The Fell Pony Museum: 20th C
The Fell Pony Museum
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Early 20th century

Coal mining

coal tub

This coal tub came to the Museum in 1980. The curved metal piece on the right is the tail-end of the shafts, which swivel up and down and from side to side to allow the pony some freedom of movement. The tub ran on metal rails.

Not many Fells worked underground. They were rather tall compared to the Welsh Section A and Shetland breeds that were normally used. However in Northumberland there were several pits, for both coal and iron ore, which used them; they had deep enough "drifts" to provide headroom. Fell ponies were still used in one coal mine in Northumberland until well into the 20th century. Bigger Fell types were used around the coal yards pulling equipment, on the collieries' dairy farms, and to deliver milk from the farms to local villages. For more information see also Brayton Domain no4 Pit c1910 (copyright image so you must visit the Heritage Photo Archive site to see it) and "Pit Pony Races" "Pitman's Derby", "Bank Holiday" and "Pit Ponies at Olympia" on the British Pathe web site.

Myths about cruelty

I was once asked by an editor: "how true was it that Shetland ponies were deliberately blinded and their eyes sewn shut in order to work in mines?" This horrific question arose because the editor had been researching the background history to Shetlands in America.

[Fell pony breeders] ... made it clear to me that the Fell ponies were well-treated, when I discussed this question with them. They received it with polite scepticism: "Beware: you hear people talking about these horses down mines -- You can't say it didn't happen, but -- I think if someone abused one, I think he was abused." Certainly I found very little evidence of cruelty in British pits: there was Ralph Hodgson's much-quoted short poem The Bells of Heaven which mentions "wretched blind pit ponies"; some fictional stories that, from internal evidence, were clearly not written by horsemen; and third hand accounts that asserted, for instance, that the animals lived down the mines "from the day they were born". All of these can be dismissed as ignorant nonsense. Ponies were neither blind nor blinded.

First-hand accounts

First-hand accounts posted on the Internet do explain that pit ponies' eyesight could become very sensitive to light from being constantly in the dark conditions of the mines, so that at first they found it hard to see in normal daylight when they came above ground for their annual "holiday". They were also unused to "real weather", to changes of temperature, or to digesting fresh grass. These were real, but temporary difficulties. Other than that, the ponies appeared very well cared for. (Godwin, 2004; Shaw 2004.) Dalemain Fell Pony Museum contains a pit bogey (truck) and several pit bridles which have metal guards to protect the ponies' eyes.

Ethel Fisher of Seaton, on the Workington side of Cumbria, lived on a farm above a colliery which used pit ponies to haul coal from the working face to the shaft. In We Ploughed by Moonlight (2001) she explains that the farm had the contract to supply feed for the pit ponies. Benny Moore was one of the men who looked after them. She says they had to work hard in"appalling conditions" but they were "very well cared for and got every attention. According to Benny they were his 'family' and he saw to their every need." The ponies had straw bedding, and were fed crushed oats and chopped hay and "the odd sack of carrots".

Roy Charlton in A Lifetime with Ponies devotes a whole chapter to pit ponies and underground conditions in the early 1950s, which he had observed at first hand in mines both large and small. Ashington Colliery, he says, employed 1,400 ponies. He describes the dedication of the picked men who were the horse-keepers: the electrically-lit and spotlessly clean stables, the good food, the fine physical condition of the working stock and the care taken to keep them "at concert pitch". All hair was clipped off, including manes and tails. The ponies would wash themselves off in a big warm plunge bath after their day ended, then go to their own stalls to be fed and watered and groomed by specialist horsekeepers. Mr Charlton compares the pit life very favourably to a "free" life on the high fells; in the pit the ponies had an unvarying local temperature, with no rain, wind or snow, no extremes of hot or cold weather, and no biting insects. Pit ponies were brought above ground for Gala days each summer and proudly shown by their handlers in condition classes.

Other English colliers' accounts (Godwin; Shaw; Hollows) describe the camaraderie of their work, as well as its danger; and they tell of good quality ponies whose work normally lay underground, being taken to compete at agricultural shows in the summer. One has to conclude that if there ever was any maltreatment of pit ponies, it certainly was not Fells in Britain who suffered it. (Millard, Hoofprints in Eden, 2005)

The three-and-a-half year old pony geldings offered at Brough Hill Fair and other similar fairs in that district are invariably purchased by dealers at prices of from £15 to £20. These men take the ponies down into Country Durham or into the Doncaster mining area, break them to gears, and sell them within a very short time to the big colliery companies at just twice what the ponies cost them. In other words, the dealers get as much profit out of the ponies within six months as the silly breeder gets for keeping them three and a half years. It is most remarkable, but quite true, that very few Fell pony breeders of today possess a saddle. They are pony breeders and have good eyes for a pony but they are not horsemen, and for that reason only, they are almost ready to give away these grand ponies just when they are ready to go into hard work. (R B Charlton, A Lifetime with Ponies, 1952)

Some pits were opencast, and there, the height of the pony did not matter so long as it was strong, willing and obedient. Unlike the deep mine ponies, those that worked in opencast or drift mines did not need to live underground.

Pit ponies were well looked after because they were essential "tools" to the business. Although of course life underground was very unnatural for them, so is most of the work that humans ask them to do. Their understanding of their work in the mines was well known. One that worked in the Durham coalfield during the second World War (not a Fell, possibly a Welsh Section A) was known to be the best and most intelligent worker the pit had. If you couldn't work with him, you couldn't work with any pony. There was one lad who never could, however; the pony had taken a dislike to him. Whenever he reached a bend in the track he would trot fast round it so that the tub flipped over sideways. This was a disaster because all work stopped while the tub was manhandled back onto the rails and the spilt coal reloaded; the pony standing meanwhile and resting peacefully while the lad sweated and swore. And he'd do it the next trip too.... (thanks to Marion Jones, nee Shaw, whose father was a "Bevan Boy" at this pit.)

down in the mine: black fell and grey Welsh ponies with miners, moving pit props

For images of mining, pit ponies and the conditions in which they were kept, see the Durham Mining Museum site. There is also a Facebook page about Northern collieries which stores images of ponies working underground. I haven't found any Fells, yet, but they all look fit, clean and well cared for.


Left: One of the last Fell ponies in work underground. The "drift" has lots of head room for them here. The ponies are hauling pit props to support new workings, or to shore up older ones.

A copy of this photo from the Fell Pony Society archive is on display in the Fell Pony Museum. The copyright of the original belongs to the now defunct British National Coal Board (please email the webminion if you have information about the current holder of the copyright).

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Last updated 23 May, 2021 .
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