Participation in local mining communities

Sarah Hughes shares insights from her UEP PhD research in her post, Understanding cultural participation and value in former coalmining communities in and around Barnsley

One of the aims of the Understanding Everyday Participation (UEP) project is to strive towards a more democratic understanding of participation.  We are exploring ways in which decisions about cultural investment are made, and how they relate to particular forms and contexts for governance, nationally and in relation to different local cultural eco-systems in England and Scotland.

The study I am undertaking in Barnsley contributes to the efforts being made through the UEP project to deepen understanding of the nature of cultural participation and value within particular places.  The development of cultural institutions and patterns of cultural participation amongst communities have been contingent upon many different motivations and contexts – social, economic, political, industrial, geographical and temporal – which introduce both complexity and particularity to our cultural ecologies.  An increased understanding of such complexity and particularity will improve understanding of contemporary cultural ecologies and contemporary cultural values, which in turn can inform debates around future cultural policy.

sarah banners IMG_1353I have been undertaking fieldwork within former coalmining communities in and around Barnsley, conducting oral history interviews with local people who have a connection with the mining industry. These interviews have generated narratives of participation and reflections upon the nature of cultural participation and value in these areas.  As would be expected, the narratives of participation generated through the interviews undertaken evoke a rich tapestry of diverse participation practices within the area over the years.  Vivid descriptions emerged of involvements, within the context of family and community networks, in community, union and political volunteering and activism, miners’ galas and demonstrations, local history, playing and appreciating music, gig-going, sport, gardening, allotments, photography, walking, socialising, cinema, dancing, ‘club trips’, geology, gambling, drinking, museum visiting and museum-making and theatre visiting and theatre making…the list seems endless!  Interview participants have given their time generously, welcoming the opportunity to contribute a wealth of memories, stories, experiences, observations, perspectives, ideas and viewpoints to the project, for which I have been extremely grateful. It would be impossible to cover the vast array of topics discussed here, so I will introduce just a small number of themes emerging from the interviews.

Family, friendship and community ties and support networks featured significantly and appeared to underpin a range of participation practices.  Activism in relation to concepts such as community, collectivism, equality and fairness also emerged as of significance.  One interviewee, Peter Steadman, describing his involvement with the Dearne Miners’ Welfare Scheme, emphasised how the Scheme’s aims and objectives,

about community cohesion, about looking after each other, about caring for each other,

resonated with him over the years.  Another interviewee, J.H. (Inky) Thomson, discussing his involvement with the same scheme, highlighted how, within the Miners’ Welfare Scheme,

the people with the experience help the inexperienced.

sarah 004 landscape cropped (2)Participants frequently made the connection between the dependence upon others when underground, which was characteristic of the coalmining industry and a focus on a collective approach ‘above ground’.  They described how the pit was a place of learning where experienced workers passed on skills and knowledge in relation to their work in the colliery, but also in a wider sense in relation to ideas, institutions and practices.  Furthermore they highlighted the role the National Union of Mineworkers, spoken of as ‘a collective’, has played in relation to education in coalmining communities, enabling its members to progress educationally and politically.  Raymond Williams, of course, in discussing the term ‘culture’, highlighted the significance of ‘the basic collective idea and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from this.’[1]

Interviewees described the passing on, from one generation to another, of ideas, knowledge and a sense of history, and the impact of these interactions upon their own participation and their aims for the future.  Interviewee Barrie Almond stipulated,

“Unity is Strength”, all them expressions on these banners about what our grandfathers and our fathers did in their generation, and how my dad used to say “We had to fight for every yard”, that counts for something for me.

In relation to his own active involvement in the Worsbrough Industrial and Social History Group, he added, ‘We want to educate and inform people about that.’  Another participant, Paul Darlow, said,

If you were a miner in the Dearne Valley, or Barnsley, or Dodworth, and you died in 1980 and you came back [it’d be] “Good grief, where’s the pits gone?”…But we’ve got to have that memory, because the government wants us to erase all that.

He added,

You’ve got to fight for a consciousness about what’s happened in the past, because all history is subjective isn’t it?

Interviewees described their deep connections to the natural environment linked to the geography of the industry in the area, the nature of the work underground and some of the economic realities of the industry.  Interviewee Mel Dyke recalled,

my dad used to say, Sunday morning, he’d walk further than he’d crawled underground all week if he could, and that’s when my love of walking developed.  We walked.

Neil Hardman remembered that at

the start of the strike, we’d three kids under two, so things were hard.  But we went in the countryside…we took the kids out every day.

The people I interviewed had strong ideas about what culture means to them, whilst recognising the diverse interpretations of the term.  Worsbrough Industrial and Social History Group member Ian Paisley said,

you tend to look at culture as the arts and things like that, but I look at it as a sense of belonging as well and some identification with where you live and what it’s about.

He concluded,

I look at culture and there were brass bands which were prominent, and you’d get a miners’ gala and other events and that gave you a real sense of pride in a way.  Maybe at that time you didn’t know necessarily why…It’s a feeling…of help, and self-help, we helped ourselves, but we helped one another as well.

sarah town hallWith regard to public cultural policy and funding, some of the people I interviewed felt remote from, and questioned, the decision making processes.  Julie Medlam, Theatre Manager at the Dearne Playhouse, based in the old Miners’ Welfare Hall at Goldthorpe, commented,

There’s a core group of people who make decisions on where the funding goes, there has to be, but that group of people are not a cross-section of people.

Raymond Williams wrote, over half a century ago in Culture and Society,

A good community, a living culture, will…not only make room for but actively encourage all and any who can contribute to the advance in consciousness which is the common need…Wherever we have started from, we need to listen to others who started from a different position.  We need to consider every attachment, every value, with our whole attention; for we do not know the future, we can never be certain of what may enrich it.[2]

The study I am undertaking in Barnsley responds to Williams’ call to action, and aims to contribute to the efforts being made through the UEP project to deepen understanding of the attachments and values of everyday participation.

[1] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950, Penguin Books, London, 1961 (first published 1958) p. 314

[2] Williams, Culture and Society, p. 320

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