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 Location:   Library | How it Was  

Caring for the Last of Britain's Pit Ponies

I went into my loft the other day looking for some more old horse books, from my childhood, and came across an old scrapbook full of newspaper cutting, opened the book on this one, and instantly remember it. I thought it was a lovely tale at the time, and still do - see what you think?

The other newspaper clipping are from either the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Telegraph, so I assume that this is where this cutting came from.

Caring for last of Britain's pit ponies
By John Weaver - February 1969

When Mrs. Margaret Bell tries to get on with the housework it's Fred who gets in the way. He just marches into the house and generally monopolises the kitchen - which is surely his right as the retired member of the family.

Fred is on of the 1,500 remaining pit ponies whose twilight world down the mines is coming to an end. Within the next 18 months, the Coal Board plan to have found them all homes. Or if they are too old and ill, they will be destroyed.

For Fred, now 26, with 22 working years behind him, it's time to rest at the Bell's home at Witton-Gilbert, Durham. He's not been "put out to grass" because left alone under those circumstances he would probably fret or fight. Instead, Coal Board officials and the R.S.P.C.A. have thoroughly inspected his new home; his sleeping quarters and the family's ability to feed him through the year.

The Bell's wanted Fred for a pet 14 months ago. But, like thousands of others in England, they had to wait four months. They could not choose him. It was a question of whether the Bells were fir enough to give Fred a good home.

Pit ponies probably get a better life than their relatives above ground. Their stables are spotless; their handlers dote on them and take down sweets and sandwiches for tit-bits. To quote the R.S.P.C.A. chief veterinary officer Colonel Ian Tennant: "They have to be kept at a reasonable temperature, the same was wine is kept in a cellar.

"The N.C.B. (National Coal Board) go to great lengths to help us find them new homes. We inspect the accommodation, the land, and the owners. So often, we get requests from children who just don't have the facilities or the knowledge for looking after them. At one time, they were turned out to grass because people thought it was a good thing to do. But they just charged about, broke fences, and kicked. And the vandals would tease and frighten them.

Pit Pny
Wash and brush up for a pit pony. At one time, there were 73,000 at work down the mines.

"They are just not used to life above ground and they need careful handling."

Fifty years ago, there were 73,00 ponies working Britain's mines. "The best miners in the world", was the tribute of one who looked after them for 30 years. Pony and handler have always been very close.

In Yorkshire pits they play "snap" with their owners by sneaking pieces of sugar from pockets, trotting forward to sample the sandwiches and fruit that should have been the miners' lunch.

The tale goes underground that once the late Sir Harry Lauder, when he was a miner, called his pony Catherine. But Catherine refused to budge. Minutes later there was a pit-fall just in front of Catherine, and they say she saved Harry's life.

The table has been turned. Six years ago a 19-year-old miner died trying to save his pony when it galloped into mine workings in thick gas in Derbyshire. Such is the bond between man and beast.

Now the end is near, Mr. Gordon Bagier, M.P. for South Sunderland has sought - and got - from the Coal Board chief Lord Robens, an assurance that these stalwarts of the black industrial revolution will not be exported for slaughter.

And next month, on May 9, is the third reading of Sir Robert Cary's bill calling for greater assurances of the ponies' welfare.

The fear is they will be exported for slaughter. But so stringent are the Coal Board and the R.S.P.C.A. about new homes for the ponies that even Lord Robens himself was turned down when he asked if he could keep one.

The R.S.P.C.A. decided his home at Walton-on-the-Hill did not have suitable stabling. The Board get at least 20 letters a day with offers of new homes. R.S.P.C.A. deal with four or five requests a day. But always the two bodies point out that is costs at least £5.00 a week to feed and stable them.

They have led sheltered lives down the mines. A Board spokesman said: "They are probably more spoilt than other animals. They must be hand fed; they lose the ability to crop grass like other ponies."

Certainly many will have to be "put down". This will depend on veterinary advice, and it will be humane methods.

Both bodies insist the ponies must not be ridden. They are not cheap pets, as so many parents think.

Fred, the Bells' pet, breaks the rules, now and then. He is lead round their three-acre field with their five-year-old son Wealand at the reins. Technically, it is not allowed.

But, says Mrs. Bell; "it's only for five minutes. And they both love it."

To a nation whose conscience suffers more, than most over the fate of its four-legged friends, the hope is that the Freds of the twilight world will retire just as gracefully.

The Pit Pony

I also found this chewing gum card as well - what a lovely dapple grey cob.

Pit Pony

This is what is written on the back.

In 1842, the Mines Act prohibited women from hauling coal in the pits and ponies took over the work. Times were hard for miner and pony but slowly conditions improved. To day, no pony may work more than 48 hours a week.

The ponies are very well cared for, 15 of them coming under the charge of the "Horse-keeper". Each day the pony boys drive them to work and see to the feeding and watering between shifts.

In 1914 there were 70,000 ponies working in the pits. To day (I have know idea of the age of this card) the number has dwindled to under 10,000 mostly Welsh Cobs, Dale and Shetland Ponies.

The miners are very proud of their ponies and at shows, there is no other animal to match up to their high standards of turnout and conditions.

Thanks mainly to the R.S.P.C.A.; ponies are found good homes in which to enjoy their well-earned retirement.

Jan





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