The Legacy of Coal in England

For five years, David Severn looked at the physical and cultural traces left by decades of coal mining in his homeland, the British Midlands.

© David Severn, from the series, Thanks Maggie. A mineworker taking a tea break at Thoresby Colliery.

David Severn grew up in the British Midlands, the heart of England’s coal country, “and like so many from the coalfields, I come from a mining family”, he recounts. “My father was employed at the pits his entire working life and my grandfather rose to become a colliery Deputy during his time.”

Then came Margaret Thatcher, and the watershed. The ideals of collective effort, full employment and a managed economy was discredited in the popular imagination, and bitter miners’ strikes between 1984 - 85 announced the slow vanishing of British coal mining. “Thanks Maggie”, says Severn’s series, named after the former prime minister.

“The mass downscaling left an industry that was once responsible for driving the country’s industrial revolution a shadow of itself”, Severn writes. “With the loss of so many jobs, communities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire have been hit hard economically and socially. I began photographing the people and places of these once thriving coalfields to capture the cultural and social life and to mark the final chapter in the decline of coal mining in Britain.”

© David Severn, from the series, Thanks Maggie. Stephen, an ex-miner and Elvis Presley fanatic at home with his 1950's Wurlitzer jukebox.

Despite the context, Severn’s tone doesn’t borrow from his subject’s colour. It’s a rather colourful tribute to the remains of a bygone era in a collection of vibrant encounters. He met with Stephen, an ex-miner and Elvis Presley fanatic and portrayed him at home with his 1950's Wurlitzer jukebox and walls covered with the ephemera from the Rock 'n' Roll legend.

He went to Working Men's Clubs, which began in the 19th century in industrial areas of the UK to provide recreation for working class men and their families. He joined colliery brass bands, who keep gathering and rehearsing despite the closure of the mines that had brought them together in the first place, as well as rabbit hunters, who still go out every weekend on the old colliery sites to pursue an old tradition.

© David Severn, from the series, Thanks Maggie. A group of Rabbit hunters in pursuit of a catch on the former Newstead and Annesley Colliery site. Hunting for food and sport goes back many generations in the area and is a means of income.

While the two last functioning mines ceased operating in 2015, decades of working class heritage have shaped the cultural landscape of the Midlands. “Cultural life dies hard and people, young and old, continue to be united by their passions - music, art, sports - and a commitment to their community”, Severn remarks. If nostalgia transpires though, it’s only lightly, as he turns his camera to the youth as well - those who gather in an abandoned pit turned green to kill time or rather decide to raise funds to build a skateboard plaza.

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David Severn is a documentary and editorial photographer exploring class culture and the places associated with it, both historically and today.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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