Nottingham has plenty of things to be proud of. Our roots being one of them; history is so deeply embedded in many of the things that we all love about this city. But the narrative isn’t fully complete. Historian Norma Gregory has spent the past few years unearthing the untold stories of several black coal miners who lived and worked in the UK. We spoke to her about her new exhibition, Digging Deep: Coal Miners of African Carribean Heritage which features photos, audio recordings and oral histories that have previously been left unheard…
Tell us a little bit about the exhibition...
The exhibition is currently at The National Coalmining Museum in Wakefield. It’s been a multi-level, multi-pronged, all-hands-involved project. We have interviewed over 67 miners in total so far – we have a database of over 200 names, and that’s all come from word of mouth. We found that most coronary records were disposed of following the strikes, so there’s hardly any in-depth personnel records. We’ve had put the word out through the radio and television to get people thinking. Those involved have donated artefacts, letters and photos of miners and their families. It’s been a national effort and it is ongoing.
The initial challenge was being told that there were no black miners – I had one in my family, so I knew there was. It’s about challenging the narrative of a white-dominated profession. I don’t even think I’ve scraped the ice on it yet, and I’ve been looking at black history for 25 years. My purpose is to use my time to help preserve history, regardless of race, to make history richer and more honest. I think that’s what people want, especially young people – they won’t tolerate anything less.
What sort of stories have you come across?
Stories of migration, mainly; many of the older miners came to England in the fifties with no experience of mining at all. They had to quickly learn and then do the job for thirty years. It’s been interesting to learn of that process of determination, resilience and tolerance. The younger ones are aged around sixty to seventy now – a lot of them worked through the strikes. They had tough experiences as well; a lot of the black miners spoke about the police treating them differently.
The strike was a difficult period, and it still is. I go to different mining communities all over the country and the pain and anger is still there. A lot of the older ones felt that they didn’t want to be on the picket line, as they didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of something that they already felt they weren’t a part of. Mining history isn’t all about the strike. We have mined in this country for hundreds of years, and the strike was just a year of that. But the strikes seem to be the main talking point, which is a shame.
Although some of the black miners felt as though they were treated differently by the police, was there still some sense of brotherhood underground?
It was a job that literally depended on teamwork. If someone didn’t know what they were doing, that person could cost the whole team their lives. All the miners spoke about why they took the job mining; there was ample work after the effects of WWI and WWII, but mining paid better than other professions, and they were sending money home.
How many coal miners were estimated to be non-white?
It’s hard to know the exact figure; when pits were being shut down, a lot of the records were just dumped inside the mines and have been cemented over. They’re all buried under the ground now. At the turn of the century, there were 950 working coal mines in this country. On my record right now, I’ve got around 240 miners, but that is only through word of mouth. A lot of them are ill and passing away, so this is urgent history that I’m trying to preserve.
What have you found specifically in Nottinghamshire?
We’ve found fifty-plus collieries in Nottinghamshire – through this project we’ve discovered that almost half had black workers. The colliery with the most is Gedling, which was nicknamed the ‘Pit of Nations’ because of its diverse workforce. They’ve recently unveiled a mosaic on Gedling Country Park that features at least thirty flags around it.
From your research, are there any individual stories that really stood out?
There was a miner in Doncaster who sadly passed away in December, and he was present at the Bentley Colliery Disaster that happened in November 1978. Seven men died on the train crash, and his story was really poignant and sad. It just goes to show the danger of the job – these men sacrificed a lot and they survived a lot. They’ve not really been formally acknowledged by the government, and that needs to be done.
It’s a big part of history that’s been neglected...
Yes, it’s undocumented. In 2012, I interviewed two black miners for my book Jamicans in Nottingham. In the other mining books that I’ve read, I would guess that only a couple feature an image of a black miner.
I don’t think anyone really thought about them. I personally don’t think it was deliberate, they just weren’t considered significant. I’ve unearthed their stories to bring a new dimension to history. Nowadays, the presentation of history is changing. People are demanding other voices to be heard, and museums are trying to address the issue of how history has been presented.
In December, the High Commissioner of Jamaica will come to visit the exhibition, which is amazing. We’ve organised a coach of miners to come for that. It’ll be great, and will hopefully make them feel appreciated.
Digging Deep: Miners of African Carribbean Heritage is at the National Coalmining Museum in Wakefield until January 2020 and is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund East Midlands & East and National Lottery Players.