What happened to the hundreds who worked at Littleton colliery after the pit closed in 1993? Chris Arnot gets a preview of a new exhibition featuring photographs of and interviews with its former coal miners
An ice-cream van is an odd platform for a political diatribe, and Mr Softee is an unlikely name for former union hardman Sean Farrell to travel under. But needs must. He was in his late 20s in 1993 when Littleton Colliery closed down, putting him and more than 600 colleagues out of work. It was the last deep mine in the Cannock area of Staffordshire, and Farrell had to earn a living somehow. Getting a job in a local factory was not easy after being branded as “Young Scargill” during the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s.
On a hot summer’s day, selling cornets outside a garden centre must seem infinitely preferable to “crawling around coal faces”, as Farrell puts it. His gleaming white overall is almost confirmation of the point – a telling contrast with the state of his clothes when he emerged from working underground. “But I don’t regret having been down the pit,” he says, forcibly. “You couldn’t put a price on the time we spent together fighting against the forces of individualism and greed.”
Farrell, now 44, is one of the former miners featured in Littleton, an exhibition of photographs and extensive interviews that opens at Wolverhampton’s Light House media centre on Friday and moves to the National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in the new year. Watching him serve an Asian family with warmth and courtesy, it comes as a surprise to hear that he briefly became a football hooligan after the strike, when his bitterness against the police was still burning. “They’d already criminalised thousands of us,” he claims, “as the instruments of a political decision to get rid of the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers]”.
He was an unusual member of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Yam-Yam Army, insofar as he carried the Guardian to away matches and travelled first class on the train if he could get away with it. On one trip to London, he found himself sitting opposite Norman Fowler, still a Conservative cabinet member at the time. Before they had reached Euston, three businessmen had given Farrell a points decision over Fowler in the resulting lively discussion, and three Yam-Yam “soldiers” who had wandered through from standard class, had been reduced to slack-jawed astonishment. “They didn’t know that the union had given me a good political and economic education on day-release at Keele University,” Young Scargill recalls.
He pauses to receive a framed photo of himself from the man behind the Littleton exhibition, photographer Luke Unsworth, who he rewards with a double 99 smothered in raspberry sauce.
Unsworth, 37, the son of a local GP, lived in Cannock until he was 10. It was very much a mining area at the time, but the local pits all closed down in the 12 years after he left, making more than 2,000 men unemployed. “I remember hearing about the Littleton closure when I was away at college,” Unsworth says. “So I came back and took some pictures on the last day.”
They look particularly evocative for being in black and white. Most evocative of all, perhaps, are shots of the detritus of working lives brought summarily to an end. A small pile of working clothes, including pit boots and a helmet, lies abandoned on the locker-room floor. “Turn shower off after use,” says a sign on soot-streaked tiles.
“Within two months the whole place had been flattened,” says Unsworth, who went back recently, with Arts Council funding, to find out what happened to those men and to photograph some of them in colour. Three are running successful businesses, but most have jobs that pay lower wages than they earned at the pit. Some are retired through age, others through incapacity brought about by the pressures of digging for coal in difficult conditions.
Chris Lilburn, 47, hasn’t worked much since 1989, when, still a young man, he had to leave the pit because of a severe spinal condition. He lives close to his former place of employment, in a council house that he shares with his wife Sheena, who is a barmaid at the Littleton Arms, two of his four children, a Bedlington whippet, and two Harris hawks.
Scanning the skies for birds was always a traditional weekend pastime for men whose working horizons were cramped and dark. But these brooding raptors are rather more exotic than the average racing pigeon. They look as though they would be more at home perched on a cactus on the Texas-Mexico border than in a small back garden in Staffordshire. Lilburn feeds them a couple of dead chicks, which look horribly like gassed pit canaries, and says: “I fly hawks as a hobby to keep my mind occupied. My dad kept pigeons. He came down here from Blyth in Northumberland, back in the 60s. Other lads came from Scotland when their pits were worked out.” He points to a nearby former National Coal Board estate where the roads have Scottish names.
These were economic migrants who had “got on their bikes” to look for work. But in the end, they and their sons ran out of cycle track. Miners in the Midlands were better placed than most to find alternative employment when the pits closed. Indeed, some former Littleton employees found jobs in the drop forging factories of the Black Country until they, too, started to close down.
On the way back from Lilburn’s house, we pass the site of the old pit, now a new estate called Littleton Green, made up of starter homes on roads with names such as Colliers Way. Further on, Unsworth struggles to locate the former miners’ club because the building is obscured by an Asda hypermarket. “Doing this 15 years after the closure,” he muses, “means that enough time has elapsed to get some perspective.”
Buggering up the planet
One example comes on the DVD that goes with the exhibition, which has Farrell reflecting on the role of fossil fuels in “buggering up the planet”. When I put this to him at the ice-cream van, he says: “There has never been the political will to back the technology that could make coal clean.
“Remember, too, that we don’t really know yet what the legacy of nuclear power will be,” he adds, before ripping off a piece of kitchen roll and wiping down the counter for the umpteenth time with antibacterial cleaner.