Seams of black gold

Miners Gala - 18th June 1983'The Pontefract Pipe Band march through the streets of Barnsley.
Miners Gala - 18th June 1983'The Pontefract Pipe Band march through the streets of Barnsley.
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Today’s Midweek Retro A to Z of jobs looks at miners, whose industry has done so much to shape the history of South Yorkshire and been a source of so much of its pride.

The Labour politician Nye Bevan famously said: “This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.”

Outcrop workings in Darmall - 1893

Outcrop workings in Darmall - 1893

Indeed, the coal that lies under the ground in most of the region has been exploited for centuries.

Once Sheffield had many small pits, as the photograph on this page of an outcrop in Darnall shows.

Mining is known to go back at least to Roman times.

In the 14th century, Sir John Fitzwilliam gave permission for coal to be dug on his land at Elsecar. That coal was vital to the iron industry as well as domestic use.

Later, the Fitzwilliams would be among many local landowners who made their fortune from the seams of black gold under their feet.

As we have recounted many times in Retro, the development of the deep-mined coal industry played a vital role in the industrialisation of the region as the huge potential of coal-powered machinery took over from water-driven technology.

The arrival of the railways both increased the ability of industry to reach new markets and increased demand for coal further to power the steam engines.

It seems almost impossible that an industry that employed many thousands and created so many close-knit communities, drawing in workers from far and wide, would now be a fading memory, only 58 years after the industry was nationalised.

In 1947, no-one could have dreamed that the NCB’s diamond jubilee would be an occasion to look back on what was lost, rather than celebrating a still-thriving industry.

But they had not reckoned with the determination of successive Tory governments to run down an industry whose NUM union Thatcher labelled ‘the enemy within’ during the 1984-5 strike.

No wonder celebrations of her death were at their most vitriolic in former South Yorkshire mining communities that had been ripped apart.

Miners stuck close together because their lives depended on each other in a job that was tough, dirty and often dangerous.

South Yorkshire suffered some of the worst British mining disasters, like the dreadful series of explosions at Oaks colliery, Barnsley in December 1866 that claimed the lives of more than 380 miners and rescuers.