One year short of its centenary, Doncaster’s Hatfield Colliery is to close, marking the end of an era for Yorkshire and the country’s coal industry. Sarah Freeman reports.
Lee Saunders has much the same commute to work as his father and grandfather before him.
It’s just a few minutes walk from his home in the village of Stainforth to Hatfield Colliery, where he regularly works a 12 hours shift underground. It’s a route the father of two has trod for more than a decade, but not it seems for much longer; a fortnight at most.
The Doncaster pit had been earmarked for closure next August, but on Monday evening the plug was unexpectedly pulled with the Government announcing coal production was to cease with immediate effect.
“I was in the garden when the text came,” says the 36-year-old. “I couldn’t believe it. Obviously we knew that closure was on the cards, but we didn’t think it would be this soon. The only thing I can say is that it’s gut wrenching It was an emotional night in our house and I’ll be honest I shed a tear, this pit is more than just a place where I come to work.”
Hatfield is where Lee’s grandfather worked in the 1950s and where his father, brother and uncle still work. Over the years, he’s done pretty much every job going at the pit, and like many of the 428 workers who are about to receive their redundancy package he suspects that he was born with coal running through his veins.
“I just took to it,” he says. “Not everyone does, but as soon as I got down here it just felt right. At school I was no great scholar, but here I found something that I was good at. I’d work 12 hours a day, seven days a week if I could. Everyone looks after each other and if you’ve got any problems you talk about them underground and come back up feeling a whole lot better.”
Lee, who works as a safety assistant, has been asked to stay on for a couple of weeks before the mine closes for good, as has his younger brother Jack, who has two children under three and another on the way. It will mean there will be a few extra pounds in his final pay packet, but he knows finding a job with the same salary and satisfaction will not be easy.
“All of us who work here are highly skilled and we’ve all picked things up really quickly,” he says. “You’d hope there might be another industry which might be able to make use of those skills, but who knows? It’s not going to be in a coal mine is it?
“This is a job like no other. There’s a real sense of achievement when you come out after a shift covered in soot. There are people here who have real stories to tell, the kind you don’t get from picking orders in a warehouse.”
He’s talking about men like Keith Franks. He’s now 59 and suspects he may not get another full time job. He’ll survive, he says, but as branch secretary of the union Nacods, for the moment his focus on the men he represents.
Hatfield is one of the last three remaining deep mines in the UK and until this week it should have been the last to close. The other two - Kellingley in North Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire - are already seeing out their final days, a symbol of a move towards green energy in which there is no room for coal.
“There’s no cash available. It’s as simple as that,” says Keith, who prior to joining Hatfield spent 26 years at Selby Colliery. “When I started in 1973 there were hundreds of pits employing thousands of men, but I’ve watched as an industry has been shut down. You can’t help but feel that there could, should have been another way.”
Earlier this year the Government agreed to support the Hatfield Colliery Partnership Ltd with state aid of up to £20m and a further grant of £8m. However, the funding was dependent on the pit, which was taken over by an employee-owned trust in 2013, on securing new contracts and with UK power companies mostly fully stocked for this year, ministers decided the deal simply wasn’t economical.
Many of those at Hatfield say the mood changed following the General Election and the Conservative Party’s decisive victory over Labour. The colliery happens to be in the constituency of former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who was back in Doncaster yesterday for a hastily arranged press conference.
Criticising the Government for reneging on their pre-election promise, he has pledged to fight the Hatfield miners’ cause, but while the sun shone over the colliery yesterday afternoon it couldn’t mask the dark clouds looming on the horizon.
“It’s basically the end of the destruction of the coal industry which began back in 1984,” says Tony Shaw, who joined the industry as an 18-year-old, five years after the bitter year-long strike. “The final nail in the coffin for Hatfield was probably the doubling of the carbon tax.”
The policy, which increased the amount power plants were charged per tonne of CO2 emissions, was introduced in 2013 to encourage manufacturers to switch to green fuels, but it was also seen as a direct hit on what remained on the homegrown coal industry.
“I think if no coal was going to be burned in Britain from here on in,” says Tony, who is now branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers at Hatfield. “We would all hold our hands up and say, ‘fair enough, there’s no demand, let’s close the pits’. However, that’s not the case, the Government has admitted it will need to burn coal for at least a decade, the only difference is that it will be foreign coal.
“Of course at the moment we are thinking about those employed at Hatfield, but it goes much wider and deeper than that. There are a number of different firms round here who are dependent on this place from those who supply the fabrications to the cafes where the miners grab a bite to eat. Take away Hatfield and the ripple effect for this community is huge.”
Closure is nothing new to Hatfield. Over the years the gates have shut a number of times, but each time a new investor has been found and a new chapter has been written for the colliery which first began operating in 1916. However, unless the pit, which played a starring role in the film Brassed Off, witnesses a miracle, it is unlikely to mark it’s centenary.
“Mining has gone through tough times and not just in recent years, but I know I’m not alone when I say there’s something that always pulls you back,” adds Tony. “I left the industry for a couple of years and worked in a warehouse, but it wasn’t the same. Yes it’s high risk, but we don’t see it like that, it’s a way of life and I really missed the craic.
“This country was built on coal and the hard work of the men who got it out of the ground and recently people have asked me whether I am proud to have worked in one of the country’s last deep mine. Honestly? The answer is, ‘no’. Yes, it’s a milestone, but the only thing I feel is sadness. When Hatfield has closed in the past there has always been a light at the end of the tunnel, but not any more. A flicker of candlelight, perhaps, but it’s one we all know is likely to be snuffed out.”