From Yungblud to the Miners' Strike, Ken Wilkinson has photographed them all during a life behind the lens in Yorkshire

Ken Wilkinson has been photographing fires for 26 years; before that he was a miner creating a historic record of the miners’ strike and pit closures. Now, as he retires, he talks to Catherine Scott about his life.
Askern pit baths closed.Askern pit baths closed.
Askern pit baths closed.

When Ken Wilkinson left school at 16 to go down Askern pit like his father and grandfather before him – little did he know that he would end up being a professional photographer documenting the miners’ strike, pit closures and then fires across West Yorkshire for 26 years.

Ken has just retired a resident photographer at West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue and shared his unique collection of photographs with the Yorkshire Post.

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But it isn’t just for his photographs of fires and accident scenes that Ken is well known for. His moving photographs of the miners’ strike and pit closures have appeared in many books and exhibitions.

Cornfield fire Pontefract.Cornfield fire Pontefract.
Cornfield fire Pontefract.

"I was 16 when I left school and went down the pit like my dad and granddad,” recalls Ken. “I’d always enjoyed photography and when I knew the miners strike was going to happen. People were saying ‘this is going to last a year’ I realised I was in a unique position to document it from the perspective of the striking miners and the community in Askern despite being completely self-taught.

"The miners were my friends and family – people I had grown up with and known for donkey’s years – and so I could get pictures that the press just couldn’t.” He recalls the devastating effect the strike had on the mining communities, depicted in the film Brassed Off.

"I had friends who playe d in the colliery band and two of them even appeared in Brassed Off.”

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Always interested in photography it had been very much a hobby until friends and family started asking him to take photographs for them of special events.

Askern picket line 1984.Askern picket line 1984.
Askern picket line 1984.

It was before the days of digital cameras and so Ken, now 66, taught himself how to develop film in a make shift dark room in his garden shed.

But he recalls that during the strike money became very tight, he struggled to afford the film he needed and so every shot was carefully thought out.

“I remember it was £1.50 for a roll of film and it was difficult to find the money as a striking miner to take the pictures.”However, he did manage to take a couple of hundred photographs – most of them he has donated to National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield. When the pit closures inevitably followed, Ken, armed with his trusty camera, was there to document it once again.

"We all thought it was a job for life – but it wasn’t.”

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Yungblud singer Dominic Harrison at Norton Working Men’s club.Yungblud singer Dominic Harrison at Norton Working Men’s club.
Yungblud singer Dominic Harrison at Norton Working Men’s club.

When the pits closed and after working for 12 years underground, Ken was in need of a new job.

“When it left the pit I felt like a man let out of prison,” he says. “I worked underground for 12 years five months from the age if 16.” Ken, who now lives in Pontefract, still keeps in touch with what is left of the mining community in Askern and he has been invited back to take a memorial photograph next month.

In the 1980s Ken did a course at Newport College on documentary photography and was approached by one of the professors and asked if he would agree to have some of his photographs included in a DH Lawrence exhibition which ended up going on tour for five years.

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Photographer Ken Wilkinson who has just retired after 26 years as West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue photographerPhotographer Ken Wilkinson who has just retired after 26 years as West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue photographer
Photographer Ken Wilkinson who has just retired after 26 years as West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue photographer

Since then h is incredible photographs of the miners strike have appeared in numerous exhibitions and books published on the subject.

Ken soon realised that he could turn what had started out as a hobby into a fruitful career career.

He worked at the then Bretton Hall College as a photographer and technician in the drama and fashion departments.

“I loved working there and worked with a lot of the students, many who have done very well including Wayne McGregor (resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet) , John Scott who worked on the costumes on Poirot and The League of Gentlemen.”

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Ken’s wife attended Bretton Hall and the couple will have been married for 40 years in September.

When he saw a job advertised for a resident photographer for the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service Ken decided to apply and was quickly offered the job.

Marsden Moor fire.Marsden Moor fire.
Marsden Moor fire.

And for the last 26 years Ken has followed fire crews to the scene of blazes, many on the serious, and accidents, documenting their vital work and recording thousands of incidents, many of them traumatic.

With the advent of digital cameras photography changed and Ken reckons he has more than two million photographs in the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue archives which were recently opened to the public for the first time.

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"I have photographed some incredible incidents and events. I’m also pleased to have built up a great working relationship with the media as well. As a photographer and videographer, who can get close to an incident, there have been a number of times that newspaper photographers and TV crews have handed their cameras to me. They know that I can often get them those dramatic, up-close pictures that they aren’t able to do themselves due to fire safety rules.”

Ken may be retiring but he will never lose his love of photography.

He has been working on a personal project taking photographs of old billboards as they fade and rip revealing old poster under neath and he has been in discussion with Take Britain about a possible exhibition.

Ken recently photographer Yungblud singer Dominic Harrison at Norton Working Men’s club.

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"I have known Dominic since he was a kid,” says Ken, “so when he played at Norton Working Men’s club recently I went along and photographed him – I also got a photograph of myself with him.”

Earlier this month he decided to retire from West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue. He will return to the service when it celebrates its 50th anniversay in April - and you can bet who will be taking the photographs.