Concerns have been raised for the future of “institutionalised” pit workers and their families in some of Yorkshire’s most deprived communities as coal production at the UK’s last remaining deep mine ends today.
The closure of Kellingley Colliery, near Pontefract, a week before Christmas Day, marks the end of 50 years of mining at a site whose workforce has dwindled from a peak of 1,600 to just 450.
Following the shutdown of Hatfield earlier this year, the end of mining at Kellingley – affectionately known as the “Big K” – means that Yorkshire has lost 56 collieries in just 30 years.
Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, which will be left with only 100 paying members after today, fears many will find it difficult to adapt to life after coal.
Mr Kitchen, who worked underground for 25 years at Kellingley and Wheldale, near Castleford, said: “To some extent you become institutionalised because working in a coal mine is very different to the real world.
“When you’re underground you are detached from the rest of the world: it’s not like a factory or an office where you can pop to the canteen and catch up with things or nip out to the shop in your lunch break.
“Miners act and speak in a way which is unique to them: they say things to each other that are accepted underground but which in any other walk of life might end up in a tribunal.
“Coal mining is a community in itself with its own hierarchy and its own way of treating people.”
Keith Poulson, NUM branch secretary for Kellingley, said that being a miner at the doomed pit had felt like being “a convicted prisoner on death row”.
Speaking at the Kellingley and Knottingley Miners’ Welfare Scheme Social Club earlier this week, he added: “The morale of the men is absolutely rock bottom, to be thrown on the industrial scrapheap.
“Some people have worked there 20, 30, 40, even 50 years. To be actually told, two years since, that Kellingley would be closing came like a bolt of lightning.
“Now we’re approaching that final date, it’s a mixed emotion. They’ve got anger, frustration and fright to a certain extent because, like myself, they started from school and worked in the industry for all those years.
“Since it was announced, I feel like somebody’s stuck a pin in me and I’m eventually deflating. I feel completely let down.”
Many would argue that the writing had been on the wall for the mining industry since the NUM’s defeat in the strikes of the mid-1980s, but there were still more than 18,000 people working at pits a decade later, when the industry was privatised.
As that number plummeted, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust was set up to help those living in the coalfield communities adapt to life after mining.
In the last 15 years it claims to have supported more than two million people, including around 25,000 who have been helped to find work and more than a million who have acquired new skills and qualifications.
However, trust chairman Peter McNestry said many communities were still coming to terms with the industry’s terminal decline.
He said: “What people don’t realise is that there are 5.5 million people living in these communities and these are some of the 30 per cent most deprived in the country, who continue to suffer from ill health, unemployment and a skills shortage.
“We cannot turn our backs on these people, they have families and we need to change things to the benefit of generations to come.”
He added: “These people don’t want hand-outs, they want a fair share of the resources and funding that is available to other areas, allowing them to live with a quality of life that can be aligned to that of the national average.”