Thirty years on from the bitter miners‘ strike, Sarah Freeman meets the former pit men who forged a very different life overground.
Walking across Rabbit Ings Country Park, Mick Birkinshaw often has cause to stop and think about his ancestors.
Beneath the five miles of footpaths and the gentle rolling Barnsley hills which he now manages lies the remains of Monkton Colliery and Royston Drift Mine. Almost 120 years ago those pits were at the forefront of his great grandfather’s mind as he set off on foot from Birmingham in search of work in West Yorkshire’s booming coalfields.
It was to be the start of a family tradition. Mick’s grandfather worked down the pit as did his father and while a life underground wasn’t the obvious choice for the young Royston lad who told a careers officer he’d like to be a forester, for a while it’s where Mick ended up too.
“You know what? I loved it. Really loved it. Yes, the conditions were pretty grim, but I’d always been fascinated by geology and by fossils, so I loved been down there among the strata. When anyone complained about the pit, we’d tell them to remember they were working in what was once a tropical paradise.”
Mick is 58 now, and before he found a new life as a park ranger he worked at South Kirkby colliery. While his father had initially dissuaded him from following him down the mine, improvements to health and safety meant he had a change of heart.
“I’ll never forget my first time at the coal face,” he says. “It was a night shift and I remember being absolutely terrified. My daughter was just a baby and whenever I thought, ‘What on earth am doing here?’ I’d see her little face. I was doing it for the family.”
As the weeks turned into months, Mick began to pick up the kind of knowledge no one ever teaches in schools. He learnt to take cover when he felt a little soot falling like talcum powder, signalling an imminent collapse and the fear he’d had at the start began to subside. Rising through the ranks, Mick ended up as a colliery deputy. It was a role represented by a different union to the NUM and when the year-long strike began in the March of 1984, he found himself in a difficult position.
“Without the miners there was no point us being at the pit, but we had to go each day to sign in for our shifts whether that was 5am or 10pm. At first relations with the pickets were amicable, but as the strike went on it became increasingly aggressive. I remember one morning it was still dark when I set out for the pit. The first thing I saw was a wall had been ripped down. The stones had been laid across the road and all the way along the barricades were still burning. I was seeing the remains of a riot, yet it was eerily quiet.”
When the strike was over, the industry had been changed forever and Mick says there was little sense of urgency to get the pits back up and running again. The management, he says, seemed content to manage decline. Soon after, he left South Kirkby and began working as a contractor, but after being laid off after injuring his back he knew that after almost a quarter of a century in the coal industry he would need to find work elsewhere.
“It was the early 1990s, I was on the dole and feeling desperate,” he says. “It was during one of those dark days that I spotted a job as a countryside rights of way officer.”
His early desire to work outdoors was reawakened and when he joined Rabbit Ings a few years ago, he says, it felt like life had come full circle.
“My granddaughter Ruby calls me Adventure Granddad. I like that. The kids who come to the park don’t have no idea what this place once was. To them, it’s always been a park and I guess part of my job is to tell them about the history of the place. It’s a shame that the pits closed because it had a knock on effect on every other business in the town. But, you know what? Most of us have had a better life since we got out.”
When the writing was on the while for the coal industry, careers experts were called in to many pits to help ease the transition. For many of these men life underground was all they had ever known and at Stillingfleet colliery, near Selby, each was asked if there was anything else they would like to do. A number expressed an interest in retraining as electricians and a few others asked for help enrolling on a plumbing course. Only one said he would like to be a ski instructor.
Mick Logg had worked for 29 years in the mine. He’d always regarded it as a good job, one which had allowed him to buy his own home in Castleford and provide for his family. However, a few years earlier he had discovered that he also quite enjoyed being above rather than below ground.
“My son came back from a school skiing trip to Romania and said he never wanted to go on another summer holiday again. I took him to one of the old dry ski slopes and while I was there I thought I might as well give it a go.”
It turned out he was something of a natural and just a couple of weeks before seeing the careers advisor he spotted an advert for the new Xscape snow centre which was due to open in his home town. Sitting now in the cafe overlooking the runs he admits he couldn’t quite believe his luck.
“The timing couldn’t have been better. After a training course at the old Sheffield Ski Village, I pretty much walked away from the mine and straight onto the slopes.” While some miners took a while to adjust life after the pits, Mick had no such trouble. Now 61 and semi-retired he still works as an instructor at Xscape.
“I was one of the lucky ones, but a lot of the old miners struggled Working down the pits was more than just a job, it was a way of life. The strike took away a lot of confidence. It was degrading to call the bank and admit you couldn’t make the next mortgage payment. We sold off some old family heirlooms just to get by. We didn’t get much for the paintings and the chair which belonged to my grandparents, but it’s the one thing I really regret. I’ve always been a positive sort of person, but there were some who never recovered from the mines going.”
There were others though who know that without that strike and Margaret Thatcher’s determination to dismantle the industry, they would have been denied the chance to rewrite their own lives. Take Harry Malkin. He first went down Fryston pit when he was 15-years-old and he stayed at the coal face until the pit closed in December 1985.
“We were used to strikes lasting a couple of days, even a few weeks, not months on end. When a caravan arrived at one of the picket lines, we knew that this was going to be different, that we were in it for the long haul.”
Harry did join his fellow miners in the very visible protest, but that year he also joined Pontefract Art Club. He’d always been a practical sort, but growing up in a house where there was no money for drawing paper, let alone paints, meant there had been little way of indulging his creative side. Standing at an easel for the first time, Harry began to paint and never stopped.
“Art wasn’t something you talked about down the pit and I’m not sure at that point that I thought it would be anything more than a hobby. When you’re not working you need a distraction and for me that was painting.”
Harry did go back to the pit, but it was clear that time was running out for Fryston.
“The day we went back they said there was seven years of coal left. By the May it had gone down to two years and by the end of the summer it was just seven weeks.”
Harry hung on until the end. He was 36-years-old when the pit closed and while he had a decent amount of redundancy money in his pocket it was never going to be enough to see him through to retirement.
“I honestly thought I was unemployable. Putting that you’ve been on strike for 12 months doesn’t look good on any CV, but there was something else. Down the pit you were trusted to do your job, there was no one looking over your shoulder. I know a lot of miners who went straight from the pits to a factory and they walked out after a couple of days. They weren’t prepared to put their hand up to go to the toilet. I can understand that.”
With a regular job looking unlikely, Harry instead decided to take another year off to see if he could make his art pay. Winning the first competition he entered, he decided it could. While his trademark paintings are those which capture the realities of life in the pits, he’s also a self-taught sculptor and has produced a number of public works of art now displayed in Castleford library.
“It’s been a strange life, but a nice life. The only thing I wish is that I hadn’t spent the first 20 years of my working life underground. It takes its toll. Walk around the town today and you’ll see a lot of old men who can barely walk or who are massively overweight. As miners you used to eat 5,000 calories a day and some just couldn’t stop when they came out. It’s easy to only remember the good times, but it was mucky work, you were basically in a job that you knew would probably kill you in the end.”