Museums of the World: National Coal Mining Museum, Wakefield.

I’ve been wanting to visit the National Coal Mining museum for years.

Coming as I did from East London I never really knew anything about mining in Yorkshire and the communities that it created.

When I first moved to Yorkshire I was often told about how the way of life of the miner was destroyed in the 80s and it always seemed totally alien to a lad from Dagenham.

All I knew about coal was that my grandparents used to have a fireplace in their living room that they piled coal onto.

Over the years I’ve seen many movies and TV shows about coal miner life in Yorkshire including Brassed Off, Kes and Billy Elliot but it was not a life I could really imagine.

The National Coal Mining Museum really opened my eyes to the hard work that was required to bring coal to the service and also the great sense of community there was in coal mining towns throughout the UK.

Back in 1984, the Yorkshire area had a total of 56 collieries.

The last surviving deep coal mine was Kellingley Colliery which closed on the 18th of December 2015 signalling the end of deep coal mining not only just in Yorkshire but in Britain as a whole.

The National Coal Mining Museum was once three different pits, Caphouse Blossom and Hope.

Hope was sunk in 1827 and Blossom in 1840. Both these pits were still in use until 1985.

Caphouse was first dug in the 1770’s and the coal reserves were exhausted by 1985 and the colliery closed. At it’s busiest time 4,000 tons of coal per week were removed from Caphouse Colliery.

In 1988 Caphouse Colliery reopened as the Yorkshire Mining Museum.

It’s free to visit the museum but I’d opted to take the tour of the mines for £5.

I got a bit lost looking for the museum and arrived 10 minutes after the 10:00 time slot I had booked.

The very nice lady on the reception said this was no problem and booked me onto the 10:45 tour instead.

I was presented with a couple of coins that resembled miners checks, one of which had 10:45 stamped on it which I was told I would need to present before entering the mine.

Miners checks were coin shaped pieces of metal which informed colliery management of who was in work at any time. They were also vital when rescue services needed to know how many men were actually underground during an incident such as a fire or explosion.

Check systems varied between coal fields and altered over time, by the late 1970s a three check system (safety check system) became common. In this system each underground worker was issued with three checks, often of different shapes and sizes, one to be handed in to the lamp room, one to be handed to the banksman before the man descended the shaft and one was kept on the person during the shift.

I was told that the other check I was presented was a gift for me as a souvenir.

I love stuff like that so I was very pleased.

Souvenir coin of Yorkshire Mining Museum. I added mine to my keys.

As I had some time to kill I bought a cup of coffee from the canteen.

The canteen itself is the original place where miners would have enjoyed meals which was also a really nice thing to experience.

Around 10:40 I went to the entrance to the pit where a miner (named Martin) asked me for my check, which I presented him with, and he sent me toward a queue of people waiting to enter the mines.

I was handed a yellow miner helmet which fit me very well after Martin adjusted the back for me.

Then we were given a face mask and a lamp and instructed in it’s use (the lamp, not the face mask). There was no helmet clip to attach it to so I left it dangling across my chest.

We were also told that due to methane gas that may be present in the mine we could not take anything with a battery in that could cause a spark just in case. This meant that I had to hand over my mobile phone and car keys as the miners referred to these as “Contraband”. Seriously, I was more than happy to hand them over as I really didn’t want to be responsible for a mine explosion.

One of the first things that Martin showed us was the original mine shaft as pictured below. It looked like it went on forever and now we were about to get into a cage to take us down there.

We all packed into the cage lift, in total 16 of us. 6 of those were children so they didn’t take up as much space.

Martin informed us that the cage would normally contain a full shift of miners (around 20) so they would all be squeezed in like sardines.

I’d never been in a mine cage before and it put me in mind of a particular episode of Doctor Who when Jon Pertwee went into a mine to battle giant green maggots. There were no giant maggots here. There were some rubber rats though but I’ll explain that later.

We were warned that there was an initial bump when the lift started and there was a few shocked noises from the 16 people that were inside.

The lift was slow and we could see the first tunnels that were dug in the mine drift past us as we descended.

When we hit the bottom we were presented with a large wooden door.

Once we were through the door Martin told us we needed to keep the doors closed as the affected the way that the surface fans directed the air in the mine so that it was breathable.

Obviously I didn’t take any photos as my phone was locked away in the lamp room. I have appropriated a few photos of some different mine tours from the official website of the Yorkshire Mining Museum.

That’s not Martin in the photo above by the way.

Martin did tell us that he started working in the mine from 1974 when it was still removing several thousand tonnes of coal each week. I would have loved to hear more stories from him back on the surface but he was straight back onto another tour.

At the start of the tour it shows how families in the Victorian era would have worked together in the mines. Dad digging, mum transporting the coal and the son sat outside a trap door that he would open when mum needed to bring coal out. The son was left in the dark a lot of the time and would have had rats running about him in the pitch black darkness. I like rats but I don’t think I could have coped with that.

In order to show us how dark the mine was without lighting Martin asked us all to turn off our lamps.

I do not like being in the dark.

It was dark. Very dark. Then, from somewhere, there was a squeaky noise.

Actual photo of how dark it really was. Can you spot me?

Martin asked us to turn our lamps back on and, on the floor in front of him, was a large rat. A large rubber rat! It did help to show what the poor boy opening the trap door would have had to face though.

One of the things I noticed about the mine was how warm it was compared to the weather outside. Martin told me that the temperature was about 12 degrees Celsius at the entrance of the pit and falls a couple of degrees as you go in further. This temperature doesn’t change much throughout the year so even on the hottest days on the surface it’s still cool in the mine.

As we proceeded through the mine we were shown the evolution of mining.

From the use of picks to the use of dynamite, Martin showed us how some dynamite would be wired up and how it was detonated. There wasn’t an actual explosion by the way just Martin banging his stick hard on a wooded wall. It did make a few people on the tour jump though, me included.

We were shown how miners dug out the coal and how lighting had evolved from candles (which caused explosions due to the gas) to modern day lighting.

This was all demonstrated by the use of statues of miners showing what their job would have entailed like the one shown below.

This miner is operating a piece of machinery from the early 90’s that would have dug the coal out at hundreds of tonnes a minute. As you can understand by the size of the digging machine, it was so big it needed to be brought down bit by bit and assembled in the mine itself.

The ascent in the cage lift was slow but I could see it was moving quite fast. Again we saw the first dug tunnels and a statue of a miner digging.

Leaving the lift I collected my phone and car keys and handed back the lamp and helmet.

I then took a walk through the rest of the buildings as there was a lot to see.

I first headed to the front entrance where one of the old steam trains that transported the coal stood.

Just behind me when I took the below photo was the weigh house where vehicles would have been weighed when entering and leaving the mine complex.

There was this man in the weigh house eating a pork pie with some biscuits on a plate.

The minehead was spinning when I walked back past it so I guess this meant that another tour was on their way down into the mine.

There was an exhibition on how Victorian miners worked which I entered and was presented with the odd waxwork below.

Out of context it seems a little odd but the waxwork is demonstrating the dangers that Victorian workers face with little to no safety equipment.

There are many building in the complex, just in front of the Victorian mining exhibition there was the steam pump that used to power the pit wheel and the cages inside. It doesn’t do that anymore but you can see a great demonstration of the steam system in operation, it creates a smell that transports you to a bygone era.

I didn’t take any photos of the steam display as I didn’t want to distract the guys operating it.

One of the bigger buildings housed the Pithead baths and an administration block which was built around 1937. Also in this building was the medical centre, locker rooms, showers and the wages department.

The wages window. Once a week there would have been a queue of men here to collect their weekly pay.
Obviously it was a good idea to check that your pay was correct.
The medical room. There were always fully trained medical staff on site at the mine at any time.
There were more than 20 showers in this room, enough for an entire shift to use at the same time.
This is Pat. Pat keeps a careful eye on the what is happening in the mines. At least that’s what it said on the sign next to him. There was also a big button that said it would light up the map system that showed the mine. It was broken.
Corridor leading from the wages office (behind me) to the showers (on the right) lockers (on the left) and the medical centre (straight on).

In the shower area there were many lockers, some of them open displaying what would have been left inside by miners.

There were also buttons to press where a voice of a miner would tell you stories about how they would start and end their day and how they would use the locker room.

Locker room (clean side). This would be where miners would place their day clothes before changing into their mining overalls and safety equipment. You can see the speaker (top left) from which the voices of miners told their story.
Clothes and equipment left in these “Dirty” lockers are taken away and cleaned. At the start of each shift each worker would find clean clothes and equipment in their “Clean locker”. Ian’s clothes in the above photo were dirty and I guessed correctly by looking at the safety equipment in his locker that he was a miner.
I really love this old safety sign.
Part of a massive fan that would have sent air into the mine.

The pony stables were empty because the pit ponies now have their own enclosure over at where Hope pit once stood.

I didn’t go to see them, I have no idea why, but (for and extra £2.50) you can ride an old mine train from Caphouse Colliery to Hope pit to see the ponies. It can also be walked in around 15-20 minutes.

The area surrounding the mining complex is a nature trail filled with trees and birdsong.

Obviously not a real pony.
Evolution of miners lamps.
The memorial for workers killed at work in the Kellingley Colliery that was moved here in 2015 when the colliery closed.
A diesel locomotive that once transported coal throughout the country.
Train wagons where they would have been filled with coal.
An old mines ambulance.
The interior of the ambulance above.
The Canary cage. Canaries have been used in mines to test for gas for hundreds of years. These ones have a happy life here and are kept as a tradition they don’t get placed in cages in the mines.
A 1984 Mines recue ambulance.

The National Coal Mining Museum was a wonderful place to visit and, based on my museum criteria rates very well.

Inform: There is so much information to take in here. From why coal was used to how it fell out of favour. Also what coal is, what it does and, most importantly, how it was removed from hundreds of meters below the ground.

Educate: As I mentioned, a kid from 1980’s Dagenham does not really understand the use of coal and the hard work that went into bringing it to the surface. He does now though.

Entertain: I would happily go on another tour of the mine, it was brilliant! I spent around three hours at the museum as there was just so much to see.

Admission to the Museum is FREE but I would recommend leaving a small donation or buying something from the gift shop.

As a National Museum, the National Coal Mining Museum for England gets its core funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, channelled through the Science Museum Group.

If you want to take a tour of the mine with an experienced miner then this will cost £5.

You can also ride the mine train to Hope pit to see the ponies for £2.50.

There were no fridge magnets in the shop. I did, however, buy an Octopen (8 different colours in one pen!) and a coal miner keyring.

The museum is open Wednesday – to Sunday 10 – 5 (4 in winter).

I really need to go back to The National Coal Mining Museum as I feel there is still more to see.

Also, I need to go and visit the ponies.


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