In the early eighties, there were 28 coal mines in Notts, and coal was a fundamental part of what we were all about. Now, of course, there are none. This has had a massive impact on both the former pit communities and the way that Nottingham and Notts see themselves.
It’s tempting to put on the rose-tinted glasses and look back to a time of close communities, brass bands and guaranteed work, but that does no credit to those who risked their lives and long-term health hundreds of feet below the surface to keep the lights on and the wheels turning.
Yes, there certainly was an enviable camaraderie, but former miners will continue to become seriously disabled or die from lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis for many years to come. And the story of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike shows how even close communities can be permanently and irrevocably split in two.
The strike continues to be controversial today and there are old friends across the Notts coalfield who haven’t spoken in thirty years and never will again. The majority of Notts miners refused to join the strike and those who did were not only in a small minority locally, but were also shunned by their communities.
At the two pits closest to Nottingham, Cotgrave had 55 on strike out of a workforce of 1,100 and at Nottingham’s last remaining pit, Cinderhill, only two came out. The pressure on the strikers and their families was immense and the fact that they were proved right in the end did nothing to improve their situation.
The determination of Margaret Thatcher to crush the Trade Unions in general and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in particular, ensured that strongly unionised industries such as coal mining would be run down and tens of thousands thrown out of work.
The prize for those who carried on working, as well as for the strikers, was unemployment and the near-collapse of their communities. Central and north Notts is full of ex-pit towns and villages still suffering from drug and alcohol problems, and a lack of reasonably paid jobs for both young and older workers.
But, despite this history, former Notts miners are proud of their past and anxious that future generations should gain some sort of understanding of what mining was really like. A group of them have got together to try to set up a Notts Mining Museum and are busy collecting equipment and memorabilia, ready for the day they raise enough money to buy premises to house them. They see this venture as preserving the memory of a crucial part of Nottingham and Notts’ social and industrial history, now that almost every sign of the coal industry has been either pulled down or covered up.
We went to see the people behind the project, to find out what it’s all about and how it fits in with the county’s mining heritage: Eric Eaton is the Chair and Ann Donlan the Secretary of the Notts NUM Ex and Retired Miners Association, based in Mansfield. Between them, they drive the project forward and co-ordinate the activities of the various volunteers who help out.
Why do you think this project is so important?
Eric: Now mining has ended, it’s important that local children know what it was really like.
Ann: It’s essentially about pride and community spirit. People need to know about the hardships, the dangers and also the sense of solidarity in the mining communities.
How did you get involved?
Eric: The Ex and Retired Miners Association was formed in 2005. It was in response to the continuing need for advice and support for former miners. Most of the social activities common in pit communities stopped when the pits closed, so we stepped in to try to keep things going. Then people started to donate souvenirs they’d saved from their pits – all sorts of things they thought should be displayed somewhere – and at first, we just stored them.
Eventually, we ran out of spare garages and lock-ups and I had the idea of creating a museum. After a lot of discussion, the project was launched in 2010 and we’ve been working to make it happen ever since.
We got some money from the Lottery to create an oral and video history and that worked really well – it’s now available in Nottingham and Mansfield central libraries and the Media Archive of Central England, in Lincoln.
Ann: I came at it from an interest in local history. It’s about education. And I think it’s important that people know the NUM continued to work in the Notts coalfield during and after the strike.
How would you like to see the project develop?
Ann: Ideally, we need our own building, as a permanent base in Mansfield, which is the heart of the Notts coalfield. It needs to be a social, cultural and educational hub that can be a learning resource and something that can help regenerate Mansfield as a town as well. We’re going to talk to the County Council about creating a “Mining Heritage Trail”.
It’s impossible to separate out Notts’ mining heritage from the great divide during the strike and its aftermath. How will the museum deal with this?
Ann: It will be owned and run by NUM ex-miners, but we’ll try not to be partisan. The museum is about the whole industry and we’ll welcome support from everyone who worked in it.
How do you think the dramatic run-down of the industry has affected the people who, directly or indirectly, depended on coal for their livelihood?
Eric: Many Notts villages were built around their pits, to house the miners and their families. When the pits closed, their whole support structure disappeared; the heart was ripped out of the community. There were big problems with drugs and anti-social behaviour that are only just beginning to stabilise now. There was some regeneration money, but it mainly created low-paid jobs and zero-hours contracts.
There were positives and negatives in society’s reliance on coal and those who mined it. Do you think we should be glad or sad the age of coal is coming to an end?
Ann: You can look at it both ways. There was a strong sense of community, but many families didn’t want their sons to go down the pit.
Eric: That’s right. A lot of the dangers could have been engineered out. And coal could have had a clean future through carbon capture and storage, but the Government was determined to close the industry down.
The commitment of Eric and Ann has been vital in getting the project under way and they’re determined it will succeed. They look forward to a social and cultural centre with a permanent exhibition that’s “good enough to knock your tabs back”, to coin a phrase from Anne.
Volunteers have been crucial to getting things this far and will continue to be in the future. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Eric. “We’ve had professionals giving their time for free and interested local people who are willing to be trained to take on the range of tasks necessary. We’ll continue to need both.”
So, if this sounds interesting, drop them an email or consider donating via GoFundMe. There’s a long way to go, but there’s no doubt they’ll get there in the end with the help of your lot.
To find out more about the project, or to get involved, email [email protected] And don't forget to donate to the GoFundMe campaign!
Nottinghamshire Mining Museum on GoFundMe