Chris Skidmore: Remembering miners of yesteryear with respect

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The ninth annual Yorkshire Miners’ Memorial Service, which will be held at Rotherham Minster on Sunday, is not just about remembering all those who lived and worked at the collieries in the towns and villages of Yorkshire. It also remembers the collieries themselves, places that were a huge part of daily life for so many.

The service will feature local NUM branch banners, including those from the county’s remaining pits at Kellingley and Hatfield. The Yorkshire Area NUM’s new banner will also be officially blessed by Canon David Bliss.

While being acknowledged as works of art in their own right, the banners’ mottos serve as a timely reminder to all about the thoughts and logic applied by the miners as they went about their daily toil – even if it was seldom shared by the colliery owners. “Health, Safety, Welfare” and “All for Each and Each For All” are their slogans. Perhaps most poignantly, the old Thrybergh Hall miners’ banner proclaims “From Obscurity To Respect”.

Hymns and readings will come from the clergy and the Mayor of Rotherham, Coun John Foden. Music will be provided by the Maltby Miners Welfare Band – Maltby being Rotherham’s last working coal mine before being closed by its owners last year. There will be addresses by the current Yorkshire area NUM officials and a wreath laying ceremony from past and present branches of the union as well as local dignitaries.

Just as importantly, members of the congregation are invited to bring their own floral tribute to lay at the altar in remembrance of a loved one. There will also be a drama presentation by Wakefield-based Yew Tree Theatre Group.

The group have become an integral part of the service over the last five years, leaving the congregation with a vivid message from their performances that outlines the sense of loss when disaster strikes and importantly the void left when the collieries are no longer there.

While remembering the tragic loss of life, the accidents and those who succumbed to industrial disease, the memorial also serves to pose the question “Why could the industry have not been safer?”

Without doubt people recall the dark times when the pit buzzer sounded outside the normal shift start time, which invariably meant bad news for someone’s family. Official sources insist that disasters only record loss of life of five and above but to us all in the mining industry, the loss of one life is a disaster.

The parents of Thomas Willey, who died in an accident at Aldwarke Main in July 1875, were no doubt as distraught as the families of the 27 men who died in a methane explosion at Maltby Main in July 1923 – all but one of whom remained entombed in the pit forever.

When these multiple tragedies occurred, everyone rallied round in an attempt to assist the families of those left behind, because it was well known that compensation would not be adequate recompense for the loss of a loved one.

The relatives of Robert Wilson White, killed in an explosion at Crigglestone Colliery in 1941, have in their possession a letter of condolence from the then colliery owners and a payment for the widow of just £5.

Funds were set up to alleviate this hardship with the call being answered from the industrial heartlands, urban district councils and communities all over Britain, which was in itself remarkable when you consider the limited means of communication that were available in those days.

To this day, the disaster funds from Maltby Main and Lofthouse pits are still available to assist the families of those lost in accidents that have occurred in present day collieries.

Many of the pits in these communities have disappeared and have no lasting memorial in place to show they even existed. The memories evoked by the names of Manvers Main, Wath Main, Thurcroft, Dinnington and Silverwood seem to be recalled quite easily. But will the younger generations and those still to come remember the names of Rotherham Main, Thrybergh Hall, Warren Vale, Grange Lane, Rainsforth or Barley Hall?

To get an idea of the scale to which the area depended on the coal industry for jobs, the manpower employed in the pits in the Rotherham area in 1964 was almost 12,000. More than half the pit villages’ male population worked at the local colliery so it is not surprising that when an accident happened everybody in the community knew about it and no doubt were thankful that it hadn’t happened to them. Remembering the industrial heritage that these collieries have left us with, the comradeship and camaraderie that existed, of friendships forged underground, is part of the concept of the Yorkshire Miners’ Memorial Service and the reason it came about.

The life of a pit worker may have been hard but it was not without the renowned “pit humour” that went hand in hand with tragedy. It was a common occurrence for colliers to suffer the loss of a finger in an accident and be met with the unsympathetic quip from a workmate: “What’s up wi’ thee? Tha’s gotten seven more!”

Notwithstanding the dangers faced, the coal miners of yesteryear should be remembered with respect for what they achieved and the rich tapestry of all that they founded.