Mining memories: Telegrams reveal blunders that beset opening of pit canteen

Manton Colliery memorabilia
Manton Colliery memorabilia

Never seen before telegrams from around the time Manton Colliery’s canteen was opened have been unearthed.

Former Manton miner Tony Booth found the correspondence (pictured) in a draw in his office at the ill-fated pit where he worked for 34 years.

Thanks to his quick thinking, to save the documents for posterity, today we can reveal their content.

A chain of telegrams was sent between colliery management and VIP guests lined up to officially open the new canteen.

Amusing snippets of prose reveal a series of logistic hitches in the run-up to the opening ceremony, and a great effort to be appear politically correct amid challenging circumstances.

The purpose built canteen was due to open on 29th August 1942 but the late delivery of a potato chipper, electric mincer and a mixer meant the event was postponed by nearly three weeks.

It was decided that the colliery company, The Wigan Coal Corporation Ltd, would provide a free meal to miners on the opening day, as was customary in the area.

But they could not do it for everyone, and this presented the problem of choosing 200 employees out of the 2,000 strong workforce.

“There would be disgruntlement if only 200 people enjoyed a free meal,” wrote colliery manager Mr G. Dunn.

“We have had some difficulty in getting the men’s side to name the 200 persons to be invited to the opening, and frankly are afraid to displease those who will not be invited. It is a great pity that the men in this area are so childish about these matters, but it is there, and we have to deal with it.”

Eventually a random draw was made to relieve the men of any criticism if they were chosen.

But further complications came when vouchers were issued for the men to claim their free meal. They were printed with a penny value, rather than the agreed half-penny contribution from the coal company, leaving the catering contractors to foot the bill for the extra outlay. Nerves must have been fraught in the run-up to the opening, not just on the workers’ side, but also for colliery bosses and officials.

Four days before the ceremony Mr Dunn wrote to the secretary for the Earl of Crawford, who was chairman of the Wigan Coal Corporation.

“I have learned that speeches have been overdrawn to such an extent at recent ceremonies, that on one occasion shouts from the body of the hall to the effect that they had come for a meal, not to hear speeches, pulled the speaker up abruptly,” he said. “With this in mind I have allotted 30 minutes only for speeches at our ceremony on Saturday next.”

The following day Mr Dunn wired some notes to the Earl of Crawford advising him on suitable topics for his ceremonial speech. Nothing in my mind would be nicer than for you to continue to outline the provision that has been made for the well-being of the men at Manton.”

“The Baths, for instance, are the finest possible and although they have been built for ten years they are still the admiration of all who see them.”

“When war came it was felt that no mere covered-over trenches were good enough for Manton. The fact was not lost sight of that in an alert, or even an attack upon the Colliery, there was always the possibility that there would be some hundreds of men engaged in bathing and they, of course, could not without danger to their health rush out into cold shelters.”

“The result was that the finest shelters in the country were constructed in the Baths basement, and the comforting feature about them is that the temperature in the shelter is the same as that in the Baths so that a man can clutch his towel and dash down in the nude without fear of catching cold.”

Mr Dunn continues: “You could go on to state how desperately coal is required and if you care, without touching upon absenteeism, you could still make the point by giving the Manton miner a pat on the back.” The telegram quotes Manton Colliery’s coal output during the war effort at just under three million tonnes.

The pit baths and canteen were demolished following the closure of the colliery.