Of Ironstone Men And Mines
by Eric J Last
In gagging, wretched dust and dirt 
By feeble candlelight they worked 
Muscles aching, sinews cracked, 
Alone in the dripping, Stygian black 
Where only the whites of their eyes they showed 
While hack, hack, hacking at the lode. 
Danger, blackness all around, 
Crawling over rock sharp ground, 
Reborn each shift end from mother earth’s womb 
From those man-torn ironstone catacombs. 
 
To this eerie world our forefathers came 
From debt, uncertainty or perhaps workhouse shame, 
Rather than belong to the ranks of the poor 
Joined the migration to North Yorkshire’s moors 
New steam-age travellers with life hardened wills 
Drawn like a magnet to those bleak  northern hills. 
 
With all senses strained for gas and rock falls, 
Amid water, sludge and dark slimy walls, 
And tap, tap, tapping the charge in the lode, 
Then a measured black hiss till it explodes. 
They learned fast to be cautious did these brave men 
Who dug at the rock face with dust in their phlegm. 
 
Swelling the populace of Middlesbrough town 
To free the ironstone from deep underground, 
With few possessions, children and wife, 
Their hopes and ambitions to start a new life. 
So they honeycombed hills around Guisborough town 
and started to take Roseberry Topping down. 
Dwelt in granite villages on grey,  windswept hills, 
To toil for blast furnaces, factories and mills. 
 
Twisting and turning their hammered reams 
To free more ore from thick Cleveland seams 
Sickly, sulphured water dripping down upon their heads, 
Unable to smoke, they chewed baccy instead. 
Dark and damp with flickering lamp sending their spoil to the sun 
To pay the rent, to buy the food. Praise God, another day’s money was won. 
Ore taken from these mines’ rich veins 
By miner, pit horse, by tub, by train, 
To blast furnace, to yard and manufacturing works. 
Additions, subtractions in ledgers by clerks. 
 
At Eston and Skelton, Boosbeck and Stanghow, 
Those great miners were then booming, but so silent now. 
As the dockweed, nettles and brambles reclaim 
The last working signs of these once famous names 
It’s so easy to imagine now the air fans’ whine 
After touring the museum at the old Loftus mine. 
The clatter of horses, suck, hiss of great pumps, 
Rattle of the narrow gauge on the points and humps. 
Rusty swing of the tubs, laden with stone 
And heavy steam machinery that would shake to the bone. 
The banter of the miners, each in whom they trust, 
Squinting into daylight, eyes blinking free of dust. 
 
Elderberry flourishes over the desolate shale tips 
Where our forefathers once laboured with hammers and picks, 
And from empty ruins of pit stables, roofless and torn, 
From darkness to darkness, horses were led, each dawn 
To heave heavy ore tubs from the heart of the mine 
Along where now nettles and brambles hide the narrow gauge line. 
 
To those stern, proud Victorian moustachioed chaps 
Sepia photoed with shovels, waistcoats and caps, 
Who lived out their brave lives in Boulby or Staithes, 
Now also with nettles and brambles covering their graves 
 
Long gone is that era and those men of iron 
Under ‘M’ in this millenium in the archives of time 
But are those miners resting now, in their life end’s longest dream 
Or are their spirits out there still, at the lightless, thick main seam? 
Hearing comrades’ ghostly echoes on those lonely dusty draughts 
Which will forever whisper down, along countless dark, deep, endless shafts. 
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