Liz Walker: Barnsley and the unseen legacy of its mining history

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UNSURPRISINGLY, Barnsley is full of ex-miners. They turn up everywhere, in building firms, fitting double glazing, running roadside cafes, you name it.

When I belonged to a scuba diving club, they were most of the membership; calm, competent men with a wicked sense of humour. And they all missed mining.

“It were the crack,” they’d say. “Monday morning, in t’cage, you could die laughing.”

“And your mates,” said Dave, survivor of a bad accident. “When I were buried, I weren’t worried. I knew they’d come for me.” Which, of course, they did. All the same, not one of them ever wanted their sons to follow them down the pit.

Small business could never soak up the sheer numbers of men left idle by the closure of the mines.

For a long time, places like Brierley and Grimethorpe had families where women worked and men got into trouble.

It wasn’t a recipe for happiness. Schools struggled with children who didn’t really know why they were there or where they were supposed to be going. In response, the Government threw money at the problem, building offices and renewing any and every educational establishment in the hope that it would somehow make things better.

Barnsley has some stunning school buildings, not to mention eerily quiet government offices with statement purple sofas. Yet it has taken the private sector to make a real difference. Once again, Barnsley has work.

In the vast and empty steppe that is the Dearne Valley, on either side of the Parkway unlabelled grey buildings loom up.

For years, local and national government has been courting businessmen like hostesses in a nightclub. “Come to Barnsley, handsome, lots of land, lots of people and just look at our lovely big roads.” Then they’d shimmy a little closer. “We’re a deprived area,” they’d whisper. “We’ve got money from Europe. Now will you come up and see me?”

One of those businesses in one of those grey warehouses is ASOS. The initials stand for As Seen On Screen, and it produces and sells versions of the high fashion items we see on television and in the cinema. It has only been going 15 years, yet it has become Barnsley’s biggest and most innovative employer.

Visiting, it has remarkable similarities to a mine. The place is enormous. You have to wear safety boots and leave all metal outside. They count them in and they count them out, because you could get lost and die in those endless aisles, or live forever in secret, trying on the 460,000 items.

In the early days, which is more or less yesterday, pickers walked miles, like colliers hiking to the face. A £40m investment means they now have machines to help. The management is very embarrassed about this, in case it looks as if jobs will be lost, but that doesn’t seem likely. A few magnificent robots sort things. A lot of pretty fit people do the rest. Goods in, goods out, made in all corners of the world and sold to online shoppers that live in those very corners. Twenty-four hours a day shiny shoes and funky dresses zip off to Japan or Australia, the Philippines or the States. Never seen an advert? You won’t. It’s all done on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It doesn’t half make you feel old.

It is a living, breathing testament to that odd concept, globalisation. A Brit had the idea; Norbert Dentressangle – the lorry bloke, who is Scandinavian – runs the warehouse operation; design and planning happens in London; garments are made all over the world; and Barnsley makes it work.

But who in Barnsley? A fair proportion of the workforce is East European. There is a story of two Poles who arrived at the YMCA off a bus from Poland, dumped their bags and had jobs at ASOS by lunchtime.

On the other hand, the workers’ rep is a strapping ex-miner and a local fitness instructor was manning returns. As a lady in an employment agency said to me: “Since ASOS arrived, if you want to work in Barnsley, you can.”

The northerner in me – I’ve lived here for 40 years – can feel a bit disgruntled at this point. Why should London have all the classy, clever stuff while Yorkshire has the grind? But in all honesty, if anyone from Barnsley wants to go down to London and make it, they can.

I was born in London and know well that almost everyone you might think is a Londoner came from somewhere else.

There’ll be a desperate struggle to find a place to live, but make no mistake, unless you’re Paris Hilton (if you’ve 
been to ASOS you know about these people), everyone in London has that.

So I knocked the chip off my shoulder and listened.

There has been one nasty setback to ASOS since it arrived here – a fire. It ripped through a section of the building and left the London management in despair. No one was hurt but they thought they were out of commission for months. They hadn’t reckoned with Barnsley folk, of course.

In they came, rostered or not, and the place was up and running in 48 hours. The mines may be gone, but the competence and sheer resilience have not. It is an unseen legacy. Perhaps at long last the world can stop feeling sorry for Barnsley and give it some respect.

Liz Walker is a writer from
Penistone.