PETER FROST meets a woman keeping alive memories of the Northumberland coalfield and the proud people who made it home and fought for its survival
“I DON’T have blood in my veins — I have coal dust,” boasts Deborah Tate, the fourth generation of her family to work at the Woodhorn colliery in the Northumberland coalfield. Her father Albert Bramley worked here and in other local pits for 47 years as a miner involved in the trade union movement and local politics.
Today Woodhorn, which closed in the early 1980s, is an amazing museum and Deborah has the enviable job of encouraging local people and visitors to the area to learn the remarkable history of the coal industry and the community it both bred and served.
Deborah’s dad was born during the first world war and went down the pit at the age of 14 following his father and grandfather underground. The museum has a picture of him as a boy in knickerbockers with his mother. His miner father had marched off to war.
When Albert died in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike, the local brass band marched to the undertaker’s where his body lay. They halted and fell silent as they raised their caps in a final salute to their comrade.
The family always lived in Ashington, once known as the biggest pit village in the world. The village was surrounded by collieries and at one time the Ashington Coal Company employed over 10,000 miners.
Visitors young and old come to the museum to learn what life was like when coal was king. “It was a dirty job, a dangerous job,” Deborah tells them, “but it was not demeaning.
“The men relished working together, being dependent on each other. There was a sense of community that is sadly not often part of present-day life.”
At the Woodhorn colliery many of the original buildings still stand and the two pithead winding gears dominate the skyline. Housed in a dramatic new building is an imaginative walk-through exhibition that takes you underground as well as through recreated pitmen’s homes. Old photographs, film clips and interactive features bring the past to life.
Some tell the dangers of the job. Miners worked cutting coal in backbreaking seams, some no more than 2’6″ high, some tunnels extended seven miles under the seabed. Risks were many including gas, rock-falls, explosions and diseases like pneumoconiosis.
The museum’s narrative, like the British coal industry, almost finishes with the miners’ strike of 1984 but of course the story goes on. A poster of Arthur Scargill confronts another of Margaret Thatcher uttering her scandalous comment about “the enemy within.”
“We needed a picture of Thatcher to complete the story,” Deborah remembers wistfully, “but we needed to protect it with thick plastic, otherwise it would have been defaced or torn down. Ashington folk still have strong feelings about that woman.”
Deborah sees the museum’s main message, not about the horrors and hardships of mining but about exploring the strong community spirit, the comradeship and support that was such a rich part of the life of the communities in this and other coalfields.
She, and the museum displays, reminds us of some of the other things in the rich life of pit and village — everything from local politics to giant leek-growing competitions; brass bands to miners’ choirs.
Sport was important, pitmen raced pigeons and whippets and Ashington and its pits produced many famous football stars including three-time FA Cup winner Jackie Milburn and his second cousins Bobby and Jack Charlton.
Pitmen’s paintings and bright union banners remind us of the part visual arts played. In 1934 a group of Ashington miners organised an art appreciation class through the Workers’ Educational Association. Over decades that group would develop into the legendary Ashington Group of Pitmen Painters.
These pitmen’s paintings, many on show at Woodhorn today, capture every aspect of life in and around their mining community and today the Ashington Group and their work is acclaimed worldwide and celebrated on stage and screen.
Even the Woodhorn museum is testimony to the pitmen’s contribution to culture and education. As local Labour councillors they voted to establish and fund the museum. Today Tory cuts threaten its future.
There are especially good reasons to visit the Woodhorn museum this year. The Miners’ Picnic held here is the oldest pitmen’s celebration in Britain. The inspiring event was first held 150 years ago in 1866. This year’s picnic will be held on June 11.
This year also marks the centenary of the horrendous disaster that struck Woodhorn on August 13 1916. Early that morning an explosion ripped through the pit killing 11 men instantly and two others who died later in hospital. The losses would have been far greater but as it was a Sunday only 30 men were underground.
The disaster was particularly tragic because at this time many men from the colliery were fighting and dying in France. Only a week before one of the victims, father-of-four Walter Hughes, had returned from being gassed in the trenches.
That didn’t stop the coal-owners throwing the victim’s widows and children out of their tied cottages and refusing to pay even meagre compensation until they had vacated their homes.
Thatcher would have loved those coal-owners’ values. In the museum pit yard a handsome statue of a colliery deputy still pays tribute to the men who died a century ago.
We’ll finish our visit to Woodhorn with a personal story from Deborah. In 1981 aged just 17 she was chosen as Ashington’s Coal Queen at the picnic. “In my sash and tiara I sat on a float and waved at the crowds and the crowds waved back.”
In 1983 she appeared in this picture at the opening of new pithead baths.
The local NUM committee and that year’s key speaker at the picnic, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, were the judges. Dad had encouraged her to enter and was thrilled when she won a place the finals in Blackpool.
This beauty competition was organised by the National Coal Board for what they cosily described as miners’ wives, daughters, sisters and sweethearts. It was a different and changing age.
Just three years later, in 1984, at the height of the miners’ strike 25,000 of those same wives and daughters would march to Downing Street behind a brand new coalfield banner bearing the legend: “Women Against Pit Closures.”
The women’s message was loud and clear. Mal Finch expressed it perfectly in her anthem. “We are women/We are strong/We are fighting for our lives/Side by side with our men who work the nation’s mines/United by the struggle, united by the past/and it’s here we go, here we go. For the women of the working class!”
Those words, and those sentiments, still echo around the museum at Woodhorn today. Go see for yourself.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 3 June 2016.