Digging through coal mine’s past

Images from new book The Drift
Images from new book The Drift

MORE than a century after opening, Hay Royds is now one of the last working pits in the country.

Now a new book tells the story of the Yorkshire drift mine, established in 1908.

FASCINATING ... ex-miner David Douglass. Inset, men at work down the pit.

FASCINATING ... ex-miner David Douglass. Inset, men at work down the pit.

Former Durham and South Yorkshire miner and author DAVID DOUGLASS reviews an essential read for anyone of a mining background.

Hay Royd might not be a big hitter with a high-tech coal face, but it is a pit, and it’s work, miners not only know, but can’t see themselves doing anything other than.

Pictures from The Drift recall all too vividly Gleision mine in South Wales, the small drift which last year was inundated and killed five miners desperately trying to tear a living from basically an abandoned mine, seeking out surviving columns of coal.

Hay Royds drift, although clearly a much safer operation, too lives on wages paid only as the coal is sold.

At times of hard going the men are left with next to nowt for a week’s back-breaking toil.

But miners will seek to work at their trade, long bred in the bone and culture of Yorkshire and the other traditional mining areas, even if it is down ‘tattie pits’ such as this.

Everything here is by dint of muscle and sweat, there are no fancy gizmos and remote controlled faces and roof supports here.

Everything is wooden props and steel bars, traditional arch girders, bored holes, bored crippled up and fired shots.

The coal cutters are adapted and botched up with the ingenuity of a Cuban car mechanic, reconstructed round the height of the seam and the unforgiving strata.

It is this ancient underground toil in the half light and less of the mine which so captivates these two artists and which they have struggled so cleverly to try and capture, not an easy task, at times they have juxtaposed the tranquil and unsuspecting surface scene with the hidden other world beneath, both in words and pictures.

And during all the time it worked, the men stuck to the NUM as their union, though they were never ‘the enemy within’ like their mates in the super pits who held the economy by their rough and ready hands.

There was a basic shower on pit top, but some hard-up so-and-so broke onto the isolated site one night and stole the pipework, so the men had one more step back in time once they reached the surface never mind underground, trailing home black in their pit muck as my dad and his marra’s had done until the early 1960s.

The finances were such at that time the company couldn’t afford to invest in new shower facilities.

When the mighty coal industry was nationalised in 1947, there were 1,300 coal mines in operation, 980 large mines were taken into state control, the others, small mines, employing usually less than 20 men were allowed to continue under private ownership under license from the Coal Authority.

Since 1994, what mines survived the decade of unprecedented mass closure from 85 to 94, were privatised, the vast majority going to Richard Budge’s UK Coal, a few large mines like Hatfield Main went to one-off buyers.

During all this time, the tiny Hay Royds of this world kept plodding along as they always had done, feeding local home coal markets or adding top-ups to the massive consumption of the coal power stations.

In 1947 there were 350 of these mines, today, although it’s hard to tell, perhaps 19 still survive.

In Yorkshire, there are only three large mines surviving, in the whole country, six.

Today’s miners are hardly spoiled for choice in collieries to work at, and with something in the region of 50,000 miners of working age still ready to take up their old skills, every vacancy is massively over subscribed with applicants.

But The Drift is still, despite all odds, in operation and actually going from strength to strength .

The mine was bought last year by a consortium from Wales and Hong Kong, who put all the men on a decent basic wage and began improvements including new pit head showers.

Tisn’t a history book, it’s not a technical mining book, neither is it simply black and white nostalgia, this is now, and this is raw.

But it’s more than clever pictures too. This is an attempt to capture the ‘something more’ that is the ‘magic’ and fascination of coal mining which the miners never lose, though outsiders mistake for some kind of romanticism.

* The Drift by Ian Macmillan, with photographs by Ian Beesley, is published by The National Coal Mining Museum for England, with support from University of Bolton.

It is priced at £18 and available from online sellers or from the photographer direct. Send cheque/postal order to: Ian Beesley, Hawthorn House, 1 Arthurs Lane, Greenfield, Saddleworth, OL3 7BD