BBC News - 5 Mar 04

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 25 May 09)

Watching the Pits Disappear

BBC News, Friday, 5 March, 2004, 03:24 GMT

"Everything just fell silend and that's when I knew it was absolutely dead." - Bob Matthews

Twenty years ago, Britain's miners embarked on a strike over pit closures, in what was to become the country's most bitter industrial dispute in recent times.

One year later, on the day the year-long miners' strike was called off, the NUM's ever defiant president, Arthur Scargill, found a tiny glimmer of hope to offer his battered and broken union members.

"We regard the last 12 months as a tremendous achievement," he told weary NUM delegates. "Five pits have been saved... at least on a temporary basis."

But the fact that the belligerent Yorkshireman tempered his usual rhetoric suggested he knew what was really coming: pit closure after pit closure.

Click the start button below to watch the pits shut down

In the two decades since the miners' strike, 156 collieries have closed, some first merging with a nearby pit, only to eventually fall under the axe for being "uneconomic".

Deep Pits Still Open
Daw Mill, West Midlands
Ellington, Northumberland
Harworth, Nottinghamshire
Kellingley, Yorkshire
Maltby, Yorkshire
Riccall, Yorkshire; due to close 2004
Rossington, Yorkshire
Stillingfleet, Yorkshire; due to close 2004
Thoresby, Nottinghamshire
Tower, Glamorgan
Wellbeck, Nottinghamshire
Wistow, Yorkshire; due to close 2004
Gascoigne Wood, Yorkshire processing plane; due to close in 2004
Hatfield, Yorkshire; in administration and not producing coal.
Full List of Pit Closures

In 1985 alone, 25 pits were shut down, including Cortonwood, the Yorkshire pit where the strike began.

And when Michael Heseltine became Trade and Industry secretary in 1992 he oversaw a further swathe of closures and job losses but 97 pits had closed by that time anyway.

In many cases there was plenty of coal still to be mined but the state of the industry, the market and successive governments' attitudes meant simple availability of the black stuff was almost the least consideration.

In the 1980s and 90s, mining engineers who had spent all their working lives keeping pits running safely were given the task of now closing them down with a dreadful finality.

"When a pit is shut it's shut for good," says engineer Bob Matthews who rode the last cage out of Cotgrave colliery in Nottinghamshire in 1993.

He described how he made a last inspection of the shaft before filling it with 6,000 cubic metres of concrete.

"It was a bit sad being the last men out of there but the worst part was when the time came to switch off the fans.

"Everything just fell silent and that's when I knew it was absolutely dead."

Cotgrave was a fairly new pit, only sunk in 1964. It had millions of tonnes in reserves but the coal was not of the highest quality.

As with so many collieries, the men were laid off and the pit was put on "care and maintenance" which meant keeping it free from noxious gases and seeping water so that it could be reopened if the industry picked up.

But, says Bob Matthews, the miners knew that was unlikely.

"They [management] were maintaining the roadways as though it could start again but it never did."

Ten years on and the site is still awaiting redevelopment.

A plan to build houses on the land has been scrapped but the East Midlands Development Agency says local government and other bodies are "working together to determine the most appropriate uses for the site".

However, other colliery sites in the area are gradually coming back to life, often as business parks, nature conservation areas or in the case of the old Ollerton pit site, an "energy village" of housing, offices and light industry all built along environmentally conscious lines.

Hidden Unemployment

But David Parry from the Coalfield Communities Campaign says while many former mining areas across Britain have had significant investment in the form of grants, the new developments cannot match the pits in terms of economic support.
Writing on the wall: Graffiti at Eppleton colliery, Co Durham

"You get 50 jobs created in a place where 2,000 men used to work and this means older men in particular are parked outside the labour market."

Hidden unemployment is still quite significant in areas such as South Wales where a lot of ex-miners survive on sickness benefit.

"Regionally there are some very real blackspots where not very much has moved in the past 10 years.

"The fabric of the housing etcetera has deteriorated and many villages in the former coalfields have become like inner city sink estates except they are in semi-rural isolation," says Mr Parry.

"It's very easy to close something and a damn sight harder to put together an economic package that will support these areas in a sustainable way."