Voices from pit

Following the closure of Hickleton colliery in 1988 the Dearne Valley Community Opera staged a spectacular event at the site on July 21st, 22nd and 23rd, 1994.
Brian Blessed at Hickleton Colliery.Brian Blessed at Hickleton Colliery.
Brian Blessed at Hickleton Colliery.

More than 500 voices, including 200 children, four male voice choirs, one ladies choir, the world famous Grimethorpe Brass Band, a string quartet, 30 soloists and 30 non singing actors took part in the event broadcast live on Radio Two.

The opera told of the courage and determination of 13 miners sealed underground by an earth tremor in the Parkgate seam at Barnburgh colliery on Friday April 24 1943. They were resigned to their fate but rescuers dug for three days to brought ten of them out safely.

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For those taking part the opportunity to finally perform the work was a proud moment. Conisbrough Light Opera member Keith Senior, one of the soloists explained: “There will never be anything like this ever again. It is a remarkable tribute to the industry.”

Actor Brian Blessed took time out to promote an innovative arts project in South Yorkshires Dearne Valley.Actor Brian Blessed took time out to promote an innovative arts project in South Yorkshires Dearne Valley.
Actor Brian Blessed took time out to promote an innovative arts project in South Yorkshires Dearne Valley.

Rita Wainwright added: “We are all very proud to be able to record this celebration of the mining industry. But more importantly is the fact that all the children and young people taking part will carry this unique event with then for the remainder of their lives.”

The opera was the brainchild of independent film producer David Beresford, a former Thurnscoe lad, who had spent several years on a labour of love to stage the celebration of mining life.

Earlier in March 1993 there was a preview of the opera in front of the national press where Brian Blessed – born and brought up in the Dearne area -– led celebrities in presenting extracts from the production.

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Whilst Hickleton village is in Doncaster, the colliery was located in Thurnscoe, Barnsley, and throughout the pit’s 94 years there were a number of noteworthy incidents that made the news. Coal was reached at the colliery, belonging to the Hickleton Main Colliery Company Ltd, on July 6 1894 and plant was put down to deal with an initial daily output of 2,000 tons.

Hickleton Main band 1923.Hickleton Main band 1923.
Hickleton Main band 1923.

Coal was to be worked beneath the lands of the Earl of Halifax and Rev. Thornley Taylor. Both the LNER and LMS railway companies ran lines into the colliery and adjacent brick works. By the end of the first year the colliery had produced 500,000 tons of coal and shortly before the turn of the century there were 900 hands working underground and 200 on the pit top.

In the ensuing years the colliery enjoyed financial success, with coke ovens being established and the shafts deepened to the Thorncliffe and Parkgate Seams in 1923 and 1925.

During 1936 the Newhill and Meltonfield Seams were entered and in 1937 Hickleton Main Colliery Company became part of the Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd.

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The colliery boasted a brass band which played under a number of names including: Hickleton Main Ambulance Band, Hickleton Main Band, Hickleton Main Colliery Band, Hickleton Main Public Band, Hickleton Main Subscription Band. Amongst the former conductors were T. Hunter, Harold Evans, George Thompson, F. Webb and W. Worton. A website detailing extinct brass bands, www.ibew.org.uk, recorded said it was successful in competitions in the 1940s and 1950s wearing green tunics with gold facings and black trousers.

Underground roadway Goldthorpe-Hickleton September 1986.Underground roadway Goldthorpe-Hickleton September 1986.
Underground roadway Goldthorpe-Hickleton September 1986.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth called at Hickleton colliery on February 9, 1944 the Royal couple where the King congratulated them on the important work for the war effort.

On the evening of October 11, 1960 crowds at Hickleton pithead cheered with joy as seven miners who had been trapped for 18 hours in a 25 yard space 2,400 feet underground were brought to the surface.

But, terror struck on September 24, 1962 when a 40-year-old miner died, buried beneath rubble. Rescue workers saved five other miners, but wives and children who stood a nine-hour vigil at the pit gates, were stunned as news of the death of bachelor miner Charles Littlewood reached the crowd.

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At Hickleton on June 5, 1964 two miners were killed in a pit top conveyor belt accident. The belt started up suddenly, killing Louis Crossley, 52, and Arthur Longbones, 57.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hickleton Colliery.King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hickleton Colliery.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hickleton Colliery.

During his time at Hickleton, face worker Tom Barrett staged several protests. On 8 October 1981 one newspaper reported: ‘(Tom, aged 58, is)] staging a hunger strike more than 700 yards below ground...It is believed...(he) is protesting at the political levy to the Labour Party which is deducted from his union subscription.’ Later he took his ‘hunger’ protest to the NUM headquarters in Barnsley. But, his strike ended a few days later when a doctor threatened to call an ambulance.

On March 10, 1983 and concerned a trickster stole a lorry load of coal. He turned up at the pit in a large lorry with false number plates. After giving forged documents to NCB staff, he filled the vehicle and drove off with 21 tons of coal. The Coal Board held an inquiry into the incident which cost them £1,277. Explained South Yorkshire Police: ‘The Coal Board will be looking at their procedure to see if they can tighten up and stop this happening again.’

Hickleton was put on a development-only basis from March 1985 with jobs cut from 1,200 to 91. Then in June 1987 it was announced that work was to end.

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In September 1987 it was reported that miners fighting to save their jobs at Hickleton could not put their case to an independent review body because the pit was being ‘mothballed’ rather than permanently closed. Final closure came in the following year.