The forgotten mineworkers of the Garden of England

They once toiled underground in Kent but found themselves jobless after mining ended. Now the transformation of an old pit is bringing them hope

They are the forgotten workers of the Home Counties. For they spent their time not commuting in and out of London, but deep underground in the heart of rural Kent – once home to some of Britain’s deepest and most dangerous coal mines.

Now, nearly 30 years on, the veteran coalminers are making an unlikely comeback. A makeshift hut in Deal, once home to the Betteshanger colliery, is the unofficial headquarters of a new environmental park that promises to bring jobs to the miners and a future for their families.

At its peak, the site employed more than 1,500 men from Scotland, Wales and the North-east of England. Many had walked or cycled to Deal from all over the country, transforming the once genteel seaside resort into a mining powerhouse that, together with Snowdown and Tilmanstone pits, saw Kent produce a million tons of coal a year.

But the onslaught of technology and changing governments meant that, by 1989, Betteshanger was closed – the last Kent colliery to do so. It left a generation of miners cut adrift and the lives of thousands of families changed forever.

While some managed to re-invent themselves as electricians or find work because of the Channel Tunnel, many simply languished, their employability stained by the reputation of militant activism and a unionised culture that jarred against the Tory leader Margaret Thatcher’s drive for private enterprise.

The deprivation and mass unemployment decimated Deal and those scars remain. Many miners were left marooned in Kent, trapped in a cycle of poverty, malnutrition and blacklisted by communities.

“We were promised so many things  but many have simply been a series of false dawns,” laments Jim Davies, a 71-year-old former miner. “Projects have been announced in the past decade with enthusiasm, only to tail off or for us to never hear anything again.”

That is until now. Next year the former Betteshanger pit will be transformed by a multimillion-pound scheme that intends to turn the area into a “green business park” with a research and education centre, as well as a visitor centre.

The project is masterminded by Hadlow College, a further education and higher education college, which says it can create up to 1,000 jobs, put miners back to work and equip them and their families with skills for the 21st century.

Where previous attempts to regenerate the area have fallen short, or simply been forgotten entirely, this time, those involved say, it will be different.

Much of the reason for that is the vision of Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, the director of finance and resources at Hadlow College, who cuts a figure of corporate defiance  in stark contrast to the former men of the mines.

He has convinced the Government that a £40m investment is enough to put East Kent back on the map with a “global laboratory” that will bring together business, education, mining heritage, technology and rural tourism. Just over a quarter of the funds will come from the public sector, while £29m will come from businesses.

Gary Cox, 61, sees this as a new opportunity but admits it has been a challenge to ignite the enthusiasm of his former comrades – some of whom remain so disillusioned that they see this as striking a pact with the old enemy.

“You have to understand that, after we lost our collieries, we were hurt. We didn’t just lose our jobs. We lost our communities and our bus routes. Our welfare clubs started struggling. The medical centres shut down.” Because there was no pool of labour in rural Kent to staff its mines during the Twenties, its mine-owners hired men from all over the country. But their arrival horrified the locals. In Deal, where many of the miners lived, communities were shocked to find gangs of pitmen in hobnailed boots marching to and from work in the early hours.

Signs soon appeared in shops and bars saying “no miners”, while former mineworker  Jim Crews remembers a sign that advertised “miners’ bacon”, comprised of old scraps of meat and fish that had not been sold.

“It is almost exactly like European immigration into the UK now. I sometimes tell my friends, before you start hating foreigners for taking jobs, don’t forget how we were treated. We didn’t know what apartheid was, but we certainly learnt how it felt.”

During the 1984-85 coal strike, many backed Arthur Scargill, and the “militancy” for which Kent became known then still rankles. But the miners feel that this, too, is an unfair representation.  “We were not militant,” says Cox.

“The idea that Scargill took us out to strike is totally wrong. We knew Thatcher wanted to shut our pits and we either came out or fought, or we simply let them take our livelihoods.  All we were doing was looking after our colliery and looking out for our future.”

The past is gone. But, should Hadlow College’s vision amount to more than another empty promise, the future may finally see those who were consigned to history at the end of the last century recognised by the next.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
The fall in the oil price will hit Russia hard, but is unlikely to personally affect the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin

It looks very much as though 2015 will be a good year for the world economy, after all – and, if it is, that will be thanks to the fall in the oil price. It won't be good for everyone and we have already seen the pressure it puts on the Russian leadership – though, before you conclude that sometimes there is natural justice in the world, remember that the people who are hurt are not leaders such as Vladimir Putin. Other oil- and gas-exporting countries are damaged, too, and I think we will see further fallout in unpredictable ways. But the net impact is strongly positive, more so than most commentators at present acknowledge. The winners far outnumber the losers.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick