End of an era: the last UK underground coalmine closes

Written By: Granville Williams
Published: December 9, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

By mid- December, the last coal will be mined at Kellingley Pit in Yorkshire, and the remaining miners made redundant. Below ground are enough coal reserves for the mine to remain open until the 2030s, but by next March the pit shafts will have been sealed with concrete and this will mark the definitive end of underground coal mining in the United Kingdom.

In 1947, when the 958 largest pits were taken into public ownership, coal was the primary source for 90 per cent of the UK’s energy and more than 700,000 men worked in the industry.

For anyone who has lived and worked in coal mining areas this is not a time for nostalgia, but for cold anger at the way, through brutal political decisions or government inertia, an industry has been destroyed over three decades and whole communities put on the rack of dereliction and unemployment.

Most mining communities were absolutely dependent on the pit for employment and to sustain the local economy. Villages were created around the coalmines, which nurtured socialist politics, trades unionism, clubs, union banners, brass bands, sporting activities and a strong sense of community. There is a rich literature about this across the UK coalfields from Wales through to Scotland, with distinctive patterns of life and social organisation in each of the coalfields.

In the north east of England, we see this in the former Great Northern Coalfield of Northumberland and Durham where the last mine, Ellington in Northumberland, closed in January 2005. This was the region which, at its height, had 200 pits. The Road to Jericho by William Bell, an account of life and work in the Durham coalfield produced what Sid Chaplin, the novelist and short story writer, describes in his introduction as “not only the best account I have ever come across on this subject, it is also the most closely detailed narrative of how pit-folk lived, thought, worked and felt during the period from the turn of the century onwards to the mid-1920s and the great collapse of the depression.” The book is an essential text that vividly describes life and work in a mining community and gives a clear insight into why miners engaged in such long and bitter struggle against avaricious coal owners to build a union and to defend their wages and working conditions.

Robert Saint worked at Hebburn Colliery, near to Jarrow in County Durham, and composed the miners’ hymn “Gresford” after the explosion at Gresford Colliery, North Wales, in 1934 killed 266 men and boys. It has been played at every Durham Miners’ Gala since 1936.

An evening class, started in the early 1930s in Ashington, Northumberland for miners keen to learn about art, and the work of the men who attended – artists such as Oliver Kilbourn, George Brownrigg, George Blessed – who captured work at the coalface and patterns of family life and leisure, are a moving record of life in a mining community. Oliver Kilbourn designed the Ellington NUM Branch banner in 1951. The artists were the subject of Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984 by William Feaver, and Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters.

The event which knitted together scattered mining communities, with their NUM lodge banners and brass bands, was the Gala, first organised in 1871, in the city of Durham. It is testimony to the bitter struggles by the miners that the Gala was cancelled in 1921, 1922, 1926 and 1984 because of strikes and lockouts. The only other cancellations were during the First and Second World Wars. The irony is that in July 2015, as the last three pits in the UK (Thoresby, Hatfield and Kellingley) were under threat, 150,000 people attended the Gala – the largest attendance for many years.

The classic Coal Is Our Life, published in 1956 with a striking cover by Rosamund Seymour, was dedicated “To the Yorkshire mineworker”. Coal Is Our Life revealed a cohesive community, an ordered world in which trade unionism had a crucial social role and was not just narrowly focused on industrial relations.

The book, written by two social anthropologists (Norman Dennis and Fernando Henriques) and the sociologist Cliff Slaughter, details the work of the miners, trade unionism, leisure and the family in the mining town of “Ashton”, which depicted the real town of Featherstone, situated in what was then the dense industrial area of the West Riding of Yorkshire. I remember the prosperous town, population around 14,000, in the 1960s with its bustling high street and shops.

As well as the Miners’ Welfare (described in Coal Is Our Life as “by far the biggest building in Ashton”), there were big barns of pubs like The Jubilee on the main road through the town to Pontefract which would be packed with miners on weekends. We used to sell the Socialist Labour League paper, The Newsletter, in them on a Saturday night, competing with the Salvation Army’s War Cry.

The town had drawn national attention in September 1893. The miners were on strike against what one paper described as “the abrupt and tactless demand of the coal-owners for a heavy wage reduction”. Protests by the miners led to the authorities calling for troops to be sent to Featherstone and 54 men of the First Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment under the command of a Captain Barker arrived in the afternoon of September 7. Their presence angered the miners and, when confronted by an angry crowd, the Riot Act was read and the troops opened fire, killing two miners. A sculpture, to mark the centenary of the Featherstone Massacre, stands in the shopping precinct.

Rugby League played a key role in the town and Featherstone Rovers was prominent in the 1969 documentary The Game That Got Away: “In Featherstone, they mine coal and play rugby league”, the refined voice of the commentator, Roger Mills, observes as the film cuts to Ackton Hall’s extensive pit top winding gear. The documentary reveals that half the Rovers team were miners, up at 5am to go down the pit, and playing for an £8 win bonus which would give them £15 for their efforts.

In 1995, Rupert Murdoch, in a deal with the Rugby Football League, paid £87 million to create a Super League and shift the game from winter to summer (so that it played parallel to the game in Australia). There was fierce opposition to the initial proposals, one of which was to merge Wakefield Trinity, Featherstone Rovers and Castleford, traditional rivals with over 100 years of history into one team called Calder (the name of the river that runs through Wakefield).

This ridiculous proposal was dropped but a revised plan went through. Featherstone Rovers didn’t make it into the Super League, created in 1996. To qualify, you had to finish in the first 10 of the former first division. Featherstone finished 11th and missed out on the money that went to the Super League clubs.

Ian Clayton captures something of the quality of the people of Featherstone in his book, Bringing It All Back Home: “My gran’s family were farmers’ labourers who stood in the squares of little Yorkshire market towns while potential employers felt at their muscles before hiring them. The family at some point in Victorian times gravitated to the coal towns to find work digging under the ground they had once ploughed. My gran had four uncles who were all killed in the First World War before they were 25. She had two brothers who left the mines for the second war and never came home. During the miners’ strike, Margaret Thatcher called miners and their families ‘the enemy within’. My granddad swung his boot at the television and refused to ever watch the news again. He stuck to his word. In the last five years of his life, the five that fell outside of his 40 down the pit and six in the army at El Alamein and Monte Casino, he only watched snooker.

Kellingley Pit , the “‘big K”, is near Knottingley in West Yorkshire. It was Britain’s first “super pit” producing more than one million tonnes of coal a year after it opened in April 1965. At its peak ,it employed over 2,500 people and had a big impact on the town. the NUM branch secretary there was Jimmy Miller, a Scot, a Communist Party member, and a gifted orator.

The miners’ social club in Knottingley was built by miners making small weekly donations of ninepence. The club was an ambitious project, even for a pit the size of Kellingley, driven by Jimmy Miller, the NUM branch secretary, a Communist Party member, and gifted orator. He wanted miners to have access to education, books, to quality entertainment, sporting and leisure facilities. At the start of the 1984-85 miners’ strike the club had reserves of £30,000 but at the end of the strike debts of £150,000. This was because the club was the centre of activity during the strike, feeding pickets and the families of striking miners, serving hundreds of meals a day, seven days a week. The miners agreed, after the strike, to donate 50p each week out of their pay to clear the debt. The club is still there.

Jimmy Miller also used the co-operative buying power of the miners and their families to buy consumer goods at huge discounts. If a Kellingley miner wanted a new TV, or a washer, or a set of car tyres, he went to the union co-operative run by the NUM officials. Miners paid a small weekly sum to the union so the bill was paid gradually. The Kellingley co-operative operation was so large that the union branch had its own warehouse at the pithead. The profits from this activity went to support the annual holiday of retired miners, wives and widows for a week’s holiday in Blackpool.

The warehouse was closed by the management in the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

As I write this piece, the news is of a big protest demonstration in Scunthorpe against steel closures taking place up and down the country. Some former miners, bitter over the failure of steelworkers to support them during the 1984-85 strike, see this as “payback” time. But the fate of the steelworkers parallels that of the mining communities after the pit closures. When the steel plant in Redcar was mothballed in October this year 2,200 jobs at the plant went and the local economy began to disintegrate. Jobs will be lost amongst the suppliers of parts to the plant, the outside engineers that did the servicing, the port workers and hauliers, the cafes and shops. Days after the SSI closure, one of Teeside’s biggest employment agencies went into liquidation.

So let’s mark the end of UK coal mining, not in a romanticised way, for the world of mining was never idyllic. But the very nature of their often difficult and dangerous work meant that miners developed a distinct sense of camaraderie and brotherhood, with everybody looking after each other.

Dennis Clayton, a former miner from Bolsover Colliery in North Derbyshire sums it up: :The miners, there will never be another group like them. They were brilliant men.” Their year-long strike in defence of jobs and communities, and the amazing work of Women Against Pit Closures, inspired tremendous national and international solidarity. It still does inspire today.

To modify the words of Albert Camus, writing about the Spanish Civil War: “Men and women learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can defeat spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward.”