Where mining died, without drama...

Former Cortonwood Colliery site
Former Cortonwood Colliery site

Today it’s hard to imagine the life that once teemed around these sites.

Offices, workshops, stores, baths and pit canteens kept them alive 24 hours a day with people, noise and work.

Now 30 years on, silence.

A silence that these stunning photographs by Andrew Foley seem to conjure up with their harsh, unblinking realism.

All that can be heard now is the wind in the grass and the distant drone of cars and clash of supermarket trolleys at Cortonwood near Brampton Bierlow where the year-long miners’ strike began on March 5, 1984, over the threatened closure of the colliery.

History tells us that the miners lost their battle against a Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative government determined to avenge defeats suffered at the hands of the pit workers in strikes in 1972 and 1974 – a Government happy to use the police as a paramilitary force to win the clash of political ideologies that caused the biggest single episode of British social upheaval since World War II.

Now in the places where generations of men and women once made their living from coal there are housing estates, industrial units, public spaces, derelict wasteland and community facilities.

Traces of the area’s mining heritage are often reduced to concrete shaft-caps and ventilation pipes. So why take the pictures now?

“I have an affinity with the subject,” said photographer Andrew, aged 45, of Mexborough.

“My grandfather spent all his working life underground and I have always lived in a mining community, close to where the strike started. I remain constantly aware of how evidence of Britain’s heavy industry has steadily diminished, to the point where once-thriving workplaces now offer little acknowledgement of their past.

“I started the project in 2007 and some of the areas have changed again in that time. Indeed, the landscape is in a constant state of flux.

“I didn’t want the project to be a history the miners’ strike. This work is about the legacy of that time, using the dispute as a reference point to reflect how things have changed.

“Photographers have a duty to document the times they live in. Hopefully, the project will preserve the here and now.

“It would be interesting to revisit the sites in another 30 years to see how they have developed again.

“The pictures are quiet. But so are the locations they came from. I was struck by the contrast between the current docile nature of these places and the hives of activity they once were.

“I wanted to reject any pictorial drama. I didn’t want thunderous skies emitting shafts of light. There’s no drama left in these sites. They are subdued and I wanted the images to reflect that.”

“The concrete shaft-caps are like tombstones, a memorial to the spot where Britain’s energy was hauled from the earth. Other images are of mundane, almost inconsequential, scenes. But the mundane often carries its own fascination. I wanted to work on overcast days, when there was just a hint of detail on the sky. That’s very descriptive light, capable of holding a lot of information.

“For some of the sites, I knew where the pit had been. Others were more difficult to locate, especially when new road layouts and buildings had dramatically changed the topography.

“But if I stood and waited, I would often be passed by a middle-aged man, usually walking a dog, who could tell me exactly where the pit had been – the colliery yard, winding gear, offices, canteen and baths.

“If he hadn’t worked there, his father had, or his brother, or his uncle. These meetings emphasised the social importance of the mining industry at that time. Life revolved around the pits. That structure was swept away very quickly and hasn’t been replaced.”

Andrew is former chairman of GAMMA Photoforum and an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society who has lectured to photographic organisations throughout the country.

“In less than 30 years, evidence from more than a century of coal production has virtually gone,” added Andrew.

“It’s almost as though these former mining sites only contain the ghosts of hundreds of people, who went there every day, often for their entire working lives.

“I felt it necessary to include an image from Orgreave. There was no colliery there at the time of the strike, however the events surrounding the coking plant are so deep in the imagery of that time.

“All any photographer can do is respond to what is in front of them,” he added.

“You are presented with information and have to interpret it. The pictures were obvious in most instances and I made very few images. The project was shot on film and printed in a traditional darkroom.

“Digital photography has made tremendous strides but this work suited the heritage and approach of film.”

Andrew Foley’s Coal Fields: A Legacy Of The Miners’ Strike exhibition is at The Civic, Hanson Street, Barnsley from September 11 to November 23, Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm.

Chance to view the battle of Orgreave

Visitors to the Barnsley exhibition will also be able to view:

* Mike Figgis’ 2001 documentary about Jeremy Deller’s ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ – a re-enactment of the confrontation between striking miners and police at Orgreave Coking Plant on June 18 1984. For Turner Prize-winning artist Deller, the miners’ strike, and specifically the clash at Orgreave, resembled the events of a civil war, medieval in their physical and social brutality.

* A display of NUM banners, which depicted the history and politics of collieries and were a huge source of pride for NUM members. As well as at gala’s and rallies, banners were also prominently used during protest marches, including during the 1984-85 strike against pit closures. August 27 to September 6.

* Pit Profiles: Re-Profiled. Inspired by H Andrew Freeth (1912–1986,) who travelled the coalfields drawing portraits of working miners, internationally-recognised photographer Anton Want created a modern-day ‘Pit Profile’ series at Kellingley Colliery, North Yorkshire. Like the original series, his portraits and interviews offer an intimate portrayal of working colliery life, but in the 21st century. September 6 to October 31.

Pit talk

* 282 collieries across the UK in 1984

* 35 collieries across the UK in 2013

* 195,500 workers employed by the UK coal industry in 1984

* 4,500 workers employed by the UK coal industry in 2013

* 105 million tonnes of coal produced by the UK in 1984

* 15 million tonnes of coal produced by the UK in 2013

* 44 collieries in the Barnsley, Doncaster and South Yorkshire Coal Fields in 1983-84

* 1 colliery in the Barnsley, Doncaster and South Yorkshire Coal Fields in 2013

* 40,500 workers employed in the Barnsley, Doncaster and South Yorkshire Coal Fields in 1984

* 600 workers employed in the Barnsley, Doncaster and South Yorkshire Coal Fields in 2013

Figures: National Mining Museum/The Coal Authority/CoalPro