Kellingley: two days in the death of three centuries of coal mining

On Friday 18 December the last shift at the last colliery in the UK cut its last tonnes of coal. Brian Parkin, former research officer for the National Union of Mineworkers, was at the pit top at Kellingley colliery to welcome to the surface the last of the country’s miners as they ended their final stint. In both sorrow and anger, here is his tribute to the last of the Enemy Within.

Kellingley miners' banner

Photo: Peter Mulligan, flickr

Since October, the 18 December was a date that I was dreading. The closure of Kellingley colliery in Yorkshire would mark the end of coalmining in Britain and with it, the end of the most heroic tradition of struggle. The dread came with the prospect of making the journey through the blighted coalfield areas between Leeds and Knottingley where 31 years, eight months and one week earlier began the epic battle to save pits, jobs and communities.

Kellingley colliery, which started production 50 years ago as a “super-pit” with a modestly estimated 90 years of reserves was, until the opening of the Selby mine complex in 1985, the newest, biggest and most advanced pit in the Yorkshire coalfield. Its workforce from the beginning was unique in that the vast majority of men came from the coalfield of Fifeshire where, as a result of Coal Board and government policy, many pits had prematurely closed. So much so did the Scottish character of Kellingley make its mark on the coalfield that its first colliery band was a Scottish pipe and drum band and the nearby town of Kellingley where most of the miners families settled came to be known as “little Scotland”.

A militant tradition

From Fifeshire not only came a pipe band but also a fierce tradition of political militancy founded in the 1920s around the then infant and revolutionary Communist Party. And the bearers of the Communist tradition were most notably Jimmy Miller and his extended family of brothers, cousins and uncles. Originally intended for a minimum production of 1.5 million tonnes per year based on a workforce of 2000, the eventual deal sought and won by the union was a possible 2 million tonnes in exchange for expanding the workforce further with miners displaced from other winding-down pits. Consequently by 1978 the workforce had grown to 2970.

And the reputation of Kellingley for solidarity extended well beyond the coalfield. In 1976 miners at the pit went on strike in support of nurses and other health workers caught in the low-pay trap of the social contract, the Labour government’s attempt to hold down pay. In the same year they were among the mass pickets at the London Grunwick strike, where hundreds of mainly Asian women workers had been sacked for joining a union.

The 1984-85 strike

By 1984 the original Scottish cohort of workers at Kellingley had been diluted by retirements and the influx of displaced miners from other less militant pits. And by then the old Jimmy Miller had retired with his son Davey becoming the NUM branch secretary. But despite these changes, Kellingley had resisted the big money temptations of incentive and bonus schemes and maintained ranks with the rest of the Yorkshire NUM in refusing to cut coal during overtime. But for me, personally, two tragedies regarding Kellingley during the year-long strike stand out.

The first was in May 1984, just two months into the strike when a young miner and his wife lost their four year old son after a period of long and painful illness. Upon approaching a funeral director they were told to seek statutory funeral benefit only to be advised two days later that as the “principal claimant” was involved in a “trades dispute” the funeral benefit would only be made available if he broke the strike and returned to work.

Heart-broken, the couple had to leave the body of their son in the hospital mortuary rather than submit him to a pauper’s funeral. That is until the Kellingley NUM branch heard of their anguish and paid for a decent funeral out of union funds.

The second is the case of Joe Green, a retired miner who was killed on a picket outside Ferrybridge power station on 15 June. Joe came from a long communist tradition and had been one of the original Fifeshire miners who had migrated to Kellingley in 1965.  Badly injured in an accident in 1981, he had been retired with compensation from the industry.

Yet every day Joe would hobble the two miles to the Ferrybridge gates with sandwiches and cans of beer for the pickets. That is until that June afternoon when he approached a speeding exiting lorry from the power station gates and was run down and killed. His funeral in Knottingley eight days later was led by a lone piper playing a plaintive lament and was accompanied to the “kirk” by hundreds of miners with their branch banners.

But returning to 18 December…

On the train my thoughts are a confusion. Exhausted from lack of sleep and simply not knowing what to do when I arrive at the pit, I suddenly become aware of how ridiculous I might look wearing a dark suit with shirt and tie. And then I realise that in auto-pilot mode I have dressed as if going to yet another funeral.

At Knottingley station I realise that a fellow passenger has been Paul Routledge – a veteran industrial reporter and son of a miner now working for the Daily Mirror. I cadge a lift in a taxi with him to the pit on his expenses in exchange for some basic information about Kellingley and upon arrival I am once again reminded of the vastness of the headgear and surrounding colliery plant. I am told the final production shift will be finishing at 12.15pm and will be leaving the pit at around one o’clock. The first person I meet is Chris Kitchen, former face worker at Wheldale colliery, Castleford and now the final and out-going president of the NUM.

I comment ironically on the press scrum, to which he replies something like “Aye, the enemy within for over 200 years but fucking heroes now they’ve murdered the industry”. We stroll around the pit “yard” where the huge ventilation fan-houses, massive bunkers, coal crushing and washery plant are located. Then we go into the canteen where we are greeted by the “lasses” draped with Christmas tinsel but their eyes red with tears. We sit at a table and are joined by a face worker who, although not his shift, has come to wish his mates still “down there” all the best when they come up.

Someone mentions that local Labour MP Yvette Cooper is about to pay a visit to which there is general derision for “Labour’s 13 years in office in which they did fuck all for the coal industry, let alone renationalising the power companies or decarbonising the power stations… And now what?  Massively subsidised nuclear and fracking everywhere for gas!” That’s one thing about miners – they always know their stuff.

Press freedom

In the meantime word has got round that an NUM researcher might be alright for some expert information. Subsequently I am approached by the BBC who I will assist but also by reporters from the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, who I won’t. “Come on”, persists the Mail man, is this one of the pits where there was intimidation during the strike?” But before I can answer the off-duty face worker says it for me, If tha’ doesn’t fuck off reet na, there’ll really be some intimidation!”

The lamp room

Some of us are allowed into the lamp room to see the miners as they rise to the surface. They look bright and cheerful and one man is trying to encourage a “Here we go” sing-song. But it falters and as the questions to them fly thick and fast, some coal dust covered faces start to streak with tears. This isn’t just the end of an era”, says one, “it’s the end of a whole working class tradition”. Then his voice trails off into a choked silence.

A bit later at the pit exit, having showered and dressed, the shift starts to come to the checking-out point. Cameras are flashing and clicking and men are drawn aside for their comments. Many are confused and unable to speak. Some by now are crying. One miner I know says “I can’t cope with this. These press people think it’s just another story. They don’t know the history behind all this. All the sacrifice, all that hardship and solidarity. Somehow I don’t feel fit to be in this position. This is history and I don’t know how the hell we got here. One thing I do know though is that we are paying the price.”

I am offered a lift back to the station by an old journalist friend, Peter Lazenby, formerly of the Yorkshire Evening Post but now of the Morning Star. Peter is a well-built walrus like and straight-talking bloke. I ask him if he thought that he would ever see the end of the coal industry? He answers “No, not ever”, and then asks “have you cried yet?” “No”, I reply. “Well that, I suppose, will come at the final demo tomorrow”, he says.

The Last Pit march and party

The following day after yet another sleepless night I set off one more – and final time – for Knottingley. My partner and comrade Elizabeth, having seen my depressed state the evening before, declines to come. She is fearful of her possible emotional response for what will be a mass wake.

By the time I get on the train, the abandoned coal faces at Kellingley will have started to flood and millions worth of high technology equipment will be progressively crushed in the coming days. The deep roadways into which the miners, like Prometheus, had audaciously taken light, will be forever reclaimed by darkness. And the trapped sunlight from the photosynthesis that formed the primeval forests of 300 million years ago which in turn became coal is already lost forever.

The walk from the station at Knottingley to the town hall takes a few minutes and already with an hour to go the crowd is building up. And suddenly I am among familiar faces, handshakes and hugs. Betty Cook of the Women Against Pit Closures and whose son was killed at Kellingley seven years ago is there with Anne Scargill. Despite the attrition of the passing 30 years there are nearly as many women as there are former miners. Then I see an old friend and comrade Alan who along with Terry Harrison at Wheldale colliery had formed the “Hole in the Wall Gang” of flying pickets who (nearly) always got through.

We talk about Terry who eventually became president of Kellingley NUM but later committed suicide in his garage when he was jilted by his gay lover. I remember saying to Alan at the time of the funeral that I had no idea that Terry – who was married with two children – was gay. Alan said likewise but added, “If he had told me it would have made no difference. He was my best mate. I loved him and I would have stood by him no matter what… I just hope he wasn’t being hounded by any homophobic bastards. You never know… sometimes I wish that brave LGBT Pride lot who went to South Wales could have come to West Yorkshire.”

Then as the crowd grows with more friends and comrades I start to feel overwhelmed by the imminent loss of all of this. As one ex-miner says, mixing his native-American metaphors, “We are the last of the Mohicans and this is our Wounded Knee.” While I’m talking to the one NUM exec member from the old days who is present, the colliery silver band assembles at the end of the side road. But there is a wrangle going on at the front between a miner and a senior copper about who organised the march and who will be paying the policing costs. The issue is resolved with the words, “It was our colliery, this is our town and we will police it ourselves. So with the greatest respect, please fuck off.”

And then the bandmaster says quietly, “This is history ladies and gentlemen. This is the last pit in Britain. Please play your hearts out.” Then Gresford, the “miners’ hymn”, silences the crowd and I, like many around me, start to weep. Around me people are either hugging each other whilst sobbing or standing heads bowed. By now I feel almost on the verge of panic. My sense of bereavement has become full-blown grief.

Around 3,000 people attended the Last Pit demo in Knottingley on 20 December 2015. The march wound through the town to the huge miners welfare club. Outside a contingent of former Kent and Notts miners set fire to banners damning Tories and UDM scabs alike whilst inside the Last Pit Party, organised by two miners’ wives, was starting. But I was by now exhausted and emotionally depleted.  So for the first time in my life, I have decided to turn my back on the miners and whilst walking back to the station I realise that I am leaving the Yorkshire coalfield for ever. But among the many things the miners have taught me is the art of neither forgetting nor forgiving. They organised but lost, so now is the time to mourn. But only for a while, because whatever our sorrows now, our day will come.

There are 4 comments

  1. Working Class Zero

    The white working class have, by and large, become the ‘enemy within’ and stripping people of rights at the bottom of the economic and the tacit acceptance in many quarters of demonising and destroying people’s life chances, chances of getting on is as cruel and pernicious and as nasty as racism or any other tacitly accepted prejudice. I view this dispassionately now, as my Christian faith says that I should forgive and even pray for those who torment others, but it is also true that capitalist societies always need a fall guy, an ‘enemy within’ to heap blame on and justify the harsh economic divisions that such societies create and nurture. Nothing about austerity is inevitable, it is a political process designed to ensure the wealthy prosper at any time and the majority take the shortfall. There’s nothing new under the sun.

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  2. Colin Revolting Born To Protest

    It stands so proud, the wheels so still,
    A ghost-like figure on the hill.
    It seems so strange, there is no sound,
    Now there are no men underground.

    What will become of this pit-yard,
    Where men once trampled faces hard?
    Tired and weary, their work done,
    Never having seen the sun.

    Will it become like sacred ground?
    Foreign tourists gazing round.
    Asking if men once worked here,
    Way beneath this pit-head gear.

    Empty trucks once filled with coal,
    image: http://static.urx.io/units/web/urx-unit-loader.gif

    Lined up like men on the dole.
    Will they e’re be used again,
    Or left for scrap just like the men?

    There’ll always be a happy hour
    For those with money, jobs and power.
    They’ll never realise the hurt,
    They cause to men they treat like dirt.

    What will become of this pit-yard,
    Where men once trampled faces hard?
    Tired and weary, their work done,
    Never having seen the sun.

    There’ll always be a happy hour
    For those with money, jobs and power.
    They’ll never realise the hurt,
    They do to them they treat like dirt.

    Cola Not Dole written 1984 by Kay Sutcliffe, from the Kent coalfield and wife of a miner.
    and sung by Chumbawamba here

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