Christmas working at the Coal Board

At this time of the year the Trades Union Congress (TUC) always draws attention to the increasing numbers of people who are obliged to work over the Christmas holiday. Today many are based in the ever-expanding care sector as well as in emergency services. Few are in manufacturing where a factory shut down is still a possibility.

When I read this annual story I always recall an early experience when I was a young economist in the UK coal industry. For a time I was based at a South Wales coking plant.   Coke ovens were large furnaces that burned coal without oxygen to produce smokeless fuels and chemical by-products. They spewed unpleasant vapours over the neighbouring areas. The coke ovens could not be allowed to cool down below a specified very high temperature: if they did the oven wall would collapse and prohibitively expensive rebuilding would be required. Hence they needed a full shift to be on site on Christmas day.

In my youthful naivety I thought this would be problem for management. I was rapidly put right. The office administrator would put a notice on the board asking for volunteers to sign up; this would be filled immediately by a queue of waiting men. Indeed several would have rung the administrator in advance to find out when the notice was to be posted so that they would be first in line. Knowing the community I could visualise them going home with: ‘I know that your mother is coming to be with us this year, and I will try to get home to see here before she goes back to Bedwellty. Someone has to go in and it’s my turn.’

I ended up working for the National Coal Board from 1968 to 1986. It was therefore with some sadness to read of the closure of the last remaining UK deep-mined colliery, Kellingley, on December 18th. It was a pit I knew well having undertaken a major project there in the mid-1970s. It marked the end of an era for industrial Britain. However, for my part, I look back with nostalgia not regret. Mining was always a dirty and dangerous occupation and we must be able to find safer and more environmental friendly ways of meeting our energy needs in the 21st century. For this reason I was very pleased to see that my elder son had installed solar panels in his North London home. I am sure that his miner great-grandfather would have felt the same way.


The coke oven

The coke oven


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