The Last Miners

By Ewan Gibbs, James Pattison, Sophie Rowland and David Selway

The BBC recently gave a prime time airing to documenting the end of deep coal mining in the UK. The Last Miners was broadcast over two successive Monday evenings, and details the closure of Britain’s last colliery, Kellingley, the North Yorkshire pit which shut in December 2015. Coal’s final major closure has coincided with renewed academic and public interest in the history of an industry. At its peak, coal mining employed over 1 million men and women, and played a crucial role defining labour markets, culture and identity of diverse regions of Britain from East Kent to Fife and the Rhondda Valley.

In recent years anniversaries, including commemorations of the 1984-5 miners’ strike over 2014-15 have provided occasion for a re-examination of the coal industry and the conditions of its eventual demise. The response, a growing scholarship of deindustrialisation focused on the long-term impact of the transition from traditional industrial employment to an economy dominated by service sector employment.

The first episode of The Last Miners ended with one miner’s reflection that uniforms strewn across the Kellingley locker room “could be a pile of men on the scrapheap.” This accords with the motifs of Kay Sutcliffe’s 1984-5 strike ballad Coal Not Dole: “Empty trucks once filled with coal, Lined up like men on the dole. Will they e’er be used again, Or left for scrap just like the men?” However, the complete cessation of deep mining has also presented an opportunity to look beyond the “body count” of lost jobs and to consider the fundamental, qualitative, shifts in culture which economic restructuring has brought.

The passage of time since the trauma of the major coalfield run down of the 1980s and early 1990s has allowed for a fuller reflection on the coal mining era. The recent high profile given to commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales, demonstrated the continuing importance of the industry’s legacy and “cultural scars”. These motifs have been present in other former coalfield areas including the remembrance of the 1959 colliery fire at Auchengeich in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in which 47 men died underground. The 50th anniversary included the unveiling of a significant memorial adjacent to Auchengeich Miners’ Welfare and an annual service now commemorates the event each September.

Tragedy was a fact of life at every pit, and those killed at Kellingley Colliery had their own memorial. One of the names inscribed is that of Gerry Gibson, who was killed by a roof-fall in 2011. Gerry’s 22 year-old son, Andy, features prominently in the documentary. During the first episode, Andy is interviewed about the incident in one particularly affecting and difficult sequence that makes evident he is still struggling to come to terms with his father’s death. His fiancé, Lucy, believes that Andy had returned to work because the mine had been where his dad was, and where he now feels closest to him. With the pit’s closure, however, ‘he’s losing part of his dad…the last thing connecting him with his dad is the mine.’

The strength of the association between the place of work, the dangers that it embodied and the workers themselves – to the extent that memories of his father and his death are linked in such a way with Kellingley Colliery itself – appears to be a feature of coalmining communities. The majority of the memorials to pit disasters, for instance, have been erected after the closure of the particular collieries, rather than in the aftermath of the disasters themselves. Monuments commemorating two of the most infamous explosions, at Senghennydd and Gresford, were unveiled in 1981 and 1982, with the two collieries having closed in 1976 and 1973 respectively. In both cases, it is almost as if the memorial serves a double purpose – a site of remembrance for the industry itself, as well as those who gave their lives to it. Such was the closeness of the association between work and danger that the loss of the pit itself was bound up with the men who had lost their lives there. Kellingley’s memorial is particularly interesting in this respect, in that it was still, in some sense, an active memorial – commemorating something that still remained a feature of everyday life.

The story of Andy, encapsulate the experience of thousands of miners, as they have had to come to terms with deindustrialisation. Many former colliery workers endure insufferable connections to their work through both emotional and physical ties. Sherry Linkon has developed the literary phrase ‘half-life’ to illustrate the instability, and uncertainty that former workers face in deindustrialisation.

Faced with the prospect that they must adapt to a society in which their skills are no longer required, they increasingly view themselves as ‘dinosaurs’ leading an archaic way of life. The Last Miners alluded to this directly through the device of political rhetoric: David Cameron responded to former miner and Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s complaints over the government’s handling of Kellingley’s closure with references to ‘Jurassic Park’. As the half-life unfolds, workers are forced into a cycle of ‘dependency culture’, with uncertain hours, insufficient sustainable income, and early pension withdrawal. A direct consequence of this, is that a number of individuals have expressed a sense of disillusionment, and aloofness from a society in which they are no longer sure where they belong.

To understand the psychoanalytic of the ‘half-life’ played out, Geoff Bright has conceptualised how a ‘social haunting’ captures the socio – political and psychological states that exist within these communities’. Bright presents former miners as bearing an unrelenting attachment to their past occupations due to the untimely demise placed upon them. As the psychological or physical deterioration evident in the term ‘half –life’ demonstrates, closure of the collieries marked not only the end of sustainable employment, but a way of life; bringing uncertainty, and doubt in the form of unemployment, ill health and community degradation.

Throughout the programmes, the viewer is invited to consider what comes next in terms of employment for The Last Miners. Some of the older workers may take early retirement, others, such as Jonesy and Sheldon, retrain. The younger workers, such as Andy and Jack, have no choice but to start looking for new jobs. Jack is thinking about moving ‘up North’ because that is where he claims there are more jobs in heavy industry, but he finds it difficult to find work; Andy is hoping to transfer his skills as an electrician to a new career. This need for ‘transferable skills’ hints at what waits for them in a contemporary labour market that demands flexibility, and as Andy says, ‘mining’s not really a transferable skill’.

The end of coal mining in Britain can be considered part of a wider contraction of heavy industry and manufacturing, and its replacement with low paid, poor quality and often temporary work. The case of the Amazon distribution centre in Pontypool, South Wales, and Sports Direct’s headquarters and distribution centre in Shirebrook, Derbyshire are high profile examples of this shift from industry to precarity. At Sports Direct HQ there are only 200 permanent staff, whilst a further 3000 are employed through agencies on flexible contracts, guaranteeing only 336 hours per year. This hollowing out of industry has had a detrimental effect on deindustrialised communities, diverting many onto incapacity benefits, whilst the low wages of those in work are topped up by tax credits. These problems have been compounded by the austerity measures imposed since 2010 which have affected former industrial areas badly, ‘In effect, communities in older industrial Britain are being meted out punishment in the form of welfare cuts for the destruction wrought to their industrial base’.

The decision to accord a prime time slot to The Last Miners was a rare public acknowledgement that deindustrialisation is a continuing process rather than something which solely happened during the 1980s. The programme combined the collective workforce experience of closure with individual stories of the often traumatic experience of adapting to an increasingly service sector dominated labour market, or the impact of social redundancy that early retirement can enforce. In places the programme presented miners as men with attitudes from a past era who make light of domestic violence and chew tobacco. As the academic and public history of the mining era develops it showcases a complex industry with distinct national and regional elements of culture and identity but also shared occupational attachments. The Last Miners was far from the last word. Its generally positive reception from coalfield groups on social media points to an opportunity for further discussion and engagement.

Ewan Gibbs is an Early Career Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He tweets at @ewangibbs.

James Pattison is a PhD student in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. He tweets at @JamesPattison79.

Sophie Rowland is a Phd Student in the School of Social Policy, Sociology, and Social Research at the University of Kent. She tweets at @SophieRowland93.

David Selway is a PhD student in the History department at the University of Sussex. He tweets at @davidselway89.

Originally posted 29th December 2016

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