Once thriving language of the pits being revived in Yorkshire coal mining exhibition

Eric Richardson, guide at the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Picture by James Hardisty.
Eric Richardson, guide at the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Picture by James Hardisty.
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When the hundreds of miners clocked off at Kellingley Colliery for the final time in December, an age old vocabulary went with them.

The UK’s long history of coal mining created dozens of dialects rarely spoken outside of the pits, with hundreds of terms specific to the industry, daily tasks and local areas unwittingly developed by generations of miners.

A sign salvaged from Allerton Bywater Colliery. Picture by James Hardisty.

A sign salvaged from Allerton Bywater Colliery. Picture by James Hardisty.

But the emotional farewell to Britain’s last remaining deep coal mine late last year sparked a drive to preserve an entire catalogue of terms that spawned from the unique confines of working far underground.

The National Coal Mining Museum for England, in Overton, Wakefield, has compiled an ever-growing glossary of hundreds of words and phrases that face extinction in their own right.

Its ‘In Our Own Words – the Language of Coal Mining’ exhibition was unveiled yesterday in a bid to revive terms familiar to mining families far and wide.

Rosemary Preece, curatorial director at the museum, explained that the “poignant” display brings out a range of emotions in visitors.

“Incredibly there was a thriving industry when I started to work here just within Yorkshire but, inevitably, the people coming here by now know that before long this language wont be a living language,” she said. “There is a level of sadness and a wish to see it survive.

“They can tell their children and grandchildren that this was the job they did, they were proud of it and those were the words they used. We see both a sense of sadness and one of nostalgia.”

Inspired by the work of local historian George Redmonds, the exhibition utilises his mining glossary of words from the medieval period in West Yorkshire and explores the part words have played in the British coalfields through the ages.

Objects and art within the show illustrate the words, while spoken word anecdotes from the museum’s own miners as well as music and poetry embracing the terms form part of the exhibition too.

Ms Preece added that the exhibition is far from exhaustive, with the museum urging visitors with a mining background to suggest additions to what was a fluid language moulded by the geography of both the pits and the workforce.

One word the museum is keen to decode is the term ‘unjinking’, which was found on a sign salvaged from Allerton Bywater Colliery.

“It extends to a huge number of words. The exhibition is just the tip of the iceberg – there were more than 500 different coal mining job titles alone in the 1920s,” she said.

“Because it was an enclosed world you often get terms that were perhaps unique to your pit. You were all down there and those miners learned from one another.”

Mike Benson, director of the National Coal Mining Museum, added: “Yorkshire is well known for its charming colloquialisms and we hope that this exhibition will evoke memories and inspire new audiences.”

The exhibition, which runs until May 9, comes just weeks after the closure of Kellingley Colliery and the end of an industrial era.

The 58-hectare North Yorkshire mine, which was known locally as Big K, was the largest deep pit in Europe and began production in April 1965 employing more than 2,000 workers at its height.

Its demise brought an end to centuries of deep coal mining and linked to a reliance on coal imports. The downfall is reflected in the drop in National Union of Mineworkers memberships, from 500,000 at mining’s peak to just 100.

For information about the exhibition visit ncm.org.uk or call 01924 848806.

Five Yorkshire coal mining terms

Onsetter: man in charge of the loading of the cages or skips at the pit bottom (the bottom of the shaft).

Dudley: metal water bottle (from the name of the town in which they were commonly manufactured).

Kirving: undercutting a coal seam by removing a strip of coal, usually by hand, to loosen the coal before shotfiring; also known as holing, bearing or bating.

Snap: meaning food, a snap tin is a metal container which a miner would use to carry his lunch to keep it safe from mice and rats.

Banjo: a shovel, used for moving stone rather than coal (named for its shape).