LAST Thursday marked the 30th annual miners’ reunion in Grimethorpe, which commemorated the anniversary of the village colliery’s life-changing closure. Deputy editor Josh Timlin spoke to its organiser and ex-miner, Johnny Wood, and stalwart Elsie Smith, about why hundreds of people still congregate before Christmas to mark an event which wreaked havoc in the community and changed many lives as a result.
When you think of proud, working-class villages in Barnsley which are dominated by stellar, down-to-earth people, Grimethorpe’s absolutely always at the top.
A lot of it stems from its hard-working history; one of dirty-faced strongmen who put in long, torturous shifts hundreds of metres underground in order to fuel the nation but - mainly - to provide for their families.
While the smog and smoke and soot were part and parcel of village life back then - with housewives famously recalling having to wipe their washing lines clean so the film of dust didn’t draw a line on their freshly-washed clothes - it was a prosperous, happy place and one that revelled in high employment rates and little in the way of crime.
Who, after all, would mess with the hard men of Grimethorpe, the ones who risked their lives underground most days of the week? A tough community, one that wasn’t - and still isn’t - to be messed with.
It was a win-win for all who lived there back then, despite the tough conditions the men faced, as it was a safe haven for everyone associated with it.
But unfairly it was Grimethorpe, which just so happened to possess one of the deepest pits in Britain, that was hit harder than arguably any other when it closed and a staggering 44 per cent of its residents lost their jobs at the flick of a Conservative-led government’s switch.
Its happiness, its flourishing employment and admirable crime rates - or there lack of - all saw a U-turn and it descended into chaos from that point on when the decision was made, 200 miles down the M1.
It was even ranked as the country’s poorest village in 1994 - less than 12 months after an estimated 6,000 workers lost their jobs - which truly showed its remarkable fall from grace, seemingly through no fault of its own.
Grimethorpe and its blue-collar residents haven’t and won’t ever forgive the heinous powers that were who signed off its demise, and rightfully so.
They never will, either, and that too is absolutely justified given what happened - a ‘community’s heart’s being ripped out’ is a well-versed phrase but it’s one that’s absolutely justified for Grimethorpe and nobody could argue against it.
Its fortunes remained bleak for the forthcoming years, too; unemployment was regularly above 50 per cent for much of the 1990s and although several regeneration projects have taken place since - to the tune of £100m, according to Barnsley Council - some say it’s never been the same and probably never will be given so much of its success was based on coal mining.
What could possibly step in to replace it? Nothing, perhaps, but it’s its people who - no matter what - always rose to the top due to their never-say-die spirit and as a former reporter for that patch who’s made life-long friends as a result, I can absolutely testify to that.
“Grimethorpe’s a place that’s full of salt-of-the-earth types,” Johnny said. “The impact the closure had was far-reaching, long-lasting and it ripped the heart out of a proud community, there’s no two ways about that.
“But it’s a huge part of the village’s history and always will be - most residents, even in nearby Cudworth, Shafton and Brierley, know someone who worked down the pit and that’s why it’s so important to remember for future generations.
“This is our heritage and we’re proud of our hard-working roots - that could be seen last Thursday when all those people attended the annual reunion.
“They do it, year after year, because it means so much.”
Let’s not forget this small Barnsley village’s power, though: Grimethorpe Colliery was one of Britain’s most productive coal mines, bringing a million tonnes to the surface each year in its heyday.
Its ‘black gold’ fuelled power stations, factories, trains and even the boilers at Buckingham Palace.
But then the decline: a fast, unstoppable freefall - a break-neck speed plummet way beneath the depths of the mine - when the government announced its intention to close pits.
Thatcher’s programme of pit closures was not motivated by any far-sighted recognition of the dangers of fossil fuel to the environment as it would be now, but the objective was to weaken the ever-growing trade unions and their power - that she described as the ‘enemy within’ - and which she regarded as a barrier to her ‘national recovery’.
The warped view was that the economic turmoil encountered during the 1970s could only be overcome and profits subsequently revived by reducing unions’ ability to prevent pay-related strikes, but Grimethorpe - and countless other mining communities - were left to pick up the pieces.
Some would argue they’ve never quite recovered, but residents - who have remained - have not had their spirit tainted even after decades and that is what rings true when you speak to anyone from Grimethorpe or its counterparts.
At St Luke’s Church - where the miners gathered as proud tradition now dictates - two memorials stand. They’re side-by-side and they’re a reminder of the harsh realities of colliery life as so many people died whilst working.
Elsie Smith, who moved to the village from Sunderland in 1963 to be with her miner husband Bryan - who was the former principal horn with the world-famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band before his death in 2009 - said the pit way of life was a good one, despite the tribulations that followed.
The band - now in its centenary year - was given an added dose of prominence thanks to the hit film Brassed Off, which depicted its ups and downs following the village pit’s closure.
“Grimethorpe continues to be - despite everything - what it was in its heyday and that’s a fantastic community with people who will do everything for anyone,” Elsie added.
“We built a happy life here and had two children, Keith and Kim, and I’m still in the village now as it’s my home.
“Everybody we knew worked at the pit back then, it was everyone’s way of life.
“But when it closed I remember us living off £7.13 a week for a year.
“It was really hard, yet the people who stayed pulled together and I wouldn’t change this place for the world, as what we went through epitomises the village’s unbreakable spirit.
“That’s still true to this day, decades later - just last week we heard about someone who was homeless in the village and so many people offered help.
“It’s just how the people who live here are - they will help everyone, despite what their families and the generations before went through.”
A place such as Grimethorpe - which has been through more than its share of turmoil than most of its Barnsley neigbhbours - should be a broken village but it is most definitely not.
It’s a settlement whose stalwarts are loyal and that deserves celebrating, especially on such a poignant anniversary as the colliery closing’s 30th.
Grimethorpe’s spirit - despite being put to the absolute test through no fault of its own - lives on and then some.