Laughter and coal dust

Miners: Record of tragedy

David Douglass reviews: Peter Tuffrey, 'South Yorkshire people and coal: the gallant struggle and final decline', Fonthill Media, 2013, pp176, £12.99

This is another in the pictorial series by Peter Tuffrey, this time charting the Yorkshire coalfield in what he has designated the South Yorkshire collieries, and communities, from start to finish - from sinking, heights of production, industrial invincibility, through clouds of steam and mountains of coal and disasters, to strikes, campaigns and protests.

Although the spread of pictures covers the 150 years of its existence, with ancient pits and primitive working conditions up to the most modern machines and mining techniques, I am acutely aware that to young readers all of this is an age away - another world almost beyond comprehension. These armies of blackened men in their old, dirty clothes, in hand-to-hand combat with the unyielding earth on hard coal faces and rock headings. Or else at home in their grimy, smoky villages living in and out of each others’ pockets. Portraits of solidarity, mass human communalism, so vivid you can still hear the laughter - a feature which marks out pit work and pit communities through thick and thin. For us though, all of this is so recent, so matter of fact, it could be yesterday. This was us - this still is us. Just in suspended animation, waiting for a radical change of energy policy to bring it all back, and us all back - or so it seems.

But reality is a hard tutor. My old mate sat at the end of his shift, dejected, black and naked after the defeat of our 92-93 campaign against the final coup de grâce of Major’s closures. A further 55 pits and communities had bit the dust of demolition and anomie, leaving less than a dozen still remaining. Shaking his head in final resolution, he said: “The game is up, Davie, lad. It’s all over.” Despite a further 20 years of never ceasing to argue the case for clean coal, for redevelopment of the deep-mined coal industry (and Hatfield Main colliery having just last week survived its sixth closure, perhaps this time the last one), I have to conclude my mate was right - which makes this book all the more devastatingly sad. Only three mines survive, but there is no brave new world, no influx of modern industry, no new career routes for the pitmen’s sons and grandsons - and the clubs still echo to the talk of pit work and meanings of life now just a memory. This book is a history in pictures with brief political comment, but really it is a record of tragedy.

Here we see scenes of bold, confident miners, after the defeat of the strike in 1985, switching tack to try and coal our way to reprieve. Pit after pit breaking records - ‘Fastest million tonnes mined in the world’, ‘A mile of tunnel cut in a single shift’ - but in the end it didn’t matter how fast we developed underground roadways, or how big was the mountain of coal we dug every shift. In the end we were producing for less than £1 per gigajoule - by far the cheapest in the world, but, as I say, it didn’t matter. They closed them anyway, because the problem wasn’t the price of coal, but the politics and militancy of the miners and their union.

As in the case with his previous books, Peter doesn’t use our own coalfield definitions of ‘South Yorkshire’, but employs instead a generic, geographical title, which includes not only the actual South Yorkshire coalfield area, but also the Doncaster and Barnsley areas.

But that doesn’t matter either. It’s a photographic history and, I suppose, a nostalgic trip through the past for some, a novel look at the long gone past for the young and uninformed - but a hard and emotionally charged exercise for the generation that features in its pages.