[Warning: as the author notes, a couple of these anecdotes feature graphic accounts of animal cruelty. If you do not wish to read these, leave the page.]
Pit ponies were used in coal mining both above and below the surface and from 1947 onwards, after the nationalisation of the mines. These ponies were quite well protected by various legislation and law. However, before 1947 there were some gruesome stories of how pit ponies were treated.
The pit pony from Glascote Colliery, and the village fair
Jim Clark, a miner, came to collect Clem, a pit pony, from the stables in the pit, harnessed him up and began to lead him out of the stables. Once out of the stables, Clem ran towards the pit bottom, clearly excited about something. He stood there, watching the cages of the shaft go up and down. Jim later found out that the pony had recently been taken up to the surface by a miner and was cleaned up, groomed and taken to the village fair for the children to ride. While the village fair was on, Clem had spent the days surrounded by people and the nights in an open field with long grass. Poor Clem had thought that this miner was coming to take him back to the village fair!
The tongue pull
Extreme measures were sometimes taken to persuade a pony to move after it had decided it had had enough of working. One particularly unpleasant story from Hawkesbury Colliery states that the colliery deputy, William Mostyn, once pulled a pony’s tongue clean out of its mouth in an attempt to get the pony to move. The pony was later put down and the man fined £2. Mostyn said that he did not pull the ponies tongue to torture it, but rather to try and get the horse to move so that it did not hold up the movement of the coal.
This pony was loved by his handler but had become increasingly slow due to either sickness or age. The handler was told to take his pony to the stables earlier that day. Thinking that he was going to be able to give his pony a drink and make sure he was settled before the others came back, the handler took the pony into the stables, only to be met by the Overman, who proceeded to put a ‘humane-killer’ over the pony’s head and hit it with a hammer. The pony died on the impact of the hammer which would have sent a bolt into the horses skull.
Lofty and the pit pony
A pipefitter named Lofty had fallen into a water sump shaft and had been unable to haul himself out. Just as the ice-cold water was becoming too much for Lofty to bare, the pony had come along, taken Lofty’s arm in his mouth and pulled him out of the water. Lofty was close to death, but once the pony realised that no one was going to come and rescue him, he had taken matters into his own hands and saved Lofty’s life.
Post-nationalisation, pit ponies were given the right to be protected and cared for properly, in life and towards death. While before nationalisation, anyone could put down a pit pony underground or above-ground and see no consequences, the nationalisation meant that the horses were given a full assessment before any decision was made on their life and only veterinarians were allowed to make these decisions. So came the end of the needless and violent killing of hard-working ponies by miners, colliery owners, and deputies.
Stories from: Fretwell, L. (2005) ‘Amington Colliery’, The Warwickshire Coalfield, Vol. 1, pp. 40-47