1950- ,Civil Engineering, The Runway job, 2

DIGGING FOR COAL Until some years ago, when a barrage was built across the River Lagan, just downstream from the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, the River brought down thousands of tons of alluvial silt which it deposited along its banks making it a black unsightly mess at low tide.
Because the River was always navigable at least as far as the wiers, it had to be dredged and the Harbour Commissioners, who were responsible, made use of the dredged material to reclaim land in the River Estuary, land on which the airfield had been built and expanded. On the east side of the River, just below the Bridge there used to be a length of quay called the Coal Quay, where coal boats, Kelly’s among them, used to tie up, where huge clam grabs would unload the coal, transporting it with great swinging sweeps through the air to form stockpiles behind timber walling at the back of the quay. As the crane men were probably on bonus, to ensure a fast turn-round for the ship, it was inevitable that speed was more important than the loss of a little coal and many a time I watched the grabs spilling coal all the way from the ship until they discharged it at the stockpiles. The coal on the ship and on the quay was recoverable, but that which fell in to the small gap made by the fenders between ship and shore was lost – or nearly so.
This silt brought down by the River is known locally as ‘Sleech’ and is the most damnable material to deal with in any construction work. Almost on a continuous basis a dredger and its attendant barges were working somewhere in the confines of the Belfast Harbour. The dredged material, the sleech, and everything else near the Coal Quay, was periodically dredged, taken by the barges and then pumped from the barges and distributed in the reclamation area through a large steel pipe. One could hear the rattle of the coal as it washed through the pipe and was deposited at the mouth. From time to time the pipe was moved to allow the material to settle evenly.
To give an idea of what this silt, or sleech was like, one day in summer, when the ground had dried out and the sleech had a hard crust I set out during the lunch hour to look at the site where we would be working next. When sleech dries out it forms horizontal plates, almost like loosely stacked grey cardboard, until the moisture is reached and the ground is soft – about 100 millimetres below where it has dried out. This knowledge is vital as the ground will only support about two tonnes a square metre, (sometimes only a hundredweight per square foot) certainly not the weight of a man.
This day I was more preoccupied with the job than the ground and suddenly I found my feet sinking. I knew better than to struggle, I just sat on my widest part, giving the minimal loading to the ground and waited for lunch time to end and to be rescued. There was one case while I was working there of a man stranded, sinking off the shore at Holywood, and people had to rescue him in the way one does with quicksand, with the weight spread over wood or sometimes metal ladders lying flat..
I explain the way the coal came to be embedded in the ooze because whenever I was working in the area, where the filling had taken place shortly before, there were people with Heath Robinson forms of transport of every kind from broken prams to the shopping-bag trolleys the elderly favour. These people were knee deep in the sludge, scrabbling for the coal which had been pumped ashore, their arms thick with the grey slime, their legs covered in it, and often this took place near dusk, after they had come home from work. In the twilight, with the mists coming up the Lough, and an occasional buoy-light winking in the distance, it was like a Dickensian scene from the cinema, rather than Belfast circa 1950. I just regret never having recorded it photographically.

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