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The untold story of Britain's black miners

HISTORY: Miners with families and friends visit a former colliery in Nottinghamshire. Their experiences will form part of a new Heritage Lottery funded project

THE SAYING, ‘You are only a handshake or two away from a coal miner’, seems to resonate now more than ever before, in Britain’s social, political and industrial landscape.

However, little is known about the experiences of miners of African Caribbean heritage in the UK until now.

Nottingham News Centre, a community interest company that aims to improve the sourcing, collating and sharing of diverse local history and community news has been awarded a special grant to launch a special project looking at the history of African Caribbbean miners.

Coal Miners of African Heritage: Narratives from Nottinghamshire, will document the memories of former African- Caribbean coal miners in Nottinghamshire.

The project will cover the nationalisation of British coal in 1947, the miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1984/1985 and to the demise of British coal mining in recent years.

The project, which is funded by a £9,600 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund East Midlands and will involve supporting organisation Communities Inc., will work with volunteers from the local community to focus on captur¬ing, preserving and recording the memories of black minority ethnic (BAME) ex-miners of Nottinghamshire’s coalfields.

And according to Norma Gregory, historian and founder of Nottingham News Centre, the project is a hugely important one.


AN UNTOLD STORY: Norma Gregory (left) with ex-miner Fitzalbert Taylor

She says: “By making a start unearthing hidden histories of ex-coal miners of African Caribbean heritage, along with the valuable support from miners, volunteers and community organisations, we aim to interpret a more realistic African inclusive, historical discourse as well as challenging misinterpretations around the merits of diverse manpower during and after Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The black miner in the UK should and must be acknowledged.

“From producing around 177 million tonnes of UK coal in the 1960s to zero output in 2016, my research aims to ‘dig deeper’ to discover and share the untold narratives of resilience and commitment of black British coal miners, currently an under-studied aspect of industrial and social history.”

She continues: “Due to accessibility, relevance and my personal memories and experiences as a teenager in Nottingham, living through the notorious 1984-1985 miners’ strike period, with Nottinghamshire being the hub of civil disturbance and social as well as economic devastation in its aftermath, I know this will be an important subject for future generations to learn about.”

The former secondary school teacher and journalist, is also working with the BBC to produce a programme about the history of black miners. It is due to be broadcast later this year.

“I have met many wonderful people around the country and found newly discovered links to coal mining and black miners. Since I started to collate and record the work experiences of former Nottinghamshire black miners, I found all the ex-miners were willing to share their memories and mining memorabilia. They believe that sharing their experiences, somehow keeps coal mining alive.”
Research for the project began in October 2015.

STORIES

The findings aim to highlight the significance and value of their personal stories, around the themes of migration, training, inclusion, accidents, and strikes, which are absent from the permanent exhibition and archives of the National Mining Museum in Wakefield, Yorkshire. With the support of the community, Norma hopes to address this imbalance in the near future.

“To get their experiences included in the full history of the British coal industry is paramount to education and equality,” says Gregory.

“My research book titled, Jamaicans in Nottingham: Narratives and Reflections was the initial starting point for publishing some of the oral histories of black miners and prominent individuals of Jamaican heritage with stories to tell.”

Born in 1969 to Jamaican parents in Nottingham, Gregory recalls growing up seeing many black miners in her close knit community.

“My parents grew weary of living in the crowded and notorious Hyson Green Flats in Radford and wanted to own their home” she says. “When I was seven, the family moved to the leafy suburbs of Nottinghamshire, and I grew up very near Gedling Colliery, one of the few coal mines that employed hundreds of West Indian men, particularly Jamaican men, from the early 1950s until its closure in 1991. I used to walk to school and wonder what was happening over the hill tops where machines were tipping coal waste from the mine. Now I know.”

The nationalisation of the British coal industry in 1947, saw the demise and total eradication of deep coal mining from around 950 coal mines across Britain, plus the loss of employment for millions of skilled coal miners and thousands of surface workers.


TEAMWORK: Camaraderie was essential part of working in the mines though there were tensions between black and white miners [pic courtesy of David Bell]

The closure of Thoresby Colliery, the last working deep mine in Nottinghamshire on July 10 2015 and then Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, the last working mine in the UK on December 15 2015, marked what many believe to be a ‘curtain call’ for coal communities.

RESEARCH

Academic research is slowly starting to awaken to the previously hidden histories of black miners throughout the UK and its importance to the wider story of British coal mining.

Many coal mine personnel records were disposed of in the late 1980s following the rapid closure of pits across the country.

Since then, oral history as a qualitative research tool, has played an increasing role in the collection and preservation of interview data.

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of ex-miners of African Caribbean heritage contributed to the economic and industrial development of Britain, during their relatively short period in coal mining history dating back to Roman times” says Gregory. “But why is that their voices have yet to be heard? Giving a sense of recognition to the contributions made by these forgotten ‘industrial pioneers’ is what I aim for and what I stand for. British history has failed to notice the economic, social or political effects on many black communities across the UK since the burial of the British coal mining industry.”


‘COAL IN THE VEINS’: Ex-miner Garrey Mitchell, whose father Clifton was also a miner before going on to open the first Caribbean food shops in Nottingham in the late 1950s

As part of the project, a team of volunteers will receive training in oral history, archive research as well as audio and visual media recording. Team members will then conduct research trips to key local venues such as Bilsthorpe Mining Heritage Museum and Gedling Country Park (formerly Gedling Colliery). They will also research the working conditions and relationships formed between miners from different ethnic backgrounds.

After interviewing former BAME miners the project will produce a collection of audio recordings along with an accompanying booklet to help preserve and share the miners’ oral histories in hard copy format.

The booklet and audio recordings will also explore and record memories of miners’ transition from their life in the Caribbean to the Nottinghamshire coalfields and their thoughts about the closure of so many historic mines in the region.

“The outcomes of the project are to share the findings and photographic images with the public and to continue the research working wider afield to include experiences of black miners south Wales, Durham, Kent, Bristol, Yorkshire Leicestershire and Derbyshire, for example.

“There is also a need to work more globally with coal mining scholars in China, the US, Canada, India, Russia, Germany and South Africa where coal mining is still in production. Taking our findings to the Caribbean and Jamaica in particular, is my vision to help people understand the work that their men were doing to send money back home,” says Gregory.


TURNING POINT: Nottinghamshire was at the heart of the 1984 miners’ strike but many black miners did not join the protestors

Gedling Colliery, the highest employer of Jamaican miners was sunk in 1901 with the first coal produced in 1902. It was called, ‘The Pit of Nations’ labelled as such on the colliery banner, due to its diverse workforce.

WORKLOAD

Men from Jamaica, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Germany, Hungary and other countries shared the workload with white British miners helping to produce over 1 million tons of coal between the 1950s and 60s. It once employed around 1400 men in the 1960s, with a quarter mainly coming from Jamaica.

Around 131 men lost their lives at Gedling Colliery, including Jamaican miner, Vincent Glen Nam in 1965 who died by the collapse of a roof. The pit closed in 1991 and became a country park in March 2015.

“Miners would travel from 5am in the morning, waiting on the cold, smog filled streets to hail the colliery bus provided by Skills coach company. They would work morning or nights shifts to extract their designated nine yards of coal,” Gregory explains.

“Many ex-miners are now senior citizens with recurring ill health issues such as emphysema, pneumoconiosis or ‘black lung’ (coal dust in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis.”

Working with white British and European miners was a challenge but one which many black miners managed well, despite limited prospects for more leadership or managerial work.

Garrey Mitchell, 59, whose father, Clifton Theodore Mitchell was also a miner, born in Jamaica, before opening the first Caribbean food shops in Nottingham in the late 1950s says: “We used to watch each other’s back and made sure we got on with each other. If miners didn’t get along, the officials would move you. It was a different world down there, yes ‘brothers beneath the surface’, but on ground level it was different, things changed.”


EXPERIENCES: Calvin Wallace, former surface worker, Gedling Coliery, Nottinghamshire

Fitzalbert Talyor, born in 1928 in Old Harbour, Jamaica and a miner at Gedling Colliery from 1960-1985 recalls: “There were arguments and fights between men from different countries when people were careless and making mistakes over and over again. I can remember a Jamaican chap called ‘Greeny’ who was being hit by a Polish bloke with a ringer (a piece of iron) that releases the coal. I couldn’t believe it. The chargehand (supervisor) was there who should have prevented this but he just looked on. Greeny was not fighting back but he managed to bear it. I jumped over the stage load to stop this. Fighting was one thing you were not supposed to do down in the pit as you could be sacked immediately.”

Lincoln Cole came to the UK from Kingston Jamaica in 1957 aged 19. Cole, father of England football legend Andy Cole, was a miner at Gedling Colliery from 1965 to 1987.

Now 84, he remembers the camaraderie as a crucial necessity for teamwork underground.

“It was scary and rough” he recalls. “But if your finger hurt, there was somebody there to give you a helping hand.”
Nottinghamshire was at the heart of the miners’ strike action and civil unrest of 1984/85.


MEMORIES: Lincoln Cole, father of England football legend Andy

Many, some believe, are still paying the price of its political struggle (and compliance for non-strikers) with the Thatcher government.

Around 73 per cent of Nottinghamshire miners did not strike with the rest of the miners around the country during the 1984/85 strike. Most of the Nottinghamshire black miners did not strike due to family commitments, financial losses and their commitment to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM).

STRIKE

The UDM breakaway union formed in 1985 in reaction to the decision made by the national executive committee and leader Arthur Scargill, to strike without a democratic vote from all UK miners. The strike was, and for many still is, a cause of great schisms in families, communities and the political and environmental landscape.

“I did not take any part in the 1984/85 strike. It was difficult because you had your mates, well so called mates, and to see them standing there... passing them, going to work, was a very hard thing to take... In the end, the miners failed because it was stupid. Scargill didn’t allow us to vote. He just gave the orders to go on strike and had the support,” says Fitzalbert Taylor who had picketed in the 1972 national miners’ strike.

“They cooked a big pot of food and local people brought food along the Gedling Road to throw into the pot to boil. They said, ‘Come on Big Albert, we want you at the front!’ I thought when the police see me, a big black man, they will beat me at the front.

“But I am more sensible than that. You have to be smart when working with them. So I went to the back. It was a case of surviving because you don’t get the same privileges as them. The police drank their soup with the white strikers. I thought this strike is not for us black men. After the 1972 strike, I said I was not going on no picket line again.”

■ If you would like to support future research activities or would like to share a story of family member who was a coal miner, contact: info@nottinghamnewscentre.com

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