Proof if proof was needed that coal mining is not just a job, is something more than that is demonstrated in this wonderful piece of prose photography. The photographer Ian Beesley, one of Britain’s most respected social documentary photographers, and a man well known to the pit communities. The writer Ian McMillan whose deep and rich Barnsley twang is at once recognizable to those who still listen to radio, or frequent the folk and poetry scene. He presents The Verb on Radio 3 and has to his many stringed bow the title of Poet In Residence to Barnsley Football Club. The subject, Hay Royds Drift, one of those old style coal mines which survive on the knifes edge of financial collapse and mining peril. Pictures from the drift recall all too vividly Gleision mine in South Wales the small drift which last year was inundated and killed five miners desperately trying to tear a living from basically an abandoned mine, seeking out surviving columns of coal.
In that case, though the enquiry has not yet completed its findings it was clear, pillars of coal left in to support the mine, were being ‘pinched’ every time the take they were working got too difficult to make any money that week. Hay Royds drift although clearly a much safer operation too lives on wages paid only as the coal is sold. At times of hard going the men are left with next to nowt for a week’s back breaking toil.
“We only get paid for what we get out and sell, and we’re struggling; these lads will be lucky if they’ve pulled £3-50 an hour this week
Well no one’s going to stay for that are they ?”. ( pg 45)
But miners will seek to work at their trade, long bred in the bone and culture of Yorkshire and the other traditional mining areas, even if it is down ‘tattie pits’ such as this. Everything here is by dint of muscle and sweat, there are no fancy gizmos and remote controlled faces and roof supports here. Everything is wooden props and steel bars, traditional arch girders, bored holes, bored crippled up and fired shots. The coal cutters are adapted and botched up with the ingenuity of a Cuban car mechanic, reconstructed round the height of the seam and the unforgiving strata.
Ask what the light says:
It says nothing. It simply is,
Catches the reflections of
Something that could be rain.
Ask what the dust says;
It says nothing. It simply hangs in light.
Catches the moment of Shift.
Ask what the water says,
It says nothing, it simply reflects
Catches the rain’s song of
Something which could be light.
After all this
Clouds, a single bird wheeling above the seam’s
long history, histories, his stories.
It is this ancient underground toil in the half light and less of the mine which so captives these two artists and which they have struggled so cleverly to try and capture, not an easy task , at times they have juxiposed the tranquil and unsuspecting surface scene with the hidden other world beneath. Both in words and pictures.
Wind blows the grass at Ackton Hall
Where they used to get the coal
And Hay Royds is working
Birds fly low over Bank Top pit
And the evening’s late
And Hay Royds is digging
He walks his dog by Beldon Brook
And the weather’s bleak
And Hay Royds is blasting
Clouds hang over Blue Slates Mine
They obscure the Moon
And Hay Royds is shoveling
Take a look at what’s left of Bradley Mills:
Weeds and holes , weeds and holes
And Hay Royds is getting
I had a dream, of Brigg Boyd pit
And the coal stayed put. And Hay Royds is washing….
Hay Royds is working, still working.
And during all the time it worked, the men stuck to the NUM as their union, though they were never ‘the enemy within’ like their mates in the super pits who held the economy by the bollocks in their rough and ready hands.
“It’s funny..there’s folk wandering abaht,
Walking their dogs,
Playing football and
They’ve no idea there’s a
Load of blokes
Grafting 500 feet below’em’”
There was a basic shower on pit top, but some hard up bastard broke onto the isolate site one night and stole the pipework, so the men had one more step back in time once they reached the surface ner mind underground, trailing home black in their pit muck as my Dad and his marra’s had done until the early 1960s. The finances were such at that time the company couldn’t afford to invest in new shower facilities .
When the mighty coal industry was nationalized in 1947 there were 1,300 coal mines in operation 980 large mines were taken into state control, the others, small mines, employing usually less than 20 men were allowed to continue under private ownership under license from the Coal Authority. Since 1994 what mines survived the decade of unprecedented mass closure from 85 to 94, were privatised, the vast majority going to Richard Budge’s UK Coal, a few large mines like Hatfield Main went to one off buyers. During all this time the tiny Hay Royds of this world kept plodding along as they always had done, feeding local home coal markets or adding top up’s to the massive consumption of the coal power stations. In 1947 there were 350 of these mines, today, although it’s hard to tell perhaps 19 still survive. In Yorkshire there are only three large mines surviving in the whole country, six. Today’s miners are hardly spoiled for choice in collieries to work at, and with something in the region of 50,000 miners of working age still ready to take up their old skills, every vacancy is massively over subscribed with applicants.
Nowt else suits. Desk job, security man
in a daft hat. No chance. Mucky and filthy
And some bastard nicked the showers but still
Nowt else suites. Diggin and back brokken
Every neet. Fingers hurtin . Neck hurtin
Head hurtin. But what else could I do, eh ?
Shelf stackin ? Driving a wagon delivering stuff ?
Serving tea? Taxi driving : where duz tha want ter gu
Madam ? No chance. Nowt else suites.
At the end of the day Hay Royd might not be a big hitter with a high tech coal face, but it is a pit, and its work miners not only know, but can’t see themselves doing anything other than. But this isn’t a history book, its not a technical mining book, neither is it simply black and white nostalgia, this is now, and this is raw, but it’s more than clever pictures too. This is an attempt to capture the ‘something more’ that is the ‘magic’ and fascination of coal mining which the miners never loose, though outsiders mistake for some kind of romanticism.
Solid black cloud hanging in the sky
Island in a sea of ten fields
Wagon after wagon after wagon after wagon until this paper ends
Heat of a small black star
Infinite shovels full
A hill burning
It waits in the air all across England
One big lump or seventeen billion smaller lumps; you decide.
“It takes us a year of hard labour to produce approx 30,000 tonnes of coal, which is burnt by Drax Power Station
in about eight hours to produce twenty minutes of electricity for England.” (pg 59 )
The drift is still despite all odds still in operation and actually going from strength to strength . The mine was bought last year by a consortium from Wales & Hong Kong, who put all the men on a decent basic wage and began improvements including new pit head showers.
The book can be bought from National Coal Mining Museum For England
Caphouse Colliery, shop.