Big Pit National Coal Museum: Commemoration, Oral Interviews and Public History

 

In this week’s blog, Rhianne Morgan examines how communities commemorate the loss of the South Wales mining industry:

The Valleys
Still from The Valleys, MTV.

When people hear my South Wales valleys accent four discussions usually follow.

Firstly, “You are from the valleys, I bet you love Tom Jones”

Secondly, “You Welsh love the rugby”

Thirdly, “Have you seen that TV Show called the Valleys? Is it actually like that?”

Finally, “I bet most of your family were miners”

For the focus of this blog, the last statement is the most important. This piece focuses on how local communities remembered and commemorated the loss of the mining industry in South Wales. The South Wales Valleys are renowned for their role in the coal mining industry and the bitter industrial dispute which took place from 1984-5. Since the end of the strike and subsequent pit closures the area has suffered both economic and social hardship. Communities, after all, were built around pits. Mining was the dominant industry, which employed thousands of men and supported local families.

NUM Strike Poster
South Wales NUM strike poster.

One mine which had a slightly different story to tell was the Big Pit in Blaenavon, Pontypool. Blaenavon was once a thriving industrial town; during its peak, Big Pit employed 1,500 people. The mine was shut down in 1980 as part of a national programme of pit closures. The pit was re-opened in 1983 as a heritage site and museum, a move that was backed by the Wales Tourist Board and the local council. This was controversial at the time as there were still working mines in the surrounding villages, and the loss of Big Pit as a working mine was still very raw. Thirty-five years on, Big Pit is  the flagship attraction in the Blaenavon area, drawing thousands of tourists annually. Visitors can see a range of exhibits and interpretive facilities, but the highlight for most is the underground tour of the pit led by an ex-miner. The main focus of the museum is on how the coal mining industry and surrounding communities changed from the Victorian period up until the pits closure.

Pwll Mawr
Pwll Mawr.

Miners responded to the late twentieth-century demise of Britain’s coal industry in various ways, one of which was a desire to commemorate the loss of industry that had shaped them. A “heritage boom” took place during the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom that led to an unprecedented development of the tourism and leisure sector. It has been argued by scholars such as Robert Hewison and the late David Lowenthal that this heritage boom was an expression of a strong cultural reaction to the decline of Britain both economically and globally. Despite this, there has been a lack of research into how ex-mining communities feel towards commemoration and museums such as Big Pit. I decided to examine ex-miners reactions to the museum as part of my MA dissertation: ‘Collective identities and memories of the 1984-5 strike in Aberdare’. I recorded oral history interviews with ten ex-miners from my local area. Oral history was a crucial methodology for my piece because it gave the ex-miners an opportunity to say how they felt they had been represented in public history museums, and whether they agreed that they could function as sites of commemoration.

All of the interviewees liked the concept of commemoration through Big Pit and supported it. Firstly, some backed the museum as they wanted their coal mining identity and community to be preserved. As ex-banksman of Penrhiwcieber colliery Bernard explained:

I reckon they should have a pit open in every valley, just for the people to realise what they [miners] went through during those years and all of their lives… Big Pit is excellent… I would recommend it to anybody.

It was not just the loss of identity that the interviewees were keen to commemorate. The majority of the miners also wished to emphasise the pre-1985 community spirit that existed in this mining community. As former weighbridge clerk at Tower colliery, Jeff explained:

To me it [the miners strike] changed the whole area. I mean the valleys have never been the same since…There was a sense of community but I’ve noticed in the last ten to thirteen years… It was a better place to live in then than now in my opinion.

Such a statement highlights not only the demise of the mining industry but of the community that surrounded it. Heritage, in this case, is seen as valuable for areas such as Aberdare in seeking to retain pride, identity and the means for regeneration in an increasingly mobile society.

Another reason for commemorating the mining industry was to ensure that younger generations were aware of their family or local heritage. The thought of children growing up within Aberdare not knowing what a miner was, or how the mining industry impacted upon the area, was a reoccurring fear. As ex-fire officer of Tower colliery Leslie explained:

I thought Big Pit and places like that should definitely be kept open and it shouldn’t be that it dies away [the mining industry]… our children should never forget it. Even in the valleys today I was quite shocked, I heard a story that… this young boy said to his dad… “Dad I have to dress up for Easter” and the father said “what do you want to be, a rugby player or a miner?” and the boy turned round and said “what’s a miner?” How quickly they forget see, it’s sad. So it’s nice that museums and that are kept for children to see.

Big Pit
Big Pit on a beatiful day.

Surprisingly some of the interviewees, while supporting Big Pit in general, had never actually visited the new museum. In this case study all of the ex-miners wished to remember and celebrate their heritage as they all supported local museums. Yet, in some cases, they did not feel the need to visit. David, a former development worker at Penrhiwcieber colliery, explained:

I’ve never been to any of them…I finished underground and thought ‘leave it there’.

Pit closures are still raw and painful memories which some miners do not wish to relive through a museum. As Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda argues, ‘The impact of major emotional events does not diminish with the course of time. Time does not heal wounds; it only softens scars.’[1] Other miners, however, were more open to a trip down memory lane. Bernard, for example, took two friends from Birmingham to Big Pit and described a very different feeling:

You can be there close your eyes and be a part of it again you know? It’s a wonderful thing.

Bernard took solace in visiting the museum, as the underground tour gave him the opportunity to reminisce about pit life. Although every ex-miner believed commemoration is important, some interviewees were still not ready to visit mining museums. Nevertheless, from the overall response of the interviewees towards commemoration, it is clear how captivated, passionate and proud these men still are of the mining industry to which they had dedicated most of their life.

underground tour
Underground tour.

Oral history interviews can shed light on the tensions that exist between heritage projects and the communities they represent. It is clear from these testimonies how important heritage museums such as Big Pit are to areas that are struggling with the affects of de-industrialisation, as the museum is viewed by the ex-miners as a symbol of civil pride. Big Pit can be viewed as a successful heritage project as it elated the community it attempts to represent. This is due to ex-miners having a crucial role and say within the museum space. Ex-miners work at the museum as tour guides, bringing with them their life stories and passion. Communication between the different groups involved in the museum and the prominent role of the ex-miners makes the Big Pit experience. Successful community heritage projects such as this one are crucial not only for attracting tourism into the area but most importantly for retaining the local community’s culture, pride and sense of belonging.

Me and my mother following in my grandfather's footsteps down the pit
Me and my mother following in my grandfather’s footsteps down the pit!

Rhianne Morgan is a social, public and urban historian of the 20th century, working mainly on Britain. Her interests include: working class family and community; masculinity and work; collective memory and identity; commemoration; industrial heritage; civic pride and the regeneration of post-industrial urban areas.

She is currently undertaking a PhD with the working title ‘Belfast Baths: Exploring and interpreting the historic spaces of the Victorian industrial city’ in partnership with Belfast City Council.

rmorgan20@qub.ac.uk


[1] Nico H. Frijda, ‘Commemorating’ in J.W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, and B. Rime, (eds), Collective memory of political events: social psychological perspective, (New Jersey, 1997), p. 105.

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