MEMORIES of the mining heydays of the Forest of Dean have been reignited as two deep pits in the North of England are set to close this year.
When “coal was king” around 7,000 men and boys were involved in mining operations across the district and it has been said there were more people working below the ground than there were above before the last deep pit was closed on Christmas Eve in 1965.
And as the Government recently announced the “managed closure” of UK Coal pits in North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, which will result in the loss of 1,300 jobs, Forest historian John Belcher has reflected on his family’s connections with the industry.
“The closure of the last deep pit mine had a terrible impact because we were suddenly without industry and the standard of living went down,” said Mr Beltcher, 72, who is holding an exhibition on mining and the Forest at the Dean Heritage Centre.
Mr Beltcher said his maternal grandfather worked at Foxes Bridge colliery coal mine for 58 years from the age of 12, where he started as a ‘hod boy’ charged with dragging coal out on sleds and he later became a shaft inspector.
Mr Belcher said: “He reckoned it was such a large area underground that he could stand underneath his house and if he could go straight up he would get home for tea much quicker.”
After 50 years, his grandfather Jim Fox was presented with a certificate in recognition of “50 years loyal and efficient service to the mining industry and the country.”
Mr Belcher added: “That is what you got when you finished; a piece of paper and not a pension.
“It was unusual to go on until the age of 70 but he lived until he was 96 and the strange thing was he smoked a pipe all of his life, and he was never without one in his mouth or in his hand.”
Mr Belcher said coal mining was an extremely important industry in the Forest for around 200 years before employees at Northern United worked their last shift in the district of Dean on December 24, 1965.
In the nineteenth century, there were said to be more than 300 workings in the Forest alone and many people also worked digging up iron ore or quarrying stone.
Much of this mineral wealth was brought down on the new railways tracks laid to Lydney Docks where it could be shipped out by the barge-load along the waters of the Severn.
Millions of tons of coal were taken from the ground but the industry came to an end after supplies were close to being exhausted and what was left of the fossil fuel was so difficult to reach and expensive machinery had to be used to extract it.
The Government decided the pits should close if they were not making a profit, which Mr Belcher described as a tragedy and said unemployment hit a 12 per cent low.
The Forest’s last iron mine also closed in 1946.
Mr Belcher added: “Coal was the most important industry in the Forest – everything became coal orientated. The Forest was a very strange place at one time as it was between two rivers with heavy industry in among the trees and we were very insular and inward looking. We didn’t like people from the outside and people from the outside didn’t like us. I think people in Gloucester still think we live in trees now.
“We still have 500 years-worth of coal in Britain but they don’t like it because it is dirty.
“I think the coal industry will be dead in this country in a few years’ time and all of the pits will be gone.”
The Government has recently announced that is loaning UK Coal £10million for the “managed closure” of pits in Kellingley, North Yorkshire, and Thoresby, Nottinghamshire, which are expected to be wound down by next year.