Kellingley Closure: the end of an era

Posted on by Anita O'Donovan

On the 18 December 2015, the UK’s last deep coal mine will close and the miners will have worked their final shift in a proud industry which has been a part of Yorkshire life for generations.

In 2012, contemporary photographer Anton Want photographed and interviewed miners and staff from Kellingley Colliery after being inspired by portraits of miners by H. Andrew Freeth which were published in Coal magazine, alongside interviews, between 1947 and 1952. As the closure of Kellingley signifies an end to deep coal mining in England we felt it was important to share some of the portraits and extracts from the interviews. The portraits and interviews are part of the exhibition Pit Profiles: Re-profiled which is currently on loan to Cusworth Hall, Doncaster and can be seen until the 17th January 2016.

Anton Want's portraits and interviews show the realities of pit life and capture a moment in time of an industry that has been an important part of British history. They are now especially poignant as they represent some of the last people in the United Kingdom to work at a deep coal mine and we are honoured to have them as a part of our collection.

Below you can see some of the portraits and read some extracts from a few of the interviews:


Barry Leadbitter, Production Mechanical Shift Charge Engineer © Anton Want/NCMME

'This face that we’ve had now, a lot of the lads I’ve spoken to have said it’s the best face they’ve ever had at Kellingley, the size of the coal, the size of the seam, we’ve only had one real fault on it, which the lads worked their way through it very well. A lot of the older lads [say] it’s the best face they’ve ever had. Last week we did sixty four and a half shears, the pit record is something like 72,000 tons, which we’ve come close to that once. Last week we didn’t cut over the weekend, if we’d have cut over the weekend I’m sure we would have smashed the colliery record for tonnage. The seam is about 2.4 metres thick that we’re working in now, that is as thick as I’ve known it, it might even go up to 2.6 metres in places, it’s a good thickness of coal.' Add the width of the face, at 350 metres and it’s easy to understand why coal production is currently running so high at Kellingley.

'My job, it can be hectic but it’s enjoyable, it’s something different every day, it’s like a different challenge every week for me, that keeps you on your toes and it keeps you interested and focused on what you’re trying to achieve.'

May Justice, Pit Nurse © Anton Want/NCMME

'Miners are a rare breed of, and a unique breed of, people,' says May Justice when asked about why she is so committed to the mining industry. 'They just want to come to work, do their jobs and provide for their families. They work in hazardous conditions, in heat and humidity and dust and can be quite macho in their approach. They don’t want namby-pambying, they don’t like taking tablets, unless it’s absolutely necessary and it’s quite a battle at times to get them to go to the Doctor for antibiotics, as they just think ‘oh, it’ll get better by itself, I’m strong, I’m macho’, but it’s actually been a privilege to work with miners all these years, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure to look after them and I hope I’ve done my best for all of them.'

Trevor Vaughan – Shaftman © Anton Want/NCMME

Trevor works in a team of four at any one time, made up from the total of eight Shaftmen currently employed at Kellingley. There is a team of Shaftmen onsite at the pit 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Safety and mutual trust are a large part of working in the shaft and off the cage, ‘You try to look out for any danger whatsoever, you’ve got to make sure your workmate is safe… and be aware.’  Trevor quotes Peter Callander, a former engineer at Kellingley, on the dangers of working in a shaft 2,456 feet deep, 'Even a bolt, a little tiny bolt, if that falls down the shaft' he says 'It’s a bolt at the top, but it’s a bullet at the bottom.'

It is a job with a certain sense of obligation, ‘I see these guys more than my girlfriend, a lot more than my girlfriend, it’s the job we do and it’s the job we love. Touch wood, I’m going to do this job for another 25 years if possible, I’ll keep going until my body says to me, 'No, no it’s time you were retiring now.’

They are a close-knit, yet companionable group and sitting in the Shaftmen’s Cabin, surrounded by high, sturdy wooden shelves of heavy steel and iron parts, rows of chained harnesses and personal touches that mark an individual’s sitting area, you never once get the sense of being unwelcome.  Tea is made, chairs are offered and the ubiquitous dirt of a working colliery is courteously covered with a hastily found towel.

The Shaftmen in some ways perfectly encapsulate the nature of miners, tough, strong, quick-witted, loyal, hardworking, resilient, proud, and above all, characterful.

Neil Williams – Mines Rescue Officer © Anton Want/NCMME

On the day of the portrait, Neil and a team of four Rescue men, both voluntary part-time and full-time, had been down the mine at Kellingley undergoing training and equipment checks. A regular and vital part of the Mines Rescue Service’s duties. The voluntary men consist of a broad range of the colliery workforce and bring their own area of speciality to the role.

‘We've 12 full-time brigadesmen. Without the help of the part-time rescue brigadesmen, in a protracted incident we wouldn’t have enough manpower to manage. They could be electricians, could be fitters, they could be belt men, ‘lokey’ [locomotive] men, officials. They train six times a year, same as the full-time rescue men, and they have a medical every year so they’ve got to be physically fit.’

The sense of achievement that the Mines Rescue Service brings to Neil is the reason he cites it as the favourite job he’s done. His nature is well suited to it, you get the feeling he wouldn’t think twice before helping someone out, from whatever walk of life, the epitome of a Good Samaritan. He isn’t overbearing, although some might describe him as a bear of a man, but his strength lies in his calmness. Through a combination of training, experience and personality Neil Williams would be a good man to turn to in a time of crisis.


All interviews were conducted and written by Anton Want. © Anton Want/NCMME

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