Among the Fife miners – Blairadam Brickworks and Hill of Beath Fireclay Works.

Title – Among the Fife miners.

Author – Durland, Kellogg, 1881-1911.

Published – London: Swan Sonnenschein,1904.

The experiences of an ‘educated middle-class dilletante’ from Edinburgh who goes to work at Blairadam Brickworks & Hill of Beath Fireclay works, Kelty; describing the working day, working processes etc.

Chapter IV – Making bricks without straw.

A late tinsel-like moon shone faintly through the rising mist of a dark autumn dawn as I caught up to a group of brickwork hands, who were splashing along a pooly, muddy road toward the big brick kilns. The party consisted of a father, a married son, two younger sons and a daughter, the latter a lassie of twenty. “Are ye fur the brickwork, Bill?” Asked one as I fell in with them. I knew the family. “Ay, Jock,” I replied, “I want to learn the trade.” “Ye were better aff in the pits,” growled the old man. “I’ve been six and twenty years at the brick trade, and I’m tellin’ ye that you’ll soon weary o’ hit.” “Maybe. But I’m in for it anyway.” “There’s nae money here for them that should be earnin’ guid wages,” put in the girl. “And the hours are ower lang.” She shivered a bit and turned to catch the first streaks of the day just shooting in crimson flashes across the wide fields to the west. The misty air was cold. I drew my gravit tighter round my neck and plunged my hands deeper into my pockets. It wanted two or three minutes to six, but the late sun made it look and feel much earlier. I thought of my first morning in the coal pit several months before, when the sun had been long up and the atmosphere breathed of work—now it sniffed of sleep. Then my labourer’s clothes felt curiously uncomfortable and out of place, as if they were part of a disguise assumed for an hour to be sloughed off at the end of the shift, now they hung in torn, patched and splattered wrinkles quite naturally, and my gait had changed to a steady shuffle. Even the strange hands gave me no heed. At the yard there were a few sleepy greetings from the men, while three or four tireless girls were racing round a half dozen empty bogeys that were standing on a truck running alongside the big kilns. At the first toot of the horn jackets were pulled off and sleeves rolled elbow high. For thirty seconds the horn blew, long enough to wake up the yard if not the village itself. A cloud of exhaust steam puffed noisily over the roof of the engine house, and the great crunching machine wheels began to turn. The day had begun.

The brickworks lie about a mile from the Aitken pit on the other side of the village, hard by the shaft of a colliery. In Kelty, brick-making is an industry sprung from the utilisation of the waste material of the pits. Bricks are necessary in every pit for shaft linings, proppings, walls and so on, so that it is cheaper for large coal companies to make their own bricks than to buy them. The Company has an- other extensive brick yard at Hill of Beath. Brick- making on a large scale is profitable, and the company is building up an industry so as to enter into serious competition with the market. There are two pits near to the brickwork. The workings are extensive, but not nearly so deep as in the Aitken. The rock which often forms the roof above the coal seams, known as blae, makes an excellent brick clay. In the pit it is hardened by the intense pressure of centuries, but when exposed to the weather and atmospheric changes it soon crumbles and, in the huge brickwork crunching mill, it is easily ground to powder. It had been arranged that I should begin at the lowest rung of the brick trade ladder and climb up, step by step, following the various stages of the clay, from the rough, till it came out finished articles for the market. “Feed yon mill, Bill, and mind your head when the stanes tumble down.”

“Yon mill” was a huge dry or riddle mill with a pan whose bottom was like a strong sieve; and as the horn blew, the pan was set in operation with a regular circular motion, by two tremendous crushing wheels that fitted into the pan bottom, revolving with a rumbling almost as loud, but not so rattling, as the big pit wheels. As the blae is brought out of the pits to the surface it is run out on an elevated platform to a spot above, and just outside of the dry mill, where the hutches are overturned and their loads spilled into a shapeless pile. The men who “feed the mill” have to shovel from this pile into the pan with a constant energy that makes them literally a part of the machine—human automatons, who dare not stop save when the machine stops. I was placed between two men with a light stone shovel in my hands. My right-hand neighbour was a youngish man, who looked played-out with hard work and hard living. The other was a man past his prime, well meaning enough in his way, but who eternally nurtured a feeling of irritation that some- times bordered on wrath, that his lot was to toil all his days at such work when there were many superior jobs, even about the brickwork. “Talk about slavery being debolished,” he shouted in my ear, above the roar of the machine, as he, jammed his shovel hard into the heap of broken blae never stopping for an instant as he spoke; “yon mill is the sluck of despond ‘” The old cheeriness of the pit was entirely lacking at the dry mill and, as every hour in the day demanded its full sixty minutes of work, there was not even time for a smoke, consequently, the mill feeders chew their tobacco. Chewing is happily a habit that is not – nearly so common among Scottish workmen as among American workmen, for instance, who are almost universally addicted to this habit. Sometimes good-sized rocks would come down with the smaller stones, and these had to be first broken with a mash. When we worked specially fast, we reduced the pile so that the distance between the mill and it was twelve or fifteen feet, which was too far to throw the heavy shovelfulls, so wheelbarrows were brought into use; this, of course, meant considerable extra work. All day long the wheels ground round, pulverizing the stone to dust, and all day long we would work, stopping only when the wheels stopped. It was our duty to keep these wheels sup- plied with stones, and no other consideration was allowed to regulate the work. Aching muscles, tired limbs, all these were subordinated to the dusty, worn, feelingless machine. Four tons of clay produce approximately one thousand bricks, and the machine that we were feeding turned out twelve thousand bricks a day on an average. With three men shovel- ling into the pan, this means that each man must shovel nearly sixteen tons of stone a day. There should be a slight allowance for the weight of the water that is added to the dust after it leaves the mill, but the average day’s work of the mill feeders is not far from sixteen tons of shovelling. This means rapid, continuous work, and, as I can testify, the wear and tear of such continuous exertion is most exhausting. Unless he is very strong, the man who feeds the mill is too tired for much else than his newspaper and his pipe at nightfall. At nine o’clock the machines are stopped for three-quarters of an hour for breakfast. Most of us went home to break- fast and dinner. Some few, who lived at a distance, had to bring their meals. As I passed out of the door one morning, a man, who had settled into a comfortable corner on the floor, held up a couple of dry bread and cheese sandwiches of abnormal thick- ness, and, with a sardonic laugh said:— “This is what we work ten hours a day for—a half- hour’s feeding once and awhile.” Before the whistle had ceased blowing, a quarter to ten, the wheels were in motion, and the men were again bending to their tasks. The forenoons generally passed more quickly between breakfast and dinner, and at one o’clock the shovels were dropped with the first sound of the horn, and the three-quarters of an hour allowed for dinner was made as much of as the hours of labour—forty-five full minutes, never forty-four, never forty-six. In the afternoon the toil continued in all its monotony from a quarter to two till half- past five. There was never any variety, never a bit of rest, the same downright hard work day after day, from six in the morning till half-past five at night, with the two brief meal hours excepted. At the mill the man stood as in a doorway, working mostly just outside the threshhold. The mill was inside the building, while the pile of blae was outside. In fair weather, this arrangement was satisfactory, but on stormy days the men are exposed to all the fury of easterly winds and rains. The icy blasts sweep up the Firth of Forth from the tempestuous North Sea and strike up the valley with terrific cutting force, screeching through the wide-open doors almost like the air forced below by the pit ventilating fan. It is then that these men suffer. The rate of wages that they receive does not tend to reconcile them to the hardness of their lot; for this rough, sodden work, the pay is four shillings and four pence a day. Brick- workers are not bound together by a strong union and, consequently, they have much to put up with that the miners have been able to overcome. Whereas the miners’ day is but eight hours long, including the meal hour, the brick-workers’ day extends for eleven hours and a half, and their average wage is far below that of the miners’. The additional three hours or so make a vast difference to a man. Speaking for myself, I found that the last two or three hours of work demanded as big an effort and took as much out of me as the first eight. Judging from the men whom I worked with, one can work hard for seven or eight hours a day, but after that the strongest men show signs of fatigue, and need a much longer time in which to recuperate. From an economic standpoint, as well as a humanitarian, I have little hesitancy in giving as my firm belief that, in the long run, the eight hours’ day yields the best returns, for the men remain capable longer and the standard of their work is higher. A man who rises at half-past five (often earlier), and handles sixteen tons or more of stone during the day, getting home between half-past five and six o’clock in the evening, can hardly be expected to encourage many serious interests. I have watched the men come home from the brickwork, and as soon as they had finished tea, they would drop into a chair before the fire and drowsily doze away two or three hours, and then tumble into bed. This was about all that I felt like doing after feeding the mill from dawn till dusk. It was not difficult to see here an excuse for men drinking. Alcohol produces a pleasant effect without demanding any effort. The public house is often more attractive than the home, and many men prefer the hum of voices, the cheery, stimulating, spirited atmosphere to his own quiet kitchen; a glass or two of beer may refresh a man’s jaded spirit and turn all life immediately about him to a brighter hue and make the world appear couleur de rose. He feels that it is recreation that he needs, and that is the only way that he knows how to re- create without violent exertion. Sometimes he grows hungry for a big bite of pleasure, so he gets drunk he revels in his debauch for a night and when he awakes he does not grumble because he is not right, but pays for his fun like a man. This view may be a sad one, but I learned to appreciate it, and I, at least, became convinced of the utter futility of preaching temperance without doing something to relieve the conditions that produce the desire for drink, and to offer some substantial substitute for the public house, before entirely doing away with the institution. As the big wheels revolve, they press the powdered stone through the sieve bottom of the pan, where it is caught in metal buckets that are secured to an endless chain which empties them automatically into a trough, where water is mixed with the dust till it becomes clay. It is then forced into the brick-shaping machine, and under great pressure moulded into bricks, one at 6 a time. There are machines that turn out six bricks at a time, and nearly thirty thousand a day, but such machines have not yet been introduced at Kelty. As the bricks take shape, a girl lifts them from the machine and loads them on to trucks or bogeys that are pushed to the kiln where the bricks are fired. The next step was preparing fire clay for hand- made bricks. Hand-made fire clay bricks command a higher market price, because they are more care- fully and solidly made and, consequently, last longer. They are much used for fireplaces and elsewhere, where there is excessive heat. After the clay dust is sent to a second mill, it is allowed to pour into a “wet” pan, which much resembles the dry pan, save that its bottom is not riddled and it is somewhat smaller. Here the clay is rolled and softened until it becomes properly stiff, yet pliable, when it is lifted from the pan into a wheelbarrow by means of a long- handled shovel attached to the machine, and operated with great ease through its extended leverage. The fresh clay is then wheeled across the yard to the “baking” rooms where it is shaped into the hand moulds. It is a question why the shaping of cold clay should be called baking, but such is the case, and the process of heating the bricks in the kiln is called firing, but the man who tends the fires is not a fireman but a burner.

In the pit I had learned to use a mash and a shovel, so I got along passing well feeding the mill. When it came my turn to wheel the barrow of wet clay from the wet pan to the baking room, I began without a suspicion that that was work that demanded a certain amount of skill as well as strength. As I crossed the yard with the first barrow, I was startled by my own clumsiness. A load of clay weighs from two hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds, and if it is not placed squarely on the barrow, it is exceedingly difficult to preserve an equilibrium, and more often than not I found it impossible. After crossing the yard, winding between and over bogey tracks, there was a narrow doorway to pass through, a wide room to cross, another doorway to enter into, a second room and an eight-inch plank to ascend to the baker’s bench. I escaped the tracks, managed the doorways, but met my Waterloo on the plank. After a little practice by dint of much trying, I found it possible to reach the top of the plank without a spill, but as the hours wore on my muscles seemed to weary; and again and again I noticed that my arms trembled as I started up the plank with my load, and at last I went tumbling off the narrow roadway, barrow and all. After a little this became almost a regular proceeding, so that it was wisely decided to give me an immediate promotion. Promotions are not usually made on this basis. Perhaps, if they were made so oftener, some of life’s failures would redeem them- selves, as I redeemed myself upon my promotion at the brickwork. A bench was given me and a brick mould, a very simple affair consisting of a wooden frame, oblong like a brick, but with neither top nor bottom. This frame is placed squarely on the table, a mass of dripping clay, roughly shaped with the hands some- what narrower than the frame, but considerably higher, is then raised eighteen inches or two feet above the table, and slapped into the frame so hard, that it spreads itself to every part of the frame and fills the corners. It is then pressed firmly down, and the top smoothed off with a wooden scraper and the brick is slid gently out of the frame on to the floor. In the baking rooms the floors are of concrete, under- laid with steam pipes, so as to dry and harden the bricks before they are sent on to pass through the next processes of pressing and firing. It is only after long practice that one can make bricks with any rapidity, and it was not expected that I should keep pace with the experienced men. Perhaps it was because little was expected of me that I won the favourable comment of the manager here. At all events, during the first day I worked at the rate of five hundred bricks a day. If this statement could stand alone it would be all right, but it must be added that, while I was making five hundred bricks alone, the experienced man across the room, assisted by two girls, made three thousand. Three thousand is an average day’s out-put of an experienced man, but under specially favourable circumstances a man, who is truly an expert, can turn out nearly five thousand. Such speed, however, is very exceptional. Formerly this branch of the trade was paid for at piece-work rates, which were one and nine per thou- sand, but now that is changed and the bakers get four and four a day like the yard labourers and most of the brickwork men. On the whole, these figures cut a lower rate than at the piece-work rate, although there are certain advantages, as when a machine breaks, or clay is slow in arriving, causing a delay, the loss is not a loss to the workmen as it otherwise would be. The bricks are left on the warm floor about twenty- four hours, and then pressed and conveyed to the kiln. Pressing is almost as tedious and tiring as feeding the mill; it is quite as monotonous, but less noisy. Two girls stand by, one on each side of the machine. One puts them in and the other lifts them out. The man’s work is to guide a huge iron lever so as to press the brick in this inverted elaborate vice, and then to press it back so as to release the brick. It is solely a matter of physical exertion, requiring little attention. The tedium of the motion is wearing, and I found that after a day at the press, my physical condition was nearly the same as at the end of a day at the mill. When I reached the chimney-can room, I began to feel like a skilled workman. The making of chimney-cans is almost delicate work in parts. The chimney moulds are big clumsy affairs, three or four feet tall and in two halves. A mass of wet clay is beaten into a thin flat layer, somewhat larger than the half into which it is to go, and then fitted carefully. It must be well levelled all over, nicely turned with a knife, and the whole thing rubbed to a polish. The second half is done in a similar manner, and the mould is folded together, the seam carefully worked over and polished so that, if possible, every trace of it is obliterated. A dexterous workman can make nearly fifty chimney-cans a day if he works continuously at the same thing, but as the brick industry now means a good deal more than actual brick making, the men who do this work are well trained, practical workmen, who also make all kinds of brick drains, troughs, cornices and so on. A chimney-can sells at from one and six to four and four, pig troughs from two to eight shillings, cattle troughs from three and six to eight shillings, a far better proportionate price than ordinary bricks bring. For some curious reason, I was most successful with pig troughs, so I made pig troughs mostly. This department entails the lightest work in connection with the brickwork, also the greatest skill, and hence the higher wage of five shillings a day. The price of common bricks was down to nearly one guinea a thousand, from that to seven and twenty shillings, while I was there, but the hand-made fire- clay bricks were selling for sixty shillings per thou- sand. To give some idea of how many bricks there are in a wall, it may be mentioned that there are about fifty thousand bricks in an ordinary miner’s cottage and upwards of one hundred thousand in a medium sized house. In some places the cost of clay is a considerable item, but in Kelty it is, of course, procured at almost no cost. Yet, with all the modern improvements in the way of new model kilns and machines, it costs about sixteen shillings to make one thousand bricks, leaving a profit of about ten shillings per thousand. It was a crisp clear morning in October. There was an autumn crisp in the leaves stirred by the fresh west wind, and the men worked with a briskness that was unusual. The mill was kept well filled, the clay came out quickly and the bricks began to cover the baking-room floor at a much earlier hour than usual. The sharpness of the day seemed to have got into the men and we all stepped lighter; some sang now and again that morning. The saucy lassies romped like the children they are between jobs, and threw small pellets of wet clay at the busy men from behind piles of bricks and through broken windows. Everyone seemed equal to his task. Perhaps the sudden bright break in the weather after a wearying period of rain and humid mist was accountable for the quickened spirits. Things went along so merrily that morning that we wondered how long it would last. That afternoon I was sent to help empty one chamber of the Hoffman kiln. Each of the ten chambers of that kiln holds about ten thousand bricks. As I neared the doorway, two sturdy girls, one fifteen, the other slightly older, came out with their faces a crimson purple, their strong bare arms were damp with perspiration. The younger one dropped on to an empty bogey and leaned her head against the end, her eyes closed as if she would sleep. The other stood with arms akimbo, gazing wistfully toward purple crested Benarty over the wood of autumn painted trees. “It’s a braw day,” she said as 1 came up—“a brawer day for the hill than for this job.” The gaffer appeared at that moment and she gave her companion a warning kick. “Wake up, Liz,” and they both hurried through the low, narrow door- way. I followed with the empty bogey. The chamber was more than half emptied, and the blast of heat that swept against me as I straightened up in the kiln fairly staggered me. A flaring lamp exactly like a small iron kettle with a wick run through the nozzle threw a flamboyant glare against the brick walls. As I drew near the spot where the girls were already fast at work, I felt as if I must suffocate for want of a cool breath. The gaffer came in just then and remarked : “It’s gey warm, Bill.” “Indeed, yes—how hot is it here?” “He laughed. “I dinna ken. It micht be a hundred.” “One hundred. Man, it must be more.” “Mair than one hundred ? Na, na, Bill. It tak’s a guid lump o’ heat to be a hundred.” The girls piled the bogey full and rolled it out, returning presently with another one empty. Neither spoke. The heat remained about the same during the afternoon, neither decreasing nor perceptibly in- creasing. The next time I went into the kiln, I carried a small thermometer in my pocket, the only one I could procure at the time. As I entered the kiln, it stood 68° Fahrenheit. The air was hottest near the roof and more bearable at the pavement, so I took a fair average and placed it at the height of a lassie’s head. In fifteen minutes the mercury had shot up to 140 and there it stopped, because the limit of the thermometer had been reached. I don’t know how hot it really was, for I did not get another chance to test it, but there, in that kiln, with the heat above 140° and probably not less than 150°, those girls are working for from two to four hours at straining, tiring work, taking the still hot bricks from the piles where they had been fired, and placing them on the bogeys from which they are emptied into railway waggons that carry them to the market. At another time I was with those same girls building up a kiln. The air was close and heavy with the nauseating odour of oil, warm but not hot. Bogey loads of one hundred green bricks were sent in every two or three minutes from the machines. Great care is needed in this work to pile the bricks so that, when the heat begins to dry and shrink them, there will not be a collapse of the whole kiln, as sometimes happens, causing a good deal of damage. Those girls were perfect Amazons in point of strength. They each handled from five thousand to six thousand bricks a day and, as green bricks are made heavy by the water in the soft clay, each brick weighs about twelve pounds. The girls lift them, one in each hand, from the bogey to the pile, setting them down a finger’s width apart, working at a high speed that is bewildering to a novice. From early morning they work handling score after score, hundred upon hundred, thousand upon thousand, never slackening their speed as the day advances. There are no two men in the brick- work who can handle as many bricks in a day as do those girls, although it is really a man’s work. As these are specially skilled workers, they receive higher wages than any of the other girls—two and three- pence a day. The other girls receive from one and seven pence to one and ten pence a day, which is distinctly better than the wages paid to the pithead girls. The work is not so brutal as at the pithead, but the hours are longer, and the girls themselves are of a slightly better type, indeed, some of them come from most respectable families. They are full of fun and keen on a good time, but, on the whole, their boisterousness does not descend to vulgarity and their jests are merry, crude and of single meaning. My kiln work did not last long; it was only on busy days. My next and final serious work was burning—otherwise stoking. A burner is really an intelligent stoker. I say intelligent because it requires a man of some brains to advance the fires from chamber to chamber round the Hoffman kiln without injuring the bricks by too suddenly exposing them to the white heat. The old way of firing bricks in what is called the Newcastle kiln, is to start a small fire in one end of the kiln as in a furnace, and gradually enlarge the fire, eventually barring the door with a solid, so as to keep every particle of heat within the kiln. In this kiln it requires ten hundredweight of coal to fire one thousand bricks. In the improved kiln, the Hoffman, which is an entirely different method, one hundredweight only is necessary. The Newcastle looks likes a large brick furnace heavily buttressed, so as to prevent the walls from bulging out to the breaking point with the heat. The Hoffman is a much larger, low, oval-shaped structure, with walls tending inward, so as to lean against the expanding force as it were, and surmounted by a brick parapet three or four feet high. Within, it is divided into ten chambers which open one into the other right down the contour of the kiln. The roof is dotted with upwards of a hundred iron cups, which cover as many small holes, through which small coal is dropped into fiercely burning fires at the bottom of the kiln. Perhaps half a dozen fires are kept burning at one time, and the heat advances slowly into distant chambers warming the green bricks gradually until they are ready to receive the full intensity of the white heat, when the dampers are removed and the fires carried nearer. The man who tends these fires is able to keep them properly fed without being forced to stand the blistering heat that bursts from the door of the furnace-like Newcastle. As a rule, six or seven days must elapse between the time when the bricks are first put into the kiln and when they are brought into close contact with the fires. About ten days are necessary for the full firing process. When material like chimney-cans, troughs and drains, that demand a glaze, fill a chamber, quantities of salt are piled into the fires, thus producing the glaze effect. On the day shift, the job of burner is, by no means, a bad one; it is not heavy work and there are many breathing spells, but as the fires have to be kept going day and night a change about system is necessary, which means that the man who is on the day shift one week, must take his turn at the night work the next week. The night shift is a frightfully dreary vigil, thirteen hours long, from five in the evening until six in the morning, seven shifts a week and no holidays; the pay is four and sixpence a shift. At one time, my companion burner was a young fellow who had been in the Navy. He had been a marine at the time of the Greco-Turkish war and had done duty in several engagements. He was a rollicking fellow, who did his work well and conscientiously and made the time pass with many a story of adventure and incidents of his sailor life. It is an exposed position that occupied by the kiln, and some nights the storms that sweep down the valley bid fair to force one over the parapet. It is, of course, impossible to keep a light under such circumstances, and the burners have to feel their way about in the stormy darkness. My night shift companion was almost as quaint a character as Jim. He was not so solid as Jim, but he had a delightful strain of unconscious humour that could beguile the weariest hour. On moonlight nights I have watched him going his rounds whistling merrily to himself, occasionally stopping to look off toward the hill that is always so fascinating in the moonlight, rising so shapely above the picturesque loch. If he thought that I was watching him on these occasions, he would remark: “I’m no frae Kelty, ye ken. I belong tae Cupar.” The old fellow’s heart was warm on the coldest night, and many a tramp who has strayed to the brickwork at night attracted by the burner’s light has been led to a warm, protected corner by him. I have known him to share his piece with a hungry beggar, without even expecting a thank you for it. He must have had an extraordinary constitution, for, more than once, when a day man was laid off, he has stepped in and done his work, after having served his own shift the previous night, and, without a wink of sleep, he would go on with his own work the following night, making three successive shifts or thirty-five hours. He never complained of being tired. “I’m no carin’ aboot mysel’,” he would say, “I’m no carin’ aboot mysel’ sae lang as things a gang richt.” He often referred to a certain famous November storm when he undoubtedly had a pretty bad time of it. It was worth hearing him recite his adventures of that night. He told them to every stranger. “I’m tellin’ ye, mon, hit was a wilder nicht than when the Tay brig blew doon. I was lost in the dark and gaen aboot in terrification lest something gae wrang—I was no carin’ aboot mysel’, ye ken.” It was a genuine treat to listen to him. “Sae lang as things gangs weal, I’m no carin aboot onythin’.” The last time I saw him he was leaning over the parapet one dark winter morning, as I turned from the brickworks for the last time. I had followed the brick-making process step by step and had been tried for a little at every branch of the trade. Nothing more remained to be done after the burning; so with that I dropped the role of labourer—at least for the time being. That morning that I took leave of the familiar yard, my quaint old neighbour was waiting for the gaffer to arrive. It was never enough for him that he had been relieved by the day men, he must needs report to the manager himself. I climbed slowly down from the roof, more than half inclined to wait for him, but the air was chill and the gaffer was sometimes late, so I shouted back a “good-bye.” through the gray mist. As I scrambled over the railway tracks toward the rough road, his characteristic answer came ringing after me—“Tata, the noo.”

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