The Strange Death of King Coal

Big K

The first six years of my life were in South Wales. I am from Abergavenny – it’s down in the Vale of Usk, but it’s more of a tearoom and market castle town than a “Valley” valley, most famous for its incarceration of Rudolph Hess, and a brief time in the 14th Century when Abergavenny declared itself independent from the rest of you lot.  I’m not from a mining town.

But Abergavenny lies on the very edge of the South Wales Coalfield, that stretches 90 miles west of the town, through Blaenavon, Merthyr, the Rhondda and Neath right out to Pembrokeshire. So in those few years I learned about the mines, as you do in that part of the world.

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South Wales Coalfield. Source: Flikr|thereggy

I remember the slag heaps on the hill side and the day trips to the Rhondda Heritage Park.  I also recall heading over the top of the Blorenge, the mountain that looked over my garden, to Big Pit in Blaenavon, the mine-turned-museum. The tour underground was run back then by ex-Miners, a few of whom managed to stay in the industry as tour guides, and I think a few are still there. I never did that part of the tour. I had a chance, when I was young, but I was scared of a cave-in, probably because I’d just been taught about Victorian kids (younger than me) dying in mines.

It’s silly really, but that’s how my generation, those of us who aren’t from a mining family or old colliery town, were told about the mines. They were something past relics of the days when kids and pit-ponies and men with rickets were sent away from the daylight to work the pits. It’s what kept them alive (that, and the canaries). That’s not what mining is anymore. Coal is still being hauled out of the ground. Mechanised and safer than ever before, but still tough, until the end of today’s shift it’s still the lifeblood of those who work the last face at Kellingley Colliery.

Nowadays it’s all about the environmental factors too. Coal kills the planet, and clean coal isn’t a sufficient alternative. Coal is choking us, so apparently we’re moving onto gas until that chokes us too. They’re closing the coal-fired power stations next, and everybody important is happy about this. It makes us ever-so-slightly greener as a country. Shall we build another runway at Heathrow?

Those in charge don’t really care about the green stuff. The government has made that pretty damn clear. But in any case, British coal isn’t going to be part of this country’s future. As life beats past us, it brings with it in the backwash a whole host of nostalgic feeling; you may have noticed some of it in my first few paragraphs. People love a bit of nostalgia, and it takes on many forms. There’s the nationalistic stuff, and in the week where Benedict Anderson passed, you can find tales of how coal built a nation, or built an empire – which in Brit-nostalgia, is rose-tinted, ignoring its brutal past and economic endurance (just think about where the coal is coming from now).

“The country used to be called Great Britain, and coal is part of what put great into that name” said Chris Kitchen, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, last week. Britain is an imagined community built of coal and steam, and these images are frequently wrapped up in ideas of “Better Days.” This blog isn’t about that. Not today, at least. Kellingley’s closure isn’t about the death of John Bull or any of that Victoriaphilian nonsense.

There’s the other nostalgia. The moving stuff, the part that makes the Financial Times squirm  because other people are feeling emotions that they cannot comprehend. The centuries of stories of how entire communities went underground, mined the heart out of the place, looking after the town, their families, and each other. Because they were miners, and that’s just what they did. Many hands lighten the load, as the Haitians say. However outdated coal may be as an idea, Kellingley marks the end of a way of life, a popular culture complete with its own folklore, music, humour and so many histories. It is always sad when a way of life dies out, and deep mining dies today, not with a strike, but a whimper.

This isn’t Brassed Off, or Pride. The end doesn’t happen with a defiant march through the streets, with heads held high.

THAT’S NOT ENOUGH.

The resilience of downtrodden communities can be an inspiring thing to watch from the outside, and the capacity for human renewal in such places is symbolic of the most impressive qualities of our society. But all the obituaries of two centuries of life in the coalfields can be a distraction from the final act of the systematic destruction of mining life in this country. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

The death of deep mining threatens the existence of the NUM, once the most powerful, government-felling union in the land. Thatcher mortally wounded the miners and the NUM during the strike of 1983-1984. Incarcerating without cause, the police beat the picketers, they beat their partners and their children too. The press burned them in daily written effigies. Over the latter half of the 20th Century, mines were increasingly underfunded and the jobs ebbed away. Successive governments did not care about the future of such places. In the 1990s, the Major government set up a few generous pension schemes as it closed dozens of mines, but work never returned, and nor was it encouraged. Mining towns were given an expiry date, nothing more.

march glasgow

March in Glasgow in support of the Miner’s Strike, 1983. Source: BBC News

A few places found an economy in mining heritage. A couple of ex-Miners could run the tours down Big Pit, now part of the Museum of Wales, but really it’s plugging the dam with a fingernail. Blaenavon has tried a few things to stay afloat, even attempting to mimic Hay-on-Wye as another Welsh “book town,” but to no avail. They haven’t given up yet.

Modern, mechanised mines like Kellingley, first sunk in 1960, were able to carry on for longer. Extracting over 2 million tonnes of coal a year, Kellingley is full of cutting-edge tech. The miners drop down the shaft, at over 40mph, to a depth of 800 metres below the surface, before boarding a train for a five mile ride to the coalface, which is finally reached in one final commute aboard a conveyor belt (that itself can be another two miles long).

At temperatures of nearly 40˚C, the coal is extracted from the face using the Shearer, which resembles a gigantic pizza-cutter. While that works its magic, the seam, itself over 300m long, is held open by a series of mechanised roof supports that press upwards to keep the face clear. As the Shearer surges onwards, the roof behind the supports is allowed to collapse. Each supporting post in the passages holds at least three sensors to forewarn of danger. (More info here at UK Coal website)

uk coal

A modern mine. Source: UK Coal

These days, miners wear more than just a hard-hat, but it’s still a tough, risky business down in the pit. Collapses still happen. Miners carry a device called a “self-rescuer” that provides emergency air in case of fire. Three miners, Don Cook, Ian Cameron and Gerry Gibson have died at Kellingley in the last decade. Shifts at “The Big K” are 12 hours long, of which 3 is spent just getting to-and-from the coalface.

Romanticised accounts on these aspects of mining alone do not really exist; the sentiment of the closing of the pits is attached to the death of a way of life so important to many people alive today. Those who mourn the end of mining do not want people risking their lives in cave-ins and explosions. We do wish for communities to not be left behind in the past as evaporating towns where kids with prospects throw a bag on their backs and never return, and everybody else ends up on the dole or in a Sports Direct depot as in Shirebrook.

Modern miner

Modern miner. Souce: UK Coal

It’s at that point where we shake off the intoxicating nostalgia of the pit town. The end of deep coal is an end of security. As the NUM declines to almost nothing, and as the trade union movement itself comes under increasing threat, the ex-miners in these towns find their friends are also ebbing away. The canteen in Kellingley now has a makeshift career service – there are jobs advertised for a nearby Wind Farm factory in Hull. 14 of them (at its peak, Kellingley employed 2000). There are plans to build a Waste-to-Energy facility on the site, but that comes with just 38 full-time positions.

The NUM is angry about all of this; Dave Kitchen explains that the skills of deep-mining are honed and unique, and the miners have also been damaged from years in the pit. In any case, the planned re-training and re-employment schemes offered are little more than lip-service.

“Now we have miners at various stages of that journey entering the job market. Employers will be interviewing men who know how to work hard but who aren’t as healthy as they should be because their back’s not right or they have a weak chest.

We haven’t been in this situation before because previously when a pit has closed there’s always been the option of transferring. The Kellingley miners have specialised skills but nowhere to take them because theirs is the last pit.”

Many who came to Kellingley, like Welshman Carwyn Donovan, followed the coal to Yorkshire after their old mines bit the bullet. The pension schemes provided by a £10m grant to UK Coal from the Government are a shadow of those given out in the ‘90s. One miner, laid off in August, was only told at the start of his last shift that at the end of the day, he would no longer have a job. Even the UK Coal website claims to this day that its mines closed this year would be open until 2019.

This is a disinterested assassination of a town and the final stage of a thirty-year dismantling of the lives of coal miners. This isn’t about the Paris Talks or climate change or worker safety or merely the passing of time. Britain hasn’t abandoned coal yet, just its miners. Coal from abroad comes in at £13-a-ton less than from below our feet. The buyers don’t care about the welfare of those who brought that coal to the surface either.

The price is all that matters, and the overheads of a modern mine are high. It needs to be preparing the next face as the current one is worked to maintain profit. Starved of investment, UK Coal pulled the rug quickly from Kellingley and Thoresby (in Nottinghamshire) this year to cut losses. It’s cheaper for the buyers to buy no-questions-asked coal whilst the argument is spun that deep mining was an old nag who had to be put out of its misery.

The Kellingley miners are going to march tomorrow through Knottingley, the nearest village. Organised by two local women, the march will begin “one last pit party” for the town. But then the town will go into Christmas, short of 450 jobs and full of uncertainty. “We’re all off on gap years, aren’t we?” said one miner, wryly.

Pam Ross of the GMB Union, finds a flaw in the nostalgia.

We will lose skills, traditions and culture associated with coal mining, and obviously suffer the social deprivation from communities losing their source of employment. It’s ironic that there are so many coal mining museums in the UK – obviously the general public has a lot of empathy for miners and mining, pity the UK Government did not share that empathy.”

Ross would like to have seen mining continue until at least 2025. Maybe that wasn’t possible. But through better pension schemes, training and local investment the Government could have at least ensured a better future for ex-mining towns, so that mining need not be remembered as the better past.

The last tonne of coal pulled out of Kellingley is going to go on display at the National Coal Mining Museum next year. Like in the Rhondda and Big Pit, heritage is all we have left of the mining life. Perhaps in remembering the struggle and spirit of the mining past Knottingley, Blaenavon and other ex-mining towns can continue to endure the hard times and hope for a future that is more than a story of permanent decline. That is the culture of mining that doesn’t have to die.

Deep coal mining in Britain is over.

Kellingley-Colliery_0286

Dave King, Kellingley miner (left) and Keith Poulson of the NUM, at the Kellingley Miners Memorial. Source: Daily Mirror

PS I have read somewhere that the Memorial is being moved the National Mining Museum in Wakefield and Kellingley Miners are raising money toward this aim. If anyone has more info on this/how to give please let me know.

Source of header image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror

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