Coal and community: an oral history of Binley Colliery

Memories of Binley Colliery’ was a community oral history project led by the Dunsmore Living Landscape partnership at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and supported by Warwick University’s Oral History Network from 2018-2021. It focused on the former Binley coal mine in south-east Coventry, now a WWT nature reserve (Claybrookes Marsh) named after two miners (Jack Clay and James Brookes) killed in a colliery roof collapse in 1947. WWT have been (re)connecting communities with their local environments and interviews were a powerful way of doing this. To quote Alessandro Portelli, ‘[interviews] reveal a great deal of the speakers’ relationship to their own history’.1Alessandro Portelli, ‘The peculiarities of oral history’, History Workshop, 12 (1981), 99-100. The interviews spanned residents’ lives, from childhood to present, covering Binley’s existence as a mine, a derelict site, and a nature reserve. Some were conducted in person and others remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. The remote interviews maintained the project’s momentum and allowed us to reach interviewees no longer living in Binley.2The success of the remote interviews also showed the benefits of a flexible approach to interviewing, whether remote or in person. See: Pierre Botcherby, ‘Best practice versus reality: Arts at Warwick, coronavirus, and remote interviewing in oral history’, Exchanges, 8:4 (2021), 113-125.

The project should have finished in 2020 with a small community centre exhibition, supported by Warwick’s public engagement fund. Due to Covid-19, we focused instead on the project booklet, launched in December 2021. Warwick also provided undergraduate volunteers to transcribe interviews, comb archive materials, produce the booklet, and present at the launch. 

Coal

Binley began production in 1909 and closed in 1963.3For more on the colliery’s development, see: Pierre Botcherby and Daniel Loveard, ‘From pit head to wildlife haven: Binley Colliery and Claybrookes Marsh nature reserve (Coventry)’, Northern Mine Research Society Newsletter, (February 2022), 4-5. The workforce, split across three shifts, was diverse in origin and the range of jobs undertaken. Many came from Scotland or Wales, with interviewees recalling Burns Night celebrations and the (still active) Binley Male Voice Choir. World War Two saw the arrival of Eastern Europeans and Italians who had to ‘work for two years […] before they was then granted freedom’.4Huw Benyon, Ray Hudson, The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, (Verso, London, 2021), p.45. The Eastern European miners, who had fled to the UK due to the war, were depicted by Communist Party members as ‘fascist sympathisers’, whilst a later suggestion by the Tory government in the 1950s to bring over more Italian miners was met with resistance.  Mining was a skilled job, and young miners learned their trade at a ‘mock pit’ before starting on a real coal face. It was a reserve occupation during the war, with one interviewee’s father ‘conscripted into the pit’ to ensure sufficient coal supplies.5The mining conscripts were known as Bevin Boys, after the politician Ernest Bevin who announced the measure in 1943 when Britain had barely three weeks’ coal remaining (though this amount is disputed). Around 48,000 were drafted in to replace the 34,000 miners who had volunteered for the Army at the beginning of the war. In addition to the dangers of mining, Bevin Boys were often mistaken for cowards or deserters because they did not have a uniform to wear. See: Benyon & Hudson, p.45 ; Jeremy Paxman, Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain, (William Collins, London, 2021), pp.232-237 ; Tom Hickman, Called Up, Sent Down: The Bevin Boys’ War, (The History Press, 2010). 

Underground, teamwork was essential for efficiency and safety: ‘[my father] was a packer […] after the rippers had been in and ripped the coal out, he and his team went in and packed the roof up with timber or whatever to make it safe […]’. Mining was dangerous: ‘you would see the marks on [my father’s] back […] you would say “what was that” and he would just shrug it off’. Gassing and collapses were common dangers. Injuries could be severe – ‘plaster of Paris from his neck right down to his waist […]’ – or even fatal; one interviewee recalled a fellow miner being killed just next to him. Conditions were unpleasant: Binley only got on-site pit baths in 1955, whilst coal seams ranged from cold and wet to boiling hot. Long-term, many miners suffered ill health, particularly the respiratory disease pneumoconiosis: ‘elderly miners […] all coughing and unable to walk far […] there was just no, no coming back from it’.6On occupational diseases associated with mining, see for example: Arthur McIvor and Ronald Johnston, Miners’ Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining, (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007).

When Binley closed, many miners transferred to Coventry Colliery at Keresley, a much hotter pit: ‘you could see like a shimmer […] like you get in summer […] you couldn’t wear anything […] while you were working, cos it’d just stick to you’. Others took jobs in Coventry’s manufacturing industries. As one interviewee said, though, ‘that didn’t last terribly long before the factories started to decline as well’.

Community

The mine stimulated community growth. The original streets – Grange Avenue, Binley Avenue, Willenhall Lane – remain, with Binley now absorbed into Coventry itself.7The 1931 Coventry Boundary Extension Act saw Binley’s incorporation into the city, whilst the post-war period saw large-scale housing development around the city. Willenhall, adjacent to Binley, is an often-cited example, for instance in: Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010, (John Murray, London, 2014).  Mining communities are often fondly remembered, and our interviewees described Binley as ‘a very safe village […] a really fun place to live’ and ‘the best village you could work in, live in’.Housing was provided, and archive documents describe electric-lit, three-bedroomed homes.8Coventry Archives, ‘Layout plan’, PA576/2/1, ‘Description of houses’, PA576/2/2. Interviewees, though, recalled lacking central heating or running hot water and issues of subsidence. The large gardens were used for keeping vegetables, chickens, and even pigs. Residents were attached to their houses, as shown in a dispute over whether the houses should be council-managed or purchased by existing tenants following the mine’s closure.9Coventry Archives, ‘Housing: Binley Colliery’, PA465/14.

The mine shaped social life. Miners regularly attended the social club, with those coming off-shift at 10pm (the club’s closing time) asking neighbours to buy their pint for them and ‘put it on the shelf […] [which] had all pints on there and the men used to come in and drink their pint and go home’. Children played on the colliery site, notably the giant slag heap: ‘we used to sit there for hours and you could see for miles round all over Binley’. Sometimes, they rode in the lift which winched miners to and from the coal seams: ‘about 40 of us could go down […] so we could see how deep it went […]’. Summertime outings, often to the seaside, were keenly recalled: ‘there would be twelve double-decker buses outside the club to pick us up, children and parents’. 

Conclusion

There is clearly local interest in Binley’s history: our project first reached residents through a history group in neighbouring Willenhall, and the booklet launch united interviewees, academics, and Binley residents; the latter group, especially, were visibly touched by the stories it recounted.10Another project run at the same time as ours by Coventry Atlas used old photographs of Binley to stimulate recollections amongst residents.

The project showed oral history’s community-building potential and the benefits of digital technology for interviewing.11Portelli, 97, 99 ; Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory (2nd ed.), (Routledge, Abingdon, 2016), pp.ix, 173. It was a successful example of academia working with an external partner for community and public engagement, and of including undergraduates in research projects.12Undergraduate involvement in research, or student-led research, is a very current concern in universities. See: Rebecca Stone, ‘Scaling up: the pedagogical legacy of Then & Now’, Exchanges, 8:4 (2021), 99-112.

Finally, the project shone light on an overlooked area in mining history. Coventry is usually associated with car manufacturing, whilst coalfields elsewhere are more written about. The focus on a 1960s closure revealed differences between coal miners made redundant when industrial employment remained plentiful, compared to those made redundant later on.13See, for example: Jim Phillips, ‘The meaning of coal community in Britain since 1947’, Contemporary British History, 32:1 (2018), 39-59. It showcased the community’s durability, even after the mine so central to its development and growth closed. Evidenced by the interviewees’ fond memories, the ongoing ties to Binley, and the associational life still found locally, this durability is an important counterpoint to narratives associating industrial and community decline.14Countering such narratives is a key element of my PhD thesis: Pierre Botcherby, ‘Community, de-industrialisation, and post-industrial regeneration in a Merseyside town: St. Helens, 1968-2018’, (PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, 2022).

Featured image: Binley colliery. Warwickshire County Record Office PH350 269a

Footnotes

  • 1
    Alessandro Portelli, ‘The peculiarities of oral history’, History Workshop, 12 (1981), 99-100.
  • 2
    The success of the remote interviews also showed the benefits of a flexible approach to interviewing, whether remote or in person. See: Pierre Botcherby, ‘Best practice versus reality: Arts at Warwick, coronavirus, and remote interviewing in oral history’, Exchanges, 8:4 (2021), 113-125.
  • 3
    For more on the colliery’s development, see: Pierre Botcherby and Daniel Loveard, ‘From pit head to wildlife haven: Binley Colliery and Claybrookes Marsh nature reserve (Coventry)’, Northern Mine Research Society Newsletter, (February 2022), 4-5.
  • 4
    Huw Benyon, Ray Hudson, The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, (Verso, London, 2021), p.45. The Eastern European miners, who had fled to the UK due to the war, were depicted by Communist Party members as ‘fascist sympathisers’, whilst a later suggestion by the Tory government in the 1950s to bring over more Italian miners was met with resistance. 
  • 5
    The mining conscripts were known as Bevin Boys, after the politician Ernest Bevin who announced the measure in 1943 when Britain had barely three weeks’ coal remaining (though this amount is disputed). Around 48,000 were drafted in to replace the 34,000 miners who had volunteered for the Army at the beginning of the war. In addition to the dangers of mining, Bevin Boys were often mistaken for cowards or deserters because they did not have a uniform to wear. See: Benyon & Hudson, p.45 ; Jeremy Paxman, Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain, (William Collins, London, 2021), pp.232-237 ; Tom Hickman, Called Up, Sent Down: The Bevin Boys’ War, (The History Press, 2010). 
  • 6
    On occupational diseases associated with mining, see for example: Arthur McIvor and Ronald Johnston, Miners’ Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining, (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007).
  • 7
    The 1931 Coventry Boundary Extension Act saw Binley’s incorporation into the city, whilst the post-war period saw large-scale housing development around the city. Willenhall, adjacent to Binley, is an often-cited example, for instance in: Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010, (John Murray, London, 2014). 
  • 8
    Coventry Archives, ‘Layout plan’, PA576/2/1, ‘Description of houses’, PA576/2/2.
  • 9
    Coventry Archives, ‘Housing: Binley Colliery’, PA465/14.
  • 10
    Another project run at the same time as ours by Coventry Atlas used old photographs of Binley to stimulate recollections amongst residents.
  • 11
    Portelli, 97, 99 ; Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory (2nd ed.), (Routledge, Abingdon, 2016), pp.ix, 173.
  • 12
    Undergraduate involvement in research, or student-led research, is a very current concern in universities. See: Rebecca Stone, ‘Scaling up: the pedagogical legacy of Then & Now’, Exchanges, 8:4 (2021), 99-112.
  • 13
    See, for example: Jim Phillips, ‘The meaning of coal community in Britain since 1947’, Contemporary British History, 32:1 (2018), 39-59.
  • 14
    Countering such narratives is a key element of my PhD thesis: Pierre Botcherby, ‘Community, de-industrialisation, and post-industrial regeneration in a Merseyside town: St. Helens, 1968-2018’, (PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, 2022).

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