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Digging deep

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 afflicts

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 workforce.

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 Paul Halpin.

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

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