Classical images of confinement

The positive image of the highly literate miner must not obscure the grim realities of life in many pit villages: half the employees at the ‘colony’ attached to Annbank Colliery in Ayrshire were illiterate as late as 1867.23 This was despite the general understanding that reading competence, unlike writing, was essential to mine safety,24 and the national impact of the realisation that the deaths of 15 men at Lletty Shenkin Colliery near Aberdare had been caused by the failure of an illiterate overman named John Johns to understand company instructions.2

Acute poverty, danger, ill-health and undernourishment (in every sense) were suffered by adult and child miners in the earlier, unregulated period of its history, which along the Firth of Forth extends back from 1842 to the 16th century. Since the 18th century and the onset of deep shaft mining, British miners have worked at and indeed beyond the limits of our habitable world. With the huge demand for coal that fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and the technology that came with it, miners went ever deeper underground to labour with unusual physical severity. Until it was normalised locally, minework attracted only the starving and dispossessed, thus creating a new and visibly identifiable class of the working poor.26 Like all ‘the lowest forms of heavy and dirty manual labour— from general labouring and casual dockside occupations to toiling in the fierce heat of the coking works or in the poisonous atmosphere of the early chemical factories’, mining attracted large numbers of desperately poor Irish immigrants,27 of whom Joseph Keating’s family were examples.

Conditions improved significantly following the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 (passed despite intense opposition from mine-owners28), which protected all females and males under 10 from underground work. It was triggered in 1838 by a catastrophe at the Huskar Colliery in Silkstone, where 26 working boys and girls (from 8 to 16 years of age) were killed when a ventilation shaft was flooded after a thunderstorm. The tragedy caused a national outcry and Queen Victoria demanded an inquiry.29 But the darkness, claustrophobia and danger remained unavoidable. Disasters scar the history and contemporary experience of mining worldwide. A painting by Samson Gilbert Daykin (1886—1939), a miner born in Barnsley, south Yorkshire, entitled ‘Symbolic: The Miner Enslaved’ (1938) (Figure 22.1) is perhaps the most poignant example in the long iconographic tradition which equates miners, slaves and other manual labourers with the fettered Prometheus, also echoing the crucifixion of Jesus. The Aeschylean Prometheus counts mining as one of the technologies crafts he bestowed upon humankind (Prometheus Bound lines 500-3).


FIGURE 22.1 ‘Symbolic: The Miner “Enslaved”’, 1938, reproduced by courtesy of the Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library. Gilbert Daykin © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library.

Gilbert Daykin, as he was known, was born in Platts Common, near Barnsley. He was one of 12 children of a miner at Hoyland Silkstone Colliery, close to the site of the 1838 disaster. He worked down the pit from the age of 13, first running errands and tending to the pit ponies.30 As an adult, he was employed at Warsop Main Colliery, a few miles north of Mansfield, and became a specialist in dangerous jobs. The mythical undertext distinguishes this painting amongst Daykin’s works, most of which portray miners in a dispassionate and realistic idiom. Daykin had once spent two weeks in London, courtesy of Winifred Anna Cavendish-Bentinck, the duchess of Portland, who was an advocate of the Miners’ Support Association in Nottinghamshire.31 He used the time to study masterpieces in art galleries. Daykin even featured on the front page of the Daily Mail for 3rd August 1931; a photograph shows him wearing a flat cap. Some of his paintings had been shown then to the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in Downing Street. Not that being patronised by aristocrats and leading politicians did Daykin much good. As an artist, he said that he had ‘lived in eternal dread of injury to my eyes or hands in the pit, but that has been my lot in life’.32 He was among six men killed in Warsop Main on his last shift before Christmas in 1939: as he said, ‘There is a siren at the pits, and it rules my life’.33

Mining, especially shaft mining, has always had a conceptual relationship with the ancient world which goes far beyond material experience. Descent down a mineshaft is a katabasis par excellence. Many have not returned. It is a journey to the world of the dead, repeated continuously. For the families of mineworkers, their katabatic bread-winner is in effect a daily revenant. From Renaissance infernos to Zola’s Germinal (1885), Tony Harrison’s feature-length film/poem Prometheus (1998) and the contemporary artist Peter Howson’s Sons of Pluto (2002), the mineshaft has been reconceived as the place of descent to the Underworld, and the caverns and corridors which corrugate the infernal world from which gold or lead or coal is extracted have provided the imaginary architectural plans of many of our culture’s vision of the world of the dead. It has recently been argued that Karl Marx’s own model of the system of political economy, based on raw forces of production at work in mines and cavernous foundries, by drawing on Dante’s Inferno reveals its debt to the katabatic tradition.34

Martha Vicinus has argued that mineworker poets have felt a particular need to reveal the human cost of their labour,3’ and often present it in underworld terms, speaking of themselves as ‘shades’, ‘ghosts’ and ‘wraith-like figures’ operating within the land of the dead, never sure that they will return, ‘enslaved’ by various time-keeping devices, the clock, the caller, or knocker-upper, and in Daykin’s more modern case ‘the siren’.36 Sid Chaplin (1916-1986) (Figure 22.2)

Sid Chaplin, reproduced by courtesy ofTudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society and George Teasdale

FIGURE 22.2 Sid Chaplin, reproduced by courtesy ofTudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society and George Teasdale.

wrote about his day’s labour in katabatic terms.37 Working as a colliery blacksmith and then later an underground belt-fitter, he was an avid self-educator. He received no formal secondary education, but attended the ‘pit university’ of the Spennymoor Settlement, where he attended WE A courses and was mentored by its warden Bill Farrell (Figure 22.3).38 In 1939 he won a scholarship to Fircroft Working Men’s College, in Selly Oak, Birmingham, to study economics and political theory. After a year or so of struggling to meet the academic requirements made of him, the onset of war sent him back to Durham and the pit life he thought he had escaped. Chaplin’s papers contain the manuscript poems of a coalman in his early 20s dreaming of a literary life.39 Most are typewritten and a number have critical comments and metrical notation scribbled over and around the text by Farrell.

Among pages with titles such as ‘Poems of an Unprivileged Poet’ and ‘Where Gorki Died’ can be found the poem ‘Miner’, which uses the figure of Atlas, Prometheus’ fellow Titan, to convey the unseen effort expended daily by workers underground:

I am the inner Atlas of this spinning globe.

At the dark centre of your green circumference

I crouch, the crawling wonder of my darker world,

The sweating surgeon of the strata depths,

The probing, blasting hero of my diamond doom.40

The imminence of death crowds the short claustrophobic poem and its protagonist has the impossible task of carrying the weight of the world from within. Another poem in the folder is ‘Miners at Work’, which Chaplin wrote in

Bill Farrell 1954, reproduced by courtesy ofTudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society and George Teasdale. Reproduced by permission ofTudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society and George Teasdale

FIGURE 22.3 Bill Farrell 1954, reproduced by courtesy ofTudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society and George Teasdale. Reproduced by permission ofTudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society and George Teasdale.

response to drawings by another son of a Yorkshire coal miner, the artist and world-famous sculptor, Henry Moore (1898-1986):

Unreal men in their inner Hades,

But look, ah!

See the pinpoint glowing of eyes,

The eyes of the dead who live

And in their life attain the mastery

Of blood and sweat.

In December 1941, Moore visited Castleford and drew ‘Britain’s underground army* at the coalface down the pit at Wheldale, where his father had been an overseer.41 Chaplin drew on his own experience of subterranean toil and landed in an ‘inner Hades’ occupied by the living dead. After John Lehmann published Chaplin’s work in Penguin’s ‘New Writing’ series in 1941, the reluctant miner’s star steadily rose, and he became an established author, journalist and arts worker—for which service he was awarded an OBE in 1977.

A reason why miners find it difficult to escape the infernal world is that they can rarely acquire the expertise in the arcane ancient tongues which distinguish the ruling-class male, as Siegfried Sassoon points out in ‘The Case for the Miners’, written in 1921:

“Why should a miner earn six pounds a week?

Leisure! They’d only spend it in a bar!

Standard of life! You’ll never teach them Greek,

Or make them more contented than they are!”

That’s how my port-flushed friends discuss the Strike.

And that’s the reason why I shout and splutter.42

But there is scattered evidence for serious classical encounters in British mining communities even beyond the near-legendary holdings of the South Wales miners’ libraries. At the time of the bitter strike of 1844, when some mine-owners and politicians began to see the potential of using education as a means of social control, a few colliery schools introduced such diverse subjects as Greek and Roman history, Greek, Latin and French, as well as general history and mechanical drawing.43

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