Coal dust is rooted in my DNA as much as blood courses through my veins. For I am a coal miner’s daughter. I’m also the sister, niece, granddaughter, great-granddaughter and great-niece of colliers. And this week is a painful one.
On Friday, Britain’s last deep mine, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, will shut for ever. Bang go another 450 jobs .
And it’s goodbye to 66 years of blood, sweat and tears at a once-proud “super pit” that embodied everything that was good about the coal industry.
I feel for the people of Kellingley. When I grew up in the 1970s, clinking, metal pit towers and tall, sturdy Victorian mill chimneys studded the skyline of my home in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
Both provided work, a wage and food on the table for tens of thousands of families.
But the mills are long gone, demolished by cack-handed town planners or turned into loft apartments.
The mines have fallen silent. Shopping centres, warehouses, industrial and housing estates now stand where the industry which defined the working class and vast swathes of our country once thrived.
Four generations of men in my family earned a living toiling underground and, like all other collier families, we experienced death, injuries and illnesses from mining the “black diamond”. My sons Finlay and Joseph and nieces Daisy, Evie and Ruby are the first generation of our family not to see a relative working as a miner.
I have taken them twice to the mining museum and their young eyes were shocked at the now-sanitised conditions their great-grandfather worked in. They know it is because of the hard work of these past generations that they have opportunities and futures their forefathers could only dream of.
It was a gruelling job, but it was a job. And now for many families who live in and have ties to mining communities, they have to keep digging deep – only this time to rebuild new lives in the face of tough times.
Let me introduce my mining family…
Michael Boyle, 1928 – 2003, my father
Like thousands of other Irishmen, economic necessity forced my father to leave his home in Milltown, County Galway, as the family’s smallholding was insufficient to keep seven siblings. Aged 18 and with his best friend Jimmy Donnelly, he went to Manchester to work on the building sites.
But when Jimmy asked him to go to work in America with him, he said, “No, I’m off down the pit. It’s good money”.
And it was. But it was a price most felt when he helped bury his close friend, who was one of seven miners who died in the 1973 Lofthouse Pit disaster in Wakefield. It was 2am on March 21 when the night shift cut into an abandoned shaft and water gushed through the South 9B seam.
Sixty feet below and 2,000 metres behind them, overman Tony Banks was hit by a massive surge of wind through the seam he was in.
“Everything went deathly silent,” he says sombrely. “We were working on our hands and knees and the wind knocked us sideways. I recall it as if it was yesterday.”
Tony rang the pit surface and was told men were missing. He gathered his team and they made their way safely to the top.
Only hours earlier, he had allowed Charlie Cotton to swap from his team to work with his son Terry on South 9B as they were due to go out together the next day to mark Charlie’s 50th birthday.
The deputy trapped in South 9B, Dublin-born Eddie Finnegan, 40, had also swapped shifts as a favour to a friend.
As millions of gallons of stinking, stagnant water poured into the seam, the men ran for it. But Charlie struggled and urged Terry to keep going.
For seven long days and nights, a tense silence hung over my home city. Ambulances whizzed past my school, adults spoke quietly in the family home. My father, working for the private mining company Thyssen’s, was part of the recovery team.
He and fellow Irishman Eddie, a father-of-three, were close pals. After six days, it went from a rescue mission to a recovery.
Hope was lost for the men. Only Charlie’s body was found. It would be safer for the other six, their forlorn colleagues agreed, to remain. But understandably, many could not face sealing the seam and, in doing so, burying their friends.
My dad and Eddie, both Catholics, were raised to understand the place death has in life and the respect and value of a person’s final resting place.
Eddie’s sister Rose Costello, 84, of Crawshawbooth, Lancashire, recalls to me the dignity they afforded: “Your dad, with a team of other men, helped build three separate walls to secure the men’s grave.
“One man had a tin of white paint and on the final wall, he carefully painted a large white cross. “The team all stood in a line while your dad led prayers for them, asking that their souls rest in peace. “Your dad went to see my brother Tommy and, as he told him about it, he cried. “Your dad was devastated and said it was the worst thing he ever had to do in his life.”
The atmosphere at Lofthouse was never the same. Tony, 73, who started as a miner at 15 and notched up 38 years underground, says: “Black humour got us through digging for the black stuff.
“There was always a lot of banter but things were different after the tragedy, more sombre and the men more nervous.”
As a teenager, I recall my dad coming home, coal dust settled into the creases of his face and neck and, despite having had an end-of-shift shower, looking as if he was wearing thick black eyeliner. On his tenth anniversary of working for Thyssen’s, he was presented with a watch and citation stating: “I hope this will serve as a further reminder of this happy occasion.” Happy is not a word I’d ever use to describe any part of a collier’s work.
Patrick Costello, 1904 – 1976 my grandfather
My mother Mary recalls the insurance man making his weekly call to collect the divvy money at my maternal grandparents’ council home. Glancing at a black and white photo on the wall, he enquired: “Who’s that? Is it a film star?”
My lovely nan Sally looked up and laughed: “No, it’s my husband.”
The oldest of five children, Cos, as he was known, left the family farm in Tullinahoo, County Mayo, aged just 16 and came to Yorkshire.
My grandfather was a handsome man with piercing blue eyes, high cheekbones and dark wavy hair. But a lifetime working underground left him bone thin and ravaged.
In his late 40s, he fell victim to pneumoconiosis, the pernicious industrial lung disease caused by inhalation of dust. It was known as miners’ dust.
My grandad worked as a shaft sinker. In a tough world, this was one of the toughest jobs to do, digging out holes with a pick and shovel so miners could then hack out coal. He would work waist-high in water and in tunnels just 18 inches high, crawling along on his stomach. Inhumane conditions for anyone to be in.
There were no pit baths so he’d go home and lean over the kitchen sink while his youngest son Pat recalls standing on a chair and scrubbing the grime off his back.
How hard was it for the wives too? I can only imagine what a toil it was just to wash the pit clothes weekly by hand.
By his mid-60s, weight had dropped off him and the once strong man, who walked and cycled an eight-mile round trip to the pit before and after his eight-hour shift, could barely reach his front gate.
That’s the raw price of coal.
Michael Keegan, 1859 – 1937 my great-grandfather
Unlike many Irish immigrants, the Keegans of Knockfadda, County Wicklow, were not dirt poor and were educated.
My mother tells me Michael was at school until he was 17 – something only people with money could afford then.
His brother became an officer in the Irish police force and could speak several languages and the family ran a small business and farmed the land. But again, it was insufficient to keep seven sons. So Michael ventured to Barnsley probably in his late teens. In 1866, the South Yorkshire town lost 361 men in two explosions at the Oaks Pit.
It remains England’s worst mining disaster to this day.
I often wonder how he felt leaving the rural rolling lands of Ireland to work in the bowels of the Earth.
Over his working life, Michael was employed at pits – then in private owners’ hands – in Barnsley and Wakefield, the city where he met and married my great-grandmother Bridget.
My father never crossed a picket line in the 1984 strike. The NUM had helped secure compensation for my grandfather for the industrial disease that claimed his life.
As for Michael, I wonder if he took part in the six-week national miners’ strike in 1912 as they fought for a minimum wage. A law was passed which guaranteed 6s 6d a day – equivalent to about £60 today.
One of the pits my grandfather worked at was Caphouse Colliery near Wakefield, now the National Coal Mining Museum for England.
I would make it law that every child in the country visits this. It’s part of our heritage, however harsh it is to see.
Copyright of work and photos retained to Sheron Boyle Media
Article published the mirror on 12th December 2015