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The work of coalmen when
coal was England's main fuel

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The coal merchants I worked for

A coalman at a coal yard loading sacks of coal onto a delivery lorry, mid 20th century

At a coal yard loading sacks of coal onto a delivery lorry. Photo courtesy of Terry Martinelli.

The yard where I was working in the photo was in White Hart Lane, Tottenham. It was called Cades Coals, even though the lorry had Fry and Raxworthy on it and the actual owner of the lorry was Fred Fry who sold his business to Cades. The main merchants in the area were Charringtons at Palace Gates, Wood Green; Tyne Main at Finsbury Park; Fry and Raxworthy at Harringay (as it was then spelt); and Cades. I worked for Charringtons, Tyne Main, Fry and Raxworthy, and finally Cades. I was seven years with Cades.

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A coalman's work in the winter

The men on a delivery lorry - coalmen to you - were expected to load and deliver approximately 10 tons a day in two loads. To get the right weight of coal into the sacks, we used a set of scales called an 'iron man' which was 5ft high and about 2ft wide and which had two hooks to hold the sacks while they were being filled.

Why we coalmen had to be tough

I started working for Charringtons Coal merchants in the late 1950s. It was really hard work and I was sore for many weeks until my body adapted.

My mate and I would arrive at the yard at about six in the morning - while it was still dark for much of the year. We would go to the office where we were given a ticket showing what our day's work was to be: essentially to load and deliver coal. Typically the load would be 2 tons of large coal, 2 tons of nuts, 1 ton of coalite and half to 1 ton of something else.

The procedure for bagging and loading was that my mate would place an empty bag on the scale. Then I would shovel from the appropriate heap into the bag. When the scale showed the full hundredweight, I would bend down, drag the corners of the bag and lift it on to my mates' back.

My mate would then run up into the delivery lorry and stack the bag at front of what we called the tray. Then he would come back down and grab another bag which I would fill. We would keep doing this until the lorry was loaded. All this was before breakfast.

Next came a welcome breakfast which was in the yard's cafe.

Having had breakfast, we would set out in the lorry to make the deliveries. This sometimes involved delivering inside houses, even upstairs, or down an alleyway round to the back of houses and into the garden to tip a sack into a coal bunker.

When we had delivered all the load, we would go back to the yard, load up another 5 to 6 tons, have something to eat and drink in the cafe, and then go out and deliver again.

In the busy winter period we would be loading and delivering 50 tons plus between us. Yes, we had to be tough in those days.

Albert Orr

The filled sacks were taken up a set of steps called a 'dole' to be placed on the lorry.

Small bags were put on top of the sacks; they were called 'riders' or 'pups', as they were half size.

The dole wasn't used when the photo was taken, because it was easier and quicker to shoulder the sacks onto the lorry as it was a small load of only about 3 tons and the lorry had to be loaded to both sides.

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A coalman's work in the summer

In the summer, when coal deliveries were very low, we were expected to work in the yard by unloading the deliveries to the yard. This was called 'landing' the coal or coke into the bays.

We often had to move the delivery trucks into position with 'pinch bars'. These were solid iron bars about 5ft long, 2ins thick and flat at one end. After taking off the brake of a truck, we would put a pinch bar under a wheel to lever it forward to the desired coal bay ready to be landed. Then we put the coal truck brake back on.

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Experiences delivering coal

But after all that, they were great times being a coalman, with loads and loads of laughs all the time. I'm glad I did the job and was sorry when I finished the coal trade in 1967.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Page contributed by Terry Martinelli, London coalman 1954-1967

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.