We Joined Britain's Last Deep Pit Coal Miners for Their Final Shift
All photos by Mark Pinder and Darren O’Brien/Meta-4 Photos

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We Joined Britain's Last Deep Pit Coal Miners for Their Final Shift

"Everybody knows we've got to decarbonise and go green, we know that. But we're not ready for it."
21.12.15

Britain's last deep pit coal miners completed their final shift on Friday, marking the end of the industry – and their way of life – in the UK. The last piece of coal hauled to the surface from the depths of the now-closed Kellingley Colliery in west Yorkshire will become a museum exhibit.

"Everybody knows we've got to decarbonise and go green, we know that. But we're not ready for it," said soot-covered miner Gary Ward, a few minutes after he emerged from the pit mouth.

Annons

Though the majority of the 450 miners don't dispute that burning coal is a major contributor to climate change, they point out that the UK is still reliant on vast amounts of the stuff. The decision to close the mine has been particularly galling, because the power station seven miles away will continue to burn four million tons of coal each year for at least the next decade – only now it will use cheaper imported coal that has the added environmental cost of being transported halfway across the world.

Regardless, Kellingley's miners know that after more than 200 years, the deep pit coal mining that powered the industrialisation of Britain is dead and unlikely to be resurrected. They have found themselves in the same position as 180,000 of their colleagues following the breaking of the strikes in the 1980s. The gutting of the mining industry may have taken place 31 years ago, but the UK's coalfield communities, which make up 9 percent of the population, are still struggling and in need of assistance.

For Kellingley's miners, the immediate effect of the site's closure included the end of treasured working relationships forged in hot, dangerous and claustrophobic conditions 11km from sunlight. The work bred characters and camaraderie and even though it was hazardous and often fatal, people loved doing it.

Colin Thwaites, 52, introduced himself as "a living legend, God almost." As well as being a miner for 35 years, he told me that he's a lifeguard, ballroom dancer and has his diving papers.

Annons

"My dad were here before me and my son's here now. I wanted to be here until the end of my working career but I've had to go out and find another job. Luckily I've got one but I wanted to be here until the end. My wife says that we're elitist, and we are elitist because there's not many people that can do what we can do – I know it's sounds like bullshit but it's true," he said.

"It's a very hard job, the conditions are atrocious. You'll be working in a tunnel and the roof will be falling in. When you drill a hole, water seven times the salinity of sea water gushes out at you and it burns. It's not nice – unless you're adept at it and then you can get away with anything. It was fantastic and I loved it but it's finished now. It's sickening."

Colin worked with the same team for nearly 20 years."Our kids grew up together and we, as a team, grew up together." Like many of the miners he spoke about their relationships in the same way people in the army do. Similarly, he wondered how some of his mates were going to cope with life on the outside. It was a train of thought 50-year-old Chris McConnachie was following as well on the last day of his 34 years at the pit.

"I've put down for my Class 2 HGV license, but it's not something I want to do for long. I'm used to working with a close tight team and having men around me all the time. The thought of sitting in a cab by myself all day – it's a million miles from what I want to do," he said, visibly upset.

Annons

"It's given us a good life, there's no doubt about it. But it hasn't been easy. I've lost a lot of friends, killed at work. It brings the bond in, I suppose. It just pulls us tighter and tighter every time we lose one of our own. The nearest thing you're going to get to this out there is the forces. People put their life on the line for you and you do the same for them. I've seen it and I've done it. You go to any other factory and show me a memorial like we've got outside our canteen for the 17 people who've been killed here."

It's also easy to find tales of mine-inflicted injuries at the pit – emphysema, broken backs, necks, legs, feet, arms and fingers. In fact, disabilities affect an above-average amount of people across all of the UK's coalfields.

The 2014 "State of the Coalfields" Sheffield Hallam University report found that 7.9 percent of the 5.5 million coalfield residents claim disability living allowance, compared to the national average of 5.6 percent. Incapacity claims in the region's were found to be a "sky high" 8.4 percent. With an average of just 50 jobs for every 100 residents of working age throughout the coalfields, unemployment is also well in excess of the British average.

The lucky ones at Kellingley have skills they can transfer to other jobs, are financially secure enough to retire or are young enough to pick up sticks to areas with better prospects. However, there are those who are heading into environments where low paid and insecure service jobs and a breadline reliance on shrinking government assistance are a fact of life.

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At present, the trajectory for most coalfield areas is continued economic and social deprivation, explains David Parry, the principle policy officer for the cross party Industrial Communities Alliance. "There's not been any significant replacement of the older industries with sustainable new industry. Combined with the impact of welfare reforms these areas have been hit disproportionally hard. There needs to be targeted policies to change the situation," he said.

"We seem to be losing our way as a country that can manufacture or produce anything, apart from operating in the services or financial sector. It's a major shift that's been ongoing in this country for a few decades and seems to be carrying on because of the negligence of a number of governments."

Regarding Conservative governments, some of the miners believe it wasn't negligence that destroyed their way of life, but a vendetta. "Everyone knows it's been planned. Cameron's just finishing off what Thatcher wanted," commented third generation miner John Knowles. Others referenced the ongoing crisis in British steel production and the continued struggles of other domestic manufacturing industries as a vision of the future.

"They just shut pit upon pit upon pit. After the strike that was it. The steelworkers and power stations will be next, then they'll start with the car workers," said John Marsh as he clocked off for the last time. "They don't want us, they'd rather import stuff wouldn't they?"

Annons

As the miners left the colliery for the final time, it was clear that their friendships would continue for many years to come, as will the important democratic and social traditions that deep pit coal miners contributed to British life. In the end, their hard-fought legacy remains even if their industry doesn't.

All photos Mark Pinder and Darren O'Brien/Meta-4 Photos

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