"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;
They originate from South Wales where their use and style of design appears unique to the coal mining industry.
They are pre 1947 check issues with the earliest examples possibly appearing during the period 1880 to 1900.
They are made from brass and have embossed designs (i.e. their legends are in relief as opposed to the alternative of being incusely die stamped). Their edges are almost always plain (i.e. not milled).
They have large circular centre holes.
They exist in one of two standard sizes; Large Variety – 53.5 mm outer diameter with a 18 mm inner diameter; Small Variety - 39 mm outer diameter with a 18 mm inner diameter. Only the latter varieties of "Polos" are usually additionally pierced for suspension purposes.
However, as with all general categorisations there are a few exceptions to the rules;
Although there are no true "Polo" type checks known from England or Scotland there are some that have certain "Polo" like characteristics. The most noticeable of these are series of pre 1947 time and/or pay checks issued by J.J. Charlesworth & Co. for many of their Yorkshire Pits and Coking Works. This series of fairly large brass embossed checks emulate "Polos" in as far as they have a variety of differently shaped (circular, oval and square) identifying holes punched out of their centres. The only other possible contender outside Wales to be termed a "Polo" check would be the fairly well known brass embossed "Polo" style checks from Ollerton Colliery in Nottinghamshire. These pieces, which probably served as pay checks, have a 39 mm outer diameter with a 11.5 mm inner diameter.
All but one of the Welsh "Polos" known to me have either been issued in the name of a private coal company or can similarly be classed as pre 1947 issues on stylistic grounds. The only exception is one of the smaller types of "Polo" which bears the embossed legend "N.C.B. CEFN COED COLLIERY". Despite the fact that 99% of all known "Polo" check examples originate prior to 1947 there is plenty of evidence to indicate that at certain pits their use continued after nationalisation. This is attested to by the fact that certain "Polos", such as those from Aberpergwm Colliery, are usually found bearing the counter stamped initials "NCB" on their reverse.
It appears that there is only one type of "Polo" known that is not made of brass. This example takes the form of one of the smaller diameter "Polos" and is struck in aluminium. The other distinguishing feature of these particular checks, which emanate from Cross Hands Colliery, is that they were obviously not used as lamp tokens as indicated by their obverse legend which reads "CROSS HANDS CANTEEN (SOAP)". The use of checks, tokens and card voucher for regulating the issue of bars of soap (i.e. similar to how pithead bath tokens were used) is known from other British collieries.
There is at least one Colliery, Cefn Coed, that is known not only to have issue conventional "Polos" with circular centre holes but also a further set with triangular holes. Another unusual feature of certain pre 1947 Cefn Coed "Polos" is that they have milled edges.
At present I am only aware of one type of "Polo" check bearing an incuse die stamped design. This example originates from Oakdale Colliery. All other known examples of factory made "Polos" have embossed designs. However, in some cases secondary hand stamped legends do appear applied to what essentially could be described as embossed checks. Examples of such are often found on the reverses of several of the generic "Polos" issued by companies such as the Amalgamated Anthracite Company Ltd. (A.A.C.). This company operated several collieries throughout South Wales and presumably as a cost cutting exercise issued a standard "Polo" design for use at most of its different pits. The obverses of these standard company checks carry only the name, in full, of the A.A.C. In order to personalise such checks for use at a given colliery within the group their reverses were often hand stamped with the respective names of the pits to which they were issued. There is one further sub-category of "Polo" checks that do not conform to having embossed designs. This series comprises simple blank checks bearing only hand stamped identification numbers, which are occasionally accompanied by a colliery’s initials. Most collectors regard these checks as being temporary replacement checks issued by the colliery lamp room personnel to miners who had lost their original lamp tokens. The general practice whereby most British colliery lamp rooms held a stock of blank circular checks for such eventualities is well known. There is no reason to doubt that things were any different for those Welsh mines that used "Polo" type checks.
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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