Hard work but great times for the coalman

Coalmen delivering in the 1950s | From the private collection of Jennifer Drury
Coalmen delivering in the 1950s
From the private collection of Jennifer Drury

Delivering 15 tons a day

I was a coalman for a time many years ago; I worked for Hall & Co in Davigdor Road. After I had been there for a while there was an opening on one of the coke lorries. There were only two coke drivers on the firm. We were on piece work and had to deliver 15 tons of coke a day. Me and the other lad, who was an ex trolley bus driver from the Brighton Corporation bus garage in Lewes Road, had to go to the depot in Portslade with enough sacks for a 5 ton load. You had to hold the sacks under the scales that automatically weighed out 1 hundredweight of coke. If we were at the depot at the same time we would help each other; if we were on our own we had to do it without help.

Church deliveries were the worst

There were two five ton drops in churches, hotels and the like. When the five ton went down a manhole it was bit easier, but you were forever going into the cellar to trim the coke down or you couldn’t get any more in. Sometimes you had to carry the five ton one at a time down steps and along a narrow tunnel, stooping all the time. Churches were the worst for this. The other five ton was delivered around the houses. I wonder what health and safety would say today about the way we had to work, but it was normal in those days.

A princely wage of £20

The people in the business, years before I was born, had to work even harder than I did. In 1963 we were on top wages in the coal yard, £20 a week which was a grand a year. In the summer I sometimes would go in about four in the morning and bag up a 12 ton coal truck in the railway sidings for extra money before the day’s work. This entailed opening the side of the rail truck shovelling the coal into the scales to exactly 1 hundredweight and then tipping the scales and shooting the coal into a sack. More often than not the coal was ‘Sussex Best’ which had to be broken up with a hammer as the lumps were so big.

Hard work but great days

The tax man was our main enemy, after all that work he stole your money as he still does. But I was as fit as a fiddle. We drank gallons of milk to lay the dust, the firm even supplying milk if there was a really dusty load to be bagged and delivered, coal was especially slack for the blacksmiths. It was a bit annoying in the wet weather. We wore wetbacks to keep us a bit dry. These were leather waistcoats strapped around us. Hard work but great days.

Do you remember the coalman delivering to your house or business. Do you remember how much it cost? If you have any memories you can share, please leave a comment below.

Comments about this page

  • Yes, I remember the coalmen who came to where we lived in London. They had a lorry, and heaved the sacks of coal, or ‘Nutty Slack’ onto their shoulders from the rear. They had hoods and capes to protect their heads in those days. They then had to bend down and pour the contents through the coal-hole in the pavement into our cellar. I think we bought a few hundred-weight at a time, and my parents often complained about the increasing price. It was a very grubby sort of job, and I suspect hazardous – possibly leading to cancer! Sometimes we ran short of coal in bad weather, and my father would go to the local depot and get a sack, and bring it home in his taxi on the side. Coal fires were a pain for my mother who had to clean the hearth in the mornings, and every now and then a chimney-sweep would turn up, and make a hell of a mess. We left all that behind in 1956, and had the joys of central heating in our new block, thank goodness!

    By Stefan Bremner-Morris (08/06/2013)
  • Hello Mick. About 1960-61 I was a labourer at Portslade gasworks. For a few weeks I was on the coke sacking area. As I remember we weighed the coke and helped the driver drag it on to their lorry. Most drivers would give us a bob or two for helping them. I think Beaumonts were best as they gave you 2/6. Were your lorries red, and always in a hurry?

    By Den King (08/06/2013)
  • Den, the motors we had were 5 ton petrol Bedfords. Instead of side boards and a tailgate they had chains all round. We had to go on the weighbridge on the way in and on they way out and get your docket. We kept the coke sacks (bigger than ordinary coal sacks owing to the light weight of the coke) on the back of the wagon with a couple of 14lb weights on top of them to keep them from blowing off the back. If I remember you always had to have the right amount of 1cwt. sacks empty or otherwise to correspond with the weighbridge ticket and the delivery invoices or weights and measures would be on your case if you were fiddling. Some of the lads got around that without any problems. Sometimes the coke would be smoking and it was hot. I liked it at the gasworks as the scales were automatic, you did not have to shovel into a scale to get the 1 cwt. and then shoot it into a sack. In the coal yard If you had big coal like Sussex best you had to bust it up first with a hammer, and then watch out so not skin your fingers as you shot it into the sack. In the summer and it was warm and the coal yard was slack we drivers and anybody else had to go bumping out roofing tiles on the building side of Hall & Co. A couple of us hated this boring work. One day we decided to hide away when the manager came looking for labourers. So Pete the crane driver let us into the crane bucket and hoisted us on high and left us there for hours the sod. Good days and lots of fun.

    By Mick Peirson (09/06/2013)
  • We lived below the railway wall in Dyke Rd Drive and our poor coalman had 18 steps to walk up with the sack on his back; my mum would lay newspaper through the house, as we were a terraced house and the coalshed was at the back in a short yard next to our kitchen, it involved the coalman making tight angled turns with mum watching the wallpaper, kitchen goods, windows etc! I still have the old butchers cleaver that dad used to chop up the firewood on a piece of old tree trunk; our coalshed had two sections for the coal and the kindling. I now own a small terraced house in North West Wales and the coalman comes to our village all year; we do not have a coalfire [just a middle-class woodburner stove…!]but neighbours do, and the smell of coal smoke blowing down the valley brings back instant memories of childhood.

    By Geoffrey Mead (10/06/2013)
  • When I lived in a terraced house in Gardener Street Portslade, our coal house was the space under the stairs. I believe we had Mr Terry from Crown Road as our coalman, so he didn’t have far to come! If there was a bad thunderstorm, me and Mum would hide under there till it passed and emerge rather dusty but happy it had gone. I wonder if Mick has suffered any ill effects from all that dust?

    By DEN KING (13/06/2013)
  • Hello Den, as far as I am aware I have suffered no ill effects from working with the coal. If it were dusty I would drink lots of milk and keep my gob shut as much as I could. I smoked as well (roll-ups) at the time. I smoked right up to about 1990 when I had a couple of heart attacks and a quadruple CABG, and gave up smoking altogether. I am more worried about the after effects of asbestos as I did some demolition work in the 60s as well and there was quite a bit of the stuff around then especially around copper piping and the like. Mike Peirson.

    By Mick Peirson (15/06/2013)
  • Hi, I worked at Holland Road goods yard in 1965 for Hall and Co bagging up coal, then moved on to Barlows in 1966 to drive for them delivering coal. It was hard work, would people do this sort of job now?

    By Michael Middleton (23/11/2013)
  • I was a coalman from 1954 until 1967, first working for Charringtons of Palace Gates wood Green, and after a spell with Tyne Main, Finsbury Park, and Fry and Raxworthy Harringay, I finished working for Cades Coals of White hart Lane, Tottenham, N 17.

    I worked by myself when on Cades, and mostly on the shovel, loading and delivering 2 load a day, approx. 3 or 4 ton a load. If I ever had a mate to help, then we would do 10 or 12 ton a day. When shovelling the coals into the sacks or “bags” (which we called “pups” and were often used for “Riders” on top) we used an “IRON MAN”, which was a set of scales 5ft high by 2ft wide, and there was 2 hooks on the front to hold the sacks or bags, and the whole thing was on wheels, so they can be moved to any part of the yard. We then had to go up a set of steps with a handle to hold onto. The steps were called a ”A DOLE”, and was also on wheels, to enable them for movement. When it rained, and we got soaking wet, we would put in for “wet money” which was approx., 3 shillings a ton in the 60s, adding about between 10 shillings and £1 10 shillings a day on top of the load delivered. It was hard work then, but sometimes my younger brother worked with me, and we both swear they were the best days of our working lives, with lots of laughs.

    By Terry Martinelli (19/02/2014)
  • Ah yes, Barlows the coal merchant. Although we were quite poor, we kept a dog. The two house callers the dog would have eaten alive we’re the coal man and the dust man! And yes, poor as we were, in with practically everyone on the Moulsecoomb estate, our mum would have a couple of pennies tip ready, and Christmas time it would be, maybe two shillings. The closeness of people in those days (1930s) was really something.

    By Ron Spicer (20/02/2014)
  • Yes, my father was a coalman he worked for Shuttlworth and Co and he loved his job. He was born in 1926 and he still going stong.

    By Nick (09/04/2014)
  • Hi Terry, I also worked for Tyne Main at finsbury Park, first with Billy Stanford then with my dad Gus Baker. We had the coke job; a very good job way back in 1967.  

    By Mike Baker (11/09/2014)
  • Hello Mike, I can’t place you at the moment, as it was so long ago. But you must also remember the dustbin lorries also shared the yard, and when the drivers opened the backs of the vehicles, the rats used to run out and two or three blokes would be kicking them one after the other – they were killed immediately because of the heavy boots the men wore.

    By Terry Martinelli (13/04/2015)
  • Hi Terry, Yes I do remember they cleared the rubbish for Macfisheriers the fish people. He also was in hospital a while ago and was in the next bed to the chief mechanic of Macfisheries. Don’t ask me how I remember him, I just did. Taffy was the name of the man in the Tyne main office and weigh-bridge along with a man called Stan . I only wish I had some photos of those days. 

    By Michael Baker (13/06/2015)
  • Hi again Mike, I was wondering if you remember any of these names from the old days. They were all working on the coal in the ’50s and ’60s: Chris Branch, Jimmy Steadman, Charlie Neighbour, Frank Griffin, Bert Hodgson, Len Barclay, Harry Satchell, Fred and George Fossey, Harry Self, Bill Sorrel, Derek Martin, Dick Smith, George Carmichael, John and Roger Cooper, George Nash, (who I believe packed in working on the coal, and went into the fire service, and ended up a chief). Anyway, that’s a few I can remember. Bye for now. 

    By Terry Martinelli (02/07/2015)
  • Hi Terry. I found a picture of a working coal yard and it was showing the iron man plus the dole and the bob-ups. I must say I do not know any of the names you sent me, sorry. The names working in the Finsbury Park yard were Billy Stanford, who I worked with delivering anthracite grain in 2 cwt to Hampstead and Enfield, then worked coking with my dad, as I said before, drawing the coke out of nine elms, Fulham, Greenwich, Becton, Bromley by Bow gasworks. Also Terry and Squibbo were at Finsbury Park. I have a photo of me in a Tyne main Bedford TK.

    By Mike (30/08/2015)
  • Hi Mike, I have been on all sorts of sites looking for photos or videos of coal yards of the 50s, but with no such luck. Any chance of you sending the picture of the “iron man” etc. to my email address? I have a couple of photos of me which you may recognise and if I have your address I can send them to you. With regard to delivering anthracite grains, they were always clean and after sitting snug across the shoulder, it was a treat shooting them in bunkers, without any effort. Grains were my favourite to work with. I never did much gas works collections, only once going to Bromley by Bow for coke nuts. Most of my work was done on the blade, with just the occasional load from the hoppers. Anyway, it’s good to convey different aspects of the coal trade with someone who knows the score. Bye for now, Terry.

    E-mail address is lynda@rosevine.plus.com 

    By Terry Martinelli (14/09/2015)
  • Hi Mike, I am a coal man right now, love it. Not as dirty and heavy as the bags you dealt with but can understand and appreciate the work you did. I’m working for a company called CPL Coal Merchants in Ware, Hertfordshire, only a seasonal agency job but like last year it should take me up to March. The bags are sealed and weigh 25kg and we sometimes deliver up to 30 bags per residence. When I’m at the address I either split and tip into a bunker or place the bags where the customer would like.  Not great money but as a class 2 driver wanting exercise this suits me great. Don’t want to be a fat trucker! I think I’ll go on the beer trucks soon to the pubs. Take care and respect to you.

    By Andrew Howes (19/10/2015)
  • Nice comments from Andrew Howes. I don’t know if he is addressing Mike or another Mick. I started the “coalman” blog some time ago. It was hard work for the money but I was as fit as a fiddle and young. I am slightly over six feet tall and did have trouble with some church deliveries as stooping was the only way to get to the bunker. I also had trouble with some of the lorries. At Hall and Co we got some new petrol TK Bedfords delivered to the coal yard. I hated these as they had small wheels and it was back-breaking getting a sack on your back as you had to bend over backwards as the motors were so low. But things soon worked out as the shorter drivers loved them and I got myself a big wheeled TK Bedford diesel. After that I went on the coke with the chain lorries, they were nice and high and also the coke sacks were taller than the coal sacks owing to the lightness of the coke. Hard work, good times and glad to have done it.

    By Mick Peirson (22/10/2015)
  • Mick Middleton – I am Fred Lucas’s son and I too worked at Barlow & Co. I used to work with Dad on the coal and Whitbreads Schweppes in the summer.  I started carrying coal at 13 and every school holidays I’d be found working with Dad.  I even got paid by Bert Saxby, my dad’s boss.

    By James Lucas (07/02/2016)
  • I have come across a Charrilock house magazine, the 250th anniversary edition from 1969 in fair condition. I have been trying to find somebody who has or had any connection to Charrington, Gardner and Locket that might appreciate it – seems a shame to throw it away. As a child in the ’60s I remember Charringtons coal and just hope it could be appreciated. My phone number is 07754 839159

    By Ian Matthews (31/08/2016)
  • Hi Mick, I worked on the coal from 1963 till late 1966. I was 15 years old when I started; I had some great laughs. I worked for J.O Vinter, Cambridge. I started in the coal yard bagging up CWT and ten stone sacks, mostly by hopper but also by shovel. The best coal was Coronation coal, large lumps which we would have to break with a fourteen pound hammer before we could shovel them into sacks. Then I went out on deliveries for a while. After being on there for around twelve months there was a vacancy driving a mechanical grab (Jumbo) in the coke yard emptying the wagons of coke; if I remember you would get five shillings per wagon on top of your wages. When I started on the coal the wages were £15 per week increasing a £1 each year till you were 18. Some great times on there – I often think about those days

    By John Turner (26/05/2017)
  • My father was a coal merchant in the mid sixties. His name was Michael Patrick O’Leary. He worked in the London area. Do any of you remember him? Think he might of been called Mick for short.

    Editor note: Sorry Sandra but our website does not cover London.

    By Sandra O'Leary (28/08/2017)
  • Hi Sandra, what part of London did your dad work in?

    By Mike Baker (14/10/2017)
  • Re Terry Martinelli, hello Terry you probably forgot all about me. I joined Cades in 1964 to work in the office for George Carmichael. I also helped out in the pre-packing shed in the winter when we were extremely busy. I do remember some good times then and how hard all you coalmen worked. Men wouldn’t do it now. There were a couple of names you missed. George Saggs who came from Highgate (can’t remember who the coal merchants were and also Arther Franklin who ran the pre-packing shed and lived in the flats opposite and also Charlie Swindell. The two ladies in the front office were Agnes Redshaw and Mrs Nichols.

    By Trevor Byford (21/05/2018)
  • Hi to Mike Peirson,coalman, Hall & Co Davigdore Rd, Hove. About 1963 I was a rooftiler that also did work for Hall & Co. In the winter I used to work in the coal yard de-frosting sacks over a brazier for the guys to use when bagging up coal. In the summer some of these coalmen came with us to be labourers to help with the roofing. I hope you will contact me Mick, some very good memories are rooted there.Alan

    By Alan Cribb (07/06/2018)
  • Hello Alan Cribb…Long time ago, working at the coal yard. I started there I think in 1964. I was newly married and lived in Sackville Road at the time. I enjoyed my couple of years there even though I was always dirty. The manager if I remember was Mr. Green who had a limp. The yard foreman was a bloke called Jonah who worked as hard as us and always wore a camelhair overcoat in the winter. I learnt about the loading and the rounds and all that with a driver called Charlie who was as thin as a whip but as strong as the proverbial ox, and always laughing and joking. I did go on bumping out roof tiles only once, I didn’t like being up in the sky too much, that’s the main reason I grabbed at the chance to get a coke lorry. The other coke driver was Derek Chatfield as far as I recall.  There was always laughing and joking in the yard it was a good time. Winter was not so good, on freezing cold mornings as you say with the frozen sacks, and trying to start the automatic loaders, we always tried to get a good one that started easy. I remember our tea hut as well. It was a housewives nightmare dust everywhere there were old couches and armchairs in the place as rotten as hell. But we were filthy anyway so it didn’t matter. It is a wonder that we survived with all that dust flying around all day. A happy time with the lads and still remembered with fondness. Three years later I enlisted in the military and I bumped into one of the other drivers in the NAAFI in Germany, what a small world. Best wishes Alan.

    By Mick Peirson (08/06/2018)

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