What became of the pits that once dominated South Yorkshire? A new exhibition of photographs records the landscape’s dramatic change since the bitter miners’ strike of 30 years ago. Roger Ratcliffe reports.
There used to be a range of colliery spoil heaps which grew so high that some people jokingly called them the Barnsley Alps. They were built from incalculable millions of tons of shale, dug several thousand feet below ground then sculpted not by glaciers and meltwater, like most landscapes, but by cranes and gigantic earth movers.
Today, the vertiginous terrain which once dominated much of South Yorkshire east of the M1 has largely been levelled, returning some sites to how they might have looked a couple of centuries ago or prettifying them with parks and so-called community woodlands. Where there was once muck there is now grass. Other sites have been cleared to make way for developments like retail parks, distribution warehouses or call centres, but all the old collieries have one thing in common. An industry which locally employed over 40,000 when the bitter miners’s strike began 30 years ago – there are less than 600 workers left today – has been virtually airbrushed from the landscape.
The transformation is graphically illustrated in new exhibition of photographs, showing how most of the area’s 44 collieries which still had their pit wheels turning when the strike began in 1984 have few traces of their history remaining beyond the concrete monoliths that mark where each mine shaft was capped.
Andrew Foley, the photographer, has spent all of his 45 years in the area. His maternal grandfather worked underground for over half a century and as a teenager during the dispute he recalls schoolfriends whose fathers were on strike saying they would receive no Christmas presents that year.
From around the mid-1990s, Andrew says, he became aware that visual evidence of the industry which once provided most jobs in South Yorkshire was steadily vanishing.
“It has now reached the point where once-thriving workplaces offer little acknowledgement of their past. We preserve stately homes, but a lot of the social heritage often gets forgotten and I think there should be some recognition of the level of importance the mines had to millions of people’s lives over the years.”
He began photographing the former pits in 2007. Many of them he knew well, and the scene he thought would best capture the degree of change at each one was immediately obvious to him. Besides the shaft caps, which reminded Andrew of tombstones, there were just the ventilation pipes installed to allow underground gasses to escape, and the odd piece of pit conveyor belt protruding from the earth, stark symbols in an otherwise sea of greenery. At the old Manton colliery near the Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire border he found just a field and a B&Q.
So great was the metamorphosis of the landscape that some collieries were difficult to locate, especially where new roads and buildings had radically reshaped the map. At Goldthorpe and Treeton the sites had been replaced by housing, with almost no evidence of their industrial heritage remaining.
“I usually relied on finding someone to tell me where the pit had been. If I just stood there, more often than not a middle-aged man would walk past and ask what I was doing. He would know where the colliery had been because either he or his brother or father had worked there, and I got this sense of the huge community involvement at each mine.
“When I was photographing Grimethorpe colliery, which was spread over a large area, I stopped to ask a man who was at some allotments. It turned out he’d been a pit deputy, and we stood on this hill while he worked out where things had been, because all the roads had changed. There was no evidence of a pit being there.”
One of the most marked transformations has been at Cortonwood, near Barnsley. The mine was sunk as far back as 1873, and in March 1984 it was the National Coal Board’s decision to axe the pit and issue redundancy notices to the 820 workforce which sparked the year-long strike. Now home to a large retail and leisure park, the only reminder of more than a century of coal mining is a greened-over spoil heap.
Andrew’s sees his work as a photo essay along the lines of Walker Evans, the American photographer best known for documenting the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. He didn’t want it to illustrate the implications of the strike, he says, but rather to document the landscape as it looks now.
Andrew was struck by the strength of feeling he found amongst workers who had been employed at the pits and taken part in the strike. “It is a long time ago now, but the people I spoke to were still obviously touched by the closures because of the level of involvement the industry had in their lives. At Brodsworth near Doncaster, for example, there were around 2,000 workers in the 1980s. This huge industry really drove the whole area, but the ending was very quick. It’s remarkable that in 30 years there is so little evidence that it ever existed.”
• Andrew Foley’s exhibition, Coalfields: A Legacy of the Miners’ Strike, the Civic, Barnsley, is on until November 15. Open Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is free.