In the darkness and dust: memorial recalls the hard history of British mining

They toiled far underground in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions, emerging at the end of their shifts caked in coal dust and often gasping for air.

Towns grew up around the collieries; boys followed their fathers and grandfathers down the pit. In the 19th century, women and children were among the nation’s coal workers. But by the end of the 20th century, miners had mostly been consigned to the post-industrial scrap heap as pit after pit shut down.

The arduous and risky labour 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 pit closure programme for giving the UK a “big, early start” on the transition away from fossil fuels.

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

Now the nation’s miners are to be commemorated in a monument 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 coalmining industry”, said Mike Mellor, president of Chase Art for Public Spaces, the group behind the memorial. “We felt it was an appropriate thing to do for the miners of this country.”

The monument is the creation of Andy DeComyn, a public artist who specialises in commemorative sculpture. Five metres long, two metres high and a metre wide, it is made of Derbyshire stone with a bronze “seam of coal” running through it, and incorporates 25 plaques telling the 200-year story of the industry.

“It goes back to the 1800s, when women and children were working in appalling conditions, and right up to the 1990s when most of the pits closed,” said DeComyn. “By then working conditions were a lot better, but statistically it was still the most dangerous job you could do.”

Coalmining was “an important part of our industrial and social history”, Ha aggiunto. “When I was at school, we learned about mining in geography lessons. Now kids learn about it in history.

“And today people tend to focus on the bad side – the environmental consequences of fossil fuels. But coalmining changed the world. It fuelled 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 brought on by working in enclosed spaces filled with coal dust. “But we felt we were doing a service to the country,” Len, a former miner, told the BBC. “We kept the lights on. We powered industry. I was always proud of being a coalminer.”

Nel 1984-5, miners fought to stave off pit closures under Thatcher’s government in one of the UK’s last great industrial disputes. The year-long strike caused terrible hardship in mining communities and bitter division between miners. It ended in defeat for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The £100,000 cost of the memorial has been raised by donations from the public, including “sponsorship” of the plaques. The project has the backing of the NUM and MPs representing former mining constituencies.

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

Phil Brown, Jack’s son, has been trying to raise £2,500 to sponsor plaque 18, but has so far reached only half his target. “I live in South Shields, one of the most deprived areas of the country. I’ve been up hill and down dale, but money is really tight – much tighter than people elsewhere realise.”

The plaque was a tribute to “marras”, a miners’ term for workmates you would trust with your life, Egli ha detto. “These were burly guys who looked after each other, relied on each other, and even washed each other’s backs in the pit showers at the end of the day.”

Jack, who served in the navy during the second world war, morto nel 1973 all'età di 52, four years after leaving the pits, when his son was just 18. “He’d been such a fit and proud man. But the dust made him really quite ill at the end,” said Brown.

“Even now, I feel so bonded to my mining roots. Despite the pits going, it’s still in my blood.”

As well as commemorating the work of coalminers, the memorial also marks their contribution in two world wars. Forty-five miners were awarded the Victoria Cross after the first world war, and two who served in the second world war were awarded the honour.

The National Memorial Arboretum contains about 400 commemorative monuments, many of them dedicated to the armed forces.

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