by Annette Finlay
Listening to a cassette of mining songs reminded me of my grandfather. He was known to others as Arthur George Fuller, better known as `Dick', but to me... well he was just `Pop'. Clearly in my mind as though it was only yesterday, I was taken back to when I was a little girl. There I was sitting on my grandparents' red brick fence as I waited excitedly in the warmth of the afternoon sun. It was 3.30... time for Pop to return home from work. As I spotted his tall, lean figure turning the corner to walk home, off I ran to meet him and escort him the last few blocks. I always recognised Pop from a distance as he always dressed the same — a flannelette shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, King Gee trousers and a hat which covered his bald patch. He would greet me with a bright, happy smile... albeit a gummy one, as he refused to wear false teeth. His blue-grey eyes would sparkle with mischief as he hugged me. "How's my Cheeky today?" he would ask, ruffling my short blonde curls and calling me by my nickname only he used. I would help him carry his crib bag home, then watch as Nanna greeted him cheerfully. She would give him a beer as he sat down to have a `breather' before he milked his cows and fed the chooks. "How are you Kid?", Pop would ask Nanna. "Oh, pretty good Dick, no use grumbling", she would answer, matter of factly. I never heard Pop call Nanna by her proper name, Grace. He always called her `Kid' or `Pet' and in return she usually called him `Dick' or `Richard'. On the odd occasion she would call him Arthur George, usually when she was tormenting him. Nanna was a very hardworking woman, always cooking on her fuel stove which provided a wonderful aroma of home baked delights wafting through their home. She refused to use a washing machine, so she washed by hand, which made her large hands very strong. Along with Pop, Nanna also refused to wear false teeth, which never bothered me. I found her buxom figure, curly grey hair and hearty laughter very comforting. She was kind and generous but if she didn't like someone, they were told in no uncertain terms. I would sometimes help Pop cut chaff, bale up the cows, then watch excitedly for the first spray of milk. He never failed to squirt me at least twice while milking, which would cause me to squeal in delight. Occasionally I would go with Pop to the pit where he worked to help him feed and water the pit ponies. This was exciting as I loved horses and enjoyed watching him brush them down and talk to them as though they were old mates. They seemed to understand him. The ponies were beautiful, strong, quiet creatures. Indeed they were Pop's `old mates' — he made that very clear as he told me yarns of his other life. The life of working underground in the Southern District of New South Wales from the 1940s to the 1970s. His mining career began at Excelsior Colliery in 1946 at the age of 36. He began as a labourer, doing jobs such as Duff filling, which was shovelling dust into skips and water filling, bucketing water into skips. He then worked as a machineman operating cutter loaders on afternoon shift, using a Sampson coal cutter with a swivel head. After that, Pop was put in charge of the stables and about 40 pit ponies, because he was handy with horses. Some of the ponies names were Taffy, Ned, Black Ned, Captain, Digger, Frank, Tex and Rex. He could alternate between day and afternoon shift to look after his brood and became very attached to them. Sometimes his sons would help him feed and curry comb the ponies and make up their nose bags for the next day. Pop left Excelsior to work at Bulli Main in 1958. The work at Bulli Main was strenuous and dangerous. He worked in three-foot-six-inch seams as a shiftman, laying turn rails with a pick and shovel. He also had to `brush' the floors out to a height of five-feet so the pit ponies could fit. In 1962-63 Pop saw the arrival of a Goodman loader, two Goodman shuttle cars and a small coal cutter. Belts were installed and he then did belt patrols, but at that stage they were still using skips. He was also a `trouble shooter', laying tracks and fixing tommy dodgers. In 1967-68 a continuous miner, a 28E Lee-Norse, arrived to make life easier. One of Pop's workmates was `Bunny Brown'. Bunny was a rope corporal. He was in charge of clipping a rope onto a set of 10 full skips and sending them out to the pit top to be emptied and then sent back into the face. He had his own place to eat crib called `Bunny's Shack', which was made out of brattice. Bunny had a pet rat called Cecil, who would sit up and beg to share Bunny's crib. Bunny went on holidays for a fortnight and Pop took over his job. Apparently he wasn't aware of Cecil and when he begged Pop to share his crib, he called Cecil a cheeky bugger and killed him with a sprag. This was the joke of the pit for quite some time, but no-one ever told Bunny why Cecil went missing. Pop was well known for carrying his self-rescuer on a leather belt over his shoulder, instead of around his waist. When he was shovelling belts and the roof was very low he would hang the belt on a nail. He would often be reprimanded for this, but would blame the crook back, complaining the self- rescuer was too heavy and aggravated his back. Bulli Main was flooded in 1970 and most of the men who worked there went to Coalcliff. Pop knew the manager at Scarborough and got a job there until Bulli Main re-opened. He returned to Bulli Main until he retired in May 1972. Over the years he witnessed progress in the mining industry along with upheaval and tragedy. He was a fair dinkum unionist as were most of the `old timers' who fought for better working conditions and safety. When Pop retired at the age of 60, he was dusted. I can remember listening to him coughing for what seemed like hours of a morning. It seemed his legacy for working underground for 26 years was coughing up coal dust that he had swallowed while making a living. He gradually fell prey to Alzheimers Disease. It was sad watching helplessly as he deteriorated but one thing that didn't falter was his memory of working underground and his old mates. Both Nanna and Pop passed away in late 1989, after 55 years of marriage. I still miss them terribly, but am grateful to have such wonderful memories of them. I will certainly always be proud of the fact that Pop was a hardworking, fair dinkum coal miner and staunch unionist and Nanna was a coal miner's wife, just as I am today.