The last deep coal mine in Britain is an arresting sight – a sprawling tangle of towers, conveyor belts, processing sheds, railway lines and “muck heaps”, as its mountains of grey-black slag are known in Yorkshire. It is called “the Big K”, and with reason. Kellingley is one of Europe’s largest mines, producing two million tonnes of coal a year. It sits on tens of millions of tonnes of reserves. Its two shafts descend 2,600 feet beneath the surface, and so much coal has been extracted since it opened in 1965 that from the bottom of those shafts miners must now travel six miles, on small battery-powered trains and then conveyor belts, to reach the face. There they labour round the clock, in intense humidity and temperatures that reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each day, Kellingley despatches three or four trainloads of coal 12 miles to Drax, which is Britain’s biggest coal-fired power station and generates about 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity. For decades Kellingley also supplied huge amounts of coal to Ferrybridge power station, just three miles away in West Yorkshire. It has, in short, helped to keep the country lit and heated – but not for much longer.
Drax has converted three of its six generators to biomass, importing six million tonnes of wood pellets from North America each year to run them, and plans to convert a fourth. In recent years Ferrybridge has increasingly used imported coal, which is cleaner and cheaper than Kellingley’s despite being shipped several thousand miles. In any case, Ferrybridge is closing next year as part of a government drive to shut down all of Britain’s 12 remaining coal-fired power stations within 15 years and halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025.
As the market withers, Kellingley is being closed by its owner, UK Coal, the successor company to RJB Mining, which bought most of Britain’s surviving coal mines when the industry was privatised in 1994. The colliery’s giant underground shearing machines will cease operation just before Christmas. The mine buildings will be razed, its shafts and labyrinthine tunnels sealed, and its memorial to the 17 miners who lost their lives at Kellingley over the past half-century moved to the National Coal Mining Museum in Overton, near Wakefield. Except for a few remaining surface mines, an industry that has done so much to shape Britain, for better or worse, will finally die.
By the time the last shift finishes at Kellingley, about 700 miners will have lost their jobs there. They are angry and bewildered. The mine is modern and productive, and they have fought to keep it open. They attempted a buyout, each offering to contribute £2,000 and to take a 10 per cent wage cut. They lobbied MPs, marched through Westminster, even invited the cast of Pride – the film about gay and lesbian activists helping Welsh miners during the 1984-85 strike – to join a demonstration outside the pit. They do not accept that coal has had its day, though it is by far the “dirtiest” source of energy. They believe an industry long synonymous with socialism and working-class struggle is being closed for political as much as economic or environmental reasons. Chris Kitchen, the secretary of the rump National Union of Mineworkers, described it to me as “a vindictive act”.
The sense of betrayal spans generations. Stanley Gilliland, 67, began working at Kellingley when it first opened and he was 16. He lost his left leg in an underground accident in 1974 but stayed on and became the pit’s longest-serving employee. He left in the first batch of redundancies in July with a cheque for just £14,250, and not a handshake or word of thanks for his 51 years of service from the management of UK Coal. “Coal was my livelihood. It was our lives and the country’s lifeblood, and now it’s gone and it’s not coming back,” he said.
Lee Gent, 26, will hold the dubious distinction of being the last underground miner the industry ever employed. The son and grandson of miners, he was one of nine apprentices taken on at Kellingley in January 2014. “They promised us a career,” he said. “The job was quality. It were ace. I’ve never felt euphoria like it.”
When he heard the pit was closing he was distraught. “The best opportunity of my life was given to me in one hand and snatched out of the other. It were the best and worst thing that ever happened to me . . . There’s no future in mining. They’ve made sure of that. It’s a dying shame.”
Deep coal mining in Britain dates back to Tudor times. In the 18th and 19th centuries it powered the Industrial Revolution, providing the fuel for the nation’s steam engines, ironworks, railways and factories. The industry peaked during the arms race before the First World War, with 3,024 mines employing 1.1 million people and producing 292 million tonnes of coal in 1913. (During the fighting, miners were used to tunnel under German lines and blow them up.) In the Second World War coal was so vital to the war effort that miners were banned from joining the armed forces, and Ernest Bevin, the wartime minister of labour, conscripted 48,000 “Bevin Boys” to keep the industry going.
It was filthy work. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell described miners as “poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel”. As late as the mid-20th century nearly 10 per cent of miners in Britain suffered from pneumoconiosis or “black lung” disease.
It was also uniquely dangerous, with at least 164,000 miners losing their lives in the pits since 1700. Explosions killed 361 men and boys at the Oaks pit near Barnsley in 1866, 295 at the Albion Colliery in Glamorgan in 1894 and 439 at Senghenydd in Glamorgan in 1914. Women and children under the age of ten were not banned from working in mines until 1842. Two shafts became mandatory only after a fallen beam blocked the single shaft at the Hartley Colliery in Northumberland in 1862, killing 204 men and boys. Mining deaths did not fall below a thousand a year until well into the 20th century: 1,297 were killed and 20,000 injured in 1923 alone.
The General Strike of 1926 was called to oppose wage cuts and deteriorating conditions in the coal industry, but it was only after hundreds of privately owned mines were nationalised in 1947 that the newly formed NUM became a force in the land and the miners’ lot improved markedly. At that point “King Coal” supplied 90 per cent of Britain’s energy needs.
In January 1972 the NUM called the first national miners’ strike since 1926 and won a substantial pay increase from Edward Heath’s Tory government. The turning point was the so-called Battle of Saltley Gate, where Arthur Scargill, a young NUM official from Barnsley, persuaded 30,000 Birmingham factory engineers to march on the Saltley coke works and force its closure. “Here was the living proof that the working class had only to flex its muscles and it could bring governments, employers, society to a total standstill,” Scargill boasted.
Two years later another protracted miners’ strike reduced the country to a three-day working week. Heath called a general election on the issue of “Who governs Britain?” and lost. Harold Wilson’s new Labour government swiftly awarded the men a 35 per cent pay rise, and roughly the same again the following year. The miners became the best-paid and most powerful of all industrial workers in Britain – but Margaret Thatcher, the next Conservative leader, had taken note.
The great strike of 1984-85 was triggered by a plan to close 20 unprofitable pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, but Scargill, by then the NUM’s president, played into the government’s hands by launching it in the spring, when demand for coal was falling. He failed to call a national ballot, splitting the union and undermining the strike’s legitimacy. He used flying pickets to try to force Nottinghamshire’s working miners into line, but merely hardened their resolve. He sought funds from the Soviet Union and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. He rejected compromise solutions despite the extreme suffering of the striking miners and their families. It was the most bitter industrial dispute in British history. Riot police fought running battles with armies of pickets seeking to stop “scabs” working. Thousands of miners were arrested and injured. Families and communities were sundered. Thatcher labelled the miners “the enemy within”. But the year-long action ended in abject defeat: the NUM was a spent force, powerless to resist the subsequent destruction of the coal industry. “The NUM and mining industry were seen as part of the socialist movement, in direct conflict with capitalism, and had to be destroyed and defeated at any cost,” said Chris Kitchen, the NUM secretary.
Immediately before the strike, there were 170 mines employing 148,000 workers and producing 120 million tonnes of coal. By the time the Tories privatised the industry a decade later, there were roughly 30 mines, employing 7,000 workers and producing 50 million tonnes. This year just three deep mines remained, but Hatfield in Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire closed in the summer. With so many other sources of energy available – oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar and biomass – coal now produces barely a quarter of Britain’s power. And of the 48 million tonnes of coal consumed last year, 42 million were imported, mainly from Russia, the United States and Colombia.
The NUM, which once boasted half a million members, has just 800 left, including ten full-time employees. The fine stone building in Barnsley that serves as the union’s headquarters is like a morgue. During the two hours I spent there one recent afternoon I saw no other visitors and heard not a single telephone ring.
The caretaker – Kitchen’s son – showed me the magnificent council chamber with its oak panelling, stained-glass windows and ornate arched ceiling. It has become a veritable museum, a monument to the union’s glory days. Friezes show miners in heroic poses. Huge, colourful banners, each the size of a bedspread, bear slogans proclaiming that “Unity is Strength” and “The Past We Inherit. The Future We Build”. Kellingley’s banner shows a miner throttling a snake labelled “Capitalism”, above the words “Only the Strong Survive”.
It was not just the mining industry that collapsed after the 1984-85 strike. So did the entire socialist vision of working-class struggle and solidarity, trumped by the Thatcherite principles of entrepreneurialism, individualism and free-market economics that even Tony Blair embraced.
Today, miners remain deeply divided about the strike. Kitchen believes it probably slowed the government’s mine closure programme. Others argue that it accelerated the industry’s demise. “We believed everything Scargill said. It was a massive mistake . . . We imploded. We collapsed during that 12-month period,” Stanley Gilliland, the veteran Kellingley miner, said. “We’re left with total capitalism. We’ve managed to make ‘socialism’ a dirty word.”
I wondered what Scargill thought. He and the NUM fell out long ago, not least over the union’s refusal to pay the £34,000 annual cost of maintaining his flat in the Barbican, in London, for the rest of his life, so I decided to visit his home on the outskirts of Worsbrough, near Barnsley.
Now 77 and divorced, Scargill lives down a country lane in a large, isolated stone house ringed by trees, secured with lights and cameras, and overshadowed by the raised bank of the M1 motorway. The property reeked of neglect. The lawns were overgrown, the paintwork was flaking off the window frames and the blinds were down. The knocker was shaped like a miner’s lamp. Scargill opened the door himself, a ghost from the past half hidden by the gloom within.
Could we talk? “I have a lot of work to do,” he replied, amiably enough. How did he feel about the closure of Britain’s last deep mine, I persisted. “Ask the NUM officials,” he said, implying that they should have fought harder. But this was what he had predicted, I observed. Did he feel vindicated? Scargill said nothing.
Thirty years ago there were collieries all over South Yorkshire, linked by a spider’s web of railway lines. Today scarcely a trace of them remains. Their sites are covered by retail and industrial parks, warehouses and distribution centres, few of which actually manufacture anything. The “muck heaps” have been bulldozed and turned into country parks, or housing estates for commuters on streets with names such as “Colliers Way” or “Engine Lane”. Where mine-shaft headgears and winding wheels once towered above the countryside wind turbines now stand – the power of the future replacing the power of the past. “They put them up to rile us,” Keith Hartshorne, a Kellingley NUM delegate, told me. “But we laugh when they’re not turning.”
Look hard and you can find the occasional memorial, like the one in South Elmsall, where Frickley Colliery closed after 90 years in 1993. “Out of these depths this village grows,” it proclaims. A few brass bands survive, but not one member of the celebrated, century-old Grimethorpe Colliery Band lives in that village or worked in its mine. Miners’ lamps and “checks” – the brass discs they would leave by the shafts to show they had gone underground – have become collectors’ pieces. Schoolchildren visiting the National Coal Mining Museum “don’t even know what coal is”, Darran Cowd, its collections officer, said.
Despite the huge amounts of EU money pumped into South Yorkshire to rebuild its economy after the pit closures of the 1990s, the mining villages are mostly depressed, run-down places with shuttered shops, closed pubs and neglected colliery sports grounds. The camaraderie and community spirit born of shared danger and hardship have largely gone. Where the ’stute – the Miners’ Institute – once stood in Grimethorpe, now there is just a rubble-strewn wasteland next to an overgrown field that used to be the bowling green. In Goldthorpe, whose pit closed in 1994, a three-bedroom terraced house, or “back-to-back”, fetches barely £50,000. Of South Elmsall an old miner said: “It’s died a death.”
The warehouses and distribution centres employ dozens of people, not the hundreds or thousands that worked in the mines, and at far lower salaries. Younger miners who lost their jobs in the 1990s mostly found work elsewhere, but not the older ones. They live on their pensions or benefits. You find them on their allotments, walking dogs, standing on street corners, or drinking, perhaps, in the Rusty Dudley pub on Goldthorpe’s high street on weekday mornings. When Thatcher died in 2013 they burned her effigy.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for Kellingley’s miners as they face a similarly bleak future. They are proud, hard-working men; a fading photo in the NUM’s pit office shows them posing as European champions in 1986 after producing 40,094 tonnes of coal in a single week. Most went down the mine straight from school and spent twenty, thirty or forty years producing a commodity that the country used to value. They believed they had jobs for life.
Lee Gent, the 26-year-old apprentice hired last year, is fortunate to have found a job with a steel company. His older colleagues may never work again – or if they do it will likely be in a minimum-wage job in some service industry.
“I’ve never been for an interview before and I’m 50 . . . I’m dreading the future,” said one miner, as he sat in the pit’s almost deserted canteen. Another said: “All the skills we’ve accrued are obsolete. We’re like fish out of water.”
Their jobs have been destroyed not just by the drive for clean energy and cheap imported coal but also, the miners claim, by the government’s refusal to help their industry. They argue that Britain is sitting on three billion tonnes of coal that could fuel the country for generations, reducing its dependence on foreign oil and gas, the vagaries of wind and sun, and Chinese-financed nuclear power. “The country will pay for this mistake,” Keith Poulson, the pit’s NUM secretary, said.
Union officials complain that although nuclear and renewable energies are heavily subsidised, coal-fired power stations are taxed £18 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce. They insist that they could compete with foreign coal if Russian and Colombian mines had to adopt proper safety standards and pay decent wages. “We can compete if it’s a level playing field,” Chris Kitchen says.
Above all, they insist that coal could be rendered as clean as any other form of energy if the government more aggressively pursued carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that can remove 90 per cent of coal’s harmful emissions. It has allocated £1bn for the purpose, and is funding two pilot projects, but too late to save Kellingley. Britain’s last deep mine will shut long before CCS becomes a viable commercial proposition. UK Coal, which refused to give interviews or allow access to Kellingley for this article, will presumably have ceased to exist, leaving its sister company, the property developer Harworth Estates, to exploit the pit’s huge and valuable site hard by the A1 and M62.
The NUM’s future is uncertain: some members want to wind it up and divvy out its £11m of assets, but Kitchen argues that it should continue as long as it can serve former miners and their widows. The more immediate issue is how Kellingley’s miners should mark the death of their industry in December. Some simply want to walk away after the last shift, allowing the media no chance to gawp. “Personally, I wouldn’t give them the fucking pleasure,” Poulson said.
Kitchen favours brass bands, banners and a final display of pride and solidarity. “We’ve fought nature to do this job. We’ve fought adversity and harsh conditions. We’ve fought governments and economic pressures, and I don’t think anybody should be ashamed of what we’ve done,” he said. “I think every miner has earned the right to walk out with his head held high.”
Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe