Full exposure, Saturday 17th July 2021

The sun always shines on Hemingfield

If you had told us Hemingfield had somehow been transported to the Caribbean this weekend, no-one would have questioned it. The sandy beaches might have been in short supply, but there was certainly plenty of sun, and even some tourists!

Composition and Composure

The morning commenced with the usual pieces of cleaning and tidying up. With fewer volunteers this week there was a more casual approach to the working day, and the selection of jobs to be done. But don’t be mistaken, any job of any size is a big one when done alone, so it helped to have snook in some extra hours on Friday.

Thinned out, strimmed view of the ‘wilderness’ top end of the site

After fighting through ⅔ of the jungle-like wilderness once called Hemingfield pit last weekend, Site Manager Glen and regular volunteer Paul had returned to finished the job on Friday 16th July, during the scorching afternoon, with the help of the trusty strimmer.

Completing the circuit of the site means it’s much easier to keep the whole lot in check, and allows more time to continue on the bigger repair and restoration jobs.

In focus: visitors on site

It made a very pleasant change to be able to host visitors once again, and to start building back to reopening with a select group of photographers in attendance to capture the site.

Framing up: dazzling bright blue skies and beating sunshine (Photo credit: Mitch Sutherland)

As lunchtime came around, temperatures reached a scorching 31.5 degrees Celsius, leaving the volunteers hunting for the slightest piece of shade. Recuperating after some shade-bathing, it was soon time to meet another two photographers who had taken the time to visit site.

There’s always a great sense of pleasure when new people visit; it’s great to see other people discover what this small slice of industrial heritage has to offer.

Into the dark room

On Saturday Glen and John continued to record measurements of the main winding enginehouse building. Sheltering indoors they made interior measurements to accompany the exterior tape and ladderwork undertaken last weekend.

View of the top side of the pit. Both headgears in view, no shade outside! (Photo credit: Mitch Sutherland)

After snap time they continued taking measurements indoors as the afternoon sun slowly scorched away.

A clear shot

Meanwhile our newest volunteer Mitch got stuck in with tidying up and cleaning the top of the pumping shaft.

Before: moss and weeds carpet the concrete collar of the top of the pumping shaft (Photo credit: Mitch Sutherland)

Removing all the weeds, moss and dirt from the concrete top and  original stone work really makes the pumping shaft look much smarter and approachable.

After the clean up (Photo credit: Mitch Sutherland)

Light in the dark: Underground photography

While we welcomed photographers on site, up top, to capture the surface buildings, photography itself has a long and fascinating connection with mining deeper down, underground.

“Underground the photographer works at a disadvantage, more especially in coal-mines, and has to take what he can get rather than choose what he would like;”

H.F. Bulman & R.A.S. Redmayne, Colliery working and management, Third edition, London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1912, Preface, ix

As early as the 1860s, the Jackson Brothers in Oldham appear to have begun experimenting in underground photography with magnesium light. In 1864-5 noted photographer W.E. Debenham had obtained images in the Botallack metal mine, St Just in Cornwall with a wet collodion plate and rough and ready illumination from magnesium wire, but coal mines remained unsnapped, it seems, for some time.

In November 1876 at Bradford Colliery, Bentley, near Walsall, Frederick Brown made experiments and took several stereo photographs underground, to support a legal case. Each photograph required artificial lighting and long exposures of the plate over 25-30 minutes to capture the scenes. Brown later reported his work, although the final prints were not widely seen.

“I should certainly have used magnesium for the light, but the views required were just out of the air-ways, and the height of the road being only five feet, we were smoked out directly. I therefore used oxy-hydrogen, taking the two bags, and burning the gases mixed, which answered very well; but the light is not so actinic as the magnesium. […]

The developing was done in the mine by candle-light, and the plates being finished before ascending, we knew that we had obtained satisfactory negatives.

As daylight was of no service, we did not go into the mine until afternoon, commenced our work at about 3.30, and we had finished at 7.30, the time being taken up in hauling about the mine the camera and gas-bags, &c., and in setting up the camera for focussing. There not being room to use a tripod, I built up blocks of coal for the camera to stand on, and in one of the places I had to lie full length to focus, as there was no head room.”

Brown, Frederick ‘ Photography in Mines’, from The year-book of photography and photographic news almanac for 1877, edited by G. Wharton Simpson , London: Piper-Carter, Fleet St., p.125

Perhaps the first successful attempt to photograph the full range of underground coal mining operations came in 1881-2 at the Cannock Chase Collieries, Walsall, under colliery manager Arthur Sopwith. His images appear in many later published works.

Example of Arthur Sopwith’s underground photography, from Hughes, H.W., A text-book of coal-mining, for the use of colliery managers and others, London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1892

Further prominent and persistent efforts came from royal photographer J.C. Burrow, who published the results of his work in Cornish mines in a remarkable 1893 book with William Thomas, a mining engineer, entitled ‘Mongst Mines and Miners; or underground scenes by flash-light: a series of photographs, with explanatory letterpress, illustrating methods of working in Cornish Mines‘ (Internet Archive book link).

The practical lessons of his work were condensed in articles like ‘Subterraneous photography‘ (from The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1895, pp.125-127 – Internet Archive book link) which well illustrates the views he obtained, as well as highlighting the difficulties faced.

“Readers intending to attempt underground photography must not be discouraged when a too eager assistant, staggering through the semi-darkness with a hydrogen cylinder of 20 feet capacity under his arm, and a pair of lime-light burners in one hand, stumbles headlong into a pool of water by the side of the level. Nor must they lose their self-control when, after carefully selecting the driest spot available to open the magnesium powder tin for re-charging the lamps, a “flosh” of water from some unknown source falls into the tin as soon as the cover is off, instantly “dropping the curtain” most effectually upon the remainder of the day’s programme.”

Burrow, J.C. and Thomas, William, ‘Mongst Mines and Miners; or underground scenes by flash-light: a series of photographs, with explanatory letterpress, illustrating methods of working in Cornish Mines, London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Limited, 1893, p.9 (‘How the camera was used’).

Perhaps the most active in popularising coal mine photography was mine manager and engineer Herbert W. Hughes. His direct knowledge and access to Staffordshire ironstone and coal mines certainly allowed his earlier experiments to be perfected, and good images of actual scenes of work to be captured.

Example of H.W. Hughes’ underground photography from Hughes, H.W., A text-book of coal-mining, for the use of colliery managers and others, Fifth edition, London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1904

He shared technical ideas with Burrow, and wrote articles on the subject, such as his 1893 ‘Photography in Coal Mines‘, published in The Journal and Transactions of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, N.S. Vol.XVIII, No.3, November 1893, pp.93-101 (Royal Photographic Society Archives link), or his 1894 ‘Photography in mines‘ published in the Transactions of the Federated Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol.VII, 1893-4, pp.164-179 (link to Google Books). Even still, success was fleeting, with 70% of the plates exposed being failures, making later film and modern digital photography look like child’s play in comparison.

“The difficulties to be overcome are not many, but are hard to surmount. In all classes of mines, the smoke resulting from blasting, the moisture-laden and misty atmosphere, and the dripping of water from the roof are generally present, these being supplemented in coal mines by the presence of coal dust, which not only thickens the atmosphere, but deposits particles on the lens and plate. […]

Even with all precautions and after an examination has been made to see if the lens is clear immediately before exposure, the opening of some door in one of the airways may momentarily divert the regular current, and cause some cooler air to enter the place being photographed, with the result that the lens is fogged, and the plate spoiled.”

H.W. Hughes, ‘Photography in Coal Mines’, The Journal and Transactions of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, N.S. Vol.XVIII, No.3, November 1893, p.96
Underground photograph of a hewer working in a thin seam with a deputy setting timber, from Bulman, H.F. and Redmayne, R.A.S., Colliery working and management, 1912 edition (photograph dates to 1896), facing p.76

Other photographers, less well known, but producing some remarkable underground images, include Reverend W.A. Wickham at the Douglas Bank Colliery, Wigan in 1891, and the range of images captured by Harrison Francis Bulman working with R.A.S. Redmayne (later Sir Richard Redmayne) from the mid-1890s.

Underground photograph of a trammer or putter moving corves along a tramway, from Bulman, H.F. and Redmayne, R.A.S., Colliery working and management, 1912 edition (photograph dates to 1896), facing p.84

In the frame

Writing after the turn of the Twentieth century, in 1905 popular technical author Charles R. Gibson illustrated a later attempt at extreme underground photography when trying to capture Scottish miners working an 18 inch high working seam at Holytown Colliery belonging to James Nimmo & Co., in Lanarkshire.

Image of 2 Scottish miners working a coal cutter in a space 18 inches high, probably at Holytown Colliery, Lanarkshire, reproduced in The Romance of Modern Photography. Its discovery and its achievements, London: Seeley and Co Ltd, 1908, facing p.230.

After multiple attempts a more aggressive artificial illuminant – acetylene gas – was tried, with the flash powder vendor Max Diessner present to assist in securing a remarkable image of two miners and their electric bar coal cutting machine (Hurd’s, by Mavor and Coulson) in a tiny space underground. The ‘moment’ captured was anything but instantanteous – the miners had to stay perfectly still for 6 minutes of exposure to capture a useable image.

Awaiting developments

From the early 1890s camera, flash light, and plate technology continued to improve, popularising the medium, and making it both a cheaper and more portable option to professionals and public alike.

At the same time photographs started to be more widely reproduced in technical and popular publications with the arrival of half-tone process print blocks replacing earlier wood engraving methods manually derived from photographic prints.

Photographic advert showing underground scene, Iron & Coal Trades Review, 21 Jan 1898, Vol.LVI, No.1560, p.87

Manufacturers increasingly began to use half-tone block methods of reproducing photographs in their catalogues, although early examples tend to show the technical limitations of half-tone screen detail, i.e. the distinctive ‘dots’ when the printed image is magnified.

Magnified detail of Barnsley postcard, with the printed ‘dots’ of the halftone photographic reproduction quite visible.

Just the card

From September 1894 the UK Post Office allowed picture postcards to be used for inland postage, this started a long trend of photographic images being sent and exchanged – whether as souvenirs or commercial promotions, or as a means of sharing images of private events.

From late 1902 postcard backs were printed with a dividing line, and printed and real photographic images with a divider began to proliferate in daily correspondence. Although underground scenes were still a rarity, they began to be used as promotional advertising for colliery companies and series of images could be collected by a curious public above-ground.

Front and back detail of underground scene from 1910s postcard ‘No.21 Pony Haulage’, part of a collectable postcard series produced by Brayton Domain Collieries, Cumberland (Courtesy Private Collection).

Candid camera: Yorkshire

A small selection of some Yorkshire-based underground photographic images which appeared in print to wrap things up.

Underground photograph of machine man and assistant flitting (moving) a coal cutter along a gate for the next cut in the thin Lidgett seam at Lidgett Colliery, Hoyland Common. Heavily touched up in bottom right, this is perhaps the earliest published underground photograph in a Yorkshire colliery, from Bulman, H.F. and Redmayne, R.A.S., Colliery working and management, 1912 edition (photograph dates to 1896), facing p.116
Undercutting coal by hand in the Silkstone Sesm at Pope & Pearson’s West Riding and Silkstone Colliery at Altofts, photograph taken by William Edward (later Sir) Garforth and reproduced in his 1902 article ‘The Application of Coal-cutting Machines to Deep Mining’, Transactions of The Institution of Mining Engineers, Vol.XXIII, 1901-2, p.323
‘Down in the pit, men, boys, and a pony at work’, image from South Kirkby, Featherstone and Hemsworth Collieries Ltd, reproduced in Hull as a Coal Port, 1913, p.60

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