Images of a slaughtered past

David Douglass reviews Peter Tuffrey, Doncaster's collieries (Amberley Publishing, 2011, pp128,

Peter Tuffrey has filled a noticeable gap in the library of illustrated histories of the coalfields. In 128 pages of vivid, dramatic, black and white scenes from the dawn of the mighty coalfield at the end of the 19th century, through its peaks and then premature slaughter, largely in the 1990s closure programme of John Major, this wonderful book marks in pictures our rise, our triumphs, our tragedies and our fall.

This is not a ‘strike book’ or one just dealing with the decade between Thatcher and Major, when virtually the entire British coalfield was ruthlessly butchered. However, in featuring with such a wealth of imagery an industry so vast, productive and deeply entrenched among generations of the population, we are struck by how much we have lost and just how deeply that loss is felt. There is something of the crippled giant corpse of the once mighty Titanic lying beneath miles of ocean in these scenes of a mighty industry, proud and secure, firm as granite, but now swept from sight and banished from the pages of history, leaving tens of thousands in anomie.

The once thriving communities, confident in their hard work and skill, as shown on the faces of black-faced colliers and the women acting in comradeship through evictions, strikes, disasters, demonstrations and galas, are now wiped clean, as if it was all some age-long dream. In this sense the book is heart-breaking, like many a memorial before it though, it is also a monument to a mighty breed of people and massive human endeavour.

Peter has worked wonders gathering such an extensive collection of photos, skilfully selecting a balanced portrayal of the birth, life and death of each of the featured collieries. I know that he struggled over which to put in and which to leave out and this was far from an easy task.

Peter’s life has been steeped in the culture and vision of the Doncaster coalfield, although he was never a pitman himself. His definition of ‘the Doncaster collieries’ is not one we would be familiar with in the industry - he used the metropolitan borough council boundaries to select which are included and which are not. The DMBC does not, however, coincide with the old National Coal Board/National Union of Mineworkers Doncaster area, and so those we would number among ‘Doncaster pits’, like Goldthorpe, Highgate and Frickley, are excluded, while Barnburgh and Cadeby from the South Yorkshire NCB/NUM area are included. But the book loses nothing for that, it must be said.

I think the most tragic scenes portrayed are those of the bringing down of the characteristic colliery headgear, like great giraffes their legs are blasted from under them and they fall without dignity into the dust of their history. Mining families gather round - like so many earlier scenes in which it is the miners who have been killed - this time witnessing the severing of untold chains cutting across generations of happiness, death, injury and passion with the demise of the pit itself.

I finished this book with tears in my eyes and anger still in my heart - the one consoling factor being that Hatfield at the edge of the coalfield is still alive and working, with hundreds of millions of tons untapped before it. Truth is, of course, that so many of the slaughtered Doncaster pits could have said the same thing, but nobody was listening. At a time of ever-rising energy costs, escalating gas prices, plans to build a forest of environmentally destructive wind estates and deadly nuclear plants, with a whole generation now on the unemployed scrapheap and millions joining them, this book will remind us, that none of this - none of it - was necessary.

Peter illustrates in his book the futuristic plan drawn up in 1979 for the redevelopment of Thorne - a massive, restructured colliery with three shafts and coal from Moorends to Cleethorpes. Reports at the time talked of mining 140 million tons of coal within a five-mile radius of the shaft: that alone would have provided work for 1,000 men for 70 years before the fruition of longer-term plans for a giant ventilation shaft at Goole and high-speed underground trains working 50 miles east and north-east.

The Doncaster collieries could and should be open now, employing tens of thousands in a highly paid industry, with vibrant communities strong in their solidarity and internal disciplines. The book records images of the brand new, futuristic headgear being blown up, the shafts filled in. It reminds us of who we were, and for the new generation of young Donnie folk, who have never seen a lump of coal or a wage packet and are searching for some sign of a future, perhaps it can at least illustrate their past l