David Bocking joins pupils on a visit to the National Coal Mining Museum
It was dark, dank and dirty, and for generations of Yorkshire folk, it was their life. But to the children of Sitwell Infant School, in the heart of the old South Yorkshire coal fields in Rotherham, a trip down Caphouse colliery is a journey to another world.
"It was very very horrible," says seven-year-old Maddy Otter on her return to the surface one and a half hours and 170 years later. "You had to work down there six days a week."
"I wouldn't like to do that at all," says her classmate, Bethany Hoyland.
"It would be really scary. And you couldn't even play I Spy!"
The Year 2 children had been impressed by the story of the "trapper" - the seven-year-old boy who spent his day opening and closing a trap door to give his father and mother enough air while they hewed and piled up the coal in the early 19th-century mine near Wakefield.
"They'd give him a candle only on his first day," says guide Chris Brown, indicating the forlorn model of the trapper 140 metres below ground. "He didn't need one after that because he knew where everything were and candles cost money. That's where the saying comes from 'He's not weth a light.'"
Caphouse Colliery (now the National Coal Mining Museum for England) offers free guided tours showing the workings of the former mine over its 200 year history. Each tour is led by a former miner.
Lynne Minett, education officer at the museum, says: "Like all museums, you can have all your displays up, but you need someone to tell you what it was all about." The museum's education department offers a range of workshops, tours and free activity sheets for pupils at all key stages. The strongest material, says Lynne, is about the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution for KS2-3.
The Rotherham children were on a free underground tour followed by an actor-led workshop with "Sam Fletcher," an adult 19th-century miner describing the work he and his sisters did from the age of five. The workshop goes on to consider the enquiry by Lord Ashley which eventually stopped child labour in coal mines. Other workshops include a look at home life for a 1949 mining family, a visit to the 1930s pithead baths, the work of Ada Clough in the coal cleaning plant in the 1930s and two interactive workshops on the science and geology of the mine.
But for most children, the mine itself is the most memorable part of the trip. Chris Brown pointed out the fossils among the compressed trees and forests from millions of years ago, and the abandoned coal cutting machines from the 1980s.
There were holes for explosives, models of pit ponies, safety lamps and "snap" tins, designed to keep scavenging rats from miners' sandwiches. All is described in a broad Yorkshire dialect by a member of the last generation of Yorkshire miners.
"My granddad worked down the pit," says six-year-old Anthony Davis over his sandwiches. "It was excellent. I'd like to work down there." Anthony's dad, Paul, smiles at the thought. "Your granddad always said if you did well at school you'd not have to."
ON THE MAP
National Coal Mining Museum, New Road, Overton, Wakefield WF4 4RH. Tel: 01924 848806. www.ncm.org.uk
Open 10am to 5pm daily, Last underground tour 3.15. Workshops for up to 19 pupils pound;23.50 a session