Pride vies with sadness as Britain’s last coal pit closes

By Jill Lawless, AP

LONDON — Once, coal fueled the British Empire, employed armies of men and shook the power of governments.

On Friday, workers at the UK’s last operating deep coal mine finish their final shift. The last haul of coal from the pit is destined for a museum, as a once-mighty industry fades into history.

Defiant to the end, miners at Kellingley Colliery in northern England sang a hit by Tom Jones — the son of a coal miner — as they headed underground for their final shift.

“This is what makes us very special, the mining community,” said Nigel Kemp, who worked at the mine for more than 30 years. “The men have gone down today singing ‘My, my, my, Delilah.’ Every single man on the cage, you could hear them 400 feet down singing. And I do believe they’re going to come out singing as well.”

At its peak in the 1920s, the UK’s mining industry employed more than 1 million people, as coal drove trains, fueled factories and heated homes. After World War II, the country had 750,000 underground miners at almost 1,000 coal pits. But the industry’s days were already numbered.

With gas and nuclear power on the rise, hundreds of coal mines had closed by 1984, when a showdown between the government and miners fixed the industry’s central — and contested — place in the UK’s national mythology.

Thousands of miners went on strike hoping to scuttle Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s plan to shut 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs — and destroy the powerful mining unions, which for years had used their economic clout to extract concessions from British governments.

The bitter, yearlong struggle brought violent picket-line clashes and ended in victory for the government. Since then, changing economic demands and cheap imported coal have all but wiped out the UK’s mining industry.

Britain still gets a fifth of her electricity from coal, though it is giving way to cleaner alternatives. But with coal prices at historic lows, it’s cheaper to import coal from countries including Russia, Colombia and the United States. Critics say those countries often have lower wages and worse safety records than the UK.

The UK still has several open-cast mines as well as a handful of idle pits that could be reopened if needed. But Kellingley, 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of London, was the last deep mine producing coal on a large scale.

Its closure marks the end of a British industry that was dirty and dangerous, but brought pride and purpose to her close-knit communities.