Songs from the pit

Coal mining has provided material for song-writers for centuries. Songs about mining conditions, disasters and the solidarity between miners and their communities have been passed down through the generations. Lots of the Lancashire and Greater Manchester tapes we have been digitising recently have featured memories of working in mines, living in mining communities and protest songs about mining conditions. This blog brings together some of these song and stories to give a sense of what survives of the industry in the region’s sound archives.

Here Ivan Fryman talks about being a singing miner, and sings his song about Bradford Pit in Manchester. Fryman reflects that singing was difficult down the mine, but popular. Miners would swap water in return for songs. Ivan was married to folk singer Dorothy Fryman.

This is Dorothy singing the Lamplighter song – a lullaby for a sleepy baby about the shadows of the pit head machinery. The song brings home the sense of place and community which came from a shared history. These recordings were made by folk music collector Paul Graney, who was friends with the Frymans. Paul recorded lots of their gigs and also invited them around for private singalongs.

Lots of the miners interviewed by Lauren Murphy for the Bradford Pit project in 2015 spoke about the same sense of community, which was later threatened by mine closures and regeneration. This is Raymond Ahern remembering a song sung by the women of Bradford Pit: ‘We are the miners’ girls’.

Harry Boardman, a Manchester folk singer and historian, remembers a song that his mother used to sing about a mother trying to convince her daughter not to marry a collier because of the low wages and danger involved in the job.

The protest song The Plodder Seam was written by Ewan MacColl after the Chanters Colliery explosion in 1957. MacColl wrote many protest songs in support of the National Union of Mineworkers. The song likens the heat at the pit bottom to the fires of hell.

The lower the mine shaft, the hotter the conditions. One anonymous ex-mine manager interviewed by the Bolton Oral History Project remembers men working having to work almost naked on Arley pit such was the heat in the deep mine.

The dangers of work down the mines are spelled out in another recording made by Paul Graney. This is a man talking about the scene he saw while working on the day of the Pretoria Pit disaster at Over Hulton, Lancashire, in 1910. He was working as a drawer (a young man who pulled or pushed the coal from the coal face to the shaft) at the pit bottom.

Independent radio stations around the UK had a scheme where they could share programmes with each other. That’s why there’s a copy of The Hartley Colliery Disaster, produced by Metro Radio in Newcastle in 1981, in the Piccadilly Radio collection at Manchester Central Library.

The programme tells the horrific story of over 200 miners who were trapped and died below New Hartley in Northumberland in 1862.

The Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle was recorded playing the traditional mining song Geordie Black by Stan Mason in Liverpool in 1965. Before the song he tells a joke about Lord Robens, who was chairman of the National Coal Board in the 1960s.

Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart sing Wilkie’s more recent song ‘You won’t get me down your mine’, again recorded by Paul Graney in Manchester. This was written in response to another mining disaster.

Some of the Bolton interviewees born in the early twentieth century started working at the pit brow as young as thirteen, and then as drawers at the pit bottom when they were fourteen. Drawers would get painful wounds (or ‘buttons’) on their backs from the broken timbers on the low roof.

Many older interviewees remember the strikes of 1921 and 1926 which led to incredible hardship in mining communities. Agnes Sutton was a child in Oldham during a three-month coal strike. She remembers going coal picking and her school opened as a school kitchen.

The Working Class Movement Library holds a recording of National Union of Mineworkers meeting about pit closures in 1984 which includes interviews with strikers and their families as well as protest music written in support of the miner’s strike. This is a poem written from the point of view of a miner’s wife, trying to explain to her child why they cannot have an ice cream.

Here is a section of a speech by Arthur Scargill setting out the NUM position on voluntary redundancy and pit closures.

One of the songs sung at the meeting is Casey Jones. It was written by Joe Hill, an American union songwriter. The song depicts Casey Jones, an engine driver who died in a railway accident in 1900, as a scab (strike-breaker) for the railway company. Before the song some strike supporters speak about strike-breakers.

A scab song closer to home is Blackleg Miner, a traditional song again from the North East which was released by Bob Davenport in the 1960s. This is another of Paul Graney’s recordings. He probably recorded it off-air from a radio broadcast from his room in Whalley Range in the 1970s.

Those out raising money for the striking miners in 1984 emphasise how broad the support is for the miners’ struggle, even among those who don’t have much for themselves.

The support for the miners from the black community, and the friendliness of strangers in London to the strike supporters, seem to come as a very welcome surprise to some of the miners.

The last song on the tape sends up the way the middle-class journalists in the media portray the strikers and the police. We don’t know who any of the speakers or singers are on this tape, apart from Arthur Scargill. If you recognise a voice please let us know!

This blog was inspired by the Old King Coal episode of Charles Chilton’s Songs of Protest, broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1977 (which of course Paul Graney taped off the radio!) and Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger’s mining radio ballad The Big Hewer.

It’s really exciting to start to see threads running through the sound collections we are working on from around the region. What’s even more thrilling is wondering what the young musicians we will be working with on the Demo Tapes project will make of the archives. What will today’s protest songs be about? Will they borrow anything from the folk protest movement? We will see – and we will make sure they are added to the archives.

To find out more about coal mining in Lancashire, check out the Lancashire Mining Museum. You can listen to more miners’ stories from Agecroft Colliery at the Working Class Movement Library’s Invisible Histories – Salford’s Working Lives website.

Leave a Reply