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Sounding the Depths

By Barnaby Pite

‘The singing of the dead inside the earth

Is like the friction of great stones’

‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ by Sean O’Brien

In the winter of 2019, the local government of Woodhouse, Cumbria approved the construction of a coal mine. The Woodhouse Colliery, which looks to extract coking coal from the seabed, will be Britain’s first deep coal mine in over 50 years. Opinions are predictably divided. Some highlight the jobs created and the coking coal sourced locally rather than imported; others lament the emissions that the burnt coal will produce and the impact on climate goals. The construction of this new mine would go against decades of policy disincentivising coal extraction so as to keep polluting emissions down and to preserve the natural and aquatic environment. But another part of the controversy originates in Woodhouse’s own local history: for years it was one of hundreds of British mining towns which dotted the country, with pits and workers extracting coal from the deep seams which underscore great swathes of Britain’s countryside. There is a sense of nostalgia––in Woodhouse, but also in many other places––for this bygone age of high and stable employment, and for the capital that came into these communities, many of which are now deprived.

The Industrial Revolution needed coal to fire the growing railways, coal to smelt pig iron into steel, coal to heat the houses of the growing and urbanising population, and coal to fire the steam engines which drove the machinery in mills and factories up and down the country. A key competitive advantage for industrialising Britain was an abundance of easily accessible, high quality coal, primarily in County Durham, South Yorkshire, and of course in the steep-sided valleys of South Wales. But a lesser known centre for coal mining was the port city of Bristol and the surrounding countryside. The coal field stretched north towards Gloucester and south into the low-lying flood country of the Somerset Levels.

Bristol is my own town; I am the descendant, through one Welsh grandparent, of coal miners. It seems to me that the history of coal-mining––of how people struggled and sacrificed to keep others from freezing, to keep them moving––is in some sense a history we all share. It is a history which shapes and moulds socioeconomics even today, and one which, as we come to realise the damage we have done to the environment through our consumption of fossil fuels, we must both remember and reject. Despite the substantial economic impact of coal-mining for community prosperity and identity, there should be no nostalgia for coal. The decimation of the British coal industry was ultimately a good thing for people as well as for the planet. But there is some use, I suspect, in sounding the depths of this hidden history, in remembering the lives spent and lost in the hunt for this dark, musty rock. In contemplating those people and their travails, we are reminded of the significant and destructive impact extractive industries had on Britain’s social landscapes.

The Bristol coal field lacked the depth or size of either County Durham or South Wales. The seams reached a depth of 60cm only intermittently, preventing the kind of profitability or production possible elsewhere. At its height, in the late 19th century, it supported more than 20 collieries stretching from Bedminster in the city’s south, to Kingswood, Mangotsfield, and St George in the east. One of the few physical remnants of Bristol’s coal mines is a black chimney made from copper slag, on the corner between Troopers’ Hill Road and Crew’s Hole Road, in the suburb of St George. The chimney is set on the top of an exposed hill, looking out on the River Avon as it snakes through its low, wooded floodland. The black-stone chimney was once the corner of an engine house that pumped water out of the coal mine and coal up the shaft. Bristol––seen from above–– seems to swell out to its east, stretching out towards Bath with a phalanx of terraced houses and industrial estates. Many of these suburbs sprung up around collieries in need of work; cramped, close-set terraces were built to house the workers and their families.

In Bedminster, a neighbourhood guarded by hulking red-brick warehouses, much of the housing for former mine workers is still standing. Dean Lane Colliery was for years Bristol’s largest mine; it employed some 400 men and many children. Its tunnels stretched underground for some 1000 feet, all the way underneath Bristol Temple Meads train station. Cramped, basic accommodation sprung up around the pithead to house the multitudes going underground each day. The mines in Bedminster were particularly notorious for ‘after damp’, a toxic mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide which would sit at the bottom of the mine shaft and suffocate unlucky miners. It was also known for firedamp, an explosive gas. The single reference to Bristol’s coal mines in Hansard is a question asked in September 1886 by one Mr Burt MP, of Morpeth. Burt asked the Home Secretary whether ‘his attention has been called to certain statements of the workmen of the Dean Lane Colliery … that the airways … were in a bad condition prior to the explosion which has resulted in the death of 10 persons and the serious injury of others’. Two of those who died in that explosion were barely 15 years old. Whilst the legislators of the 19th century did pass laws prohibiting the employment of children in mines, we ought not to be too idealistic in assuming the impact of such ‘progressive’ legislation. The Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 made it illegal to send children under 10 below ground, but it did preciously little for those above that age. Statistics compiled by the University of Exeter show that in 1874, a high watermark for Bristol’s mines, 325 mine workers were under the age of 16. That may just sound like a statistic, but which of us would be able to last longer than a few hours down there, even today? This nearly-nameless, faceless band went down in its hundreds, year on year, and we will never know what or how they suffered.

The profitability of Dean’s Lane Colliery, however, dried up in 1906, and it closed down. The owner Dame Emily Smyth donated the ground around the pithead to the city corporation. Today an adventure playground lies there, nestled among the close-set terraces and the river. A bandstand covers the shaft-head. Children play on this hollow, creaking ground. Graffiti coats the old coal warehouses, and rain drips through the deepest empty galleries of the abandoned mine.

Two and half miles due north-east from Dame Emily’s Park is St Gabriel’s Business Park, an anonymous industrial estate of red concrete and corrugated iron. In the late 19th century and early 20th, the site now held by St Gabriel’s was the Easton Colliery, one of Bristol’s largest coal mines. Easton today is a large, multicultural, gentrifying region of the city, but it is––or has historically been––very poor. Lawrence Hill, one region adjacent to Easton, was named by Bristol’s council as one of the city’s most deprived. The history of Easton Colliery also features a brutal example of how industrial action is punished: in 1911, coal miners city wide struck. The strike, impacting 2,000 workers, related to the loss of jobs and to sinking pay. When it ended after three months, the proprietors of the Easton Pit made the decision to shut up shop. The strike hadn't been violent or disruptive––Bristol’s Chief Constable wrote to the union agency expressing his appreciation for the non-violent manner in which the strike had been conducted––but nevertheless, for reasons unrecorded, the owners of the mine closed the colliery, putting hundreds out of work, and the pit was never worked again.

Maps from the end of the nineteenth century and early 20th rarely include more than a few scattered references to pits and collieries. The industry did not hold Bristol’s space and place in a vice-like grip as it did elsewhere. But I am struck, whenever I look at those maps, by the transient, fickle nature of resource extraction and the incredible difficulty of cleaning up after the coal runs out. An Ordinance Survey map of 1951 shows the site of the Easton Colliery, some 40 years after its closure, more or less unchanged. Today, the lumbering apartment blocks of St Philip’s Marsh watch that small business park, with its corrugated roofs and brick sheds, and its secret history is as good as forgotten. But even now, beneath the tarmac carparks and distribution centres of glass and grey concrete, beneath the loam and clay and weed roots stretching ever more deeply into the earth, there is a great emptiness, a warren of disused galleries and flooded corridors, a dark and hollow world, held up by posts and poles of rotting wood. Perhaps one day––not too far off––the oil fields of the Niger Delta or the Persian Gulf will meet the same ghostly fate. Consigned to blots on old maps, the hulking steel of their frames will be put to better uses, perhaps, and the sandy earth will set about on its irrevocable expedition into the excavated emptinesses left behind.

St George’s Colliery, a mile east of Easton’s, is now a park. On its closure, earlier than some of the other Bristol pits, it was landscaped with all the trimmings of the stately Victorian style: a pool for fish and an avenue of linden trees. Nowadays, families stroll along the small lakes and pools, and they sit on the grass as the space beneath them slowly crumbles away. A pub on its edges bears the name ‘The Fire Engine,’ from an old piece of the mine’s machinery. But nothing beyond those traces remains of what was once a busy industrial workplace.

There are these sorts of sites all over Britain. This country is one built largely on the wealth generated by extracting and burning coal, a consequence being acres of empty space where the coal used to sit. These hidden histories rarely reach the surface. But it would be a grave mistake to understate the importance of mining history to the socio-economic landscape of 21st century Britain. An investigation published by Eurostat in 2016 returned the result that the top five poorest regions in Northern Europe were all in Britain, and of those five, four once had industries based around mining––copper and tin in Cornwall, and coal in South Wales, South Yorkshire and County Durham. Although Bristol is a relatively successful city nowadays––it is the UK’s only town with an average GDP per head higher than the country’s average––it also suffers from stark inequality. In Hartcliffe, a neighborhood just shy of the coalfield’s southernmost reaches, 8.6% of sixth-form-age students enter further education, the nation’s lowest rate. But in Clifton, a wealthy suburb up a hill and five-and-a-half-miles north of Hartcliffe, that same rate is close to 100%, year on year. And Bristol’s patterns of geographical inequality trace back to mining days: in a poster I found on an online archive, the proprietors of Easton Colliery were offering special prices for domestic coal buyers in Clifton and Kingsdown, and special prices to cart the black rocks up to Bristol’s commercial middle classes from the pits in the working-class floodplain around the river Avon. Today, Lawrence Hill, a suburb close to the former site of the Easton Colliery, is one of Bristol’s and Britain’s most impoverished.

Coal mining is dirty, dangerous work. It is one of the most polluting fuels for the generation of energy, as it produces sulfides, nitrides, cyanide compounds, highly radioactive fly-ash, and, of course, vast quantities of carbon dioxide––double the amount produced by burning natural gas. And then, when the coal runs out, as it always does, eventually, little is left behind in the way of jobs and work.

There are no deep coal mines left in Britain: the little coal needed, mostly for coking steel, is dug out of a number of opencast mines in Scotland and Wales or is imported, primarily from Russia and the USA. Perhaps that will change when Woodhouse Colliery opens in Cumbria, or perhaps the investors and financiers will get cold feet and back away in favour of countries who haven’t seen the all-consuming ebb and flow concomitant with economies based on resource extraction. There have certainly been false dawns and fresh nightmares for British mining before. But coal and its dirty history still linger beneath swathes of Britain’s communities, particularly those which are the most impoverished. Undeveloped places on the fringes of towns and cities, once breathing capital and identity through the terraced houses which surrounded them, now mark the places, like nameless gravestones, where the earth is crumbling and flooding, where the hollowness is giving way to loam and gravel. I think about the people from my own town sometimes––to remember that adults and children alike went down insatiably into the earth, in search of a livelihood and of hope in the dirty black rocks they extracted. They died and suffered in their thousands, and little is left of them beyond a few black bricks on the corner of a street and an exposed chimney on a hill. As Sean O’Brien wrote in his poem ‘Fantasia on a theme of James Wright’: ‘In their long home the miners are labouring still […] there to inherit / once more the tiny corridors of the immense estate.’

BARNABY PITE reads Classics at University College. He enjoys travel writing, maps, and the music of Sun Kil Moon.

Artwork by Imogen Whiteley.


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