"Polo"- The check with a hole.

Ever since first encountering those odd types of Welsh mining checks commonly referred to as "Polos" I have been intrigued as to their origins and the reasons behind their unusual design. In addition I have been continually puzzled as to why for some considerable time this particular type of check was so popular in the South Wales Coalfield.

For those English or Scottish collectors that are not familiar with "Polo" checks maybe some words of explanation are first called for before I wade into too many details and questions regarding this type of unusually shaped check. My knowledge of "Polo" checks is relatively limited having less than a dozen in my collection. However, over the past few years I have been sent rubbings and lists of upwards of 50 different "Polo" examples and have been told by various Welsh collectors that in all 80 to 100 different examples are believed to exist. The most obvious characteristics of these checks, as their nick-name "Polos" implies, is that they are round and have a very large hole in their centre. They often bear reverse legends such as "ELECTRIC LAMP No." or "SAFETY LAMP No." implying that they were used as lamp issuing tokens. 

Fig. 1 : A selection of  the "Polo" checks from South Wales.  Down from left to right (1) Fernhill Collieries Limited; (2) A blank - numbered only check; (3) Nixon's Navigation Collieries Limited Merthyr Vale; (4) Aberpergwm Colliery; (5) Cefn Coed Colliery A.A.C. Ltd. (6) Deep Duffryn; (7) Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries Ld.; (8) Cross Hands Canteen (Soap). Examples (2) to (8) measure 39mm by 14mm while example (1) measures 53.5 mm by 11 mm. All are brass excepting example (8) which is struck in aluminium.

Generally speaking almost all of the "Polos" I have come across conform to the following criteria;

However, as with all general categorisations there are a few exceptions to the rules;

The most intriguing question concerning Welsh "Polo" checks is why they adopted such an unusual and unique design. Exactly what was the purpose of their large centre holes and why were they so large compared to the standard circular lamp checks (32.5 mm diameter) used throughout most of the other British Coalfields?

Quite why "Polo" checks needed to be so large remains a mystery. Even taking into account their large central holes both varieties of "Polo" contain considerably more brass than is used to make a standard circular lamp check. The more brass contained in each check the higher its respective production costs. So why was it that many South Wales coal owners thought it necessary to produce such large lamp checks? It is possible that the use of the larger variety of "Polos" pre dates the smaller type. If true, this would imply that with the passage of time there was some attempt made by the colliery owners to minimise the costs of new or replacement checks.

As to the reason why "Polos" had such large centre holes the most usual explanation encountered is that this unique feature of their design allowed them to be stored more easily on vertical storage poles within the lamp room. Conservation of wall space was often an issue in the operation and layout of many large colliery lamp rooms due to the fact that considerable wall space was required to hang the traditional check boards needed to cater for a workforce which could potentially number into the thousands. However, the storage of checks in stacked bundles would create even greater problems in terms of their rapid retrieval and issue not to mention the loss of one of their primary functions as a quick health and safety tally of deployed colliers in the event of an underground accident. A further argument against the use of the "Polo" check’s centre hole being used as a means of stacking them can be found through the observation that the majority at least of the smaller diameter varieties were made with small purpose drilled suspension holes. Many of these suspension holes even have embossed borders around them indicating that they weren’t just drilled as a later after thought to achieve a more appropriate means of storing and displaying them. This is not the case with the larger and potentially earlier "Polo" varieties. When suspension holes are present on these larger "Polos" they are often crudely positioned and executed indicating that they were added later in the working lives of the checks.

Of all the arguments that I have heard regarding the origins of the "Polo" check’s unique design there is only one that I feel even partly comfortable with. This particular explanation is based on the theory that "Polo" checks were purposely made the way they were to help the colliers in quickly distinguishing and retrieving them from their pockets. When evaluating this theory it is important to consider that most early checking systems were based around the use of only a single lamp token and not the two or three cage riding or deployment checks that were to appear in later years. In the early single token systems each collier was responsible for his own lamp token and was often obliged to even take it home with him after each shift. Loss of the token would result in a deduction from his pay. On arriving at the pit each collier would hand over his personally numbered check to the lamp room attendant who would then issue back a similarly numbered safety lamp in return. It may be assumed that most miners carried their lamp tokens to and from work in the pockets of their trousers or jackets, potentially along side any loose change they may also have had on them. Thus on arrival at the pit, often in the dark early hours of the morning, it would be useful if the design of the lamp tokens made it possible for each man to quickly distinguish it from any other loose change in his pocket by touch alone. This would assist in the quick retrieval of the token without each man having to resort to  emptying his pockets. In addition the large size of the "Polo" checks made them more easy to find if they were dropped or became lost for any reason.

While not being totally happy with the above explanation it’s certainly the best theory I have come across to date. If any NMMA members have any additional theories or information regarding "Polo" checks I would very much like to hear from them, either directly or via the on-line reply facility available on the "Forum Page" of the NMMA’s Web Site. Any new material brought to light will be posted in a future addition of the NMMA Newsletter and on our Web Site for all to access.


Based on an article in NMMA Newsletter No.24,  October 2001. © Mark Smith 2001.

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