Yesterday the last shift clocked off at Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, marking the end of deep coal mining in the UK. There will be mixed feelings among the men and their families and the communities in which they live (many of them do not live locally but commute from long dead mining villages elsewhere). To get an idea of what it means you could do worse than read Richard Benson’s The Village.
Memories will cling. Pitmen form only a small part of my ancestral legacy, but nevertheless are part of my consciousness as a lad from County Durham. My father, Ray Bashforth, was a painter and decorator and his father was a plasterer, and before that there was a long male line of metal workers of one sort or another stretching back to the late 17th century, with a side line in keeping alehouses. My grandfather, Thomas Bashforth, would have been very familiar with colliers when he served in 11th Durham Light Infantry in WW1 – most of the recruits were pit men from Durham and Northumberland.
On the maternal side my mother’s grandfathers had connections. While Jim Martin was a cabinet maker by trade, after his own father, he was not very assiduous. He was more interested in his alternative career as a minor professional cricketer, as much for its alcoholic convivial side as anything. Because of that he was often on his travels in search of work and pit villages provided jobs for carpenters – hence Elsecar in Yorkshire and Bishop Auckland in County Durham.
My mother’s favourite grandfather was indeed a coal miner. Joe Percival was born illegitimate in Dirtpot near Allenheads and was farmed out to a lead mining family. He began his working life washing lead ore but when the trade went into decline he and the rest of the family headed for the Durham coalfields and he ended up at Toronto pit near Bishop Auckland.
Mam had two particular recollections of him. Sitting down to his meal, often some sort of meat and potato stew, he would exclaim to his wife, the redoubtable Alice, “Weers t’cyaks, mother?” – a reference to the plain scones that were a component of stews and mince. Aged 4 or 5, she also remembered him in his last years (he died in 1918 aged 58 of chronic nephritis) sitting on a straight backed chair outside his terrace house in Frederick Street, enjoying the sunshine on his face.
The men from Kellingley will have their own contradictory feelings this weekend after leaving such a mucky, dangerous job, but may appreciate the chance of sunshine on their backs rather than the threat of roof falls.
My personal memories from growing up in County Durham include the effects of pit closures. I recall the slag heaps next to the A1 at Ferryhill, newly sown with grass seed in the early 1960s – they called it landscaping. I also recall having to walk the gauntlet of gangs of youths in Darlington on a Saturday night near the bus station. Already suffering from the economic and social blight of closures, the lads and lasses from rival former pit villages found weekly entertainment in facing each other off.
My fondest memory however was a conversation with Jack Elliott of Birtley at Darlington Folk Club in 1963. He was an ex-miner turned folk singer and founder of a folk music dynasty. I remember his songs, but I also remember he told me that he would put the flags out when the last pit closed, for all his repertoire celebrated the miners and their lives. Are the flags out now, Jack?