It often seems that my entire life is focused on my PhD research. But in truth, other activities do occur, though perhaps rather overshadowed by my obsession with small things. I’ve decided to include a few here, just to demonstrate that I am a well-rounded person (well, since I’m trying to lose a few kg at the moment, a well-shaped person).

I’m in the middle of transcribing 40 or so letters from Nottingham Museum’s collection, written by elderly people in the 1970s, recounting their first experiences of work at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. They are fascinating and often moving. Here’s an example written by an ex-miner, H. Davies, who lived in Sneinton (original spelling and punctuation):

Some Happy Hours

For me life is always been full of problems – great and small, and as to the conditions of my early working-days, I can still vividly remember before leaving school to work in a coal mine, of the poverty problems of those days and how are used to rebel against myself whilst on errands to the Pawnshop, an intense feeling that burned the breath in my throat as it made my heart beat faster, as I would look around not wishing to be seen going in the Pawnshop with a bundle under my arm.

Yet I was always greeted by old Jac, the Clerk, a withered-faced fatherly man, with a lead pencil behind his ear, and glasses on the tip of his nose.

“What’s tha got this morning Jim?” he asked as I went up to the counter.

“Same old bundle Jac. Can I have five bob on it?”

Then wearing cut-down trousers and a cap too big for me, with a Tommy-Box tucked in my coat pocket and carrying my Tea-Jack in my hand, at quarter past five in the morning, to walk two miles to the pit for an eight hour shift – six days a week for ten shillings.

“Look after theeself Jim me lad,” mother said as she kissed me good morning. “Th’ Lord only knows if I could ‘ave managed wi’out, you wouldn’t ‘ave at to go down th’ pit. We’ve suffered too much for coal; but its got to be this way Jim.”

“I’ll do that Mam. Don’t be frightened for me. Good morning Mam.”

My father had been killed on the coal face a few years ago.

Not long after I was lined up with some mates I knew waiting in the queue to have our safety lamps tested by an old experienced miner whose beard was covered with lamp-oil, as he blew around the glass.

As I handed him my lap he looked at me and asked, “First time down, mi lad?”

“Aye.” I answered.

“God bless thee son. Keep thee chin-up”

To me he looked like Father Christmas dressed in Miners’ clothes with an oily beard.

Then from daylight to pitch darkness as the cage rapidly descended to the shaft-bottom, I could feel the comradeship of the miners.

Here I met my Butty – the collier I was to start working with – named Bert Harris, nicknamed the Fiddler, reputed to be a master in the art of playing the fiddle.

After a walk of a mile and a half we reached the coal face. I stood in awe on seeing for the first time a coal seam seven feet thick. In the dim light of my Safety-Lamp I wondered what it was going to be as I stood by the side of an empty dram waiting to be filled.

“Come on Jim lad, don’t stand theer wonderin. There are shovel for thee. Chuck in that side. Leave the big lumps from me. Six drams a day me lad. That’ll put a bit of jam on our bread and butter.”

Up and down, up and down, my arms working like pistons as I shovelled in the coal, the sweat oozing out of me. At the end of my first shift I felt as tired as a lazy bee.

“How’s it gone down Jim?” asked my Butty, as we got dressed ready for the off. “I remember yer Dad. He was a good collier.”

“Aye,” I answered tiredly, as we started our trial trail back to the pit-bottom and home.

Then like a bolt out of the pitch darkness to daylight as we ascended to step out of the cage. As I did the daylight plagued my eyes; but it soon passed off.

“Sleep tight Jim,” saifd my Butty as we parted at the Lamproom. “See thee in the morning.”

“So long Bert,” I said, as I thought tiredly to myself. “Not so bad. Better than the Pawnshop errands. Anything was better than that.”

Waiting at home as my mother. Her heart lightened as she saw me turning the street corner; but now my coaldusted face was as black as my African brothers.

After bathing in a tub in front of the fire I sat down to my dinner – tired out. I fell asleep and my mother woke me up. My first shift in the pit was over.

After a few paydays, my mother bought me a secondhand bike –  an old Boneshaker –  with solid rubber tyres. That was my week end, riding the countryside when the weather was right with my mates. After the darkness of the pit it was like a dream to me, seeing the glory of nature in the feeling of song.

I would sing as I watched the wildflowers of hedgerows welcoming the evening sun.

We were Sweethearts in the days of yore

Sweethearts then, Sweethearts now, Sweethearts evermore

Ever true dear as the years roll by,

My sweetheart is as good as any,

My sweetheart as good as any,

My sweetheart ‘til I die

And the Village Blacksmith.

Under the spreading chestnut tree

The village Smithy stands.

The Smith a mighty man is he

With large and sinewy hands

And muscles on his brawny arms

As strong as iron bands.

Those were some of the songs we sung; but our favourite was:

Don’t go down the mine Dad,

Dreams very often come true.

What would happen if anything

Happened to you.

Go and tell your dreams to mine

As true as the stars that shine

Something is going to happen today

Dear Daddy don’t go down the mine

That was always sung after football games, Cross country running. Handball, skipping, and other games, especially on Saturday afternoons, with the Harriers, over the mountains returning refreshed and tired but singing

On Saturday afternoon, when we were clean and tidy

When the clock to strike striking three

Up goes the Captain, the Harriers and me

Over the mountains and meadows

Back by the light of the moon

Making a noise, one of the boys

On Saturday afternoon.

The great changes since those working days can be seen everywhere, all for the common good after much suffering and hardship, yet songs were sung in the happy hours as I remember the daybreak peeping through the bedroom window, and the shout from downstairs “Come on Jim. Rise and shine or you’ll be too late for work. The time was five o’clock in the morning, and I quickly rubbed the sleep from my eyes and dashed down the stairs, ready for another shift down the pit, always awaiting the weekend to enjoy a little of our songs and dancing in the field when the weather was fine. The songs I like to dance to were:

There was a farmer had a dog

His name was Bobby Bingo

B.I.N.G.O. B.I.N.G.O B.I.N.G.O

His name was Bobby Bingo.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m going crazy over the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

We can’t afford a carriage

But you’ll look neat upon a seat

Of a bicycle made for two.”