Thursday, October 28

In the dark and the dust: memorial recalls the harsh history of British mining | Mining

They worked extensively underground in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions, emerging at the end of their shifts covered in coal dust and often gasping for air.

Cities grew up around the coal mines; the boys followed their parents and grandparents down the well. In the 19th century, women and children were among the country’s coal workers. But by the late 20th century, most miners had been consigned to the post-industrial scrap heap as pit after shutdown.

The hard and risky work of the nation’s miners was not at the forefront of Boris Johnson’s mind last week when, on a visit to Scotland, he thanked Margaret Thatcher’s Closure Program for giving the UK a ” great early start “in the transition. of fossil fuels.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s prime minister, said his comment was “rude and deeply insensitive” to those whose lives and communities in Scotland had been devastated by the closures.

Now the nation’s miners will be commemorated in a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, and a dedication ceremony is planned for early next month. “It will pay tribute to the UK coal mining industry,” said Mike Mellor, president of Chase Art for Public Spaces, the group behind the monument. “We felt it was appropriate for the miners of this country.”

The monument is the brainchild of Andy DeComyn, a public artist who specializes in memorial sculpture. At five meters long, two meters high and one meter wide, it is made of Derbyshire stone with a bronze “coal seam” running through it, and incorporates 25 plates that tell the 200-year history of the industry.

A miner at the Lilly Drift Coal Mine works in a 13-inch seam near Newcastle upon Tyne.
A miner at the Lilly Drift Coal Mine works in a 13-inch seam near Newcastle upon Tyne. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch / Corbis / Getty Images

“It goes back to the 1800s, when women and children were working in dire conditions, and back to the 1990s, when most of the wells closed,” DeComyn said. “By then, working conditions were much better, but statistically it was still the most dangerous job he could do.”

Coal mining is “an important part of our industrial and social history,” he added. “When I was in school, we learned about mining in geography lessons. Now children learn about it in history.

And today people tend to focus on the bad side: the environmental consequences of fossil fuels. But coal mining changed the world. It fueled the Industrial Revolution and brought us to where we are today. “

Many miners were killed or seriously injured in pit accidents, and thousands died of lung diseases caused by working in confined spaces filled with coal dust. “But we felt we were rendering a service to the country,” Len, a former miner, told the BBC. “We left the lights on. We promote the industry. I was always proud to be a miner. “

One of 25 plaques at the National Miners Monument by artist Andy de Comyn
One of 25 bronze plaques featured on the monument by artist Andy DeComyn. Photograph: Courtesy of Andy DeComyn

In 1984-5, miners fought to prevent shaft closures under Thatcher in one of the UK’s last major industrial disputes. The year-long strike caused terrible hardship in the mining communities and a bitter division among the miners. It ended in defeat for the National Union of Miners (NUM).

The £ 100,000 cost of the monument has been raised through donations from the public, including ‘sponsorship’ of the plaques. The project has the backing of the NUM and the deputies representing former mining districts.

Plate 18 is dedicated to the mine rescue service. Jack Brown volunteered in the service for more than 20 years and was present at the 1951 Easington Colliery disaster in County Durham, which killed 83 men, including two rescuers.

Jack’s son Phil Brown has been trying to raise £ 2,500 to sponsor plate 18, but has only reached half of his goal so far. “I live in South Shields, one of the most deprived areas in the country. I’ve been uphill and down the valley, but money is really tight, much tighter than people elsewhere think. “

The plaque was a tribute to “yams,” a miners term for coworkers you would trust with your life, he said. “These were beefy guys who took care of each other, trusted each other, and even washed their backs in the showers at the end of the day.”

Jack, who served in the navy during World War II, died in 1973 at the age of 52, four years after leaving the pits, when his son was 18 years old. “He had been such a proud and fit man. But the dust really made him very sick in the end, ”Brown said.

“Even now, I feel so attached to my mining roots. Even though the holes are working, it’s still in my blood. “

In addition to commemorating the work of the coal miners, the monument also marks their contribution in two world wars. Forty-five miners received the Victoria Cross after World War I, and two who served in World War II received the honor.

The National Memorial Arboretum contains around 400 memorials, many of them dedicated to the armed forces.

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