Grimethorpe: The defiant pit community that united in wake of miners strike

  • Reporting by Michael Billington

Shortly after its colliery closed in 1993, Grimethorpe was dubbed Britain's poorest village.

Twelve years earlier, the census recorded that 44% of all workers in the South Yorkshire village were employed in the pits.

Many of them walked out during the ultimately futile strikes of 1984-5.

Like so many other working class communities, when the colliery closed, depriving it of the industry on which it once relied, Grimethorpe entered a predictable period of decline.

For much of the 1990s unemployment was above 50%. Crime spiralled. Housing estates were over-run with drugs.

Millions of pounds of investment - and the opening of factories and distribution centres around the former pit site - followed.

But the legacy of the failed battle to save the pits endures.

Grimethorpe still has fewer people in work, more deprived households and more people suffering ill-health than the national average.

Cllr Sir Steve Houghton, the leader of Barnsley Council, said: "The job’s not done. Let’s not sit here and say the problems have been solved. There are still significant challenges so we’re not complacent."

At its height Grimethorpe Colliery supported 6,000 jobs.

At its height, Grimethorpe's colliery had been the most productive in Europe, bringing a million tons of coal to the surface each year.

The pit and its related industries employed 6,000 workers.

When the Conservative government announced a raft of closures and miners went on strike, the community, and many others like it, was plunged into poverty and despair.

But in adversity there were stories of grit which shaped the attitudes of families for generations. Julie Lindley was among the women who dug in, literally, to keep the home fires burning.

Julie, now 66, said: "Every day, seven days a week, on [the] coal stack, there were quite a few of us from Grimethorpe. We used to go with a shovel and a riddle, sacks, I started off with just a pushbike, [pick up] two sacks of coal, pushed it home, and then sometimes the police would come and shoo us off, not in a nice way, but there you go.

"But [you] brush yourself off and start again, and that’s how it was for a year.”

Julie Lindley

Today all that is left of Grimethorpe Colliery is its brass band, set up in 1917.

The newly-formed junior band meets once a week to create opportunities for a new generation of players.

Band member, 11-year-old Amelia Cusworth, said being part of the band was "amazing" and she enjoyed "the social side".

Fellow band member Rufus Raddings, also 11, plays the cornet and said being in the band had given him "confidence".

Band manager Richard Windle said: "Over the last couple of decades, music in schools has become more and more challenging for those that come from more deprived areas. We don’t think it should be just those that can afford to have lessons that receive lessons, so we’re committed to providing everything for free."

The band's survival is symbolic of the community's resilience.

Danny Gillespie, who worked in the pit for than 30 years, said the government had "destroyed" the village but it had bounced back "because of the community and the people".

The brass band is all that remains of the colliery. Credit: ITV News

He said: "I wouldn’t live anywhere else, I could go anywhere I wanted, but I’d sooner live here."

Although the events of the past have left their scars, there remains hope for the future and a new perspective for many people living in Grimethorpe.

Mr Gillespie said: "We’re living longer. We wouldn’t have lived this long, I’m 80 years old now. We wouldn’t have lived this long if we’d had to stop down that pit all that time, but not only that, it saved young people having to go and work down that horrible horrible pit.

"So Maggie Thatcher, did she do us a favour, or did she not do us a favour? It’s swings and roundabouts. I’ve sort of matured now and mellowed.

"Life goes on, you can’t bear a grudge forever and a ruddy day.”

Cllr Houghton said:" I think this community can be really proud that not only did it deal with the strike, did it deal with the pit closures, but it’s given itself a future as well.”

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