Black History in the Coalfields
In July 1977, a young black man started training at Markham Colliery. We know this because the Markham Manager wrote to the Derbyshire Area Head of Manpower requesting notice if any non-white workers were going to be sent to the colliery. He suggested ‘there are some people who have yet to adopt the Board’s enlightened views on such issues.’
Until recently, there was little historical discussion of non-white miners in Britain, but Norma Gregory has made the experiences of Afro-Caribbean miners more visible. In 2016, she began a project researching Afro-Caribbean miners in Nottinghamshire with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund East Midlands. Gregory’s Nottingham research was so successful that she expanded the project to the rest of the UK.
She has interviewed dozens of black miners, including Lincoln Cole, Ashley Cole’s father, who worked at Gedling colliery. Gedling colliery had a high number of Afro-Carribean miners and its union banner depicted a black miner alongside two white miners.
Digging Deep — the project website — is an important resource for everyone interested in mining history. Norma Gregory has developed an excellent exhibition based on her research, which is currently on display at the National Mining Museum for England.
Norma Gregory’s work on the experiences of Afro-Caribbean British miners offers an opportunity to other British historians of mining. As well as suggesting we should pay more attention to the experiences of miners whose lives have been ignored, there’s also a challenge to think about how her work changes the broader history of mining. Gary Younge has suggested that as well as Black History Month we need a white history month, to understand how structures of racial exclusion were built. As well as looking at black miners’ experiences in Gedling colliery, British mining historians could also explore why so many collieries and coal mining communities remained white in times of mass migration.
Very few Windrush generation migrants initially settled in coalfield communities. One of the reasons that Gedling colliery had a significant black workforce was that it was on the outskirts of Nottingham, which had been a site of Windrush migration. However, explaining the lack of non-white miners through patterns of migration is just another way of restating the question — why didn’t post-war migrants move to the Welsh Valleys and the North East? A part of that answer lies in the history of the post-war mining industry. New migrants tended to settle in areas, where there was booming industry and apart from a brief period of optimism in the 1970s, the coal industry was seen to be in decline from the late 1950s.
Economic explanations are not enough though, particularly as when the coal industry’s fortunes improved, the ethnic make-up of most coal-mining communities did not change. To explain the whiteness of the industry we also need to look at the actions of people and institutions: the NCB, the NUM, other mining unions, management and workers throughout the industry, and mining communities.
Finding sources for this history can be challenging — methods of exclusion can be very public, but they can also be informal and not recorded. Getting black oral history narrators to talk about their experiences mining can be easier than getting white oral history narrators to talk about race. Archival evidence is fragmentary and sometimes frustratingly uninformative. In 1950, the Yorkshire Area of the NUM discussed ‘Employment of Coloured Labour’, but the only information recorded in their minutes was a decision ‘that no action be taken’.
To return to the lone non-white trainee in Markham Colliery in 1977, NCB managers were congratulating themselves on not discriminating ‘on the grounds of colour’ ten years after the Race Relations Act made such discrimination illegal. The initial letter suggested that managers believed that racism was something that existed in their workforce outside of NCB structures. The reply, from the Area head of manpower, provides a different picture: ‘it may be that our present policy of disregarding colour of recruits /transferees is the best in the circumstances. Hopefully, we shall continue to avoid trouble in view of the small numbers involved.’
Both letters were in a file labelled ‘Welfare — not otherwise classified’ alongside discussion of vending machines and the distribution of colliery centenary ties. The filing system itself trivialised the racism black miners faced.
This exchange is very suggestive, if the NCB’s policy was to remain silent around race and rely on non-white workers only applying in very small numbers, then that offers insight into the structures of racial exclusion within the NCB and why those structures can be hard to trace. It also emphasises the importance Norma Gregory’s work as she is undoing that silence.