Grim Up North: Mines and Miners

This month I’ve been investigating a different aspect of England’s industrial heritage. While I’m now living in an old mill town, other parts of the local area owe their existence (and late twentieth century decline) to the coal industry. So this weekend I paid a visit to The National Coal Mining Museum for England near Wakefield, inspired partly by the fact that an antiques fair was also being held on the site on the Sunday.

Mock-up of a miner's back yard
Mock-up of a miner’s back yard

The Museum does an excellent job of combining industrial, social and political history, with the main focus being on changes occuring during the twentieth century. I paricularly liked the mocked-up back yard to a miner’s terraced house that reminded me very much of two places I lived in the North East of England, although the first no longer had outhouses in its tiny yard, and while the second still had its two outhouses (used by me for storage of garden tools and animal feed/bedding, they were next to each other and the house and yard were considerably bigger than an ordinary miner could expect to inhabit with his family.

I did like the little details on the reconstrion as well: the newspaper hung up in squares by the toilet, the milk bottle by the back door, the washing and bathing accoutrements kept neatly outside and the rabbit hutch that was presumably for meat rather than pet animals.

The other half of that mocked-up yard
The other half of that mocked-up yard

Although women were prevented from working underground by the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 (fun fact: one of the justifications used by Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, in support of the Act was that girls and women were wearing trousers and working bare breasted in the presence of boys and men), emphasis was placed on the vital roles played both by the women working above ground and by the miner’s wives and other supporters (Women Against Pit Closures being a feminist group that was prominent during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike).

On the other hand, I didn’t see any mention being made of the work done by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. You’d be best off going to see Pride for that, if it’s still showing at a cinema near you (I can highly recommend it).

One of a cageful of canaries looking less than chuffed with the weather
One of a cageful of canaries looking less than chuffed with the weather

Other aspects of mining life that the Museum covered included the use of animals (canaries until 1987 and ponies until the late 1990s). The Museum used to be home to retired pit ponies, but their places have been taken by rescued horses and ponies of breeds that would previously have been used in mines. I don’t think I’d realised before that special cages were developed for the canaries with intergrated oxygen cylinders so that the birds could be revived if they passed out due to encountering noxious gases.

The Museum also has a number of original colliery buildings outside, including the wash house with clean and dirty locker areas and a reconstructed medical room. Rather disconcering until you get used to them are the recorded conversations that play when you approach the showers or the medical area. I did like the challenges for children based on guessing facts about different fictional miner workers from their lockers’ contents.

Eric and Ernie: two ponies of a type that might have been used down a mine
Eric and Ernie: two ponies of a type that might have been used down a mine

The Museum is bigger than I’d anticipated, and some areas are better explored on a sunny day, but I definitely plan to go back and catch up with the areas I didn’t managed to see as well as revisiting all my favourite parts of the Museum from my first visit. I also picked up a walking guide to some local sites of significance with regard to mining history, so that’s another trip I’ll be making in better weather.



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