‘You just lived under constant threat of closure’

Ex-miner Wayne Wallace at Ellington Colliery this week.
Ex-miner Wayne Wallace at Ellington Colliery this week.

Just five words put to bed centuries of mining heritage in the region.

‘Gentlemen, the pit is closed’ was how UK Coal’s Gerry Spindler announced the news.

At the unveiling of the Big 'E' memorial at Ellington Colliery are  Ian Lavery president of the NUM, Jack Tubby former Ellington Colliery Managerand Neil Taylor, chairman of the memorial group.

At the unveiling of the Big 'E' memorial at Ellington Colliery are Ian Lavery president of the NUM, Jack Tubby former Ellington Colliery Managerand Neil Taylor, chairman of the memorial group.

More than 300 mine workers were made redundant at Ellington Colliery on January 26, 2005, after an inrush of water on its main production face saw UK Coal bring an end to deep coal mining in the region.

The pit opened in 1909 as part of the Ashington Coal Company. By 1921, it had a workforce of 1,200 with an all-time high of 2,179 in 1984, the same year the miners went out on strike. At that time, before the closure, the pit set a record producing one million tonnes of coal in 29 weeks.

The 2005 closure left the 340 remaining miners out of work and the surrounding community stunned.

Local miners say that more than 300 tonnes of coal have been left sealed inside the pit.

Miners at Ellington Colliery

Miners at Ellington Colliery

In 2008, miners bagged a £2million compensation package after the High Court ruled the closure was illegal as workers were not given a 90-day consultation over redundancies.

UK Coal appealed the original ruling in 2006 which led to a 15-month delay before a tribunal upheld the decision.

Local MP Ian Lavery, former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, likened the closure of the pit to ‘closing the Metrocentre because just one shop was in trouble.’

Mr Lavery, who worked at the mine, said the majority of miners have moved on.

“The miners are a resilient and diverse breed, the vast majority of people who looked for employment have found it and it’s a great credit to each individual that they haven’t sat back in despair but they’ve looked for new opportunities and it’s great to see that. That’s a measure of the mind-set of the people who worked in the coal industry,” he said.

“We’ve got people in the police force, NHS, care workers, teachers and a whole range of different occupations. These are people who spent their lives in the pit and enjoyed working in the pit, and didn’t sulk and sit back, they took what opportunity they could and I’m proud of every single one of them.”

Shaun Johnson, 54, worked at the mine for more than 28 years and suffered through two closures after it shut its doors in 1994 and 2005.

Shaun is now a children’s support co-ordinator and lives in Shilbottle, like some other Ellington miners who went to work there after Shilbottle pit closed in 1981.

He said that he would never forget the final words from Gerry Spindler.

“You always had a threat of closure under private ownership, you just lived with that threat. Spindler just came in and said your pit is closed, but we knew for quite a long time they were looking to close the mine,” he said.

“What I always felt aggrieved about is that there is 300 tones of coal under that mine which we could use. As a nation, we import over 60 million tonnes of coal a year at a massive cost. Why couldn’t we have just kept the mines open?”

Wayne Wallace, 37, started working at Ellington in 2000 and was one of the last people the mine employed. He now works in sales.

He said: “I was one of the guys who said we would come and get the water out of the mine for nothing but they didn’t want it. The mine was out of the way from their nucleus and they didn’t obviously think it was viable”

Looking to the present day, Mr Lavery said: “When you look at the colliery now, it’s fantastic to see the statue there but if you just look on the horizon where the pit shafts were, there’s now the wind turbines, a stark difference to 10 years ago and a stark reminder of the change and times we live in.”

“There isn’t any doubt that at the time they announced the closure of the colliery, they were intent on closure come what may. We’ve seen the actions of UK Coal since then and they haven’t acted, in my view, in a way a responsible company should.

“Ellington wasn’t isolated in that case.”

There were once 200 pits across the Northumberland and Durham coalfields and at the end of the Second World War there were 148,000 men employed in the mines.

North East coal fuelled the industrial revolution and the heavy industries that sprang up across the region.

Today the only reminder of Ellington is the miner’s statue and a large open field on which ponies graze.

ELLINGTON COLLIERY TIMELINE

1909 - opened by Ashington Coal Co. Ltd

1947 - National Coal Board took ownership

1966 - Lynemouth Colliery closed and merged with Ellington

1984 - NUM members went on strike

1986 - British Coal (privatised) took ownership

1994 - British Coal closed the mine

1995 - RJB Mining P.L.C. took ownership

2001 - UK Coal took ownership

2005 - Mine closed

2008 - Court rule mine closed illeaglly

2011 - Last pit pony, Tony, died