Steve wears an orange overall, white hardhat and is an ex-miner; one of those types that exude reassurance; the sort of bloke you instinctively like, and trust. He gathers us in with a twinkling eye, his flock, without any fuss or rancour. We queue, sizing each other up, the people that are going underground together. Of course, no one considers the possibility that we may be down there longer than planned. We exchange lighters, watches, cameras, phones, nasal hair-clippers (anything sparky, electronic or battery powered) for hard hats, miners’ lamps and power packs. There’s good-natured banter between Steve and his colleagues. No high-heels? Good. Those that want to can have their (last?) photo taken before going down. Steve makes us all stand on the thick glass platform over a disused mineshaft and jumps up and down. “Safe as houses,” he says with a satisfied grin. “You try. No – no, not there!” Mock horror.
There’s a bit of nervous giggling as we enter t’cage to go down t’pit. We squeeze in, eighteen of us and our amusing shepherd. The steel concertina doors rattle shut and the hoist jolts down the shaft. “Did you fix the brakes?” yells Steve at an invisible friend far above our heads. No answer. “Damn”, he says.
Steve’s guidance over the next hour or more, 459 feet (140 metres) underground is informative as well as amusing. We are looking at a resource that was formed in the Carboniferous Period, between 354 and 290 million years’ ago. That’s even older than my jokes. He tells the story of coal mining from when this colliery, Caphouse, was first worked in the late 18th century. Light was by candle in those days, which the miners provided themselves. Children as young as 6 years old worked in mines – for example operating vents (doors) – in the pitch dark. Women worked in mines too – particularly in Scotland, for some reason. The public at large only became aware of this after a shocking disaster at Husker Colliery near Barnsley in 1838, when a mine flooded and 26 children died. Victorian sensibilities were seemingly offended almost as much by the fact that it was common for both sexes to work half, if not fully, naked. At any rate, the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 prohibited all females and boys under 10 from working underground in mines. That was the Law, though some women wanted to continue whatever the Law said; it was usually a matter of economics.
Flooding was one hazard. Others included the risk of being maimed or killed due to collapses in the mines, and blown up or suffocated by various types of gases - known as ‘damps’. Clearly, risks reduced with more protective legislation and increased mechanisation, but we all know they still exist today. Miners were (and are) also prone to a raft of unpleasant medical conditions – lung problems, skin problems, ruptures, stunted growth, curvature of the spine. “Can’t you stop talking about people dying?” a small boy asked Steve in piping, plaintive, tones.
Gradually, pit ponies replaced human haulers in pits. These creatures often didn’t see daylight, but it’s a myth that they all went blind from working underground, or that they were habitually mistreated – though conditions were obviously equally harsh for ponies as for humans. In 1913, there were some 70,000 pit ponies working in mines in Britain – despite the invention of the steam engine; there were still 55 in 1984 and the last one, Robbie, retired in Wales in 1999.
Steve explained the working of a seam, and the increasing mechanisation of mining. The newer machines are terrifying – enormous rotating drill heads steadily cutting through rock like some unstoppable, perverted and obscene monster. Caphouse Colliery closed in 1985. The machines are still interred there – probably millions of £s worth.
Back up on topsides (yes, we returned), you can take a peek round some really excellent museum displays and visit the pithead baths, which were installed in 1938, and other surviving parts of the colliery. You can also meet Eric and Ernie – a couple of ponies – visit the venture playground and go round the nature trail.
The National Coal Mining Museum (I notice there’s a suffix in the title – ‘for England’) is heavily aimed at schoolchildren. Yet unlike many attractions with a leaning toward a younger audience, this one does not patronise. There’s more than enough to fascinate – and, I think, humble – most adults. Would I have wanted to be a coal miner? No. We should have a huge admiration for those that were – and still are.
Only the blinkered believe that Margaret Thatcher killed coal mining in Britain. It wasn’t even the 1980s miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill. Pits had been steadily closing throughout the 20th century. Output peaked in 1910 when 3,253 collieries produced 264 million tons of coal. In 1920, the industry employed 1,248,000 people. By 1980 that had shrunk to 211 collieries employing 230,000; in 1985 that was down to 133 collieries employing 138,000; by 2004 it was 19 and about 6,000 respectively. I believe there are just 3 deep coal mines in Britain now, employing around 3,000. From what I can make out, most of Britain’s coal now comes from Russia, Columbia and the USA.