THE BLOG

The Death of Coal Mining in Britain Is About More Than Industry - It's About People, Families

18/12/2015 11:58 GMT | Updated 18/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Today, at lunchtime, the last British deep coal miners will emerge, blinking into the daylight and caked in coal dust, after finishing their last ever shift at Kellingley Colliery near Wakefield in Yorkshire.

The cagelift doors will creak open one last time and the men - for they are almost always men - will step out after their final spell in the bowels of the earth, blasting tonnes of the blackest coal from deep seams buried beneath the green fields of England.

They will clock off and walk to the pithead shower block, where jets of water will wash away more than just the dirt of a day's work at the coal face, but hundreds of years of British history.

But while all the news reports are focussing on how coal literally fuelled the industrial revolution, how at one point, one million miners were working in pits, how Big Coal is now over in the UK, no one is really talking about how coal mining built communities, cultures, families, memories. My family. My memories.

How the miner's strike impacted on Britain's sociopolitical landscape and how the ripples are still being felt, especially with Jeremy Corbyn now leading the Labour party. How in turn that inspired amazing art from the likes of Jeremy Deller, and films like the Fully Monty, Brassed Off, Billy Elliott and more recently, Pride.

But for me, it's about my family, who might not even be here without coal mining - my entire family tree has its roots in coal.

South Elmsall in Yorkshire, where my mum and dad grew up as did most of my family before them, is a mining village about 12 miles away Wakefield that lived and died by coal. All the men in the family worked at the pit at some point in their lives, including my dad.

my dad

My dad - pictured above on a grassed over slag heap at Frickley Colliery - hated it however, and worked hard to get an HND in civil engineering and get the hell out.

Who can blame him? Coal mining is filthy, dangerous and physically exhausting in terrible humidity, heat and claustrophobic conditions. In Kellingley's 50 year history for example, 17 miners have died. But back in my granddad's day, the mortality rate was even more grim.

My granddad was covered in blue scars. His skin was a jagged patchwork record of every pit roof fall he'd been pinned under since he first started working down there, aged 14. He'd escaped death on numerous occasions, if not from roof falls, then gas explosions. We still treasure his miner's lamp (Davy lamp) that at least helped in a tiny way keep him safe.

And even if the coal face didn't kill them, the after effects of the work often did, either as a result of the coal worker's curse, pneumoconiosis (a lung condition caused by constantly inhaling coal dust), or else as the result of the kind of hard-living lifestyle the miners favoured after a grim shift crawling on their hands and knees underground or hacking away at the coalface. My granddad for example smoked JPS Black cigarettes AND a pipe, and they all went down the social club when their shift had finished.

Granddad died of a heart attack brought on by pneumoconiosis, Uncle Eric and Uncle Den of cancer, the list goes on.

The shifts themselves can't have been much good for their health either - shift patterns were a regular three week one - days started at 4am, afternoons at 2pm then nights at 10pm. My mum says she hardly ever saw my granddad when he was working and she was growing up.

But working in those diabolical conditions created a camaraderie like nothing else - my granddad's stories were full of tales of friendship in extreme circumstances. He talked fondly of his close relationship with the pit ponies they still used until the 1960s to haul the coal wagons, and how they used to go crazy with happiness and career around bucking once they were liberated into fields for their summer holidays.

And it wasn't just the mine itself that connected the community. Every mine had a social club where all the families met and socialised - everyone knew each other. There was the annual Miners' Welfare Gala to raise money for those injured at work, and as the miners all had holidays at the same time every year when the pit had its annual shut down, they all went on holiday together.

My nan and granddad went on the same seaside day trip every year with Frickley Colliery. And in my memory, it was to Rhyll in Wales every single year.

When the miners strike was on, South Elmsall was a ghost town - I remember feeling almost scared to walk my dog round the streets when we were at nan and granddad's, as so many shops were shuttered up, with graffiti everywhere screaming "Maggie Out!" (or worse).

I remember the furious conversations about the strike over Sunday lunch. We were squeezed into nan and granddad's living room, the fold-up table opened out in front of the coal fire, the pots of potatoes and veg on the hearth keeping warm as we ate our first course of - naturally -Yorkshire pudding and onion gravy. (My nan was a socialist but hated Arthur Scargill).

But Thatcher won and it was the beginning of the end for coal mining in Britain, with worldwide market forces pealing the final death knell this week.

Without the mines, many of towns and village have struggled, not least with unemployment but with the sense of community that the mines gave. And while most people can agree that our reliance on fossil fuels must stop and we need to replace them with alternatives, what will replace the mines when it comes to giving a community heart?

In the meantime, I will remember my family and how that black dust continues to run through their veins, pits or no pits.