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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor