Far Across The Sea

By Carmel McMurdo Audsley

Biography & memoir

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828
6 mins

STEPPING OUT AS A MAN

Chapter 1 (1913)

Fifteen-year-old George McMurdo entered the colliery gates of the underground mine in his home village of Cumnock in East Ayrshire, Scotland, with the man who had raised him since he was three years old. His uncle, William McMurdo, was the father figure in his life and his grandmother, Mary Hamilton McMurdo, had been his mother figure. George’s mother Agnes had died from tuberculosis just three months after giving birth to him, and his father too was taken by tuberculosis when George was just three years old. He had been denied a mother’s love and his grandmother, a strong woman whose own heart was hardened by the loss of seven children as well as her husband, gave him all the nurturing she could. Now she too was gone. Her broken heart had finally stopped beating and now the two men were alone.
Mary Hamilton McMurdo had fought hard to keep her children out of the coal mines of Ayrshire, and for a while she succeeded. Her son Douglas (young George’s father) had become a Master Baker. Another of Mary’s sons, Andrew, followed his brother into the bakery trade, and William had for a time worked as a Bonded Housekeeper’s Assistant. After Douglas and Andrew passed away in their twenties, William became the sole wage earner for the family and he knew that he could earn more money working in the mines so, against his mother’s wishes, William started work in a coal mine. On her deathbed, Mary had asked William not to let young George ever see the inside of a coal mine, but she also knew that the lad had a mind of his own and would do whatever he felt was best for him.
And so it was, that just one week after his grandmother had been interred in the family plot at Muirkirk Cemetery, young George closed the door on the little two-room house where they lived in Barhill Road, Cumnock and walked proudly along the coal-strewn roads with his Uncle William, to become a colliery man.
He had heard so much about the mines from his uncle, and he knew the family history. His grandfather George, great-grandfather Thomas and great-great-grandfather George had all been coal miners. Despite the dangers involved in working underground, none had perished as a result of a mining accident though all had suffered injury and illness. And now, here he was, at just fifteen years of age, ready to get into the pit cage and descend to the depths below to strike his first blow with a pick and shovel.
Cumnock was a market town for other smaller towns in the district, and almost entirely dependent upon the mining industry to provide employment and economic growth. There were few options for the people of the parish. Many of the men worked for pit operators Bairds and Dalmellington Ltd, and while conditions continued to improve, it was still back-breaking, dangerous work. Despite the large tracts of blackened land that mining had carved across the parish, the hills and glens, open paddocks with black-faced sheep grazing in them, and the clean, flowing rivers were still a thing of beauty and much-enjoyed in hours of leisure.
“Let’s get ye signed on, lad,” said William as he steered George to a thin, grey-haired man called McCottle whose days of working underground were behind him, and who now earned his living ‘up on top’.
“Sign here lad,” said McCottle as he thrust a piece of paper at George. “Ye’ll work yer shifts week about, starting today on the day shift and ye’ll draw yer wages here. The amount ye earn will depend upon how hard ye work, lad. The first week you’ll be partnered with yer Uncle William and then you’ll go where yer needed. Any questions?”
George hastily scribbled his name and handed the paper back to McCottle. “No sir,” he replied confidently.
“Right then, on ye go lad. The men will keep a watch out for ye but yer being paid as a man and you’ll do the work of a man.”
“Aye, that I will sir, ye’ve no fear of that. I’ve a strong arm and I’m willing to work.”
“Right then, you’ll do well here if ye mean to carry on as ye start. Away with ye now and look out for yoursel’ and yer workmates.”
George doffed his cap to McCottle and looked at his Uncle William for reassurance. William put his arm around his nephew’s shoulders and steered him towards the cage.
“This is what ye wanted lad – are ye ready to see what we do all day?” asked William.
“I’m ready Uncle, and I’m eager to get to it.”
The men were lined up ready to go below. The empty cage came up from the black hole and the men piled in, George among them. The door slammed shut, the cage jerked then started its descent into the darkness. The men began to turn on the lamps they wore on their hats and George followed suit. When they reached the bottom, the men got out and went about their business. They all knew what to do. William handed George a pick and shovel and steered him towards a large wall of coal.
“Start picking Geordy, but do it slowly till ye get yer rhythm. I’ll no’ be far away,” William said. For eight hours, with a break to eat the sandwich that he had packed and share a brew of tea with the other men, George eagerly picked away at the coal.
In the afternoon when the whistle blew, the men moved into the cage to take them up top. As they drew nearer the surface, George was glad to see the light of day. Even though the sky was grey and overcast, there was a light as the sun strained to peek beneath the clouds – a light that he had been denied all day and that he was glad to see. When he reached the top, he blinked his eyes in the weak sunlight, as his ancestors had done many times over the years, and breathed in the air. The foreman checked that all men were accounted for, and George and his Uncle William walked the short distance to their house at Barhill Road. It was a typical miner’s residence consisting of two rooms, but in better condition than some of the miners’ rows in the area. The kitchen measured fifteen feet by ten feet with a fireplace and mantle in front of which stood two home-made chairs and a coal scoop, a table and chairs for six people, a few shelves with a curtain at the front to store potatoes, turnips, flour, sugar and other essential items, and two single bunk beds. The other room, known as a hole in the wall, measured eleven feet by six feet and had a double bed and a single bed and a piece of wood on which to hang clothes. Outside was a makeshift wash-house and coal store. There was no running water and the primitive outside toilet facilities were shared by several families, but it was home. The occupants of Barhill Road were a mix of mainly miners and merchants as well as bakers, coopers and a tailor.
As George entered the house there was no fire and the pots were cold. The house had always seemed so homely when his grandmother was alive. There was always a fire crackling in the hearth and food bubbling in the pot. He pictured his gran sitting in front of the fire, knitting needles in hand, and had always been comforted by knowing that whatever happened in his life his gran would be there to talk it through with him. With the coldness of the house came the realisation that she was really gone. He hung up his cap on the peg by the door and looked at his uncle.
Knowing that the boy was looking for direction, William hung up his cap and placed his piece box on the kitchen table.
“Fill up the pitcher with water and take it through to the wash-house out the back Geordy, and wash yoursel’ and I’ll get the fire started,” William said. “Then hang up yer work clothes for the morrow. I know we have some tatties and neeps so that will be our tea, lad.”
George carried the water to the wash-house and poured it into a basin that sat on the roughly-hewn bench, then began to remove the dust and grime of his working day. Once the fire was ablaze, William sat down at the table, pen and paper in hand.
“Now, this is all new to me lad, but we’ll be needin’ some things so we’d best make a list. I’m no’ cook, mind, but we’ll make do. We’ll no’ starve,” William said. “We’ll be needin’ some vegetables and a soup bone and maybe some mutton. And oats for our breakfast. Aye,” he said as he wrote the final few items on the notepad, “that’ll keep us goin’ for a few days.”
As William took his turn in the wash-house there was a knock at the door. George opened the door to find their neighbour Mrs McLatchey standing there with a basket over her arm.
“How are ye, young George?” she asked in her sing-songy voice that slid up at the end of every sentence. “Ye’re a workin’ man now I see.”
“Aye, Mrs McLatchey, would you no’ come in?”
Mrs McLatchey walked past George and put her basket on the table. William quickly covered his naked chest and greeted her.
“Now, yer gran was a kind and wonderful woman and I won’t see ye starve on yer first day as a working man,” she said looking at George. “I’ve made ye a mince pie for yer tea and some scones to take in yer piece boxes the morrow. At least you’ll have a meal tonight.”
George’s eyes lit up at the thought of something other than just tatties and neeps.
“Oh that’s very kind of you Mrs McLatchey,” George said.
“Aye, Mrs McLatchey, most kind indeed,” William said as he struggled to get his shirt over his head.
“And if you’d like me to fetch ye some things from the shops, just give me yer list and that’ll help ye a wee bit till ye get the run of things. It’s no’ easy with no woman in the house, especially after ye’ve been workin’ hard all day. Now we’ve all got our own men to do for, but if ye need any help you’ve only to ask.”
“My mother would be grateful to ye Mrs McLatchey, and so are we. As a matter of fact, I’ve just written a list of things and if ye think we should add anything to it, please say so.” Reaching into his trouser pocket William continued: “here’s a pound note and if it’s no’ enough then you’ll tell me.”
Mrs McLatchey left the house with the list and the pound note, and when the door was closed the two men looked at each other and smiled.
“I can’t wait to get into that pie, lad,” William said, rubbing his hands together with glee. “It smells so good. Fill the kettle with water and we’ll enjoy a pot of tea with our unexpected meal.”
At the end of his first day at work, George enjoyed a hot meal and cup of tea then sat back in his chair, smiling.
“Ye know Uncle, I’m very pleased with the day I’ve had. A hard day’s work and a good meal is satisfaction enough for any man, would ye no’ say?”
William pushed his plate forward and sat back in his chair. “Aye, there is a satisfaction to be gained from hard labour, but we’ll have this conversation again when you’ve worked for more than one day and then see how ye feel. Now on ye get to yer bed while I clean up here. We’ve to do it all again the morrow and the next day.”
George stood up from the table then looked around the room.
“I think I’ll sit in one of the chairs by the fire and think a while, Uncle. I’ve some reckonin’ to do. I want to give you an even share of the rent for the house and any other expenses and I’ll still have some money left over, so ye see I need to consider what to buy with it.”
William smiled as he cleared the plates. “Aye, you think on it a while lad, for no sooner will ye have the coin in yer hand than it will be gone. Nothing surer.”


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