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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal Town/Ghost Town

Air Date: Week of

What's life like in Britain's coal fields 15 years after Margaret Thatcher's government declared war on the miners? We take you to Yorkshire, where the mine closings began, and profile Janet And Gary Hinchcliffe. The former miners say no one has stepped in to take the place of the mining industry, to supply a social fabric and conscience for the community. The residents don't talk about "coal field" regeneration as the government proposes, but "managed decline," in a town that sees little hope for the future.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Fifteen years ago British coal miners began a strike that would change their nation's history. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a mine in Yorkshire to be closed. It was the launch of a plan to wean Britain off native coal. The Tory government had prepared carefully for a drawn-out battle. The walk-out lasted a year. And when the beaten miners went back to work, the pits began closing. Five years later the British coal mining industry was effectively dead, and the Yorkshire coal mining villages licked their wounds and settled into a painful decline. Today the new Labor government says coal field regeneration is high on its domestic agenda, but as Sarah Chayes reports from Yorkshire, coal community residents see little hope for the future.

CHAYES: Janet and Gary Hinchcliffe live in a tidy brick house identical to its neighbors on Brierly Crescent in South Kirby, a mining village nestled in the green moors of Yorkshire. As Jan is unloading the groceries, their 9-year-old son walks through the door, spinning his yo-yo.

(Music in the background; ambient conversation)

CHAYES: Feisty good nature doesn't put food on the table, and it's been a struggle to keep going since Gary's mine, Frickly Collary [name?], closed 6 years ago. Like Gary, most men here worked either at Frickly, the toughest holdout during and after the 1984 strike, or at the other mine in town, South Kirby. When they shut, the community lost 1,800 mining jobs and 5 times as many in other sectors. And it's the same story for miles around. Since 1980, 63 out of northern England's 72 pits have been closed. The miners went home with about $50,000 in their pockets but few professional options. Coal was the only source of jobs. Mine owners, including the British government, wanted it that way, says Hinchcliffe. They wanted a captive work force. He realized that when he left school and couldn't find a bus to a town that had a factory, he says.

G. HINCHCLIFFE: The only buses that left there in the morning was to Frickly Pit, Askum Pit, or Kirby Pit. They wanted men to work in the pits; they didn't want them going anywhere else. So now, when they wonder why there's no other structure there, nothing there to support, to take its place, because for 30 years every government that came in power after the Second World War made sure that the men that lived in Octen worked at the pit.

CHAYES: The Thatcher government decided to end Britain's reliance on domestic coal. The reasons had to do partially with cost. Imported coal, often strip-mined or dug under poor working conditions, was cheaper than native coal. And London subsidized a nuclear energy program. But there were also ideological reasons. In 1974 a miner's strike over wages brought down a Tory government. Some say Thatcher was out for revenge. At least it was clear she wanted to crack Britain's trade union movement by defeating its strongest component. Yet there were few plans for the coal communities once that goal was achieved, and inevitably, South Kirby, like neighboring towns, has spiraled steadily downward, the Hinchcliffes say. After a burst of severance pay folly.

J. HINCHCLIFFE: People at trades went to America, Florida, you know. I mean, we didn't do anything like that, because we planned what we were going to do. But some [inaudible] really.

CHAYES: The Hinchcliffes had unusual foresight. Gary had been mining since his teens and Jan had had a numbing factory job. They decided to invest their meager severance windfall in education.

G. HINCHCLIFFE: I left pit, and we decided that I wanted to go to college and university. I wanted to train to be a teacher. So that's where my money went.

J. HINCHCLIFFE: He qualified in June. He was at a 3-month contract. He's got an interview on Tuesday, and if he don't get that job, he's no work to go to.

CHAYES: And meanwhile, it's Jan's turn to go to school, in social work. There will always be jobs in that field around here, she laughs. But a tally of their friends proves the Hinchcliffes are the exception. In Gary's view the town has hit bottom.

G. HINCHCLIFFE: The things that you see happening in this community, now, you would never, ever have seen in this community.

J. HINCHCLIFFE: For example, last night I went to pick my son up...

CHAYES: Jan turns to what's become one of the most common topics of conversation in the village: drugs.

(Traffic sounds)

CHAYES: The best way to see the decline the Hinchcliffes are talking about is to go down to Victor and Oxford Streets. "The Bronx," as locals have dubbed the spot, though it's in a country village. The trim row houses date to the turn of the century: low walls in front enclose tiny patches of garden. But the first 3 are empty. Sheets of plywood block the windows and angry slogans against the police scrawl across the facades. Mick Berry is head repairman for the public housing authority. He says it's criminal for these buildings to stand empty.

BERRY: I mean, we're on the street here, there's probably 200 properties. It looks like, something like, I don't know, 30 or 40 are actually boarded up and vacant. And one property sold to drugs another one down. This is the sort of area that causes us problems, and when it's on a downward spiral, it does attract the sort of less desirable people onto that estate. And it's just notorious for being an area that attracts drugs, you know, drug pushers and drug people.

CHAYES: Solid mining families used to live here, but their repossessed homes have been bought up by real estate concerns. At the end of the road a black slag heap cuts a sloping line across the sky. Mick Berry hasn't been up there since the mine closed. Even he is amazed at the vast emptiness of what used to be Frickly Collary

BERRY: You can nearly hear a pin drop. Just can't get anything. And it used to make a real noise, this place. It used to be buzzing.

CHAYES: When most people think back on that buzz, they don't just think of economic activity. The mines, they say, bound this tight community together. Gary Hinchcliffe.

G. HINCHCLIFFE: We set up a [inaudible] manage it at Frickly Collary. And he sorted out some pipes to make some goal posts, and stuff to get things up and running. You know, they weren't just there, property was in cove [phrase?]. They sold themselves as the provider of work in the community, and also part of the social life. They had a social conscience, you know what I mean.

CHAYES: And that social conscience included keeping people in line, Gary says.

G. HINCHCLIFFE: In effect, the community were policed by the men that worked there. If you did anything wrong, you didn't want the blokes put to know there were things wrong. I mean, for all the problems with it, women should be in house and chained to kitchen sink, this that and over, there were right and wrong, that's how we live our lives. That's gone, now, that kind of culture is gone.

TOUR GUIDE: Now, those that want, you can follow me through these [inaudible] where the miner works all day long, walking underneath these steel canopies...

CHAYES: About 10 miles from South Kirby is the 200-year-old Cap House Collary, which was fittingly converted into a museum in 1989. Former miners take visitors on tours, reciting a memorized script.

TOUR GUIDE: ... and that's where you get what's called mining soups [inaudible] from. Which means...

CHAYES: Manager Irwin Bottomly first went underground in 1951. He says given the Thatcher government's energy policy, there probably was no future for mining. Now he wonders what's ahead for the people mining would have employed.

BOTTOMLY: There were lads that worked down in the mines that couldn't write their name. No qualifications whatsoever. Some physically strong big lads that could get a pick and shovel and do a real good day's work. And have a sense of achievement, having done that. And were looked to by the rest of the lads. There are no jobs for those people any more, in any industry. You know, I feel very sorry for the lads now. I cannot see any future for them.

CHAYES: Yet those young peoples' future is just what the British government says it's concerned about. In December, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced over $550 million in new money, as he put it, to repair the damage done by sudden pit closures. The action plan focuses on housing and neighborhood renewal, infrastructure, education, the environment, and business incentives. It's based on the findings of a Coal Fields Task Force sent out last October to evaluate needs.

(Ambient voices, mingling)

CHAYES: The kind of micro-project this plan encourages is this enterprise center in South Kirby. Anyone can come into the cafeteria for an inexpensive meal and a cup of tea. There's a citizen's advice office, a miner's union bureau for health claims, computer courses, which Jan and Gary Hinchcliffe took before they applied to college, and cheap space for start-up businesses. Also, Dave Garbert's office. He's assistant director for the latest round of some 30 government-funded projects. He cites the road work in front of a new commercial zone as the kind of effort that's being made to lure jobs to the area. The needs are enormous, though, and while government allocations sound generous, everyone here knows just how limited spending really is. And so, a taboo has been broken. Officials have begun talking about sacrificing neighborhoods that are beyond hope, and concentrating resources elsewhere. Maggie Bellwood is from the housing office at Wakefield Metropolitan District Council.

BELLWOOD: You know, we all talk about it, almost behind closed doors. We talk about managing decline.

CHAYES: Managing decline. That notion gets a typically spirited response from Jan and Gary Hinchcliffe.

J. HINCHCLIFFE: That's a new one on me (laughs).

G. HINCHCLIFFE: What rat's deserting the sinking ship, is that what managed decline means now, then? (Laughs) An organized retreat. (Laughs)

CHAYES: Still, they have few hopes of new industry springing up here. They think the people will have to break out.

G. HINCHCLIFFE: What needs to be instilled into them is that all right, you can still live in Octen, South Kirby, and Amsel. But you're probably going to be working in Leeds. You know, I mean, what needs to be brought in is if you can't get industry into area, you need to get a better access to where there is work, you know. People who are at bottom in ways still can't afford cars.

CHAYES: Gary says public money is being mis-allocated and isn't trickling down to the grassroots. And local people aren't involved enough in the planning. He'd rather see funds spent on village train stations and bus lines to nearby cities. For 9-year-old Jack, mining is already alien, though he loves his village. But his parents' advice to him and his little sister Megan is to leave South Kirby behind.

J. HINCHCLIFFE: They're going to have to move. If they want to get on, they cannot stop round there. It's as simple as that.

CHAYES: For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes in Yorkshire, England.



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