What lies be­neath: old min­ers’ tales of ghosts un­der­ground

Black Country Bugle - - YOUR LETTERS - By DAN SHAW

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.

John Free­man

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