What lies beneath: old miners’ tales of ghosts underground
WE ALL enjoy a ghost story at Hallowe’en and there are many tales of spectral apparitions in the old Black Country.
In 1931 the Bilston historian John Freeman (1853-1944) published Black Country Stories and Sketches. Among the stories were a few ghostly tales that the old miners used to tell. As Freeman wrote, “The weird conditions, the darkness of the mines, and the oftentimes loneliness in which they worked, linked with the thought of the mysterious nearness of accident and death, encouraged the instinctive superstition of the miners. In such a soil a crop of ghost stories easily grew. Most old miners had seen a ghost, or heard of one.”
Our first ghost story from Freeman’s book is entitled The Neachells Ghost:
It was early morning in September, 1870. The men left the gloom of the pit-bank, for the deeper gloom of a Neachells ironstone mine, which they were re-opening, after it had been disued for a dozen years. Some of the old roadways were still open, and the timbers were heavily hung with masses of fungi. Shortly after commencing work the “doggy” was startled by observing man in a short road on his right. The man was strange to him but he hurried on, intending to speak to him as he returned. On coming back he spoke to the man, who made no answer, but faded out of sight while he paused for his reply. Alarmed, the doggy ran to the shaft bottom and called for the butty, who at once went down, and together they went to investigate the apparition. The doggy led the way; again seeing the uncanny visitant he gave a cry of terror and ran to the pit-bottom. The butty did not stop to look for himself, he was so unnerved by the other’s fright. Other men now said they too saw the spectre, and fear spreading through the workings, men dropped their tools and went up the shaft. When the manager heard the story he at once decided to go down the pit, and ascertain the cause of the illusion. With difficulty he persuaded the butty and doggy to accompany him, but the ghost did not reappear, and he suggested that the doggy had been drinking, or had allowed the white mass of fungi to play on his nerves. With scorn the old collier replied: “I’m not a drinking man, gaffer, and as for nerves, I once spent a w’ull night in a grave.”
Work was resumed at once, but no ghost was seen for several days. Then a horse driver saw it in the same spot, but was too terrified to continue his work, and another fellow who made light of it, took his place. Soon a great unearthly cry told that he had seen the vision and he was found lying insensible. After he had somewhat recovered he told his story. As he passed near the spot his horse shied and trembled and he cursed and thrashed it to no purpose. Then he called the ghost bad names, when suddenly to his horror it came right to his very side. Whatever happened, his nerves were quite unstrung and he was several days in recovering. All who saw the ghost said that he was a tall man, wearing a sinker’s jacket and a red muffler about his neck.
It was recalled that when the mine was formerly worked a man was killed at the spot where the ghost appeared and that the pit ceased working on account of the poor fellow’s wraith being seen.
The man who was butty at the pit in the early days having heard of the recent apparition came to the pit, and have a description of the man who was killed which tallied with that given of the ghost lately seen.
After a while the men were induced to return to work, but in the following November the unearthly visitor showed himself again, after that he never again troubled them.
A second ghost story from Freeman’s book is Blackwell’s Ghost:
Old Tom Powis was a racy storyteller, and the following yarn he spun many time over to his many friends. He thoroughly believed every word of it, and no one could shake his confidence in its absolute truthfulness. It happened in his boyhood, when he knew all the ins and outs of old Blackwell’s colliery better than most. With an air of mystery Tom always said that no living collier could get through as much work as Marley Jim.
He preferred to work nights, then he did double as much holeing in a night’s turn as any ordinary man. The matter caused much questioning and a great deal of betting, but Jim would not be drawn. “The wark’s theer, it spakes for itself, dunna it?” was all he could be got to say; and the fact that Jim stubbornly refused to work with anyone else at night naturally increased the mystery. Two or three of his mates, however, were determined to discover his secret. To carry the matter through, they had to get round the “whimsy-man,” which was done with a little bit of collier’s blarney and a quart of Jacky Fellow’s ale. Though he consented to lower them down the pit towards midnight, he remained very dubious about the matter. With very doubtful nods he said:
“Dunna yo’ bleame me if things gooin rung! I wouldna goo doon myself for a fortin.”
“I can see thee be’st gettin’ skeered a’ready, dunna thee lose thee yed an’ run off an’ leave we doon the pit,” said one of them banteringly.
“I binna skeered, on’y a bit onasy, that’s all.” he replied. He let them down safely to the pit-bottom, when they moved stealthily in the direction of the lonely miner. Soon they heard the sound of a pick. One touched the other and whispered: “Hush! I con hear more nor one pick, conna yo?” They listened breathlessly, and surely enough in the silence of the mine there came the “pick, pick” of several workers. What could it mean? They had misgivings, but they moved forward to see for themselves. When they reached a point from which they got a view, they saw in the hole made in the black darkness by the old man’s candles, that while the rap, rap of the picks continued he sat quietly smoking his pipe and to their horror they saw several black unearthly creatures hard at work under-cutting the coal. Terrified by the sight, one of them uttered a sharp cry of alarm, and the imps turned upon them a fiendish gaze and broke into a horrible shrieking laughter. The lights went out and the intruders with trembling haste crept back to the bottom of the shaft and were hauled up. It was now the whimsey man’s turn, but his ridicule did not shake their belief that they had seen little devils doing the old man’s work, and the revelation of the next morning gave confirmation to their weird tale. It is said the old collier was found stone-dead with the mark of a pick in his head, suggesting that he had been killed by one of his ghostly helpers.