Thursday, 15 September 2016

What do you think they did?

A few weeks ago the Ireland XO site posted an interesting piece on the theme what did your ancestors do? I was amused to read of some of the more outlandish job titles. I do not have a flax scutcher in my tree: my lot seemed to be predominantly linen lappers.

But I was disappointed not to find any mention of the job title that has been puzzling me lately. Our 2xgreat grandfather Andrew Burton was described in 1905 as a "coal trimmer". In 1890, Andrew had been a stonemason. Was this new trade a highly specialised craft that drew on his expertise working with stone to ensure that the fuel fed into a furnace was neat, or at least uniform in size?

It turns out that at the turn of the twentieth century, coal trimmer was a well-recognised (and very important) maritime occupation with a very misleading name. They should have been called ship trimmers. A ship might steam out of harbour looking very seaworthy with its bunkers loaded with coal. But if all the coal stored on the port side of the vessel was fed into the boilers before any was taken from the starboard side, the ship would become very unstable and could easily roll over and sink in even a mild sea.

black gangIn order to keep the vessel on an even keel, also called "in trim", a group of men were occupied around the clock redistributing coal within the hull to ensure that all the forces remained in balance. Despite the disastrous consequences of any failure in their work, the coal trimmers were regarded as being less skilled than firemen or stokers (fellow members of the Black Gang) and were among the lowest paid on the ship for working in the most difficult conditions.

So Andrew was not making fine technical adjustments to fuel quality in a new high-technology environment, as I had optimistically imagined. He was shovelling tons of rock in near pitch black and choking dust alongside the boilers that could make the metal bulkhead glow red.

When he listened to the preaching at the Salvation Army Citadel on the torments of hell awaiting the unrepentant, Andrew Burton must have understood quite literally what was being described.

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