Old King Coal

I grew up in Yorkshire. Oh, did I already mention that? So forgetful these days.

Specifically I grew up in Doncaster, that industrial jewel in the South Yorkshire countryside. Not that there was much countryside in the coal-blackened land between Barnsley in the west and Scunthorpe in the east, Thorne to the north, Rotherham and Worksop to the south. A skyline dominated by the winching gear of a hundred collieries, each a testament to the generations upon generations of men who took their lamps, helmets and snap tins deep in the earth each day.

The pit heads were no more than the entrance and exit to the mine. Perhaps a quarter of a mile below the surface pithead the mines fanned out to follow the seams of black gold. Miniature underground railways, narrow and cramped, would often take miners towards the active seam front, perhaps a mile or more from the pithead. Eventually the seams narrowed until impassable by train and the miners disembarked and clattered, bent double in the low sweltering tunnels, toward the coalface, their voices lost in the scraping, clawing and clattering of mechanical diggers. A Dantean vision of Hell.

Accidents happened of course. Tunnel collapses, in particular, were the enduring nightmare of every miner and his family.A signal from the pithead, known to the mining community alone would alert the villagers and bring them anxiously to the colliery for news. Sometimes good, occasionally not. Each colliery kept records of injuries and deaths incurred while mining, their names the price paid for digging into Hell’s outer reaches.

In the mining towns and villages, entire streets were colliery workers. Many of the villages were built explicitly to staff the collieries. And when Mrs Thatcher, with murderously swift fountain pen, signed the order to end the mining industry in the UK, death sentences for the collieries meant the same for whole towns.

My grandfather was a coal merchant, staggering with hundredweight bags on his back from dray to house all day until, parched and tired from so many deliveries, he would slake his thirst in the Black Bull on the north side of the marketplace in Doncaster. As time went by, he did a little less delivering and rather more slaking until that decision ran its course. But that’s a story for another day.

I remember coal, the look and feel of it. Like most South Yorkshire homes we had a proper fireplace where we would burn coal in our grate or, when available, anthracite, the blackest and hottest of all coals. I can remember my father, on winter mornings crisp with frost, lugging coal from shed to fireplace. I remember his breath steaming in front of him as he lit the rolled up newspaper beneath the carefully stacked coals – largest in the middle, smaller in a circle around – and blew on the flickering flames. Sometimes he would let me use the bellows cautiously. I felt very big and responsible even though my father never left the room for fear that I would burn the house down with an overzealous use of the bellows. If the fire was particularly reticent my father would cover the fireguard with sheets of newspaper to help the fire draw. It seemed to me to be much more of a danger to the house’s integrity than his eight-year-old son with a bellows. But I didn’t question his wisdom.

I wonder how many eight-year-olds now would even know what coal was. And what would we tell them to explain? For their generation, fossil fuels are satanic relics from another time. But those satanic relics built our roads and railways, houses and ships there would be no locomotives without coal, no steamships or mighty pistons. Coal may not be part of our future but let’s not forget its past role in shaping our futures. Coal fuelled industry. Without coal and the need for coal, many towns might never have been built or populated. Entire generations might never have existed.

Including me.