Wednesday, 25 June 2014
I grew up in the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire coalfields. From the back garden of my childhood home, high on a hill, you could see several 'headstocks' with their huge, spoked wheels. They are the winding gear for the mine shafts that took the coal miners up and down into the deep seams in metal cages, and brought the coal up to the surface. I used to be fascinated to see them rotating, imagining the cages going up and down. They have nearly all disappeared now. In the first half of the 20th century there were over 1000 deep mines in the UK; now there are just three (Kellingley in Yorkshire, Thoresby in Nottinghamshire and Hatfield near Doncaster) and the closure of two of those is imminent. It is a combination of increasing difficulty in getting at the coal and economics, with cheap coal from abroad flooding the market. The closure of the pits over the years has devastated many local communities that were heavily reliant on the industry and economic recovery for those areas is a very long, slow process.
At the Mining Museum, you can actually don a hard hat and a miner's lamp and descend in the cage at Caphouse Colliery to walk along the tunnels and explore exhibits showing mining throughout the ages. The guides are all ex-miners - hard men with soft centres, I felt, and real characters too - humour and banter all the way. You get a feel for what it must have been like working in the pits.
In the early days, women and children worked down there too. Children could get into narrow spaces and were used to haul the tubs of coal along the tunnels. In 1842 women and children were banned from working underground, largely as a result of the deaths of 26 children from drowning in a mine accident in 1838, when water gushed into a tunnel.
When my forebears were miners, it was a terribly dangerous occupation. Coal was hewn by hand with picks in very confined spaces; miners often spent all day lying down in semi-darkness. There were frequent rockfalls, floods and explosions (miner's lamps often ignited gas in the mines.) In one year during the 1920s, 1297 miners were killed at work and 212,256 seriously injured. In the 1920s when grandad was a young man, there was a series of strikes and the mine owners used bullying tactics, forcing families out of their homes (which were usually owned by the company) and effectively starving the men back to work.