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Dying Coal Town Loses Its Relevance in Britain

Grimethorpe once flourished as its mines helped fuel the nation's economic growth. But crime and unemployment are the rule today.

August 15, 2004|Jill Lawless | Associated Press Writer

GRIMETHORPE, England — Grimethorpe is dying.

Once it was a proud coal-mining village. Now its silent streets, vacant lots and bricked-up buildings -- "In Cod We Trust," proclaims a flaking chip-shop sign -- testify to the collapse of Britain's mighty coal industry.

Its fate is a reminder that sometimes lost jobs stay lost.

Twenty years ago, in March 1984, the miners of Grimethorpe and dozens of other coal communities in Britain went on strike hoping to scuttle Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's plan to shut 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

Thatcher won the epic showdown, and changing economic and political realities have since all but wiped out Britain's mining industry. Today more than 150 mines are closed, taking with them almost 200,000 jobs, and villages like Grimethorpe are struggling to find a new reason to exist.

"Grimey's crying out for employment, like all mining villages," said Doug Downton, like almost everyone here, a former mine worker. "For miners' kids and grandkids, if they get a chance it'll be a way out of the drugs."

Grimethorpe and other mine villages have missed out on the prosperity in Britain, where unemployment of 4.8% is near a 20-year low. Much of the growth has come in the cities and big towns, in businesses like financial services, telecommunications and high-tech manufacturing. Traditional industry, which once drove the economy and sucked up tons of coal for fuel, is in long-term decline.

Governments in Europe have spent heavily trying to regenerate coalfields and other "old industry" areas, often fruitlessly.

Over the last decade, Grimethorpe has gained new roads, a sprawling but mostly empty industrial park, community center and library, job center and adult-education projects. But a third of its people are unemployed, and crime and drug use are high. One estimate puts average household income at $15,000 a year -- less than a third the national average.

Most of those with jobs commute to larger towns like Barnsley and Sheffield, and on a weekday afternoon, Grimethorpe is eerily still. Elderly men sip pints in the pub, and a few young mothers push strollers along the wind-swept streets.

"We are, to be fair, struggling to decide what the post-coal role is for those communities," said John Woodside, head of community planning at Barnsley Borough Council, which includes Grimethorpe.

Set in the South Yorkshire coalfield 180 miles north of London, Grimethorpe was a brick-built village of 7,000 whose mine sponsored sports teams, social clubs and a famous brass band -- the inspiration for the fictional Grimey colliery band in the 1996 movie "Brassed Off."

For centuries a tiny hamlet set amid green fields, Grimethorpe boomed when its coal pit was sunk at the end of the 19th century. Along with the mine came streets of tightly packed terraced houses, a handsome red-brick church and thriving social clubs.

Before the 1984-85 strike, Grimethorpe colliery was one of more than 170 coal mines in Britain's nationalized and subsidized coal industry. After the bitter yearlong strike, which ended in surrender by the humbled National Union of Mineworkers, Thatcher's Conservative Party government closed dozens of pits and eventually privatized the rest.

The government, which loathed the militant miners' union, argued that Britain's mines were uneconomical and electricity could come more cheaply from natural gas or imported coal. Some economists, however, argue that turning Britain from an exporter of power to an importer will prove a mistake in the long run.

Today, Britain has only a dozen mines -- three of which are due to close this year -- and 7,000 miners. Grimethorpe's mine closed in 1993; the coking plant, power station and a densely packed district of miners cottages were demolished.

The filming of "Brassed Off," about a mining community facing closure of its pit, brought temporary attention to Grimethorpe -- the "In Cod We Trust" sign on the main street is a visual reminder.

Now the building is one of many bricked up or boarded over properties in the village, whose streets straggle among empty lots in sight of open fields and slag heaps covered in scrubby grass. The colliery band still exists, but its members are now professional musicians rather than local miners.

The population has fallen to 4,600, and jobs are scarce. Although 3% of people in the region receive unemployment benefits, according to government statistics, a third of the labor force is neither working nor seeking a job.

Many former miners have given up on working again or are on long-term disability benefits. Many young people have moved away, and the quiet streets invite vandalism and burglary.

"One of the biggest problems is unemployment," said Danny Gillespie, a former miner who started a Neighborhood Watch program to combat crime in the village. "When the pit was open, people used to be walking the streets to work at all hours, and they'd see things."

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