A mining village which seemed to have no purpose when its pit closed is attracting attention because of its resilient sense of community. Stephen McClarence reports.
Michael Baxter is cleaning his car in the lane round the back of his West Yorkshire home when David Waddington strikes up conversation. “I was born here in the Fifties,” says Waddington, pointing to the house behind them. “Mrs Betteridge lived next door.”
“With a son called Brian?” says Baxter. “He lives over South View now.” “And Les still lives here, does he?” asks Waddington, and they start reminiscing about Minnie Griffiths.
This is the sort of local roots, the collective memory, the shared cultural past, which Waddington – son, grandson and great grandson of miners and now Professor of Communications at Sheffield Hallam University – is exploring in a new community heritage project. It may be delving into the past, but it’s using the most up-to-date technology to set up an online archive: photographs, documents, memories, Minnie Griffiths, the lot.
We’re in Fryston, the former pit village on the outskirts of Castleford. It was built in 1887 to house workers for a new colliery sunk in the grounds of Fryston Hall. The hall’s owner, the writer and politician Lord Houghton, had friends in the highest places, regularly playing host to the Prince of Wales, Disraeli, Thackeray, the explorer Richard Burton, and Florence Nightingale, who turned down his proposal of marriage.
In its heyday, 1,300 miners worked at Fryston pit. They lived in a dozen terraces and had their own schools, church, chapel, shops and pubs. It nurtured an independence and self-sufficiency made almost inevitable by Fryston’s geography.
Squeezed into a bend of the River Aire, it had water on three sides and a railway line on the fourth. There was no through road. It just had, in the title of the “people’s history” of this insular village which David Waddington published almost 25 years ago, One Road In, One Road Out.
“People seldom strayed out of the village,” he says. “For my grandparents, Leeds was the other side of England.”
Many of the miners and their families could see the pit from their front doors, so there was a danger of the place becoming literally inward-looking. In the event, it developed a thriving community spirit, which was celebrated in the photographs of the late Jack Hulme – photographs that have made Fryston famous.
Hulme – “colliery worker, hairdresser, celebrated photographer” as the blue plaque on his former home in North Street says – recorded the everyday life of the village for 60 years. He took, he said, “the pictures nobody else would bother with because they thought the subjects weren’t important enough”.
Graduating from a half-crown box camera to a Leica, he was always there for the important events: the 1926 General Strike, VE Day street parties, the 1984-85 miners’ strike. But he also photographed everyday working class life: street games and travelling fairs, whippets and washdays, donkey-stoning and blackleading, the village harmonica band and “Mr Crossley’s new invalid car”.
This unique record, an insider’s view of one square mile of the West Riding, amounted to 10,000 negatives, many kept in biscuit tins. They were discovered in 1985 by Yorkshire Art Circus, the Castleford-based people’s history specialists, and have subsequently been exhibited all over the world.
In 1985, five years before he died at the age of 84, Hulme photographed the demolition of the recently closed pit. At the time, it seemed like Fryston’s last rites; the pit was its only reason for being there.
Houses were bulldozed or boarded up, prairies of dereliction stretched out, it was eerily quiet. Redundant miners walked their dogs or scrambled over slag heaps, picking for coal as though the 1930s were coming back to haunt the place. As a final symbolic farewell to the old days, the corrugated iron chapel that hosted Jack Hulme’s funeral was demolished and its graveyard was left bleak and overgrown.
That graveyard is where David Waddington and I are heading as we drive out to Fryston from Castleford. We want to pay our respects to Hulme. “I remember having my hair cut by him when I was four or five,” he says. “He was a sweet fellow. They used to refer to him as ‘Mr Fryston’. I got to know him after the pit closed. He’d say: ‘Here’s a picture of your mum. And here’s one of your Aunty Dora’.”
As we go, Waddington explains the Memories of Fryston project, which is backed by a £20,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It’s a joint venture between Sheffield Hallam University and the Castleford Heritage Trust, which was set up in 2000 and is now a major force in local cultural and community regeneration.
The aim is to develop bids for Heritage Lottery funding through open days and websites, creating “a digital representation of community heritage”. “One of the things we’re trying to achieve is to rekindle a sense of community, a sense of ‘Do you remember?’, of how people’s lives have panned out, what has become of them, the sense of being part of something. A resonance, a sense of identity, something that both galvanises people and reassures them.”
We pass the site of Wheldale Colliery, now landscaped. Apart from a commemorative winding wheel, there’s no clue to what used to happen here. We could be driving along a country lane. Smart new houses have been built on the edge of the village; a sign points visitors to “Show house and marketing suite”; yellow rape fields have replaced slag heaps; but freight trains still trundle intermittently past. The graveyard has been tidied up, but, frustratingly, we can’t find Jack Hulme’s grave. Instead, Waddington shows me the grave of his grandparents, Samuel, a miner’s son, and Edith Holmes, who both died in the 1970s. Their daughter Mary, David’s mother, married his father Peter, another miner’s son.
“I was born in the same house in Brook Street that all my aunts and uncles were born in,” says Waddington, who now lives in Sheffield. “You know, I’m wandering round here and I’m seeing the names of people I interviewed back in 1988 for One Road In, One Road Out... Ethel Templeman, Frances Payne, Albert Addy.”
We drive on into the village, now a widely spaced handful of terraces, and confront the Village Green, the controversial £1m redevelopment involving a Channel Four urban makeover TV series and a great deal of hype. It’s an angular network of low walls dominated by a 20 ft Dali-like monolith (three large rocks stacked on top of each other). It features a children’s play area, ramps, slides, and four cast iron “bollards” created by sculptor Antony Gormley.
All told, it looks alien and irrelevant, like a cross between a sculpture park, an adventure playground, a post-modern garden of remembrance and the excavated foundations of something.
Opened in 2005, it was described by its American designer Martha Schwartz, as “a living environment and a site-specific art piece”, and by a resident whose front room overlooked it as “a waste of money... we’d have preferred a new community centre”.
More in keeping, perhaps, is a nearby mural by Harry Malkin, a former miner at Fryston pit who has found a new career as an artist and sculptor. On the mural, bent miners hew coal; one poses with a whippet, like a Jack Hulme photograph.
It recalls the old Fryston. “The Co-operative Store was over there,” muses Waddington. “On the first floor there was a reading room with books and daily newspapers and a billiard table. And this was where the Wesleyan chapel was...”
We finally arrive at Brook Street, where he was born in a three-bedroom terrace house.
“We never used the front door, we entered at the back,” he says. “These were outside toilets then. That was the coke shed. The next door house belonged to Cyril and Edna Dalton. They used to take in lodgers, including professional boxers. I remember Peter Cobbler, a Ghanaian boxer who got me to spar with him.”
He counterpoints personal nostalgia and academic detachment. “In the Thatcher era and beyond, ‘community’ became a term with negative connotations of people being reliant on others. The attitude was: ‘They’ve got to get up off their backsides.’ Mining was denigrated in the same way, but I think there’s a hunger now to reassert what it was like to be in a community like this. If you look at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala – the Ascot of the Labour movement – it dwindled to 9,000 people at one time and now it’s up to 100,000 again.”
Has the village changed since he wrote his 1988 book? “I think the attitude here has changed. I think people thought this was a village in its death throes. It was weeds, rubble and the smell of death. But they’ve stemmed that demise and retrenched socially and environmentally. Now there’s potential.”
Siobhan Rudd, a miner’s daughter, comes out of the back door of Waddington’s old home, carrying her daughter Kayla-Mai. She invites us in. Waddington looks round and superimposes the past on the present: “We had a pot sink there and that was a big sash window, and the larder was over there. And where it’s been knocked through, that was the ‘best room’. ”
Siobhan talks about North Street. “They’re all related to each other there – sisters, cousins, aunties,” she says. “It’s like one big family.” And Jack Hulme? “My mum and dad live in his old house.”
Community round every corner.
www.frystonmemories.org. Memories of Fryston open days are on June 9 and July 6.