Published by Book Empire, Leeds
Forty years on.
In just over two years, Britain’s coalfields will mark four decades since the triggering of the seminal 1984-5 Miners’ Strike.
This year of remembrance will also herald a rebalancing in our temporal conceptualisation of the dispute: the strike will be closer in time to the 1945 ending of the Second World War, than it is to the present day.
The age of coal recedes inexorably in the imagination, moving from the visceral current to the long and less well-defined recent history.
The restructuring of memory is lending both renewed intensity and perspective to our shared history of coal. Academic interest is reviving. A spate of new work on mining, its workforce and workplace politics is emerging. Here in Scotland, authoritative studies by Jim Phillips and Ewan Gibbs have considered questions of class, identity, and moral economy in the coalfield, whilst Huw Beynon and Roy Hudson recently presented a sweeping account of the long history of coal in South Wales and Durham. The publication of Diarmaid Kelliher’s work on London and strike solidarity has inspired debate around intersectional coalitions and the politics of trade unionism.
Community and academic projects across the coalfields are also expanding our understanding of the role of black and minority ethnic mineworkers, language and dialect in the mines, and realignments in political attitude in the post-industrial coalfield. Popular interest will be accelerated further by Jeremy Paxman’s new publication, set alongside a slew of broadcast documentaries, media coverage and online debate.
Post-hoc characterisations of Britain’s coalfields have tended to brand them relatively static communities of place and people. The pit village has been parodied as multi-generationally fixed, inert, and in its post-industrial form contributing to Britain’s most socioeconomically deprived ‘region’.
However, a growing literature on the migration stories of mineworkers is helping to dispel generalisations of immobility. Colliers and their families, over centuries and across these islands, are instead proving to have been enduringly enterprising in relocating to where work was available, in an industry ever driven by geology and economics to move southwards and eastwards in search of coal.
‘Haggis and Yorkshire Pudding’ is a comprehensive and important iteration in the telling of this industrial migration story. With close, street-level detail and by faithful rendering of voluminous oral evidence, the authors present the experience of Scottish miners who relocated to the South Yorkshire village of Maltby in the 1950s and 1960s.
These Scottish ‘pit gypsies’, many of whom had already internally relocated once from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire to the new National Coal Board pit sinkings in Fife and the Forth Valley, are shown to have moved on to the English coalfield in two migratory waves, initially in a haphazard pattern built on familial recommendation and connection, and latterly through more ordered NCB transfer schemes.
The book captures, through citizen testimony, the drivers of this migration pattern: invariably better-quality housing, hopes for stable work and improved amenities. There are also understated references to ‘escaping’ some less positive aspects of the Scottish coalfields: migrant miners talk about ensuring their relocated clubs and societies would be “non-religious and non-political – religious bigotry had not been allowed to follow us down to Maltby”.
The book’s real strength and accomplishment, however, lies in its polychromatic rendering of the social additionalities that Scottish miners brought to their new community.
They and their families quickly built a flourishing Caledonian Club, and introduced their neighbours to raucous Hogmanay celebrations as well as to the meaning of a half loaf and a vennel. Migrant Scottish miners excelled in district sports, education, entertainment, and were highly present in their trade union and community politics.
The varied interviewees speak of a broadly welcoming, inclusive Maltby where occupational solidarities were privileged over national or ethnic divisions. This echoes community research in 2013 amongst the Scottish miners of Thringstone in Leicestershire.
However, as Gina Harkell also discovered in her work with migrant miners in Kent, cultural integration in diverse pit communities was imperfect. There was isolation, homesickness, and sometimes hostility. Some returned home to Scotland: coalfield migration could prove a looped system, not a unidirectional conveyor of Scottish and North-Eastern English skilled labour to Yorkshire and the Midlands.
There is an abiding and sentimental connection to Scotland in the evidence. “My home will always be in Scotland, my homeland” says one retired miner. However, there is also a vocal pride in the institutions, social architectures and shared memories of the blended community built by the miners in Maltby.
The writers, one a local teacher and author the other a Scottish migrant miner, provide careful thematic structuring without impairing the voices of their interviewees. Their touch is deceptively light, allowing oral testimony to generate its own pattern, disagreement, profundity and debate. Beneath an unprepossessing title, the book makes a rich and rewarding contribution to a still under-researched field.
It is to be hoped, as the months pass towards the 40th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike and yet more attention is paid to the story of coal in Britain, that other writers will work with similar assiduity to privilege the voices and lived experiences of the people in our coalfield communities.
Jim Metcalfe works in Scottish further education and is a postgraduate history researcher at the University of Glasgow. His academic work explores the Nottinghamshire coalfield and the impact of industrial migration on its community development, affluence, and politics.
Beatty, Fothergill & Gore: The State of the Coalfields 2019 (Coalfields Regeneration Trust, 2019), p.44
Beynon, H. & Hudson, R.: The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the end of Industrial Britain (London, 2021)
Braber, N. & Amos, D.: Coal in the Blood: an East Midlands Anthology (Nottingham, 2021)
Digging Deep: coal miners of African Caribbean heritage – national narratives from across the UK. Available at: https://www.blackcoalminers.com/
Gartzou-Katsouyanni et al.: Understanding Brexit Impacts at a local level – Mansfield case study (LSE Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, 2018)
Gibbs, E.: Coal Country: the meaning and memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland (London, 2021)
Harkell, G.: The Migration of Mining Families to the Kent Coalfield between the Wars (Oral History, 6.1, 1978, pp98-113)
Kelliher, D.: Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike (Abingdon, 2021)
Paxman, J.: Black Gold: the history of how Coal made Britain (London, 2021)
Phillips, J.: Scottish Coal Miners in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 2019)
Scottish in Thringstone (Loughborough, 2013)