I was recently asked the question “Isn’t it time we forgot about the coal industry, coal mines and miners instead of dwelling on the past, shouldn’t we move on swiftly into the hi-tech future?”
"The question was asked by a person born and bred in the North East of England.
"My reply was, “No, never!”
"It has been my view for many years that the lives of all North Easterners have been influenced by coal, directly or indirectly. This certainly applies to the people of what was old County Durham and Northumberland.
"Coal was the energy source that drove the industrial revolution forward at a speed that was to bring great changes both socially and economically, comparable to the hi-tech explosion we are experiencing today. The coal industry had it’s own unique language, just as unique as the computer speak of today.
"The North East was an industrial merry-go-round. We had coal. To export it, we needed ships, so ship- building flourished. To build ships we needed iron and steel, blast furnaces needed coal. A huge railway network covered the length and breadth of Britain to transport coal from the mines to the industrial regions by steam driven locomotives burning coal.
"Coal was the life-blood of the British Empire and coaling stations were established around the globe to supply the merchant navy and the great war-ships that policed the greatest Empire the world has known. All of these industries employed tens of thousands and many more in ancillary jobs and professions that relied on the mining industry for their livelihood.
"At the hub of this power was the coal miner.
"Poor wages, working conditions and safety in the mines were gradually improved by the determination of the miners and their unions. Nothing was given freely and nothing gained without a struggle eventually resulting in better and safer working conditions and in 1947, Nationalisation of all coal mines.
"1st April 1957 although King Coal was in decline I followed my Dad and uncles into the industry. After sixteen weeks training at Usworth NCB Training Centre I started at Whitburn Colliery 5 am in the East Yard Seam Landing as a datal hand. (Day wage worker) My first job was coupling empty tubs together and sending them inbye. It was then compulsory to work a six-day week, if you were absent for the Saturday morning shift you lost that day’s pay plus the weekly bonus which amounted to another days pay.
"Although not obligatory the wearing of safety helmets and steel toe-capped boots was well established. On the surface all collieries had a permanently staffed medical centre, baths and an NCB regional ambulance service at their disposal. However in my eleven years in the industry I can’t remember seeing dust masks, ear defenders or goggles. Overalls were only worn by officials or electricians and fitters, personal respirators had not been introduced.
"Whitburn miners had a reputation of militancy and striking, being a coastal pit many of the faces were wet with poor roof conditions. Travelling time from the shaft bottom to some of the faces was almost an hour each way, Westoe Colliery to the North and Wearmouth to the South were rapidly being developed into Super Pits. These factors all played a part in the demise of the pit." - Bob Olley