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The generation gap over Black Country heritage

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 24, 2014

By Ian Henery, Mayor of Walsall's Poet Laureate and Poet in Residence at St Matthew's, Walsall

  • Ian Henery's Grandpa, George Henery - coal miner and trade union leader

  • Bottom of the Mine Shaft drawing supplied by Paul Line of Mapseeker Archive Publishing

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HE sat in his chair, immaculate in his waistcoat, collar and tie, dozing by his coal fire. Now that his remaining life was spent on the earth's surface, where he could be seen in the daylight rather than a miner's lamp, he wanted to look his best: even if it was in his armchair in his little kitchen as his wife bustled around (also in her best) fixing up lunch.

This had been his reason for the years of hard graft since he was a boy: to look prosperous and successful – and his wife also – out of a deep sense of working class pride. Coal dust stained his hands and face with a blue tinge, even though he had been retired for a number of years.

Brass ornaments were arrayed around the open coal fire and pictures of Durham Cathedral because he liked to remind everybody that "the family had only come south because County Durham was exhausted."

This cantankerous old miner and his matronly wife still spoke with a Durham accent.

His father had raised him single-handedly after his wife had mysteriously vanished ("the family secret" – never to be talked about) following a mining accident which left him with just one leg. He never worked again and despite the colourful stories of how "Grandfather Bob" had fallen asleep on the coal embers in a drunken haze and burning away half of his face and scalp, it was clear that there was a deep underlying sadness.

And not just from the perpetual pain his father (Grandfather Bob) was in from the burns caused from falling asleep on a coal fire and doused in alcohol to help him forget. It also explained why this old miner dozing by the fire was teetotal and worked so hard because the family had been reliant on charity and handouts in the years before the Welfare State.

He regularly coughed up "the black dust" that had clogged up his lungs during a lifetime spent working underground. He never talked about his parents, his feelings or his life. Conversation was limited to:

(a) The black dust.

(b) His knees (he had difficulty walking because of the years crawling around on the floor of a coal mine).

(c) The aches and pains in his body as a result of being buried alive twice miles underground. He would state it as a matter of fact, without any embellishment and then refuse to talk about it.

This would have been the fate of his three grandsons if their two fathers had not broken family tradition and got jobs outside the colliery. The eldest joined the RAF as a mechanic and found postings far away in Europe (poignant because his former classmates died in one of the regular mining disasters underground) and the other got a job in the library service. The name of this old miner was George Ernest Henery and he had been a trade union leader in the National Union of Mineworkers. He adored his wife, his allotment and guinea pig (also called George, like his youngest son) and he was my Grandpa.

I did not understand him because he seemed self-involved, distant, cold – and because I was neither vegetables in his allotment, guinea pig nor my Grandma, and I did not feature anywhere on his radar.

In reality he was probably in a lot of pain and emotionally crippled as a result of his dysfunctional childhood. The love of his wife was what probably got him through days deep down dark mines with the agony in his soul darker still and love for his two sons brighter than any candle - whenever he saw them. Because he worked long, dirty hours and his spare time was spent trying to better himself as a union leader. It was all in an attempt to improve his family and make them proud, to buy his wife lovely things and treat her as a princess – so the family would never again have to depend on charity.

And anyway, what did I know about coal mines? Nothing. It was the 1970s and the age of Glam Rock. What did he know about bands like T Rex? Slade? The Sweet? Wizzard? Bay City Rollers? Nothing. In short, I thought he was a miserable old man.

I had to re-evaluate George Ernest Henery after his death and the first time I went into the coal mine at the Black Country Living Museum – and they turned the lights out. I had never known such perpetual darkness.

I imagined that this was my destiny from 8 years old when I was old enough to lead a pit pony down a mine shaft and words like "clean clothes", "hot water" and "education" were words in a foreign language. This explains the "Black" in "Black Country". The coal mining industry, which goes back to the Middle Ages, played an important part in the history of the Black Country and was the basis for the area's industrial development on the South Staffordshire Coal Seam, which was 30 feet thick and the thickest in the country. Coal provided the power for industry. There were at least 600 small pits similar to the Racecourse Colliery at the Black Country Living Museum in the Back Country. The canals and railways followed for mineral exploitation.

Black Country publishers Mapseekers (www.mapseeker.co.uk) have an eyewitness account of coal mining in the Black Country in their latest book, Wildfire Through Staffordshire.

"Thousands of acres have been upturned and the contents of solid rock and earth taken away. The hills have been excavated for the iron and limestone which they contained and the valleys filled up with the refuse of coal, clay, slate and stone. Huge mounds of slag or cinder now form dark artificial hills that blend into this blackened landscape. The people, instead of enjoying the variegated scenery of nature on the surface of the earth, have been engaged in exploring its bowels by the dim light of the torch and candle. They have been working like Vulcans in a volcano or winding like ghosts in the regions of Hades."

The book, Wildfire Through Staffordshire, gives us an insight into the lives of working individuals and tells us fascinating and remarkable stories about the people who lived and worked in the Black Country. The foreword to the book is by Mick Pearson from the Black Country Society and the introduction is by David Moore, Chairman of the Friends of Sandfields Pumping Station.

The book, Wildfire Through Staffordshire, also has an account of descending down a coal mine in 1838 in "a large iron basket". At the foot of the shaft is "awful darkness and every object is solid blackness. We can hear in the distance the sound of the collier's pickaxe; the crushing fall of coal and voices which are human."

After a few minutes a candle is thrust into the eyewitness'' hands and they "grope about, trying to keep up with out guide." Passageways are described which are roofed and pillared with "black sparkling coal." They are 300 yards below the surface of the earth.

"We wander along, probably a mile in one direction, amidst the strata, away from the only entrance to light and air, the dislocated rock over our heads and under our feet and rows of pillars of coal on either hand. A horse suddenly emerges out of another passage dragging after him a large and heavy load on a tram road and accompanied by a small boy."

"We find men and boys naked to their waists, working the mine. There they are, covered with coal dust and reeking with perspiration; their bright eyes glittering through their blackened faces by the feeble light of a few candles."

Young boys and ponies no longer go down coal mines in the Black Country to work. The last colliery in the region – Baggeridge Colliery – closed on March 2, 1968 and marked the end of an era after 300 years.

Last year I began some research for a book about the Black Country with Mick Pearson (Black Country Society) and an Australian artist called Elizabeth Stoney. What was the Black Country? I decided to go into schools to see if they could help. My job before becoming a solicitor was a teacher.

I asked: "Why is the Black Country called – the Black Country? Who or what put the "Black" into it?"

Silence. Then a murmur of discomfort. "Sir, you should not use the "B" word, sir, because it's racist.

No, I replied, it's got nothing to do with black people living in this region. It's because of King Coal."

"Cheryl Cole? said one. "Ashley Cole the footballer? said another. "No! Coal! Do you know what coal is, children? It's what gave the Black Country its name."

I then produced a number of pieces of coal that I had picked up at Baggeridge Country Park (the former colliery) so that some children could examine it

"What's coal, sir? We don't know what that is – can you tell us, please?" Why, certainly, I replied, gathering my patience. "It's a rock that burns."

The classroom exploded into laughter. The children thought that it was the funniest thing that they had ever heard. A rock that burns! Whatever next.

And I wondered what my Grandpa would think, sitting there by the fire coughing up "the black dust".

Are we failing to teach our heritage to our children? Is Ian right? Email your views to editor@blackcoun trybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountry bugle.co.uk write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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