The men are taking young Simon out to sea to ensure he does not become fearful of the sea because his father was drowned three weeks previously…I don’t know if I should use these photographs or how I can use these photographs. I’m not sure what use they are.”
Chris Killip, Photographer, Harvard Professor
In the 1970s and 80s, British families living a hand-to-mouth existence harvested coal on the beaches of northeastern England. With lives governed by the low tide, they collected loose shards of coal when the offshore winds pulled the sea from the coastline. In particular, young men, all Gen-Xers, braced against the rising winds of de-industrialization. Like seafaring lords they held tight the horses’ reigns as they drove 19th Century farm carts into the choppy, icy sea.
But, come nighttime, with their dreams having settled to the bottom of the ocean, they transformed into English punk rockers who scrapped it out in pubs with other disenfranchised youth.
Some of the coal those English families gathered during the Thatcher years, occurred naturally in the ocean. Most of it, however, was industrial rubble from the coastal collieries of England’s declining industrial towns.
Chris Killip spent years photographing the families and the communities and encampments in which they lived. In 1988, the pictures, which document the devastating lives of England’s working class during the still-early years of de-industrialization, were published in the now-famous coffee-table photo-book In Flagrante. Today, original hardcover copies sell for about $1,000, while used paperbacks go for around $200.
In 2016, a re-edited version of the book was published, and last year, Now Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Although the collection features several generations of seacoalers, the pictures provide a rare and stunning look at young Gen-Xers from England’s working class families. I’m not sure anyone has ever pointed this out, or considered the exhibition or photobook in the context of Generation X.
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
To your hometown…”
Springsteen, My Hometown, 1984
The Decline of the Coal Industry in the United Kingdom
The coal industry in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) peaked in the 1920s with more than 1 million miners. From there, it endured a steady decline for decades. By 2010, the UK had only 6,000 coal miners.
The decline has been attributed to many things including:
- Lack of global competitiveness
- New, alternative sources of energy
- Decreased demand for coal
Political issues also contributed significantly to the decline. From Economics Help:
The coal industry had the most powerful unions in the country. Unions were highly organised, often by leaders with strong political (left wing) allegiances. Miners strikes, such as 1924, early 1970s and 1984 Miners strike had the capacity to bring the country to a standstill. Right wing politicians, such as Mrs Thatcher were determined to break the political and economic power of the coal miners. Arguably, the miners strike of 1973 was a key factor in the defeat of the last Conservative government, run by Edward Heath. Mrs Thatcher staked her political fortunes on defeating the coal miners in the 1984 strike. After being on strike for nearly a year, the miners reluctantly drifted back to work – defeated, their political and economic power never recovered. The unions were then powerless to prevent a steady stream of mine closures.”
You can get a glimpse into the lingering bitterness and even hatred of Margaret Thatcher on the public Facebook group, Friends of Ellington/Lynemouth Colliery. One post features a cartoon of Thatcher and the devil overlooking a valley ablaze with fire. Thatcher is asking the devil, “So, tell me, do you keep these magnificent fires burning with coal?” The man who posted the cartoon wished everyone a Merry Christmas and then added, “May she burn in HELL.”
The online community also shares memories, recollections and photographs from mining heydays, as well as tributes to mining friends who have passed.
No doubt, the loss of mining jobs had a significant impact on Gen-Xers whose fathers, grandfathers and even great grandfathers worked in the mines. Derrick Price sheds light on this unique suffering in his recent book, Coal Cultures: Picturing Mining Landscapes and Communities:
When an entire industry is abandoned it takes with it not only the chance of a good economic livelihood, but also all the known and familiar components of life. The taken-for-granted, inherited patterns of existence are fragmented, so that everything from the way the family functions, the means of getting a living, the way communities live together, the source of leisure and pleasure are all changed or destroyed.
This rupture with the traditional way of things means that every aspect of everyday life may become strange and challenging, and the customary way of life for working class people was often associated with a particular industry. Working in an industry, people entered into a particular culture and took on a recognizable and respected identity. This is especially true of mining communities, partly because of the exceptional need for solidarity at the workplace…”
For an additional perspective read Why Are Gen-X Men Dying?