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Lost City

A Former Coal Miner in Notts

6 December 18 illustrations: Alex McDougall

"We became like brothers down there. Once we got into the mine, we were miners. Colour had nothing to do with it because we relied on each other for survival."

I went into the mine so I could make some quick money and go back to the West Indies, but it didn’t work out like that. I ended up in the industry for about 25 years.

I was born in Manchester, Jamaica, and I came to the UK by plane in April 1961 when I was 22. I’d finished my training as a mechanical engineer and had just lost my job, so my father sent me here. I got false information back in the West Indies that I’d be walking the streets of gold in England, especially in the mining industry.

When I first came here, I couldn’t find a job I was really interested in, so I decided to go for the mining experience.

I went to Cinderhill and Bulwell for training as an underground worker. That was an exciting time for me, but scary. You went so far down into the ground that you didn’t believe you could ever come back up again. It was like being buried alive.

I was the first black man to work at Wollaton Colliery, and eventually found jobs there for my friends. I had some problems when I first started there; we didn’t get the same amount of money that the white folks got. We got £6 and 10 shillings per week, and the white maintenance workers were getting about £7.

My overman was very kind-hearted. He realised I was doing the same work and he decided to up my payment to £7. A lot of the chaps were very upset because the black man was getting the same price.

Eventually it was ironed out and we became like brothers down there. Once we got into the mine, we were miners. Colour had nothing to do with it because we relied on each other for survival. When we came out of the mine we were different and everyone became selfish, but down there, you looked after each other.

It’s a different world. I wish young people today could have some idea of the relationship miners had. We’re quite outspoken, we say it as it is. When you came out of the mine and spent time with people who had no experience of it, they thought you were cheeky. People got to know you down there, so you just said what you thought. But you dared not mess about, or you’d get buried easily.

When Wollaton Colliery closed, I moved over to Stanton Ironworks for a couple of years, and then my overman asked to fetch me back into the mine at Gedling. I’d been trained as a mechanical engineer, so I worked as an underground fitter, a maintenance fitter, and eventually became a shift chargehand, responsible for the shift, all the maintenance, and taking the coal out of the mine on the conveyor. I was a bit like a supervisor.

The strike was horrible. We were struggling to raise a family and struggling for survival without having any money to pay bills, or pay for the house. I hate remembering those days.

Some of us went back to work, we couldn’t take it anymore. Men came from up Yorkshire to stop us going to work because Nottinghamshire wasn’t on strike. They tried to picket us and call us blacklegs. There wasn’t any fight or anything, just abuse.

I only ever had two accidents down the mine. A broken ankle from when my mate was messing about and tripped me over, and a torn ligament. I’d been off work for about three months because my leg was in plaster, and when I went back to work, my overman told me I was still in no fit state, and to take the time off until my 58th birthday. Then I had an early retirement in 1989.

It worked out well for me because I had enough money to start up a business. Today, I’m an ordained minister working with churches up and down the country, which I believe was my calling from the Lord.

I loved the mine. I really enjoyed it when I used to work there. It was dangerous, but lovely. When you’re living in danger, you’re cautious and you don’t live loose. You protect yourself and you protect each other. When you’re living loose, anything can happen, because you have nothing to hold you together.

Special thanks to Reverend Ken Bailey, Norma Gregory and the Digging Deep project, which celebrated UK coal miners of African and Caribbean heritage at New Art Exchange earlier this year.

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