Some years ago my Auntie Dorothy and I did part of the Miners’ Walk in Kent. The full circuit, which now links all the old Kent mining villages, wasn’t open then, but on that initial stretch of it we walked through fields where my aunt had been employed as a child by local farmers to pick flints out of the soil, and we passed my grandfather’s colliery (or rather what little is left of it) at Betteshanger. Grandad worked as a miner for fifty years, first at High Spen in County Durham, then, from 1934, in Kent; and in the immediate post-war years my Uncles Harry, Jack, Bill and Stan all did stints down the Betteshanger pit.
So the closing this week of Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, the last deep coal mine in Britain, has a personal edge for me as well as its wider sociological meanings. With the end of that industrial tradition goes a political one too: the miners as the shock troops of the left, taking on not just the Coal Board but the governments of the day. It’s a tradition that William Morris played his own admirable part in instigating, as when in April 1887 he spoke as a Socialist leader to some 6000 striking miners at Horton in Northumberland.
We might thus feel elegiac about our own deep mining tradition, but of course, globally, mining continues unabated; after all, it is millions of tons of cheap coal imports from Russia and Poland that have led to the closure of Kellingley. And in such countries, to which we might add China, South Africa and many others, mining continues to be as back-breaking, life-threatening and ruthlessly exploitative as it has so often been over here. So in a wider frame the Morrisian struggle to radicalise the world’s miners remains as urgent as ever.