The Wigan Mining Monument

WordPress blogger Wednesday’s Child has been very quiet in recent months. Not suprising given that she’s a doctor working in a hospital in Manchester. I hope she’s keeping safe and healthy.

I enjoy reading her posts and particularly like one of her themes – statues and monuments in Manchester, Glasgow and other locations. Wigan, being a bit of a cultural backwater, has rather a dearth of public art works, but in recent years the local council and other organisations have made some effort to install some sculpture and monuments in and around the town centre. The most recent, installed last year celebrates the mining heritage of Wiagn.

Despite Wigan once being the “capital” of the Lancashire coalfield, there was nothing to mark that and celebrate the heritage of an industry that used to dominate the town. It took a group of volunteers -the Wigan Heritage and Mining Monument group, WHAMM – a registered charity formed by two local women Anne Catterall and Sheila Ramsdale, which raised the funds to provide a statue in a prominent location in Wigan town centre.

The project came to fruition last year but, unfortunately, the planned unveiling ceremony couldn’t go ahead due to you know what.

The statue, created by sculptor Steve Winterburn, depicts a man, woman and child, probably a family, all of who worked in the pits. They’re wearing the traditional footwear – wooden clogs with clog irons and as the sculpture doesn’t have base or plinth so that they appear to be walking on the cobbled street.

The woman, carrying a sieve or screen, would have been a “Pit Brow Lass“, one of the women who worked on the surface (women being forbidden to work underground by the Mines and Collieries Act 1842) at the coal screens on the pit bank (or brow) picking stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface or loading wagons.

Coal has been mined in Wigan from at least the 16th century, and the industry grew to dominate the town, peaking around the end of the nineteenth century. According to local history records, in the 1840’s there were over 1000 pit shafts within a 5 mile radius of Wigan town centre. 

Source: Wigan World

The Northern Mining Research Society has compiled a list of colleries in the area that were opened in the 19 Century. There aren’t any left now – the last pits in the Borough and Lancashire coalfield closed after the big strike of 1984.

Over three centuries, more than 750 million tons of coal were mined from the vast Wigan coalfields, which over time had over 1000 pits, large and small. It would be difficult to overestimate the contribution of the town to the industrial revolution and the wealth it brought to Britain. However, this was achieved at great cost to local people. Hundreds of people died in accidents, and countless thousands were maimed or left with diseases caused by the working conditions. Two huge mining disasters are still remembered and commemorated more than a century after they occurred. In 1908, 75 men lost their lives in the Maypole pit near Abram.

WHAMM Crowdfunder website
Unemployed Wigan miner in the 1930’s Source: Wigan World

There are few traces of the industry around the town these days. So the monument is a very welcome addition to the town to remind us of a proud heritage and tradition, and, more importantly as a tribute to the thousands of local people – men women and children – who laboured in awful conditions in the pits

Going Underground – Corris Mine Explorers

The last day of our break in North Wales it was raining – and when it rains in Snowdonia it really rains. Not so much a heavy downpour, more like being submerged in a cloud of drizzle. Not a day for the outdoors then!

I’d seen an advert for the Corris Mine Explorers – a tour of an abandoned slate mine just a few miles south from where we were staying – and being interested in industrial history decided that it would be a good option. Mind you, as we soon found out, it wasn’t an option that would keep us completely dry!

Welsh slate was quarried and mined since Roman times, but the industry particularly took off in the 19th century when this excellent waterproof material was needed for the roofs of the houses that were being built in the rapidly expanding industrial cities of Britain. Slate extraction was a major industry in areas of Snowdonia and we’d seen evidence of it during our walk in the Tarren Hills a few days before.

Although slate is often obtained from quarries, it was also mined, and this was the case at Corris. Braich Goch slate mine, in Mid Wales, which was first worked in 1836 and abandoned in 1970. The Mine Explorer’s website tells us

During its heyday, in 1878, the mine employed 250 men and produced 7,000 tons of slab and roofing slate. This was sent all over the world. Rising costs and falling demand saw the company collapse in 1906. Another 6 companies worked the mine, intermittently, until 1970 when the mine finally closed.

Today, part of the mine has been converted into Arthur’s Labyrinth, an attraction aimed at families with children, but a number of the levels have been opened up to visitors interested in experiencing what it was like to work in an underground slate mine.

We were given an introductory briefing by “Mark the Mole” and kitted up with wellies, helmet, lamp with heavy batteries fastened to a belt and a safety rope. We’d been told to wrap up warm and wear a waterproof coat as it was cool and damp underground. It was clear from the beginning it wasn’t going to be a gentle stroll through a floodlit tunnel!

(Photography is allowed but the low levels of light make this impracticable, so I’ve illustrated this post with a few pictures pinched from the Corris Mine Explorers website)

mine-explorer-kit-oldham-lamp

We followed Moley and  his dog through a door set into the hillside, after ducking under a stream of water pouring off the hillside, and entered the mine. We were underground for two hours walking along uneven floors and now and again crawling or squeezing through narrow gaps, occasionally attaching ourselves to safety ropes. There was no lighting other than our lamps. Moley explained how the mine was worked and talked about the working methods and conditions the workers had to endure.

mine_explorers1

The tunnels were originally dug by hand although explosives were later used.They gave access t the working areas where the slate was dug out by hand creating massive underground caverns. The work was hard. Lighting was provided by candles, which the miners had to buy themselves, so they were only lit when necessary –transit to and from the working areas, for example , was in the pitch black. The tools they used had to be hired from the mine owners and they could be fined if found using their own. Life expectancy was short. Very few miners developed silicosis from breathing the deadly slate dust as this takes 20 or 30 years of exposure for symptoms to fully develop – most of them were dead by then, the main cause of death being falls within the mine.

braich-goch-mine-quarry-corris-wales1

It was an excellent tour. the two hours went very quickly and Moley was a good guide, providing a good introduction and simple explanation about how slate was formed and won and the lives of the people who worked underground

On re-emerging into daylight (during the winter the miners wouldn’t have seen it) we returned our equipment and headed to the cafe for a warming bowl of cawl.