Digging deep: Black miners museum project

Materials World magazine
29 Oct 2019

Migrants miners working in Britain’s coal industry are being celebrated by the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, UK. Through a series of panels, artworks, artefacts, personal possessions and audio interviews, the exhibition shares the stories of African Caribbean people living and working in the UK. Here, Historian and Curator, Norma Gregory, introduces the exhibition.

For years, I didn't realise I had a miner in my family, so when I found out, I interviewed him for a book I was writing called Jamaicans in Nottingham, Narratives and Reflections. He told me about his life as a miner in the Midlands, at Babbington (Cinderhill) Colliery and Gedling Colliery, Nottinghamshire, and his story was fascinating, igniting a flame of desire in me to find out more.

I didn't know and hadn’t heard people talk about black miners, so I started investigating that locally at first and discovered that there had been many black miners working in Nottinghamshire and the surrounding mining regions. From there, I went up to Yorkshire, Durham and through Wales, where I found more former miners as well as people who had knowledge of miners who were now deceased. I wanted to ensure long term preservation of this information.

I started a project to find out more and interviewed more than 60 miners from around the country, as well as family members where the dad, uncle or grandfather was a miner. Families loaned us photos and personal objects belonging to their relative and spoke in depth about what they remembered.

The miners we met were humble, but also very funny and talkative. I wanted to hear about their experiences because a lot of these people are now senior in age, or are living with injuries and health problems. We asked the older miners about their migration stories – where were they born and how they ended up in England in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many were born in the Caribbean or in Africa, so we learned about their journey, of working in British coalfields and about injuries. We also talked about the strikes of 1972-1974 and 1945-1985 and what this was like from their perspective, for their families and communities, and the impact on their lives after mining. Just getting to hear those stories was incredible and important industrial heritage research for the future.

I've found the process has been good for mental health too because many of the miners we interviewed had said, 'You're the first person who's asked me about my mining life and mining experience, so thank you'. We have also had two big reunions - one was with Channel Four, which came to film with us last year. For that, the miners who took part had never worked together as they were from many different coal mines, so to be in the same room together was a major celebration – for me personally, for the heritage project and for the miners as well.

Making history

The more senior miners we spoke to, aged 70-95 years, generally didn't come to 

the UK for any particular job. Many of them left the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s because Britain was advertising in their native countries, asking them to move here to work. Most didn't have a plan before leaving their home country – they had some money in their pocket and every intention of going back after a few years.

However, some of them had relatives here or friends who were working in the mines already, so they often found out about mining through word of mouth. But there was also self determination – many went directly to the colliery and asked for a job as they had no knowledge of a benefits system or not working for a living. They came to England to find work, help rebuild Britain after war and a shortage of available male workforce, and to send money home to their families.

All of the men we interviewed had to learn the job and receive training, as not one had any experience of mining at all.

After accepting a job, they would be asked to come back the next day or week to start training at designated training coalmines, and were generally put on the coalface – one of the most difficult jobs. They carried out many different types of jobs underground, and while there were engineering or ventilation roles to fill, the majority – around 75% – worked at the coalface doing the hardest job, digging the hard rock.

In the exhibition, we have a photo of a black miner who worked as a shot firer – the person who carries a dynamite powder bag who was responsible for setting up explosives in the rock. It was quite a technical job and shows how some of these men were leading the work forward with incredible bravery and resilience.

Most of the miners we spoke to had worked for 10, 20, or 30 years in the industry. Many left after the strikes of 1984-1985, and others were laid off during 1986-1987 and the subsequent years until total closure of deep coal mining in 2015. Younger miners, who are now around 50-60 years old, came into industry in the late 1980s to help shut down and close the mines over several years.

Missing memories

For me, the loss of these unearthed histories of national significance is unthinkable but possible because it involves working class lives. It is the history of people who are not born into money, and who have had to work very hard to get by. I'm from the black community as a black female historian and curator, and we are often linked with working class systems and trade unionism because we are seen as workers. Yes, many black people are professionals, but we have always had to work up the ladder for these things.

By failing to recognise the effort people put into making Britain what it is, you will not get the most out of them. Even today, so much time is spent holding people back and telling people they are not welcome and not worthy, instead of thanking them for what they have done or are doing.

The UK is very good at celebrating certain aspects of history, such as WWI and WWII and war history, which are obviously important, and the soldiers deserve to be remembered. But coal miners are men who have given so much, who came from all sections of society and other countries, so why is it that only world wars are remembered on the school curriculum? I believe some aspects of teaching in schools should reflect local history and industries, because they are such an important part of our history and the foundations of national economic development over centuries.

Human connections

While there is minimal coal mining in the UK now, this doesn't mean we can't honour the industry and the workers involved and represent it creatively through the arts – through dance, sculpture and literature, as well as the online Black Miners Museum archive – to bring these stories to life and educate young people.

On 10 December 2019, the High Commissioner of Jamaica in London, with his deputy and team, will visit the exhibition in Wakefield. We are organising a coach so some of the miners from across the UK can come to the exhibition and meet him. This is just one of the ways that this has been an incredible, life-changing project for all involved.

This is important for the nation – to know there were men from many different countries working in UK coal mines, that they contributed to this country throughout their lives, and some of them were killed underground. For instance, there was a miner of Jamaican heritage killed at Lofthouse Colliery, Yorkshire in 1973. Seven men died there when workings flooded, some of them are still buried underground as it was not possible to get their bodies out.

People talk about about immigrants taking British jobs and houses, but they need to look at who the people are that have actually contributed to this country in many different professions, for many years and without thanks. Black miners still haven't received official recognition from the government and that is a major issue.

We still use coal and import it from different countries – Columbia, Russia, India and the USA. While burning coal doesn't help the environment through carbon emissions, we should still be saying thank you to the men who gave their lives to that industry because this country needed it. We used coal throughout the Industrial Revolution, we used coal in shipping and to power our industries. Coal is part of our history and it is part of who we are.

The Black Miners Museum Project is led by Norma Gregory, Nottingham News Centre CIC, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Midland and East and Lottery Players in partnership with Communities INC and the National Coal Mining Museum. The exhibition is open at the National Coal Mining Museum for England, in Wakefield, Yorkshire until March 2020, when it will tour the UK before going abroad.
You can get more information here: bit.ly/33RuUQw