#MondayBlogs Heanor Coalmining Literary Heritage Tour

Narratives of coalmining have tended to focus on the lives of men from the North East, Yorkshire, and Wales. But thanks to the work of Natalie Braber and David Amos, the history of the East Midlands is starting to be recognised. It was through their research that I came across the pit poet Owen Watson, who plied his trade at Heanor.

Heanor colliery started off mining for shallow coal, then when this ran out they sunk bell pits. This was particularly dangerous as coal had to be got out sharpish before the pit sides collapsed. When they needed to go deeper underground, engineering was required. Shafts, horse gins, and other structures were erected, with headgears and engine houses following soon after. Iron and steel industries began to develop to support these needs. Work was plentiful, communities developed, British history was written. But industrial developments were pricey which meant big organisations and wealthy families stepped in and took over during the 19th century. In Heanor, mining operations were dominated by the Butterley Company and the Shipley Collieries.

If we skip forward a century, the Coal Industry (Nationalisation) Act in 1946 established the National Coal Board. This was responsible for underground mining and later, opencast mining. Despite developments in mechanisation and the sinking of new collieries, the industry was doomed, unable to compete with oil, gas and nuclear power. As the Heanor area was a very old coalfield, it wasn’t long before local pits got shafted. New Langley Colliery was closed in 1960 and Ormonde followed on 25 September, 1970 – despite employing 1219 miners in 1963, who collectively were turning out 4200 tonnes a day. With it went a whole way of life, as well as community.

In a recent documentary for BBC Radio 4 called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets, I chatted to Bill Kerry III who has updated Watson’s poem Wheer are t’ gooin’ when Ormonde shuts? into a folk song. The poem was originally published in Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner (1975) and captures the uncertainty and optimism that miners felt as pits closed and they were forced to try and find work elsewhere, as captured in the opening three stanzas below.

Wheer are t’gooin’ when Ormonde shuts?/You hear where e’re you go -/Ah have na’ made me mind up yit!/Ah have na’ exed ah Flo!

Ah’m thinkin’ o’ gooin’ t’ Babbin’ton!/ What abert Moorgreen?/ Ah know they anna’ long t’ goo -/Tha’ knows pal, what ah mean.

It doesna’ matter wheer tha’ goos/Tha’ll ‘ay t’ flit agen/But it tha’ goos a long wee off/What abert your Gwen?”

As a result of the programme Owen Watson has been added to John Goodridge’s database of working class poets. This means his work will be read by future generations. I’m particularly proud of this as there’s no point doing projects unless they have genuine impact. But the real highlight was being contacted by Watson’s grandson Richard Buxton shortly after the broadcast. We met up for a cuppa and he told me more about his talented grandfather.

Watson was a quiet, serious man. Richard was seven when Watson died in 1980 but he had vivid memories of walks with him on a Sunday afternoon around Shipley Park. Watson lived opposite Shipley Park on Roper Avenue in Marlpool. “We used to walk around Osboune’s Pond, up to Mapperley Reservoir then into the woods around the old Shipley Hall, where he would show us the gravestones of the Squire’s dogs buried in what would have been the grounds.  All the while, he would be pointing out different mushrooms and toadstools, what you could eat, and what you couldn’t and asking me to listen to the sounds of the natural world and telling me which bird was responsible for which song. He’d often break off a sprig of Hawthorn and give it me to chew, saying it was better than bread and cheese.”

The love of nature is a familiar theme among miners, presumably because they spent most of their lives in darkness in the bowels of the earth. This is epitomised by the work of DH Lawrence whose novels are crammed with references to nature and names of flowers, many of which he learned through walks with his father who worked at Brinsley Colliery in Eastwood.

These walks clearly had a profound effect on Richard. “I credit him with sparking my interest in the natural world and birds in particular.  I work for the city council but my dream job would be working for a Wildlife Trust or the RSPB.  I’ll always be thankful to him for this. He was a great naturalist and artist and I’m sure that my love of natural history comes from our walks in the countryside at a formative age.  He was an expert at identifying bird song and seemed to me to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world.”

Miners could be a rough lot, but many were incredibly creative too. Art, poetry and music offered an escape from monotonous labour, as well as a means of coping with the constant threat of death. Owen Watson was also a gifted artist and his grandson remembers him helping him draw a picture which was shown on Midlands Today (they used to show artwork that people sent in before the weather forecast).

To celebrate Owen Watson’s life and work there’s a literary walk planned that will start at Eastwood library. On this we’ll be retracing his walk to work and reading his poems along the way. It’s being led by David Amos and will include some of the updated folk songs as well. Please see the mining heritage website for updates or David’s Twitter profile

The walk will start at Eastwood Library, Wellington Pl, Eastwood, Nottingham NG16 3GB. 

Michael Eaton: Streets of Stories

Mick E under Council House IMG_0151

If you’re thinking of embarking on a journalism career to make money, forget it. If you like meeting interesting people, then this is the profession for you. Example. As part of the Festival of Words I did a literary walk around Nottingham with Michael Eaton. We agreed to make it a donation event so that anybody could join in. Our motivation was to share our love of the local literature scene in the hope that people would feel better about their city now that they could point out where Graham Greene once worked as a sub editor. We collected £30 in donations at the end of the two hour trot which went towards a round that came to £27.50. I was amazed that I had £2.50 left over which we could split. Then the Irish coffee turned up for one of our guests and I’d forgot to tell the barman she was allergic to milk. Another was ordered costing £3.75, meaning I was £1.25 down. I didn’t ask Michael for his 62p. As far as literature events go this was a more than reasonable loss. 


Photo: Graham Lester George

What I got out of the walk was the opportunity to spend two hours with Michael Eaton. Michael has a remarkable memory, having researched much of the city and its characters for his plays. An anthropologist at heart he’s fascinated by people. His motivation for writing about Harold Shipman was that they shared similar backgrounds yet had chosen such differing paths. He loves his documents as well, bringing an immaculate copy of William Booth’s In Darkest England along for the journey which he proudly informs was passed down from his grandfather.

Photo: Graham Lester George

Michael is a Dickensian character, large of frame and eccentric in character. He informs that Philip James Bailey’s Festus is the longest poem ever published with more words in it than the Old Testament. He throws his head back for dramatic effect, nearly nutting the person behind him. When this fails to receive a gasp he lowers his head forwards as if the knowledge is weighing him down. Then he bursts into life again, contorting his neck sideways, catching the eye of the woman to his left who he stares at intently until he gets the reaction he believes such facts deserve. Before you can roll a tab he’s singing Billy Merson songs and insisting you join in, jumping around with an ease that is unbefitting of a man his size. And then he’ll turn to the nearest person and take their hand, holding it softly as he imparts more information. You feel slightly embarrassed to be stood in public holding an older man’s hand. And then calm. Like you’ve just been whisked back to childhood and are waiting with a parent for the bus.

Photo: Graham Lester George

Our second festival walk on Wednesday saw 35 people turn up in the freezing cold. I couldn’t believe it. It was a magical walk with punters sharing their own interpretations of folklore as we went along, filling the streets with more stories. I wasn’t surprised at how many were oblivious to the plaques scattered around the city and our rich literary heritage. Nottingham has never been very good at standing up for itself, preferring to concentrate energies on taking others to task. That’s why we decided to do the walk. So that Nottingham could see something else lurking between Primark and the latest Tesco Express.

Byron expert Christy Fearn joined us on the walk. Photo: Graham Lester George

As promised, here’s a suggested reading list for some of the walk.

Langtry’s Emrys Bryson (1982) Portrait of Nottingham

Theatre Royal Billy Merson (1949) The Spaniard that blighted my life

Express Offices Norman Sherry (1989) The Life of Graham Greene Vol 1. 1904 – 1939

Cloughie statue David Peace (2007) The Damned United

Market Square James Walker (2012) Sillitoe Trail and Ann Featherstone (2007) The Journals of Sydney Race, 1892-1900.

Exchange Building Henry Kirke White (1803) Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems

Pelham Street J M Barrie (1911) Peter and Wendy (later changed to Peter Pan)

Pelham Street/Carlton Street Lord Byron (1812) Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

George Street Claire Tomalin (2012) Charles Dickens: A life

Broadway Cinema Nicola Monaghan (2007) The Killing Jar and William Booth (1890) In Darkest England and the Way Out

Stoney Street Jon McGregor (2003) If nobody speaks of remarkable things

St. Mary’s Church (1450) Robin Hood and the Monk

Weekday Cross Mary Howitt (1829) The Spider and the Fly

Middle Pavement Philip James Bailey (1839) Festus