To wipe away the memory: Mining museums may close as 'ultimate privatisation' takes hold

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The Independent Online
FIRST they closed the pits and tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs. Now, say embittered colliers, they want to wipe out the memory of what it was like to work underground.

The last two remaining mining museums in Britain where visitors can descend to a coal seam and talk to ex-pitmen are at risk of closure from the Government's 'ultimate privatisation', despite an eleventh-hour injection of funds.

The museums - Big Pit at Blaenafon, Gwent, and Caphouse, West Yorkshire - face bills of up to pounds 500,000 for technical and health and safety measures, which until now have been done free or at cost by state-owned British Coal. The cost of engaging private contractors would be ruinous.

On Thursday night, the Government moved to head off the prospect of defeat in the Lords by promising pounds 900,000 spread over three years to the two underground museums and to the Scottish Mining Museum which has no deep shaft.

Dr Margaret Faull, director of the Yorkshire Mining Museum, cautiously welcomed the transitional relief, announced in a written reply from Lord Strathclyde, Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry. But she added: 'It will prevent immediate closure, but the long-term prospects are the same as before.' The transitional relief will meet only one- third of the cost of operating without the 'help in kind' provided by British Coal, and leaves the question mark over the underground facility.

An all-party group of peers will tomorrow press an amendment to the Coal Privatisation Bill as it goes through its final stages in the Lords, demanding that the DTI reviews the Treasury subsidy in three years' time. But a spokesperson for the department insisted there would be no further money.

Big Pit, the last survivor of the hundreds of coal mines that once employed 200,000 men in the Welsh valleys, attracts 120,000 visitors a year - one- third of them from abroad. For the past three years more French children than Welsh have ridden the pit cage to a seam 80 metres underground.

Gareth Gregory, the museum's director, says that the rundown of the industry in South Wales has already pushed up operating costs to the point where Big Pit is running at a loss. Without British Coal's aid he will have to find another pounds 296,000 a year. 'A further loss this year will leave us facing liquidation,' he said.

Caphouse, open to the public since 1986, brings in 80,000 vistors a year, a third of them schoolchildren. It, too, is losing money, and faces extra costs of pounds 175,000 a year as a result of privatisation.

If the subsidy sneaked through Parliament last week proves inadequate, the underground workings will have to be filled in. There would then be nowhere for the public to see at first hand what the conditions were like for generations of men - and women and children, until earlier this century - who worked in the industry that powered the Industrial Revolution, the world's first.

'They're not content with getting rid of us,' said one Yorkshire miner forced out of the industry when his pit closed six months ago, 'they want to wipe away even the memory of what it was like down the pit.'

Both Caphouse and Big Pit, and to a lesser extent the Scottish Mining Museum outside Edinburgh, have relied heavily on the generosity of British Coal, but, as privatisation nears, state help is drying up. In future, the museums will have to pay for their own testing and replacement of ropes for cages. They will also have to hire private contractors for a myriad other requirements, such as testing for gas.

Protests at the closure threat have come from some unlikely places. Rosemary Jones, head of geography at The Old Palace School, Croydon, has written to peers expressing her dismay.

'I took a party of 40 14- and 15-year-olds for a field trip to South Wales, and on a scale of one to five they all rated Big Pit as five - except one girl who was a bit scared of the descent,' she said. 'It was an outstanding experience for them. What we particularly liked was the way the whole experience was approached in a serious way, with no triviliasing of the mine or making it too touristy. It would be a great shame if Big Pit became another casualty of the Government's policies.'