Peter Cawthorn Murgatroyd Lavery 1948
One of my earliest memories is of my dad clip-clopping home after his shift in the pits. This was nearly seventy years ago, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where we lived on the rural edge of Wakefield. In fact, many of my childhood memories are connected with mining coal.
I was told to listen for my father’s return from work and I could faintly pick up the approaching clip-clop, clip-clop, growing louder and louder as he came down Linton Road. It was the clatter of his wooden clogs, with their steel cleats. There were few cars in those days, and the sound carried until at last it began to climb the twenty-two steps up to our bright, new, airy, pre-fabricated bungalow.
The door would open at 9.25 if he were on the afternoon shift, and all you could see in the winter darkness were the whites of his eyes and his teeth behind his smile.
‘Be careful, don’t touch your dad, you’ll get all dirty,’ my mother would admonish.
I can still see the small boy I was pulling himself up to window level to look out onto the exciting panorama of an industrial heartland. My father worked perhaps a mile away at the Parkhill Colliery. Before my eyes was a constant parade of saddle tank engines shuttling wagons full of coal – dark-maroon wooden wagons they were, half a dozen at a time – to the coal distribution yard. A half mile beyond and equally visible from our window ran the Great Northern Line, where we could see the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman hurtling past and disappearing down the valley on their way north. Beyond the two rail lines lay the Aire and Calder Navigation Canal. Coal was also transported along this waterway, which flowed into the Ouse and farther on became the Humber, joining the sea at Grimsby. Sixty-foot-long barges with engines towed a string of much smaller coal-laden steel barges. We called these lesser barges Tom Puddings, and there would be perhaps twenty of them snaking along behind.
I remember going down to the pithead with my mother to meet my dad. Big steel gates would slide open with a whoosh and a screechy hiss. A bunch of men came pouring out, a black mass of individuals who all looked the same. I could not tell which one my father was until he would grin and say, ‘Nathen, lad.’ On later occasions, I stood by the shaft with the miners making their way past and greeting me in our broad Wakefield dialect. ‘Nathen, owz tha dowin, lad.’ I could see they took pleasure in my awkwardness at being unable to identify which of my dad’s friends they were. Pit-head baths were built in 1955, after which I stopped seeing my father come home in a black mask.
Here was our boyhood kingdom. A small gang of us would make our way to what was known as the pit stacks. These were slag heaps of shale, sharp-edged shards that were vomited up from the mines. Two or three of us at a time would toboggan down the steep stacks on discarded bits of conveyor belt.
We also played in the dumping ground of the local electrical power station. These were waist-deep beds of coal ash that were crusted over with a skin. One was a square-shaped black filter bed; the other, a two-acre white settling bed. We called this place the Wobblies, because when we ran over the surface skin it gave way and wobbled under our feet like thin ice on a pond. Of course there were dangers. We were told – to put us off – that if you broke through the surface you could disappear.
This industrial wasteland was not the only place where we sought our adventures. On the eastern outskirts of Wakefield was Heath Common. A high hill, thick with gorse, it overlooked the city. Several big houses, the properties of woollen-mill owners, were situated here – Heath Hall and Heath Old Hall, among them. The latter was demolished in the late 1950s, and only some masonry remains are left today. Once, in those days, when I approached Heath Old Hall, a liveried servant ran out to chase me off with a stick. The place was said to be haunted by the Blue Lady, who had been thrown down a well on the property.
My father started working down the pit at the age of fourteen. His four brothers were coal miners. His father had been a coal miner. Mining seams of coal deep underground was what everyone in our world did. Beyond a job, it was a way of life, a destiny. Before I left school at fifteen, a vocational counsellor in a brief interview told me, ‘Well, I suppose you’ll be going down the pit.’
But the pit was not to be my destiny. Instead, I attended Wakefield Art College, studying fine arts. Sculpture and ceramics attracted me. I even began to build a pottery at home. Photography, which was to become my career, started when I was about twelve. I spent four years at the Wakefield College, then went on to Kitson College of Art, in Leeds. For one story, I photographed tramps at St George’s Crypt, a soup kitchen for down-and-outs. Of course, I always had it in mind to contact the Coal Board for permission to go down into the pits, for the worthwhile side of pit activity would have taken place underground. But I never did it. Maybe mining was too familiar a part of my everyday life, so I did not see it as anything special. In my callow youth, I thought more interesting material lay elsewhere.
Then a few years back, on his occasional visits, my dad began regaling us with stories about his life as a miner. He had suffered his fair share of roof falls and other accidents, some involving gas; he had worked in water, bent over on all fours, crawling about on his now spent knees. And yet the tales he recounted were always full of fun and humour and he never regarded himself as a victim.
All this impressed me, and when one day my son Tom suggested that these pit stories should be recorded, I immediately saw that it must be a filmed narrative in the form of a conversation with another person. Who else but my uncle Albert, four years my father’s junior?
For decades in my work I had travelled the length and breadth of the globe and whenever possible I photographed a wide range of peoples in a wide range of lands. Yet in all that time my world of the pits had escaped me. I had overlooked what was my own. I had failed to see beneath those faces masked in coal dust. Now, at one fell swoop, the project that had been looking me in the eye for so long all fitted together.