West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

A SEAM OF MEMORIES AND PRIDE


by DAVID ROBSON

The following article appeared in the Daily Express newspaper on 16th February 2000 
and is reproduced here with the permission of Mr. David Robson.

This week I went back to the town where I was born for the first time in about 25 years, and not without misgivings. I have had a bellyful of visiting places in the North that have had the guts ripped out of them. Was my hometown another of them?

I don’t know anyone who lives in Pontefract anymore and the bits of news that drifted South from West Yorkshire via the media were rarely good. Of course, my heart had taken a schoolboy leap when a Pontefract born fast bowler had got a game for England, but a few years ago I had seen reports of a survey making it one of the poorest towns in England and, at another time, a graphic showing the extra-high security planned for shops in Market Place - to prevent pillage. You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers, but now the story was that the Prince of Wales colliery was going to shut.

It poured like hell on the way up, but as I turned off the A1 the sun was shining: ‘Pontefract - Historic Market Town’ said the brown heritage sign as you came in. Well, it is historic and there is a market, but that wasn’t the sort of thing anybody seemed to bother about much when I lived there. There was the ruined castle that you saw as you went towards Knottingley, but far more symbolic and important had been the Prince of Wales pit on the road to Castleford with its slagheap and giant winding wheel looming grandly over the park and the racecourse. If Pontefract was anything, it was a mining town.

When I arrived, market day was in full swing. The town was not pedestrianised when I knew it. Now, it is car-free, lively, historic and picturesque. The library has become a good museum. Apparently, 40,000 people visited the castle last year; 40,000 had visited the museum in the past five months.

I ‘walked’ along to where my father had practised as a dentist until he died. What had been his surgery was occupied by some sort of Investment Company. I went to look at the two houses where I had lived. They both, I thought, looked better than they did when we had them. Perhaps it was living in London that did it - there may be bags of money about, but mostly it is congested and difficult and grim in many ways – or it may be having seen too many places in trouble; you only have to go a couple of miles down the road from Pontefract to see pit villages that have been left for dead with the people still in them. Then again, perhaps it was that the air was cleaner. Perhaps it was just nostalgia. In any event, at first glance, Pontefract was a pleasant surprise.

I went for supper to a Chinese restaurant, which had replaced a cafe I used to go to as a kid. I opened the door and was hit by gales of laughter – big tables of people having a whale of a time. Is it always like this? "Well," said the Chinese waitress, with a Yorkshire accent, "it’s Chinese New Year."

The food was excellent. As I was eating, the owner made an announcement: "This is the Year of the Horse. Thank you for coming. The management wish you a happy and prosperous New Year."

It doesn’t look like that from the Prince of Wales pit. In December, owner UK Coal announced that it would close this September. By this month, an independent review had agreed with the company that geological problems meant that massive investment was needed to give the pit a future. Last Friday, there was an advertisement in the Financial Times:

Expressions of interest for Prince of Wales colliery. . .UK Coal is willing to consider approaches from other prospective operators. . . enquiries must be made before March 1, 2002.

There are 450 National Union of Mineworkers members at Prince; in 1992 there were 1,100. I know this because I have it from the horses’ mouths: Tony and Arthur Withington.

The motto of Pontefract is Post Mortem Patris Pro Filio. It dates from the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. Pontefract, a Royalist town, was saying: "After the death of the father, we are for the son."

So it is with the NUM at Prince of Wales and the Withington family. Arthur was branch secretary 1980-1992, then his son Tony took over. Not that Arthur is dead - far from it, he is retired and was sitting across from me, 67-years-old, craggy-faced and handsome in a smart suit, and Tony was with him. Arthur’s father worked at Prince, too. When you meet such men, you understand why a great pit facing closure is peculiarly sad – even long after the shutdowns, the miners’ strike, and the time when miners were national heroes. In a town such as Pontefract, mining was what you did. It was the employment that was available, that was paid OK and that defined you and the community. It was hard work, unhealthy work - although much less unhealthy now with modern safety regulations.

The Withington’s, union men, who had their tussles and disputes, said the National Coal Board, British Coal and even UK Coal (until now) were good employers. "If you were training for a trade, electrician say, there was no better place to train than at the pit," said Arthur, "and us and the employers, we worked together, we co-operated. Even during the strike, and Prince was solid in support, it wasn’t against the Coal Board. For that whole year, I was never stopped once coming to my office at the pit. It was political - against Government closure. I wasn’t always happy with the way it was led. We should have had another ballot. Me and Arthur Scargill weren’t big mates, but the cause was just. We could see what was coming."

When UK Coal announced closure plans, they could not see what was coming. "We were quite shocked, " said Tony, "we had been told there was another six years in this pit. We had been through some bad work, but we were getting to good. Within a couple of months, they would have headed a new face out, which is where they get their money from. Obviously UK Coal, with the difficult financial position they are in, thought they would rather cut their losses than incur the risk. This decision is 10 per cent geology, 90 per cent money, which doesn’t mean to say that, with some assistance and some subsidies, it couldn't be mined."

One cannot help but notice that just down the road at Glass Houghton, a colliery has been flattened and turned into Freeport, the biggest factory outlet in Europe. Soon, there will be a vast Snowbowl with a ski slope where a slagheap used to be - the ultimate in black turning white. With the motorway, proximity to Leeds, and easy access to other major conurbations, Prince is very well located, which is good news for the town, but perhaps not for the pit. "If the pit closes," said Tony, "men will get redundancy on terms much worse than 10 years ago and will go on the dole or get jobs stacking supermarket shelves or driving a bloody forklift truck round a bloody big warehouse on a trading estate, for bad pay."

Another possibility is jobs at Kellingley pit, a few miles away, which is said to have 20 years’ more life. UK Coal presents it as a chance to save 150 jobs. Yet these transfers depend on Kellingley moving from a three-shift to a four-shift system which will make for much more unsociable hours and reduce the Kellingley men’s pay by cutting the opportunity for overtime. "UK Coal could give Kellingley 90-day notices that they are altering terms and conditions," said Tony, "if they come up with financial and organisational reasons why it is necessary."

This may create one of two horrible situations - one where Kellingley men feel bitterly towards Prince men; the other where the company makes the transfers compulsory, offering no choice of redundancy. Thus far, it has handled things in a way that causes maximum anxiety and suspicion.

Arthur Withington, who is 40 per cent disabled by emphysema, remembered what mining was like 50 years ago. "Most of them died early and bad, not able to breathe. My own father lived until 84, but I remember when I was 15 or 16, him leaning out of the bedroom window struggling for breath. Most of my time as branch secretary was spent taking men to Sheffield or Lawnswood for lungs or accidents." But he was quite happy when Tony went into the pit at 17. "It’s not good work," said Tony "but it becomes a way of life. I wouldn’t have objected to my son going into mining if there had been another Plan For Coal, in colliery management or as a surveyor."

But there is no new plan for coal. England is down to 7,000 miners. In 2000, aware of the way the wind was blowing, Tony completed a part-time law degree at Leeds University.

Alison Drake lives a couple of miles away in Castleford. In her house, she has the painted NUM banner from Prince. She is going to get it repaired. "Just look," she said with a tut, "those men have stapled the tears." An ex headmistress, one of a family of 10 who grew up in a two-up two-down, her view of things is that every miner wanted his son to get out of the pit and education was the way. "My father was a shot-firer in a pit. We would push back the clippings rug, sit on the floor, telling stories, learning tables, learning poetry."

She pointed out that on one side of the banner are two miners shaking hands in solidarity across the world; on the other, a miner’s family at home – a mother reading to two children on her knee and her husband reading a newspaper. She is Castleford’s Mistress Heritage, campaigning tirelessly to present the town as a Roman archeological treasure trove. She tried valiantly, but failed, to get a Henry Moore Mother and Child for Castleford when the nation had it to give. Moore was born and schooled in Castleford. All Castleford pits have closed, so it is a cleaner but poorer place finding a new identity. "Walking down Air Street, you used to be confronted with great walls of foam blowing off the canal," she said, (now no more foam but, recently, we had an exhibition of photos of foam). Castleford, said Alison, has a strong sense of community that comes from its mining history.

Jack Kershaw, ex-miner and councillor, said the same about Pontefract. They grew up in mining. Yvette Cooper, health minister and the local MP since 1997, did not grow up in mining, but she has come to appreciate that much of the remarkable strength that has carried these towns through terrible years of the pit strike and closures comes from their mining history and the identity that lives on. They are also decent sized towns – Pontefract’s population is 30,000. "These towns have," she said, "many other things going for them besides mining." But she is working hard with all concerned to get the best results for Prince.

I told Arthur Withington my father had been a dentist in Pontefract. "Oh Robson," he said, "I had all my choppers out with Robson. Funnily enough, I’d never been to the dentist ‘til I was 20 odd. I got hit in the mouth with a cricket ball. I had five out then back for some more until they were all out. When I went to him, he said, ‘Why are you shivering?’ I said because this is my first time at the dentist. I thought you could chop wood on me and it wouldn’t bother me, but he bothered me, he bothered me a lot."

Walking from the colliery into town, I could smell something available nowhere else - Pontefract cakes. Some would say a little goes a long way. I don’t agree. I went into the Haribo factory shop and bought six packets.

David Robson


More from David Robson:

Leo Robson - Pontefract Surgeon and Dentist


 

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