Coal miners' sons who struck a rich seam

Five of the country's wealthiest men started life in impoverished pit villages, reports Chris Blackhurst
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The Independent Online
If he were still alive, Dave Whelan's father, Jimmy, would have heard the harrowing tales unfolding last week in a court in Cardiff and told his son: "I told you so."

Six ex-miners and two widows have launched Britain's biggest ever health compensation claim, alleging their lung diseases and those of their dead husbands were caused by breathing in coal dust as they toiled away beneath the ground. If successful, more than 55,000 former miners who also suffer from chest complaints could benefit, leading to a potential payout bill for British Coal of pounds 750m.

The hearings in Sheffield, London and Cardiff will run for months. For mining families the case confirms what they have always known: that working down the pit was to be avoided at all costs.

Dave Whelan is testament to that desire. Fathers would push their sons to do almost anything except follow them into the mines. Similarly, so keenly did the sons heed their parents' wishes that they drove themselves harder than other boys the same age. The result is a remarkable statistic: five of Britain's richest men are the sons of miners, a group only beaten by sons of the landed gentry.

Following the start of the court case last week, the Independent on Sunday examined the list of Britain's 150 wealthiest people: the five sons of miners are worth a combined pounds 897m. Together, they have created more than 10,000 jobs, mostly in the north of England, replacing those lost by the decline of mining.

Mr Whelan is worth pounds 125m. Remaining loyal to his Wigan roots, he has created 850 jobs at JJB Sports, the store chain based in the Lancashire town. Jimmy Whelan spent 40 years down the pit, at the Parkside and Mayfield collieries, both near Wigan. "My father always said, 'do not go and get on that face, son, you can do better than that'," he recalls.

Others on the list are: Sir John Hall, worth pounds 127m, the builder of the Metro Centre at Gateshead and chairman of Newcastle United Football Club; Paul Sykes, pounds 220m, creator of the Meadowhall Centre at Sheffield; John Bloor, pounds 125m, owner of the Triumph motorbike company, and Sir Graham Kirkham, pounds 300m, head of the DFS discount furniture chain based in Doncaster, and donor to the Conservatives.

All five were raised in humble pit villages and had little chance of conventional success at school and university, but triumphed by dint of sheer determination and hard work. Their dads did not want them to go down "t'pit" if there was an alternative. By taking on huge projects, from shopping centres to reviving the motorbike industry, in the process creating thousands of jobs, they have done more for the old mining areas in recent times, arguably, than the National Union of Mineworkers. They have all remained faithful to their origins.

When he left school at 15, Mr Sykes's father, a Barnsley miner, stopped him heading for the local pit. By the time he was 17, Mr Sykes had had six jobs - none of them down the mine. Eventually, he found steady work as a tyre fitter on pounds 11 a week, still less than he could have been earning at the coalface, before moving into the scrap metal business and property development.

Tough talking, a true Tyke who calls a spade a spade, Mr Sykes, 53, lived for many years, even when he was worth millions, within 300 yards of the Barnsley council house where he was born. Passionate about all things Yorkshire, he has embarked on a county-wide campaign to"green" its industrial wastelands. Mr Sykes is a devout Tory who fought Arthur Scargill's allies on Barnsley council for many years.

Sir John Hall, 63, is also a Tory supporter. As a child he was taken to see Attlee and Bevan but says he turned his back on socialism when he saw his father retire from the local North Seaton colliery after a life undergound, on pounds 12 a week. Sir John was a mining surveyor before moving into estate agency and property.

It was Hall who got the pillars of the establishment, the banks and church commissioners to back him in the Metro Centre. It was Hall who transformed the fortunes of Newcastle United and secured the signature of Alan Shearer. When the Korean firm Samsung thought about coming to Britain, Hall got them to go to the unfashionable Tyne.

John Bloor, 53, became a plasterer rather than dig coal in his native Derbyshire. He went on to create a major housebuilding firm, Bloor Holdings, but his real coup was to take over Triumph motorbikes after a workers' co-operative failed in 1983. He lives in a farmhouse near Measham in Derbyshire, retaining a broad Derybshire accent.

Sir Graham Kirkham, 51, is not unlike Sir John Hall and Paul Sykes: someone who started with nothing and is now welcomed by the great and good. In Kirkham's case, that includes having the Prime Minister to stay and writing huge cheques for the Tory party. Life was not always so comfortable, though. He was raised in the pit village of Edlington, near Doncaster, where, he says, "there was no luxury; nobody had bathrooms so it seemed normal".

He left school without any O-levels but avoided the local pit by going to work in a furniture store. In 1968, he started his own firm, DFS. These days the boy who never had a bathroom collects antiques and owns a Georgian mansion. But he does not live there, preferring to stay in his old four- bedroomed house.

All the male members of Mr Whelan's family worked in coal. At 15, his father and mother insisted he become an engineering apprentice rather than go undergound. Along with his brother, he was forbidden from following the family tradition. "My father was against it; my mother was absolutely against it."

Mr Whelan, 59, grew up with tales of mining accidents and disasters. On top of that, he recalls, "everybody had silicosis and there were a lot of injuries, some of them horrendous back injuries". He is surprised at the length of time it has taken to get the compensation case to court.

His company, JJB Sports, was floated on the stock market in 1994. Lancashire is his home and he has promised to give pounds 100,000 to the first tennis player born within 10 miles of Wigan's church spire to win Junior Wimbledon.