VIDEO: Pit’s sister of mercy who cared for the boys from the black stuff
Joan Hart recalls her career looking after the hundreds of workers at Hatfield Colliery............
When the gut-wrenching news broke that Hatfield Colliery was to close for good after 100 years worth of mining and with the loss of 430 jobs, Joan Hart mourned more than most.
Joan had been the Sister at Hatfield pit for over 14 years, where she was responsible for over 2,000 men under her care.
“I was heartbroken when I heard the news,” Joan admits. “At times, looking after so many men was a hell of a responsibility, but it was one I treasured, and it’s something that helped form the person I am today. Someone likened the closure to bereavement, and that’s exactly what it feels like, not only to the men, but to their families, friends, and the whole of Yorkshire. It is a very sad time indeed.”
Joan, now 83, became a nurse at the tender age of 16 - the youngest age girls could do so at that time.
Born in 1932, in a house in Bentley, Joan’s entry into the world was more unusual than most.
“The heavy rain had caused the River Don to burst its banks, so the downstairs rooms in our house, along with the rest of those in the neighbourhood, had flooded. Mum and Dad were forced to move upstairs, so, when she went into labour, the midwife had to be ferried into Bentley by boat. Once she’d reached our house, she had to climb up a ladder to get in through an upstairs bedroom window just so she could deliver me!”
Joan was followed seven years later by her brother Tony, and then her younger sister, Ann. When Joan was only 13, her mum decided to leave for good. It meant her father, Harry, a foreman at Brodsworth pit, had to work and bring up three children alone.
“I was only 13, but I was the eldest, so I decided to take charge,” She explains. “I learned how to cook and clean, so I could look after my sister and brother whilst Dad went to work, so he could pay for a roof over our heads.”
It was during this time, looking after her brother and sister, that convinced Joan to become a nurse. Aged 16, she left Doncaster to attend a nurses’ training college in Huddersfield. By this time, it was 1948, and the NHS had just been born, so there was a demand for trainee nurses.
Joan says: “Back then, nursing was a vocation rather than a profession. We were taught how to clean and disinfect a room properly, how to launder bloodied sheets, even how to cook what we called ‘invalid food’, including beef broth and junket, which is a type of blancmange.”
After two years in training, Joan decided to track her mother down. She found her living in central London. She not only invited Joan to visit, she asked her to move down south, so that they could be closer. Joan wrote to the General Nursing Council and got a transfer from Huddersfield to Hammersmith Hospital, where the nurses’ accommodation was situated directly across from Wormwood Scrubs.
The young nurses were told to keep their curtains closed at all times to stop prisoners from peering in. Wormwood also had regular escaped convicts, so the hospital would have to go into lock down to keep them out of the wards.
It was during her time at Hammersmith where Joan witnessed many things, including the successful separation of Siamese twins, and one of the first kidney transplants. She later met her husband Peter, who she married on 18th December 1954. Joan’s mother had wanted her to marry a doctor and so decided she had married ‘beneath her’. To make matters worse, Joan’s mother-in-law didn’t like Joan very much, either!
“There were lots of arguments, so I decided to pack up my things and come back up north,” She explains.
Joan left Peter a note, and just days later, he came to Doncaster looking for his young wife.
At first Joan worked in a nursing home, and later as a deputy Matron at Elmfield House, which at that time held a nursery, caring for babies, mainly from one-parent families. It was 1956, and the pits had been nationalised nine years earlier, so Brodsworth was looking to improve its safety record. It was in the process of building a brand new medical centre, so it needed a qualified nurse to run it. Joan’s father put her name forward and she got the job. She was still in her early 20s, and in charge of over 3,000 miners. Unsurprisingly, the miners found it difficult to seek medical advice from a 24-year-old, female nurse.
Joan explains: “They’d always relied on a man called Bert, who had a hut by the shaftside.
Even though I had a brand, new medical centre, containing all the latest sterile equipment, the men continued to consult Bert. In a way, I didn’t blame them, because Bert was like the local doctor - everyone went to him - and what he didn’t know about first aid, wasn’t worth knowing. I’d also painted the waiting room a happy, sunshine, yellow colour, and to say the men were appalled would be an understatement. They usually kept the walls navy blue, because it hid the muck and the blood.”
Joan had her work cut out to try and win the trust of the miners, but eventually she did, and soon they became to trust and depend on both her and Bert as a team. Sadly, a year later, Peter’s father suffered a fatal heart attack, and he was forced to return to London, to help with family matters. Joan transferred back to Hammersmith, where she became a Cancer Research nurse, as they were called at the time, in charge of the hospital’s radiation unit. She helped treat children, not only with cancer, but those with disfiguring birth marks.
Sometimes, the children would become distressed, so Joan would cuddle them on her knee during the treatment. The regulation lead apron would scare the youngsters, so she’d refuse to wear it, in order to keep them calm. Unable to have children of her own, Joan has often wondered since if those extra cuddles and constant exposure to radiation left her infertile.
She took her Midwifery Part 1 exam, in a bid to become departmental sister, and also enjoyed a stint as a district and industrial nurse, working for BP at its swish offices in central London.
But then Peter developed heart problems and Joan needed to get him out of London. She applied for a job at Hatfield Colliery, where she became the Sister in charge of the medical centre, which she ran along with three trusty Medical Room Attendants.
“My heart was always with the pits and the miners.” She says. “Hospitals never held the same kind of appeal for me.”
Joan started at Hatfield pit 46 years ago, in June 1974, where she was responsible for the health and well-being of over 2,000 men. She also performed medical checks on young cadets who started at the pit aged just 16. Much to the men’s disgust, she also painted the waiting room daffodil yellow, and during her first week got rid of the ‘dead body table’.
The table did, however, come back to haunt her a week or so later when a miner suffered a fatal heart attack underground, and there was no table to put his body on.
“We used the stretcher trestles instead, and the doctor certified death. Before his wife arrived with the NUM representative, I washed the man’s face out of both necessity and respect. But I also decided from that moment on, that whenever a man was injured or trapped underground, I always go to him and help bring him out myself.”
True to her word, and dressed in a boiler suit, pit boots, hard hat, and headlamp, over the following years, Joan always went down to treat her men. It didn’t matter how badly injured they were, or how deep in the mine they were trapped, they always knew that Sister Hart would go to them. Joan not only saved the lives of countless men - she was first on the scene at Bentley Pit Disaster in November 1978, which claimed the lives of seven men and left 19
injured - she also helped perform underground amputations, hundreds of feet below, in the pitch black. But her remarkable work didn’t stop there.
She became so trusted, that she also held impromptu underground counselling sessions for the miners beneath the chocks, where they would discuss everything from marriage to family health problems. She continued to care for her men during the bitter miners’ strike which stretched from March 1984 -85,
organising toy collections, so that the children of striking miners would have presents to open on Christmas day. Joan recalls one incident when two Metropolitan police officers brought in a young miner, who had sustained a gash to the back of his head.
“The Met police were neither liked nor trusted by the striking miners,” Joan says, “so when they dragged Nigel into the medical centre for me to treat; I demanded they take off his handcuffs first. They refused, saying he was ‘their prisoner’. So I turned to them and said, ‘yes, but right here, right now, you are in my medical centre, so I want those cuffs off!’
They seemed a little shocked, being told what to do by a nurse, but they realised I meant business and did as I said.”
It transpired that the young miner had been walking along the street to buy a newspaper, when he’d been cut down by a police truncheon. Joan realised the two-inch gash to his head would require stitches, so she told him to use the phone to let his dad know where he was.
“Again, the Met police officers wouldn’t let him use the phone, so I picked it up in front of them and made the call myself. I told Nigel’s dad to meet his son at the hospital, because I wanted to be sure the officers took him there, instead of flinging him straight into police cells.”
Joan belonged to the British Association of Colliery Management (BACM) union, and so she was forbidden to go on strike. If she had, then she would have simply lost her job. Instead, she continued to run the medical centre so that she could treat injured men both inside and outside the gates.
But her heart always remained with the miners on the picket line, who continued to treat her with respect throughout the year-long strike. One day, she was wandering around Hatfield colliery yard when she spotted a group of striking miners digging for coal. She knew what they were doing was technically classed as ‘theft’, but she promised the men she wouldn’t say a word about them or the missing coal, and true to her word, she never did.
“I felt for them,” explains Joan, “it was winter, and it was freezing cold. These men weren’t thieves - they were decent, hardworking men, who were just trying to keep their families warm.
They were my colleagues and my friends, and I never, ever forgot that.”
Joan says she felt choked up when the men returned to work a year later in March 1985.
“I watched as they marched back into work together. They were as united as a family, which is exactly what they were and had always been to each other, and to me.”
“They may have lost the strike, but I could tell they weren’t out - not by a long chalk. They were some of the bravest and most remarkable men I have ever had the privilege of working with. It was the camaraderie of the men, and the strong friendships they had formed which helped them through even the toughest of times.
Working at Hatfield pit was and remains one of the happiest times of my life. The men used to love taking the mickey and pulling practical jokes on me, but I gave as good as I got, and they came to respect me. Over the years, I
became a mother, sister, confidante, and friend to the 2,000 men in my care, and I loved each and every single moment of it.”
During Joan’s time at the pit, she not only went underground to her men, she also did a shaft inspection with the surveyors, chained to the winding gear on top of the cage. She says that when she eventually took voluntary redundancy from Hatfield in 1988, she missed both the excitement of pit life and camaraderie of her former colleagues.
After leaving Hatfield, Joan worked as a practice nurse in Stainforth, looking after pensioners aged 75 and over. By then, Joan was almost 60, so the irony of caring for people only a few years older wasn’t lost on her.
“They called me the ‘wrinkly nurse’ and the name stuck,” she smiles as she remembers.
After retiring from the GP’s practice, Joan did voluntary work at Doncaster Royal Infirmary, but, because of her age, the hospital insurance wouldn’t cover her to carry out simple nursing procedures, such as taking blood pressure, or administering eye drops. Instead, she says she was asked to run errands. Frustrated and feeling completely under used, Joan decided to enter a competition run by Age Concern. It posed the question ‘what have you always wanted to
do?’ So, as a bit of a joke, Joan wrote ‘wing walking’.
“So you can imagine my surprise when they told me I’d actually won, and I had to get myself to an airfield in Cirencester!” She laughs.
At 76-years-young, Joan not only did wing walking, she also tried her hand at sky diving twice - raising over £1,000 for Yorkshire Air Ambulance - and later a trip in a hot air balloon.
“I wanted to do a third parachute jump for my 80th birthday, but my doctor wouldn’t let me!” she grins, mischievously.
Joan’s memoir - At the Coalface - The Memoir of a Pit Nurse - was so in demand that she had nine publishers bidding for the rights to it. A kind of Call the Midwife, but with pit boots on, it tells the life story of this remarkable lady. From fainting deputies, to a miner feigning illness to watch Doncaster Rovers play at home, to a man with three testicles, the book has it all.
It also celebrates the unique friendship and camaraderie of the miners set during a time when loyalty and friendships meant everything.
“When we finished writing the book, Hatfield pit was still open. It wasn’t due to close for at least another year, so the fact that it has shut on almost the same week as the book’s release makes it even more poignant for me.” Joan says.
She adds: “Sadly, I belong to a different time, and I miss it greatly. I miss the banter of the men, the miners’ jokes, and their (often) filthy language. It was a different world back then, but it was one that I am very proud to have played a part in.”
* At the Coalface - The Memoir of Pit Nurse , by Joan Hart with Veronica Clark is available from WHSmiths, Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops priced £7.99.