Obituary: Sister Joan Hart, pit nurse

Joan Hart, who has died at 89, was perhaps Yorkshire’s most famous pit nurse, protecting and caring for more than 5,000 Doncaster area miners during a 40-year career.

Joan Hart
Joan Hart

Joan Hart, who has died at 89, was perhaps Yorkshire’s most famous pit nurse, protecting and caring for more than 5,000 Doncaster area miners during a 40-year career.

She became a mother, sister, confidante and friend to the underground workers in her care, and never more so than during the long strike of 1984 and 85.

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At Brodsworth pit she was responsible for the welfare of some 3,000 miners. Then, for 14 years, she worked as a nurse to 2,000 men at Hatfield colliery, whose injuries often required her to administer aid underground.

Discarding her traditional nurse’s uniform, she wore instead a baggy miner’s overall and resolved always to go down to tend to injured miners and bring them out of the pit herself, rather than wait for them to be brought to her.

When in 2015 her book, At the Coalface: The Memoir of a Pit Nurse, was published by HarperCollins, it became an instant bestseller and she found herself being asked to speak at literary festivals across Yorkshire, and to enlighten schoolchildren about a life underground that now belonged only to their grandparents.

She had co-written the book with Veronica Clark, a journalist and author whom she met at a creative writing workshop, and who encouraged her to tell her story.

It began in 1932, in Bentley, near Doncaster. The eldest of three children, Joan was just 13 her mother walked out, leaving her father, Harry, a deputy at Brodsworth pit, to bring them up on his own.

Joan helped by learning how to cook and clean, and looked after her sister and brother while their dad was at work. She found caring for others suited her, and set her sights on becoming a nurse. At 16, she gained a training place at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary.

Young nurses in 1948 were expected to muck in with the cooking, laundry and other menial tasks, as well as caring for patients. “The NHS was just getting started,” she recalled. “You did things they don’t teach you now.”

After a couple of years at Huddersfield, she moved to Hammersmith Hospital in London, where she continued her training and witnessed various pioneering techniques, including one of the first kidney transplants and the successful separation of Siamese twins.

While working in the capital she met her future husband, Peter, and they married in 1954. Two years later they moved to Yorkshire and Joan took a job at Brodsworth pit. The colliery was building a new medical centre and needed a qualified nurse to run it. Her father put her name forward and she got the job.

She found that the miners were less than keen on taking advice from a female nurse. To make matters worse she was taking over from a man called Bert whom they knew well and trusted.

Some of the men continued to go to him which made her job even harder. “I was 24 years old and working in a pit with 3,000 men who didn’t want a woman helping them, until they had an accident and saw me go down the pit and realised I wasn’t just a giggling girl and that I could do the job,” she said

Having cut her teeth at the pit, and following the death of Peter’s father, she returned to London. Back at Hammersmith, she became a cancer research nurse in charge of the radiation unit, and later had a stint as a district and industrial nurse, working for BP. But when her husband developed heart problems, they returned to Yorkshire.

In the summer of 1974, she took a job at Hatfield Colliery as Sister in charge of the medical centre, which she ran with three medical room attendants.

With 18 years’ nursing experience, the return to put life seemed a less daunting prospect than at Brodsworth. But she realised she still had to earn the trust and acceptance of the rank and file pitmen. Soon, the sight of “Sister Hart” in her boiler suit, pit boots, hard hat and head lamp became a familiar one.

It didn’t matter how badly injured the men were, or how deep in the mine they were trapped – they knew she would reach them. But her skill and dedication were put to the test in November 1978, when she was first on the scene at the Bentley pit disaster, which claimed the lives of seven men and left 19 injured.

“At first I thought it was just a little incident with a Paddy train but then I was told that seven people were already dead,” she remembered. “It was terrible, I still get emotional when I talk about it. I can’t remember exactly what happened I just know that I didn’t stop from five in the morning until two-thirty in the afternoon, men just kept being brought in.”

Despite the horror, she helped save numerous lives that day, carrying out amputations hundreds of feet underground in the pitch dark.

She was later asked to become a historian at the National Coal Mining Museum for England.

Peter predeceased her, and she is survived by her extended family.