Modern miners imprisoned by communal past: At the pits that survive, life will be a sanitised version of Brandt's Thirties portrait. But the darkness remains

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The Independent Online
HE COMES home from work with a decent wage and a clean face to a community no longer bound by pit poverty and pit dirt. Philip Irwin, miner of the Nineties, would appear to have little in common with the anonymous collier photographed in 1937 by Bill Brandt, save for their shared knowledge of the 'hellish cavern'.

Mr Irwin, 40, works underground at Wearmouth colliery, Sunderland, one of 31 pits that were earmarked in October for closure. He earns up to pounds 180 a week net, including overtime. His wife, Vi, worked as a waitress, but now stays at home to look after the youngest of their four daughters, who is handicapped. Pit wages and state benefits are 'adequate - we can pay the bills'.

Married for 20 years, they lived in pit and council housing until moving seven years ago to a three-bedroom house they are buying close to the colliery. It is warmed by a modern coal fire and boiler. The new TV and video recorder are replacements for sets sold during the poverty of the 1984-85 strike.

Political struggle is quintessential to the Durham coalfield and was implicit in the darkness of Brandt's photographs.

Dave Douglas, a former Durham miner, said: 'A man must become hardened to this hellish cavern. He is in a permanent state of aggression and the temper stimulates hard work. Cruel things happen to men underground and men must steel their minds against the thought of them.'

Brandt's collier was one of 114,000 steeled for work in Durham pits in 1937; 56,000 jobs had gone in 16 years. Most coal was dug by pickaxe, by miners lying prone in shallow seams. They earned 60p a shift, 9p less than the national average, but above the local average for manual work; 11 per cent of pitmen were unemployed in 1937, with overall unemployment in some areas more than 60 per cent.

Brandt's coalfield was a frontier, the 'villages' camps around hundreds of pits. By 1937, the camps had become almost tribal. Men mined, drank, fought, played and worshipped together.

Brandt's miner ate as soon as he arrived home to an insanitary tied house. He was woken for his shift by a knocker-up and took food with him to work. Women were house- and chapel-bound.

'Philip's never been one for having his meal on the table. If I'm not here, he cooks it himself. Men no longer feel demeaned if their wives go to work. He's changed nappies, Phil has,' Mrs Irwin said.

Mr Irwin has worked below ground for 22 years. His family, like many in Durham, had broken with mining after the war. More pits closed, more sons took the advice of their fathers: 'Don't go down the pit even if you're a shovel.'

Mr Irwin was drawn back to his grandfather's trade by better money and job security. 'You get used to it, but there's not the same comradeship. The lads have been demoralised that much, it's very dog eat dog, a case of looking after number one. Within the pit, everyone is treated as a number. Outside the pit, you're treated just like everybody else. There was respect for miners up to the Eighties. Management since the strike has been harsh.'

Brandt's collier would recognise the contempt for management. In 1937, the Durham coalfield was a privatiser's delight of small, medium and large owners - and a working man's curse of wage controls and union busting. In 1938, as the industry began transition to full nationalisation, a Labour Research Department study cited Durham as conclusive evidence of the 'evils of capitalism'. Fifty- five years later, barely 4,000 cling to jobs at four coastal pits. The great scheme of public ownership has been betrayed.

Wearmouth will probably survive: it has a life expectancy of 20 years. The communities Brandt photographed have been dispersed but there remain the vestiges of what a retired Durham miner described as the imprisonment of the pit - 'imprisoned in a past that isn't entirely yours, a past that belongs to the community'.

(Photograph omitted)