The “Black Gang”

The Great Coal Strike of 1912 wreaked havoc on the shipping industry.  At the beginning of the Twentieth Century fully half of all the gross registered shipping tonnage in the world was British, some ten million tons in all–almost of it coal-fired.  As supplies of coal became more and more scarce that spring, more and more ships were tied up at dockside, their cargoes rusting or rotting in warehouses on the piers, their crews sent ashore, idle, unemployed.  In Southampton alone more than 17,000 stokers, trimmers, firemen, greasers, seamen, and stewards were out of work by mid-March.  With so many men unemployed, and most having families to feed, when the opportunity had come to get a job–any job–on the Titanic, there were more men clamoring for them than there were berths, and those who got them counted themselves lucky.

With the possible exception of the lot of a galley slave, it would be difficult to conceive of a task more demanding and demeaning, more backbreaking and more soul-breaking, than feeding the furnaces of a coal-fired boiler on a steamship.  The confines of the hull meant that none of the bulky automated feeding mechanisms that fed boilers ashore could be installed in the ship.  Instead the entire chore was accomplished through sheer human muscle power.

The task began with the trimmers, who had to carry the coal from the bunkers to the foot of the firebox, using wheelbarrows to deliver great lumps of coal measuring as much as twenty inches in length and eight inches thick.  At the start of the voyage, with full bunkers, it was a relatively easy job, but toward the end of the crossing, as the bunkers began to empty, it was fiercesome work, for by then the coal might be a hundred-fifty feet or more from the scuttle where it was loaded in the barrows, and for every trimmer carrying a load to the furnaces, there was one inside the bunker shifting coal.  Despite the fact that the trimmers were at the very bottom of the hierarchy of the Engineering department, there was a certain degree of skill required in their job as well–it was their responsibility to see that the coal was used in uniform amounts from each bunker, so that the weight of the remaining coal wouldn’t unbalance the ship, upsetting her trim–hence the name “trimmers.”  Their world was an eerie one, even more poorly lit and poorly ventilated than their quarters, while temperatures ranged from the searing heat of the furnace door to the sea-chilled reaches of the farther bunkers.

Once the coal was delivered to the firebox, the firemen took over.  Usually working stripped to the waist, like the trimmers their torsos and faces covered in coal dust, the firemen (sometimes called stokers) were eerily illuminated by the glow of the flames in the fireboxes and the flare of clinkers and slag as they went through an elaborate and exacting ballet of muscle and sweat.  A fireman’s first task was to break up the large lumps of coal brought by the trimmers into something more manageable: using his shovel and slice bar, he would reduce the larger pieces into fragments roughly the size of a man’s fist.  Next, timing his movements to the roll and pitch of the ship, the fireman would swing open the door to a firebox and quickly thrust home his slice bar along the fire-grate, working it back and forth four times, once for each track of the grate, to improve the draft across the burning coals by breaking ashes and clinkers loose.  These were quickly raked into a pit below the firebox and the fire-door swung closed again.  On double-ended boilers the stokers worked in tandem so that doors at the opposite ends were never open at the same time, preventing back-drafts that could blow the fire out into the firemen’s faces.  The fire-door would be opened again, and the fireman would shovel a layer of coal across the grate–a skilled fireman would usually feed in no more than four shovelfuls of coal, spreading them over the grate at a uniform depth of four inches.  At the same time, other crewmen known as water tenders would keep a close eye on the water gauges, careful to keep a level of two inches in the boiler, a combination that maximized the amount of steam each fire-grate could produce.

The whole routine moved to the inexorable ringing of Kilroy’s Patent Stoking Indicator, a mechanical timer that could be set for intervals between eight and thirty minutes.  The higher the speed of the ship, the lower the interval between rings on the Indicator; the amount of time for which the Indicator was set was the total allotted to performing the entire cycle of breaking coal, slicing, clinkering and stoking.  The usual settings would be between eight and ten minutes for a complete cycle.  At the end of each four-hour watch the firemen would finish by raking the ashes and clinkers out of the pits, hosing them down to cool them, then shoveling them into hoppers that mixed them with seawater and then ejected them out scuttles near the ship’s waterline.

It’s little wonder that, given the endless monotony and the sheer mindlessness of the work, along with the knowledge that they had little if any prospect of advancement from their station in society or aboard the ship, the “black gang” were often a surly, barely subordinate lot.  More than one senior engineer had to be as adept at cracking heads as he was repairing machinery.  That such men rarely felt more than the most elementary loyalty to their officers and employers was inevitable.  Over the years chilling tales, some of them confirmed to be true, would accumulate in waterfront bars of particularly despised officers who would be knocked senseless with the flat of a coal-shovel, then fed into the maw of a boiler, their ashes and bones emptied into the sea with the clinkers at the end of the watch.

Because she was brand-new, the Titanic was regarded as “a good job”–cleaner and dryer

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