Industrial Heritage and the Value of Working-Class Memory

21 Jun

A year or so ago, I was helping one of my sociology students get started on an essay.  She wanted to write, she said, “something on coalmining communities.” I suggested she narrow the topic, since coal mining was, until relatively recently, a widespread industry in the UK. She responded by suggesting that she could look at “Somewhere up north, where all the coalmines were.” Though she was Kent born and bred, she was taken aback when I told her that until the 1980s, there had been a thriving coal industry in Kent that had once employed thousands of men.

I thought about that conversation recently at a meeting at the pithead of the long defunct Snowdown Colliery, between Canterbury and Dover in East Kent in the south-east of England. I met with a varied set of people interested in saving what remains of the pithead buildings – including the local MP and councillor, a representative of the historic buildings trust, and three former miners. The site offers the last remaining above ground evidence that there was ever a Kent coalfield. When coal extraction was ended in the mid-1980s, the winding gear was destroyed but many of the ancillary buildings were left intact. The passage of time has not been kind to them; saplings have sprung up across the site, birds nest in exposed rafters and brambles, and ivy cling to the walls. However, the plan is to purchase them from the coal authority and create a mixed use development, which would, in part at least, memorialise the local coal industry.

Industrial heritage projects like this can be controversial; for some they represent ‘smokestack nostalgia’ or even ‘ruin porn’ – the uncritical celebration of traditional industries while ignoring their numerous negative legacies.  During the 1980s, some on the left in the UK lined up to attack the growth of the heritage industry, a Disneyfied version of the nation’s material past.  They argued that the sentimental, conservative, and largely uncritical preservation of the built environment glossed over more critical aspects of history, including evidence
of working-class life.

Lately, this concern has lighted on the contemporary publishing trend of coffee table books that offer beautiful images of on industrial ruins. Shelves in the fine art sections of certain bookshops groan beneath the weight of this deindustrial aesthetic.  While critics don’t always say so, I think the objection is, at least in part, to the absence of labour both substantively and rhetorically in the text. These books celebrate beauty in decay and the grandeur of decline, but most mention little or nothing of the people who once toiled in the buildings or their fate since closure.

When the group was assembled at Snowdown colliery, we set off for a quick tour of the site. The various buildings were pointed out, their original purpose explained, and their projected use outlined. After a time the discussion turned to a rather involved debate about the legal issues which beset the ownership of the site and might still scupper plans for its restoration. As the discussion extended and became more specialised, I felt a tug at my sleeve as George, one of the former miners present, invited me for his own tour of the site.  We walked around the pithead and talked about the mine in its heyday, and about the village and community it had supported. This mine, along with much of the Kent coalfield, had been populated by miners looking for work who travelled down from the north of England after the Great War in 1918. He talked about the way these incomers had been distrusted by the local population and the way that legacy still persists at times, including in the way  the Kent coalfield dialect still carries traces of northern influences, reflecting the relative isolation of coalminers in this area.

As we walked among the decaying buildings, we reflected not so much upon the architecture, impressive though that was, but on the skill of the craftsmen who had rendered material the architect’s plans — a pediment here, a perfectly executed circle of brick there. Towards the end of our informal tour, I asked George why he wanted to see the buildings saved.  It was, he said, because so many of his friends and family members had worked there, been injured or killed in the pit, “good men” he said. He wanted something physical left to invite people to pause and think about one aspect of Kent’s industrial past and the part played by working-class people.  When I told George about my former student, he laughed and agreed this generational amnesia was common even in his own village where children and young adults, who in former times would have themselves made their way into colliery employment, were now almost entirely ignorant of the purpose of the site’s buildings.

This, then, is the real the value of our industrial past. Former factories and other buildings cannot all be saved of course, but some should, and historical sites should include the stories of labour – both in the sense of the work itself and the trade union movement — and of working-class people. Without physical reminders of previous ways of living and being in the world, our ability to read the past is impoverished. Their mere existence elicits memory and debate. Importantly, such remembrance is not simply nostalgic. Rather, I believe, it reflects a more complex desire for recognition for working-class life, the acknowledgement that something important went on here that others should know about now and in the future. The desire to preserve industrial heritage sites does not idealise the past — the deaths and injuries George spoke of surely negate that. Rather, it speaks to a simple desire for dignity. George and his former workmates became involved in the preservation project due to a sense of debt they feel towards their work and comrades. They seem to feel a moral responsibility, a custodianship for their industry, even though it is long deceased.

Kent is a county that has seen more than its share of industrial loss. However, traces of this legacy are often difficult to find. The County is known as the ‘Garden of England’ a phrase that highlights the agricultural landscape but masks the once extensive industrial and manufacturing aspect of the region including chemicals, gunpowder production, paper-making, ship and submarine construction, and electrical engineering. This history is sometimes marked, a plaque here or possibly a heritage trail there, but it is all too easy to lose the bigger picture of the rich and vibrant working-class cultures and communities that were created as a by-product of industrialisation. That is why projects like Snowdown should matter to us.

All images copyright Tim Strangleman

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