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The Hard Toil of Pit Ponies in Coal Mines

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Artist Mick Petts used 60,000 tons of material to create a stylized sculpture of a pony in a Welsh park. The earthwork honours all the ponies and horses that worked in coal mines; they were all called pit ponies.

Sultan the pit pony represents the sacrifice of all the animals that worked underground.

Sultan the pit pony represents the sacrifice of all the animals that worked underground.

Who Was Sultan?

The Penallta Colliery in South Wales operated from 1909 until 1991. In 1996, the local council undertook the rehabilitation of the mine site into a park. Part of that rejuvenation was the commissioning of a massive sculpture to commemorate the animals that had worked in the mine.

Mike Petts used material from the mine's spoil tip to create his artwork and then covered it with grass. It took three years of work to complete. So, today this animal gallops across the derelict ground. It measures 656 feet (200 metres) from hoof to snout and can only really be appreciated from the air. There are paths for people to hike over the sculpture and seats to take a breather in the gigantic nostril.

Originally, the animal was unnamed, but locals christened it Sultan, which was the name of the last pit pony to work in local mines and that was still alive when Petts started his installation.

Sultan represents the hundreds of thousands of other equines that worked underground hauling out fuel to feed the Industrial Revolution.

Penallta Colliery during its days of operation.

Penallta Colliery during its days of operation.

The Huskar Colliery Disaster

The first ponies to work underground were used around 1750, but their use didn't really catch on until after 1838.

July 4, 1838 was a warm and humid day in South Yorkshire. Working in the Huskar coal mine that Wednesday were about 50 children and several dozen miners. The job of the children was to haul tubs of coal out of the mine; they were called hurriers. Other children, known as trappers, opened and closed doors to let the hurriers through and to ventilate the tunnels.

George Orwell, in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, described a coal mine.

“Most of the things one imagines in hell are there - heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.”

In the early afternoon, thunder clouds brewed up and the sky opened with a downpour. Hearing thunder, some of the children feared an underground explosion, an all too common event, and they tried to escape through a sloping drift shaft.

A nearby stream had burst its banks and a wall of water entered the drift, trapping the children against a ventilation door; 26 were drowned, 11 of them girls, some as young as seven. The disaster shocked the nation and led to the passage of the Mines Act of 1842. This banned women and girls and boys younger than 10 from working underground.

Losing some of their human beasts of burden, mine owners had to turn to other ways of getting coal out of the mine.

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The Pit Ponies

As the Mines Act was enacted, there was an explosion of railway building creating an enormous demand for coal to power the steam engines. Horses and ponies were sent underground to haul out the black gold to meet the needs of industry.

The size of animal used depended on the thickness of the coal seam. If the seam was thick, taller horses such as shire were used, thin seams dictated the use of Shetland or Welsh ponies. In some coal mines in the United States, mules and even oxen were used.

By the 1870s, the population of pit ponies in Britain was estimated to be 200,000. Most of these animals spent their entire lives underground, mostly in darkness.

According to Margaret Evans (horsejournals.com) “There were widespread reports of abuse, injuries, and sickness.” The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began campaigning for better treatment of the pit ponies and laws were brought in to protect them from the worst excesses of the mine owners.

“Ponies often stopped in their tracks, refusing to move. The next minute, the roof [ahead of them] has fallen in. Ponies saved the lives of many miners this way.”

— Wendy Priest, Horse Keeper Supervisor at The National Coal Mining Museum for England

The ponies worked eight to 12 hours a day pulling tubs of coal, called drams, along rail tracks. In a typical day, each animal might haul 30 tons of coal to the winding gear to be lifted out of the mine.

The ponies were clever. Wendy Priest is Horse Keeper Supervisor at The National Coal Mining Museum for England. She tells us “Ponies could actually count! I have been told this hundreds of times by ex-miners. They listened for the click as each tub was attached. Three was acceptable, four was not. The pony would not move until the fourth was taken off.”

The last ponies to work underground in the United Kingdom retired in 1999. But, there are still pit ponies at work.

Brooke is an international charity that works to improve “the lives of horses, donkeys, and mules which give people in the developing world the opportunity to work their way out of poverty.” It reports that thousands of donkeys labour to bring coal out of mines in Pakistan.

The group describes conditions that would not be out of place in Victorian Britain: “Five thousand feet inside the Salt Range Mountains in Pakistan it's hot, dusty, and too dark to see. Out of the gloom comes a desperately weary donkey. This is Sudher. His days are filled with toil and torment, carrying heavy sacks of coal out of the mines.”

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1909, the National Equine Defence League was formed in Britain. One of its members wrote to Humanitarian magazine in 1910 to express outrage that pit ponies must “work forever in unchanging darkness, scarred with unhealed, unhealing and putrescent wounds; maimed in limbs to be energized only by torture; blind, by malice or accident; unfed, ill-fed, and worked until they succumbed in utter exhaustion, or drop dead in their harness!”
  • The last living pit pony in the U.K. was called Tony. He died at a sanctuary in 2011 at the age of 40.
  • At its peak, in 1913, coal production in Britain reach 300 million tons.
  • Employment in Britain's coal mines rose from 300,000 in 1865 to about 1.2 million in 1920. Today, just 5,000 people are employed in coal mining in the United Kingdom.
Pony at work in a mine in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Pony at work in a mine in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Sources

  • “Sultan the Pit Pony.” Kerry Wolfe, Atlas Obscura, September 26, 2018.
  • “The Huge Sculpture Built as a Tribute to the Pit Ponies of Wales You Might Never Have Noticed.” John Cooper, walesonline.co.uk, December 14, 2019.
  • “The Huskar Pit Disaster.” penistonearchive.co.uk, undated.
  • “Pit Ponies - Ghosts of the Coal Mines.” Margaret Evans, horsejournals.com, July 5, 2019.
  • Brooke.org.
  • “Pit Ponies: Real Horsepower Underground.” Alan Jones, CIM Magazine (Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy, and Petroleum, March 1, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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