Our Forgotten Miners
Raymond Davis puts his drill on the ground, wipes his brow and sighs.
“I’m too old for this,” says the 55-year-old miner. He may be laughing, but there’s also an air of desperation in his voice.
For a handful of men in the Welsh valleys, daily life consists of gruelling eight-hour shifts drilling for coal.
They are Britain’s forgotten miners.
Each day at Johnson Mine they walk 340 metres into the side of a South Wales mountain to earn their wages.
Armed with hydraulic drills, they work in pairs, hacking away at the coalface in the pitch-black. Thick coal dust makes breathing difficult and water from the ground above drips on to them.
Most people believed this type of work disappeared when the industry was destroyed by the Tories in the 1980s – but it took tragedy last month to remind them that it hadn’t.
Back in the 1970s there were more than 130 mines in Wales. The Johnson pit – located on the outskirts of Blaenavon, a World Heritage site – is now one of just three small mines left.
One of the others is Gleision Colliery, where four men died last month. Phillip Hill, 45, Garry Jenkins, 39, David Powell, 50, and Charles Breslin, 62, perished when water engulfed their drift mine. And last week Gerry Gibson, 49, died at the Kellingley Colliery in North Yorks.
Investigations are continuing into the tragedies and, understandably, the 10 men working at Johnson do not want to talk about them. But they are all too aware of the risks, and so are their families.
Their walk to work is an eerie trudge through a narrow entrance and down a muddy passage into the darkness.
Armed with helmets, head-torches and an emergency gas alarm, we slowly inch our way along the tunnel.
Water drips from the ceiling and forms giant puddles on the ground, making progress even more difficult.
Eventually we come to the coalface itself. Ray and his colleague Shane Hawkins are drilling – and the noise is incredible.
Shane, 46, says: “It’s hard, there’s no doubt about it. This is about as hard as it gets, but we’ve got to earn a living. I don’t like being down here, anyone that says they do is a liar. I can’t carry on doing it much longer.”
Raymond adds: “I wake up in the morning and hate thinking I’ve got to go underground all day.
“We do eight hours a day down here, with two half-hour breaks. Most people haven’t got a clue how hard that is. But I’ve been doing it all my life. I don’t know what else to do, so I’ll carry on doing it.”
Ged Mason, 70, the manager, has spent 55 years working in the industry.
He says: “This mine closed in 1996 because the price of coal went down to £18 a tonne. It was not worth going down the mine for that price. But now the price has rocketed and it’s profitable again.
“It is now more than £50 a tonne There are 12 million tonnes of coal in the mountain – it’s our job to get it out.
“At the moment we are driving the road into the hillside to get to where the coal is proper. Once that is done we will put machines in, so our men will not be risking themselves at the face.
“It’s tough work, and of course there are risks, but it has to be done.
“I don’t know what happened at Gleision, nobody does yet, so I can’t talk about what set-up they had there.
“All I can say is that our mine is safe and we comply with all the mining regulations. We go by the book here.
“In about six months we will be producing 200 tonnes of coal a day, 1,000 tonnes of coal a week.
“The dash for coal is back on now and there is 300 years’ worth of coal still to be mined in Wales alone.”
At one point nearly every man living in the area was a miner, as was his father and his grandfather before him.
But the biggest problem facing Ged is hiring young miners. “The average age of our miners is 55, so if we don’t get young guys into the industry then mining will simply cease to exist,” he says.
“We can’t get the men, as crazy as that sounds considering the unemployment rate in South Wales.
“Those that used to mine years ago don’t want to go back down there, and the youngsters aren’t interested.
“We advertised a few years ago for apprentice miners and we didn’t get one person to work here. A few came for interviews, had a look round and said, ‘No thanks, I’ll keep getting the dole’.
“A trained-up miner here earns £450-a-week plus bonuses, yet still we can’t get people to work for us.”
Some locals blame years of unemployment in the area for the lack of miners coming through the ranks.
One retired miner, who did not want to be named, says: “Previous governments have made it too easy for people to sit at home and claim their benefits.
“Why go down a mine when you can stay in and get paid decent money for doing nothing? I remember when there was a stigma to being unemployed. Now there are generations of people on the dole or on the sick. Parents are on the dole and now their children are following suit.
“I’m not knocking South Wales but there are whole families in the area who have never done a day’s work in their lives.
“That’s what mines are up against. They have to find a way to get young people interested in learning a trade, specifically mining. I’m sure it will change, hopefully government will make it harder to claim benefits. I’m confident young lads will eventually go back down the mines, or better still re-open old mines and make decent money.”
But will the Gleision tragedy make it even harder to recruit young miners?
“You don’t talk about the dangers, it just goes without saying,” says one Johnson miner. “When generations have done the same there’s nothing to talk about.
“I don’t talk to my wife about what she’d do if I went to work and something bad happened and I didn’t come home again – you just don’t do that.
“We know it’s a dangerous job, that’s why there are rules and regulations, to make sure it’s as safe as it can be. But you can’t spend your life worrying about it, you have to trust the men you work with and the company you work for.
“Johnson is as safe as it gets, there’s no doubt about that, and the inspectors must agree otherwise we’d be shut down.”
The future for mining in South Wales remains as uncertain as it has ever been, even with demand soaring.
Ged says: “It’s a dying art and that’s sad. It gave me a good living and still gives me a good living. It’s been a privilege and it’s still a privilege.
“Mining is like rugby, it gets in your bones and you can’t get it out. The trouble is, I knew when to stop playing rugby. I don’t know when to stop mining.”
If you think you suffer from work related Deafness due to working in the mining, engineering, steel, textile and construction industries, you are welcome to contact us now on 0800 612 3152 for a free hearing test & advice.