Margaret Holness revisits a former pit worker
REMEMBRANCE Sunday 2003 had a special significance in Clipstone, a former
pit village in Nottinghamshire. People lined the streets to watch the
traditional parade as it passed the half-mile length of the colliery that had
been the community’s hub for most of the last century, and had closed for the
second time. Only weeks earlier its 3000-foot shaft had been sealed with around
80,000 tons of rubble.
Many bystanders had tears in their eyes. June Halpin recounted the poignancy
of the moment. "I was brought up with the pit. I could see it and hear it from
my house, and I listened to them filling up the shaft. It was like distant
thunder 24 hours a day for two weeks."
On its way to the church, the parade made a brief diversion to the street
where June lives, so that her husband, Paul, could see it pass. It’s 11 years
since Mr Halpin talked to the Church Times about his faith, the colliery, and
the likely effect of pit closures on his village. The interview was published
on the day the pit closed for the first time. Paul Halpin hasn’t worked since.
Then just 42, he’d already been told he was "too old" for a job as a school
caretaker. And the physical effects of working as a colliery electrician, often
underground, were beginning to manifest themselves.
Within months, he had serious operations on his knees. More were to follow.
Twice in his 25-year colliery career he was buried in roof falls. These left
their legacy in heart and lung disease and severe damage to his back. He walks
with great difficulty and uses a wheelchair. Some days he has up to four angina
attacks. He has been told that he wouldn’t survive the heart-lung transplant
that might ease some of his problems. He needs morphine every few hours to make
his pain tolerable, and other drugs to ease the cocktail of problems that
his body, but which, miraculously, leaves his spirit intact.
IN 1993 Paul Halpin described how his faith survived his mother’s early
death, his brother’s suicide and, through his work in the colliery’s emergency
team, the trauma of witnessing men mangled by machinery and, in one instance,
being cut in half. Today, in spite of his own adversity, his faith is, he says,
stronger than ever.
A former sidesman, he can no longer go to church. Instead, the church comes
to him, usually in the shape of the Vicar, the Revd Malcolm Garratt, or his
wife, Mary. "Technically, we minister to him. The truth is that he ministers to
us," says Mr Garratt.
In the sitting room of the colliery house owned by the Halpins, Mr Halpin
wants to talk less about himself and more about what has happened to his
community in the last 11 years.
In 1993 he predicted that the pit closures would have a devastating effect
on the economy of the area. He suggested that redundancies would follow not
only from the colliery, but also from the small local industries that serviced
it and that shops would close as families cut back on their spending.
His predictions were soon realised. Six months after the pit first closed, a
private firm, JB Mining, got a contract to reopen the pit, but with a workforce
of only 200 instead of the 1400 men the pit once employed. Only around 50 of
the new jobs went to local men, the rest were taken by the firm’s existing
Patterns of work changed, with employees becoming multi-skilled. The old
community spirit disappeared, says Mr Halpin. "Mining was a hard and difficult
job, but oddly enough people liked it. The pit was a really vibrant place."
Most of the redundant miners had to find new employment. And they discovered
that their skills were unwanted outside the pit. Senior electricians ended up
as shelf stackers on the night shift at supermarkets. Men who’d been cutting
coal took jobs as nursing assistants in hospitals and care homes. Men with
specialised skills, made redundant from small ancillary businesses, swelled the
throng of jobseekers. "One firm made brackets, custom designed for the
switchgear we used. The firm went out of business and 23 more men were
unemployed," Mr Halpin says. It’s the family men who see themselves as
providers who worry him most.
JB Mining’s venture at Clipstone was not a long-term success. In Paul
Halpin’s view, the area’s coal deposits were not properly exploited. "They took
only the coal which was easiest to mine. The coal that needed investment to
reach, even a small investment, was left in the ground," he says. Last year the
colliery closed for the second time, and the shaft was sealed.
By that time the village had long ceased to be the close-knit community it
once was. On the outskirts there are new, private, housing estates, described
by Mr Halpin as "dormitories for Mansfield". The Vicar, who has responsibility
for both areas, says there is little contact between the old and new Clipstone.
In the remaining cluster of colliery houses, built after the colliery shaft
was sunk in the early 1920s, Mr Halpin feels there is now much apathy. But the
family remains strong and hopeful. Both daughters live at home. There’s banter
and fun, much of it coming from Paul.
June Halpin has given up her part-time job and her Mothers’ Union duties
because of the 24-hour care her husband needs. But she’s still the mainstay of
Brownies, and the family remains central to the church community. "I can’t tell
you how much support we get from people’s prayers for us. It’s tangible," says
From their garden, they have a grandstand view of the colliery winding-gear
that dominates the landscape. Only three of its type were constructed. The
others, which were in Germany and South Africa respectively, have been
demolished. For that reason, ironically, it is now Grade II listed, and the
village is divided over a proposal to turn the colliery site into an industrial
heritage centre. Paul Halpin fears this may set in stone people’s grievances
about the loss of the pit. "Whatever happens, it’s time to move on," he says.
Moving on: Paul Halpin's faith has survived intact despite the physical and
emotional hardships of the past decade.
Photo: Sam Atkins