Salford in Greater Manchester is one of those places that still boasts a lively community hell bent on reminding all the rest of us of what it means to be working class. The Irwell Valley Mining Project, run by local activists, epitomises that spirit of refusal to accept any negative labels about what being working class means and is determined to pass on to young people the crucial role that coalmining once played in the community.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund several aspects of the project were launched on 21 September at St.Augustine’s Church in Pendlebury, Salford.
St.Augustine’s is a Grade 1 listed building, constructed between 1871 and 1874. Known locally as the “Miners Cathedral”, it was the focal point of the local mining community. Within its grounds is a memorial to the 178 men and boys killed in the Clifton Hall Colliery explosion in 1885. It was chosen by the IVMP to as the appropriate venue to offer local people the opportunity to see the culmination of the project’s work. This included an exhibition, a film and former miner Paul Kelly’s personal history of the Agecroft Colliery in Salford.
Alice Searle, one of the Project workers, explained the significance of the Project:
It is very important for the community in Salford and particulary to pass on that history to the children. It is not saying that coalmining was good, because it was disastrous for many people, but it did play a significant role in the economic and social life of the community.
The project has worked with local children from St.Augustine’s Primary School which has included drama, creative writing and artwork. Many of the children did not know how coal used to play a crucial role in heating homes, as well as providing work. At the launch two of the children, Kelsey Gowland and Jai Bolton, both 10 years old, were dressed in 1950s outfits and role-played a couple getting a coalfire started. Kelsey’s great, great, great grandfather died in the 1885 colliery disaster.
That is why they chose me to take part in the drama. People didn’t have central heating and used to sit around the fire, like we do around the tv.
Another young man, Mikey Kingston, aged 13 , explained how, after former miners and others had told their stories to the project workers, he was involved in making these accessible to other people:
I edited the sound files so that people can listen to them. There is also a booklet called “Even the Pigeons have Black Feet” which includes photos and the stories of miners and people in the community.
Agecroft colliery closed in 1991 and Lorraine McHugh, local artist and niece of miner Ken Chandler, managed to get into the colliery grounds as the pit was being dismantled. Her large black and white photographs are a reminder of how the physical prescence of Agecroft dominated the area. The pictures of the miners on those last days give a sense of the shock and disbelief that an industry with over 250 years history in Salford was going to be closed down.
Central to the project has been ex-miner Paul Kelly whose personal memoir of Agecroft Colliery was launched at the event. The Last Pit in the Valley is Kelly’s memorial to all the people who worked and lived in Agecroft colliery and the surrounding area:
This book is dedicated to all the men, women and boys who worked to get the coal that gave us light and warmth, and to all those who have been associated with our mining industry. This way of life has gone but our memories live on.
Kelly’s book is a history of the role that coal played in the economy not just of Salford but of the whole country. In words and pictures he skilfully recreates what it means to be a miner with the details of the daily life of the miner. And of course it includes a chapter on the 1984-5 Miners Strike of which he says:
The strike was not about money but about the survival of the coal industry and the safeguarding of the nation’s energy needs for the future.
Kelly now gives talks in local schools on the history and uses of coal to a generation of children who do not know what coal is. In September 2013 a monument to Agecroft colliery was unveiled where the colliery used to stand. It is a flower garden, built by the construction students of Salford College and decorated with ceramic tiles made by the children of St.Augustine’s Primary School.
Kelly believes that the case for reopening the pits has never been stronger;
I believe we should reopen the coal mines, rebuild the power stations with clean coal technology. If this was done under a nationalised energy service, the results would benefit all, old, young and especially the vulnerable.
The Irwell Valley Mining Project will launch its website in the next week. You can see some of their films on Youtube eg “Agecroft Colliery the Last Pit in the Valley”.