The Society Left Behind by the Death of Britain's Mining Industry
Photographs By David Severn

The Society Left Behind by the Death of Britain's Mining Industry

Photos that capture resilience in the former industrial heartland of the UK.
August 30, 2017, 4:15pm

This story appears in the September Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the British Midlands make up one of the country's largest former coalfield areas. The closure of the collieries throughout the 1980s and 90s profoundly changed Britain's economic landscape, leaving the very industry that had been responsible for driving the nation's Industrial Revolution a shadow of itself. Communities were hit hard economically and socially, while the deregulation of financial markets caused an economic revolution in other parts of Britain. I began photographing the people and places of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields in an effort to capture social life in the region 30 years after the bitter, and at times violent, 1984–85 miners' strike. When then prime minister Margaret Thatcher—Maggie, to the British public—closed the mines, workers protested her attempts to diminish the industry at large and deplete the union that represented it. The strike splintered the workforce, with disputes over its legality creating divisions that the government grasped on. After a yearlong struggle, the strike was lost, spelling the beginning of the end for British coal mining. In the years that followed, coal-mine closures became rampant, and unemployment in the coalfields skyrocketed.


"Thanks, Maggie" draws on the music and culture of the coalfields. Music and dance were a major component of mining heritage, remnants of which still exist in the working men's clubs and brass bands. The working-class communities in the 1950s embraced rock 'n' roll culture—today, the ex-mining generation has many rock 'n' roll fans and various tribute singers who perform in the working men's clubs. My father, who worked in the mines for decades, is an Elvis Presley tribute act on the club circuit, and I am fascinated by the long lineage of variety entertainment from industrial towns and cities. Variety entertainment has its origins in the music halls of Victorian Britain and flourished in the working men's clubs of the 20th century, as workers' leisure time increased. The series continues to evolve to include parts of the UK farther afield from my native Nottinghamshire. A new chapter titled "Workers' Playtime"—named after a World War II–era BBC radio program that attempted to raise the spirits of Britain's industrial laborers—celebrates the passion for showmanship among the performers and enthusiasts keeping alive the legacy of working-class entertainment.

A man plays bingo at Boothy's Club in Mansfield Town. Working men's clubs, such as this one, began in the 19th century in UK industrial areas to provide recreation for working-class men and their families. However, many clubs have closed following the decline of industry. Boothy's shut its doors last year.

The photographer's father prepares backstage for an Elvis tribute act at Boothy's Club. Variety entertainment, including stand-up comedy, live bands, and tribute acts, form the basis of working men's club culture.

Bill, an ex-miner, attends a ballroom dance class at Forest Town Welfare with his partner, Pauline. Throughout the 20th century, ballroom dancing became popular among the working class who attended public dance halls.

A singer performs at the Ex-Servicemen's Club in Mansfield Woodhouse. Workers and their families mostly attended these social and working men's clubs, once thriving venues. Today, a club entertainment scene still exists, but the venues are in decline, and their audiences are generally of an older generation.

Stephen, an ex-miner and Elvis Presley fanatic, at home with his Wurlitzer jukebox. Working-class communities embraced rock 'n' roll culture in the 1950s, as distinct leisure activities and sub- cultures began to emerge in Britain as well as in the US. Today, the ex-mining generation has many rock 'n' roll fans.

This Pleasley Colliery Brass Band tenor horn case is adorned with Butlin's Mineworkers Open National Brass Band Festival stickers. Butlin's is a chain of holiday camps in the UK, founded in Skegness in 1936 to provide affordable holidays for working people. The Skegness camp was popular among Nottinghamshire mining families and continues to host an annual mineworkers' brass-band competition.

Pleasley Colliery Brass Band rehearsing at Pleasley Miners' Welfare. Colliery owners started brass bands, as they were keen to encourage music and community within the mining villages. Many colliery bands, including Pleasley, have continued playing long after the colliery closures and are still a central part of community celebrations.

A man with a puppet of Mr. Punch from the Punch and Judy show rests during the grand procession of the 2016 Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival.

Fred Van Buren, a magician, illusionist, and inventor, at home in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Van Buren began his career working for Bob Gandey's circus as "The Amazing Yoxani" before meeting his wife, Connie, and forming the magic illusion act "Van Buren and Greta."

Superior Band leads the grand procession of the 2016 Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival, celebrating the 354th birthday of Mr. Punch. Samuel Pepys, a diarist and once a member of Parliament, recorded the first Punch and Judy show in Covent Garden Piazza in 1662.

You can see more of David Severn's photography on his website.