I grew up knowing very little about coal mines. The closest I ever came to a mine was on day trips to the Science Museum in London, where one of the more memorable exhibits in the 1960s was a sanitised mock-up of a coal mine in the basement. When we went by train on our annual seaside holidays to Kent, I always looked out for “Chislet Colliery Halt” on our way to Broadstairs, and peered out of the window to get a glimpse of what a coal mine looked like. But Chislet was an early casualty of closures. It supplied coal for the rapidly diminishing stock of British Railways steam locomotives, and by 1969 it had closed. A few years later there was nothing to see except some blackened ground and some old sidings.
The contraction of the coal industry has been very evident for many years now. Especially from the 1970s, whole communities changed overnight. Re-training incentives came and went. New skills were taken on board by some of those whose future as miners had been cut short. Home production of coal was in decline. Coal was dirty. This was brought home to me in my own job at the time. Working for a large engineering company, one of our major projects was to construct a flue gas desulphurisation plant for the huge coal-fired Drax power station. Even this project has now had its day. I believe Drax is now known for generating power from wood chippings rather than from coal.
With the fortunes of UK engineering also seeing serious periodic downturns, I finally lost my long-held ideal to work in a productive industry, and moved into the “service sector” like so many citizens before and after me across Europe. Here, for a few years, I worked alongside a former miner. I was working for a company providing IT services to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which paid farmers under the various payment schemes for arable areas, suckler cows, and so on. This colleague was a Sunderland man of about the same age as me. He had formerly worked in Murton Colliery in County Durham, and then retrained in IT, and moved south. He thought me mad getting pleasure from exploring old mine workings. I learnt one thing from him – how to wear my NCB issue knee-pads without the straps chafing the backs of my legs – he told me not to bother doing up the higher strap.
There are still coal mines operating in Britain. Apart from some opencast workings, small-scale shallow drift mines can still be found, dotted around the country, and long may these continue. One may imagine that the only way such places can keep going is by running on low budget methods, and in a few cases as little more than hobby mines.
The AditNow mining history forum has discussed the Kellingley closure, and interestingly the debate turned swiftly to the future of power generation. There has been an interesting mix of comments, ranging from forecasting a dire future of power cuts and the failure of new technologies to provide sufficient electricity, to optimistic comments on how a radical shake-up of how we heat our homes and provide transport and industry with electricity will see us through.
One thing is certain. A very long era of deep coal mining has closed. The culture of the coal-miner will stay a while yet. You can take the miners out of the collieries, but the pit will always remain inside the miner.