Poetry @ Pit

Posted on by Melanie Charlton

“A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” Marcus Garvey

This term we have been working with some of our most local schools to develop bespoke projects relevant to their school curriculum. A real highlight was working with staff from Horbury Academy to create an event for their Year 7 pupils. The result of which was a two-day event last week when the whole of Year 7 visited the Museum to explore the question, ‘Why should we remember mining in Wakefield?’

We wanted pupils to get a sense of the scale and significance of the mining industry in their local area and the legacy that it’s left behind. We also wanted them to consider what this important aspect of their heritage means to them today and how it’s shaped the city they live in.

It was important to the school that pupils had the chance to develop skills in communication, teamwork initiative, organisation, leadership and resilience.

The Learning team worked alongside Matt Abbott (from A Firm of Poets), our poet in residence for the day, who inspired pupils with a specially- penned poem, which set the tone for the day and touched on key ideas the pupils would explore.

Coal mining is a subject close to Matt’s heart as his both his Dad and Grandad worked in the industry.

“When I was a boy, I remember my dad and my granddad telling me stories and showing me pictures from down the pit. When I was a little older, I remember my mum telling me how she handed out food parcels to door-to-door miners during the strike. It all seemed completely foreign to me, a different world: like ration cards and gas masks and air raid sirens.

But when I attended an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the ‘84/85 strike, the level of raw emotion, and the show of strength and unity, completely blew me away. I suddenly realised that this was all relatively recent: as somebody born in 1989, I missed it by a whisker. I’m the first in three generations to avoid working down the pit. And the more I learn about the nature of the job, and the spirit of the mineworkers, the more awestruck I am.

It really hit home when Kellingley closed in December. The effects of what’s happened to the mining industry are still very real today, and yet it’s almost been completely forgotten. I’ll do everything I can to help the next generation get a genuine grasp on the thanks and respect that we owe. “

Close your eyes and climb inside
the mineshaft of your memories.
Instead of a torch,
I want you to use whispers and words
and black and white pictures
to slowly illuminate this underground world.

Keep climbing down,
deeper and deeper down,
until gradually, the wallpaper morphs into coal:
the carpets are hard under foot,
and the echoes in the darkness
are all that you know.

And when the mineshaft reaches the bottom,
imagination morphs into reality.
All you can see is…

tunnels and caves,
and shadows and shafts,
and lumps of coal
the size of a football.

Teachers and classmates
in bright orange overalls:
helmets with lightbulbs
and soot on their face.

No classrooms,
no iPhones,
no playgrounds,
no grass.

Just coal, in a mine.
For as far as you can see.

Open your eyes and count with your fingers,
how many people YOU know,
that still work down a mine…

And now count with your fingers,
how many mines there are in Wakefield
that still produce coal.

So why should we remember
mining in Wakefield…?

These mineshafts were the arteries
that pumped blood around our veins.
This industry was the energy
that kept our city going.
These miners formed a community:
the workforce of a brotherhood.
This career gave people purpose,
passion and importance.

Today we’re going to learn
how this was so much more than a job.
How the coal that we produced
was so vital for everyday life.
How entire towns of families
would all depend on the pit.

Today we’re going to learn
how there are heroes and heroines,
tragedies and disasters,
and memories and stories
of happiness and despair.

And I’ll bet you,
all of my pocket money,
that nearly everybody in this room
has some kind of connection to coal.

So join us on this journey,
to learn and discover,
and find out once and for all,
why we remember mining
in Wakefield.

Pupils were then sent back in time to the 1970s; to a time when coal mines were run by the National Coal Board and working in a pit would have been very real opportunity for young people along with 18,000 other miners in Wakefield. As well as going underground to experience what it would have been like to be a miner first hand, pupils enjoyed a non-stop day of activities:

• They attended a mock a NUM meeting to find out how the Union protected worker’s rights and took part in a ballot to elect a ‘Youth Delegate’.
• They did some basic mining training and learned the Skills for the Job
• They visited the Pithead Baths to find out how the mining industry looked after miners and their families by providing social and cultural facilities through Miners’ Welfare clubs

Matt, our poet, popped up throughout the day to perform poems linked to each session. At the end of the day, we reconvened as a large group to reflect on what they had learned and to write their own poetry in answer to the original question, ‘Why should we remember mining in Wakefield?’ Guided by Matt, who led a fast-paced writing session, pupils created some wonderfully inspiring lines, which captured their thoughts and feelings about their different experiences.

It was a fantastic day and there was a great sense of team spirit; we hope that this is just the beginning of our learning partnership with Horbury Academy.


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