Historian and exhibition creator Norma Gregory's work shines a light on the unrecognised contributions, experiences and histories of Black British coal miners. As part of Runnymede and CLASS thinktank's #ReclaimTheAgenda campaign, Norma writes about the importance of documenting and recognising hundreds of African Caribbean men who are largely ignored by mainstream social history.
Until recently, very little was known or documented of Black British miners, former coal miners of African Caribbean heritage, who worked and experienced life underground and on the surface as miners in UK coalfields from the 1950s.
The sacrifices and contributions made by black miners and all miners in the UK is significant and I believe, in warrant of formal acknowledgement.
It has taken six years of active research on my part, locating and interviewing black miners, doing talks and presentations in former mining communities and using media (e.g. print, broadcast, podcast and social media) to share and to highlight their important narratives.
Collating and Preserving the Experiences and Histories of Black British Miners Matters
I have worked with artists and designers to create artworks and new ‘evidence’, incorporating the experiences of Black British miners, into a touring exhibition, ‘Digging Deep: Coal Miners of African Caribbean Heritage’, on display at the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield Yorkshire until spring 2020, culminating into to a rich collection of pictorial, audio, video and art as primary source materials.
The online Black Miners Museum Project, by Nottingham News Centre CIC, continues to collate and preserve the histories of Black miners and it enables the public to submit their contributions and memories.
Britain’s Industrial Revolution (16th to 20th centuries) was ignited by the commercial capital and productivity of coal mining, which was one of the biggest industries in the country, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.
During and after World War I and World War II, like many labour-intensive industries, coal mining was heavily affected by a labour shortage. When Britain made its desperate appeal overseas for additional workforce labour, members of the Commonwealth heeded the call with their skills, commitment, ambition and resilience, bravely taking on the mantle of change.
Amongst them, were men from the Caribbean and Africa who had no prior mining experience or training but soon found jobs at the colliery, mainly as coal face workers and with some as chargehands (i.e. supervisors), deputies and miners’ union representatives. They settled into mining communities through determination, ultimately becoming a part of mining history and British social and political culture.
Hundreds of black men worked in deep coal mines across the country with concentrations of black miners in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Kent, Durham and South Wales.
The 'Pit of Nations' Workforce was 25% Black
Gedling Colliery, Nottinghamshire became known as ‘The Pit of Nations’ and ‘The International Mine’ as it was thought that black miners made up at least a quarter of the workforce, particularly from the 1950s to 1980s.
In the 50 plus coal mines in the Nottinghamshire area, nearly half had miners of African Caribbean heritage. The Dean and Chapter Lodge banner from Durham and Gedling Colliery banner, Nottinghamshire among others, also feature images of black and minority ethnic (BME) miners.
As a historian and educator, working for more than 25 years, and now a curator of mining heritage, I aim to shed new light on the contributions of African Caribbean men working as miners within the British coal mining industry, until the closure of the last deep coal mine in the UK, Kellingley Colliery, Yorkshire, in December 2015.
Until then, black miners stood shoulder to shoulder with white British, European and Asian miners, toiling underground to help fuel the UK economy. Some died in the process and many now have life-long injuries and industry related diseases such as pneumoconiosis (black lung through coal dust), over exposure to harmful substances, respiratory related issues as well as mental health issues, including suicide (The State of the Coalfields (2014), Mike Foden, Steve Fothergill, Tony Gore).
The miners’ pension rights and pension access, still in debate by politicians in the House of Commons, drags on with little urgency to support former elderly miners (with many in their 90s) who are seriously, without care assistance to help them.
Black Coal Miners are as much part of Nottingham's History as Boots the Chemist
As a woman of African Caribbean heritage, I was born in 1960s Nottingham, which was the site of race riots in August 1958, the home of Raleigh Chopper bikes, Boots the Chemist and the writer D H Lawrence (his father was a coal miner at Brinsley Colliery Eastwood). Explaining my personal links and interest in coal mining and the people who played a part in this industry, has been intriguing and exhilarating to many; a unique talking point at social gatherings.
Using oral histories as a research methodology, through verbal Q&A recordings with participating interviewees from the African Caribbean communities, I have gathered unexplored, personal insights and support additional research data on black miners’ experiences.
The significance of this undocumented, yet rich, industrial history experienced by black pioneers and its legacy today is crucial for readdressing the cultural, economic and social value of black miners in British history. Many people will be unfamiliar with black men's contribution to coal mining in Britain, and their place securely within mining heritage, on a national and global scale.
Norma Gregory (MA), is a historian and exhibition curator and leads the The Digging Deep project with volunteers. The project is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Midland & East and Lottery Players, the National Coal Mining Museum for England, Communities Inc Nottingham, The ACNA Centre Nottingham, The Sandford Cascade Project and the wider public.
Lead image caption: Coal Miners of African Caribbean heritage reunion, April 2018 at the former Gedling Miners Welfare Social Club, Nottinghamshire, part of the Digging Deep National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) project.
Credit: Charles Sagoe Photography