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A History of Coal Mining in 10 Objects

22 July 14 words: Paul Fillingham
"As a miner's son who grew up in the area during the sixties and seventies, I wanted to reflect on the culture that shaped me"
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The ideological conflict of 1984 which precipitated the coal industry’s demise is well documented. Its impact so corrosive that thirty years on the mere mention of ‘Nottinghamshire’ has the power to eclipse every aspect of our mining heritage: all achievements, tradition, language and artefacts obscured. In the words of George Orwell, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

In 2013, I embarked upon a project with Dr Sarah Badcock from the Department of History at the University of Nottingham and Dr David Amos, Curator at Bestwood Winding Engine House Museum and former mineworker from Annesley Colliery. A History of Coal Mining in 10 Objects is the product of our work. As a miner’s son who grew up in the area during the sixties and seventies, I wanted to reflect on the culture that shaped me.

A militant outpost during the ‘84 strike, my childhood home of Blidworth would experience the pain of structural unemployment in the aftermath of pit closure. Social problems that would have been inconceivable a few years earlier. At the height of coal production, the shops, schools, library, sports facilities and other civic amenities reflected the benevolent ethos of the mining company that founded the model village in the twenties. My grandfather, Tommy Wass, was one the first men to work there. Later he moved to Sherwood Colliery where he looked after pit ponies; one of the iconic and much loved ‘objects’ in our project. On my dad’s side, Cyril a community spirited man with coal dust on his chest, worked as an engine driver and was a member of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes; a kind of ‘Freemasonry for working class people’ responsible for the social welfare of our old folk.

Although utilitarian, some objects in the book’s collection; cap lamps, motties, flame safety lamps and self-rescuers, have an emotional attachment for the miners, as evidenced by the outpouring of anecdotes, embellished with humour and camaraderie. A History of Coal Mining in 10 Objects also considers environmental ‘objects’ such as pit tips. These grey, forbidden playgrounds of our childhood now form the basis of green spaces and public parks. Teversal is one such nature reserve, a man-made-mountain and the highest point in Nottinghamshire features a magnificent sculpture by Antony Dufort and offers spectacular views over Derbyshire, Bolsover Castle, the preserved headstocks and chimney of Pleasley Colliery, and just visible on the horizon, the derelict headstocks of Clipstone Colliery, the tallest in Europe.

The headstocks chapter reveals how mining accidents brought about technological and legislative change. The Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Mines and Manufacturies (1842) prevented women and children from working underground, thus establishing split gender roles that, together with colliery shift patterns, shaped mining culture for generations. With help from student filmmakers, Snap Tin depicts a fictional lunch break where it’s discovered that more mines closed under Harold Wilson’s Labour administration than any other. The snap tin is mentioned in both George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and Barry Hines’ Kes (Kestrel for a Knave). Like Judd, the lead character in Hines’ screenplay, the typical career path for a miner’s son was down the pit. Being a dab-hand at drawing American superheroes, I was bundled off to art school instead, though not before receiving an honorary NUM membership from Union Leader Len Clarke for the mural I painted for their Headquarters.

While searching the former NUM Headquarters at Berry Hill, we discovered fourteen union banners in various states of decay. These beautifully crafted objects, now pending restoration at Mansfield Museum, encapsulate the folk memory of political and recreational parades. Sadly, my mining mural could not be found.

In our concluding chapter we consider the future of Thoresby Colliery, the county’s last remaining deep coal mine. Thoresby has since fallen victim to US shale gas production - the ‘miracle fuel’ responsible for flooding international markets with surplus coal. Once again gas is putting the squeeze on its fossilised cousin, only this time you can ‘Tell Sid’ the coal industry is history.

A History of Coal Mining in 10 Objects is available as a free eBook from the Mining Heritage website.

Mining Heritage website

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