Free coal for miners was a scheme that had its roots in deals struck by unions in the 1950s with the then nationalised industry, to grant their members an allowance of coal as part of their contract of employment. The average delivery to a miner's home was 4.14 tonnes a year, usually delivered fortnightly. Even today retired ex-miners who still burn solid fuel receive an allowance, though since the industry was privatised it is the government's responsibility. The scheme has come under criticism from environmentalists. When the vast majority of homes in Ashington burned coal fires there was certainly a pall of smoke above the town, and flecks of coal and ash would often spoil the clean washing hanging on the line.
Depending on the whereabouts of the coal-house, the coal would either be delivered in bags and tipped directly into the coal house (with much spillage outside it) or dumped into the streets from the wagons. In the story Hughie makes pin money by shovelling coal from the back streets through a square hatch directly into the coal houses that were at the end of most people's back yards. Some homes, however, had their coal houses inside the house next to the kitchen or scullery, and the coal had to be bagged or barrowed in from the street.