The end of an era for working class heroes down the pits

When I started work as a cub reporter in the late Eighties I caught the tail end of one of the industries on which our city made its reputation.

In the 1930s there had been more than 20 mines operating across the North Staffordshire coalfield.

They stretched from Victoria at Biddulph in the north to Hem Heath in the south and from Madeley in the west to Parkhall in the east.

Looking across the relatively refined landscape of the Potteries nowadays, it is hard to believe that at one time tens of thousands of men earned a crust below ground in miles of shafts, passageways and tunnels which criss-crossed the area.

Indeed, there is very little in terms of commemoration for the generations of men who spent their working lives at places such as the Racecourse Colliery in Cobridge, Sneyd Colliery at Hanley, Norton Colliery, Apedale Colliery and many more.

For decades these mines were the engines of industry but from the 1960s a succession of pits were closed during a period of innovation and mechanisation – including Berry Hill at Fenton, the Deep Pit at Hanley, Parkhouse at Chesterton and Mossfield in Longton.

Then, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government swept to power and, although no-one realised it at the time, the writing was on the wall for coal mining in the UK.

Here in North Staffordshire only a few pits remained open into the period of the Miners’ Strike (1984-1985).

But at the time Hem Heath, Florence, Holditch, Silverdale and Wolstanton still employed almost 6,000 between them.

I was there on the day that some of them closed but to give me a sense of what life was like for the men who grafted underground I spoke to former miner and local historian Keith Meeson.

Keith, aged 66, who lives in Stanley, founded the Apedale Heritage Centre and has perhaps done more than anyone to keep the memory of North Staffordshire’s mining heritage alive.

He was just 15 when he began work in the lamp house at Holditch Colliery in 1960. Generations of his mother’s family had been miners and his dad worked down the pit for 50 years.

Keith said: “Originally my dad had tried to get me a job as an electrician at Shelton Bar.

“To be honest, he didn’t want his son having to do what he did.

“However, my uncle – Winston Rowley – was the under manager at Holditch and he came for Christmas dinner just after I had left school.

“He asked if I had been fixed up with a job and sort of overruled my dad.”

Soon after Keith began work at Holditch.

He said: “I think it was seeing my dad in his rags and clogs which left a real impression on me. I look back on my time at Holditch with real fondness.

“I also used to sit there in the dark at times and wonder what was going on in the fresh air a mile above us.

“They were great men, the miners. Real working class heroes because it was a dirty, difficult and dangerous job.

“They had their scraps and fall-outs but 10 minutes later they would be the best of friends again. They would do anything for you.

“The only thing I can compare the camaraderie to would be the Army. I would say it was like being in the forces.

“Miners had a very special bond.”

By the time the Eighties drew to a close, only Florence, Hem Heath and Silverdale collieries remained open. Florence merged with Hem Heath in 1990 and the renamed ‘Trentham Superpit’ ceased production in May 1993.

Silverdale was the last to go in 1998, bring the curtain down on a crucial, at times grim, and forever proud chapter in the history of the Potteries.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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