It stands on the very edge of the coastline where a coalmine once stood, looming over the North Sea. It once delivered generations of boys and men down to the bowls of the earth and back again. The cage lift of Easington Colliery is the last piece of the village’s mine left standing. It is a monument to a lost industry, showing future generations of the village what happened under the ground they walk on.
The path which leads up to the cage has been transformed into a timeline of coalmining in Easington. A series of plaques line the hill, starting from the opening of the mine in 1899 to the closure in 1993 and many other significant points in its history inbetween. The biggest disaster in the pit’s history and the strike of 1984-’85 which spelled the beginning of the end of the mine are just two.
From the top of the hill on a sunny day it is possible to see far up and down the East Durham coastline. Left is north towards Seaham, right is south to Blackhall. Both had at least one coalmine to their name, putting into perspective the true density of the East Durham coalfield. The area would once have been dominated by National Coal Board buildings, containers packed full of coal and men going to and from the shaft. Now, however, it is almost all green fields, interrupted only by a train track. The rumble of a Grand Central train, its next stop most likely being Hartlepool, punctures the otherwise tranquil air.
The village was built for one industry. It was the destination of almost every boy, fresh out of school, to end up down the pit. Easington Colliery was highly economical, but disaster struck on 29th May 1951. An explosion, caused by sparks from pickaxes igniting gasses underground, resulted in the death of 83 miners. For a village the size of Easington, it was a historic tragedy. It took over two weeks for all the bodies to be removed, by which time the pit was back in full production. In the village cemetery there is a commemorative garden where 72 of the men killed in the disaster are laid to rest. The ages vary from teenagers to late sixties.
After investment in the early 1960s, the pit became the first in the Durham coalfield to reach a million tonnes of saleable coal. Easington Colliery thrived through the mid-20th century in comparison to other pits in the area. But from the start of the strike up until almost the very end, the vast majority of its 2,500 and more miners downed tools. In the opening months there was light picketing at Easington, with most of the miners heading to picket lines elsewhere in the county.
News footage from Tyne Tees Television at the time depicted the scenes at the colliery gates when the picketing intensified. One example of the police overcompensating with numbers was on an occasion where hundreds of riot police were used to usher one non-striking miner from a village 10 miles away. The peaceful streets of the village erupted with tension. As the number of pickets increased, so did the police. Reinforcements were called in from counties far and wide.
When the strike came to an end, Easington Colliery was one of the few in the region which managed to remain open after the initial mass shutting down of mines. It was, in fact, the last deep coalmine to close in County Durham. The gates to the colliery were locked for the final time in 1993, leaving hundreds of local men without work, many of whom for which mining was all they’d ever known. The purpose of the village, like most mining communities, was to house coalminers and their families. Shops and businesses grew around the pit due to a reliance on the wages of colliery workers. It was a cyclical process.
The water-tight community spirit which was produced in coal mining villages such as Easington Colliery would be hard to replicate. When the colliery closed, it took with it much of the sense of connection the people of the village had with each other. Easington has been hit harder than a lot of other villages and the economic prosperity it enjoyed before the strike has largely failed to return. The one bank which was in the village before the dawn of the 1990s closed, leaving Easington shortly after the colliery shut for the final time.
A report from ITV Tyne Tees in May 2018 investigated Easington Colliery for the 25th anniversary of the pit closing. Many of the shops on the main street had closed and dozens of houses were left to become derelict. A lack of funding was evident in the report, but so was the community spirit. There are still groups of former miners who meet up to sing at the social club.
It is these examples of community which have shown that post-industrial villages, despite the best efforts of the government a quarter of a century ago, can thrive once more. These villages and towns may no longer be united by a coalmine, but a very different kind of government, one that brought investment instead of deindustrialisation, could offer them a path forward in the twenty-first century.