Readers of this blog are well aware of the impact Thatcher’s policies had on the coal mining industry during the 1980s. There have been a number of poems addressing the experience faced by the miners in their fight to secure the livelihoods. However, the impact was much wider than just those working at the coalface (sic). Besides the local shops gaining from a miner’s income, there were also those who delivered the coal – the coal merchants.
Like many in the industry this was hard work, and given the fact it was most needed in winter, the delivery of coal was often freezing work. Delivery was the end point, there was much work to get the coal into the sacks; heavy shovelling and when frozen, the coal would come in great lumps that needed separating. Horse and cart made way for trucks by the middle of the 20th century. The ‘coalies’ didn’t have a uniform as such, but there was a dress code as they were dealing with the general public. They would wear leather backed hats, to protect their shoulders and head; they also wore ‘spankers’, which were straps just above the knee to stop coal dust going up their legs.
Patrick Barron’s poem “The Coalmen” takes the point of view of a young child looking out their bedroom window at these black and grey men, carrying huge sacks weighing up to 50 kg, “as if they were carrying their own mothers across a river.” There is something of the mythical about these men, as though they were in disguise, as though they weren’t meant to be seen, shadows almost. One person recalls them, “To my sister and me coalmen seemed rather scary because they were ‘as black as the ace of spades’ from all the coal dust, but often with paler rings round their eyes where they had tried to rub the coal dust away.” But the narrator of our poem is vigilant, and wants to help their path to his door, to feed the shed its need, so the family will be able heat their home, and cook their meals. “I whisper/open your mouth coal shed/And it does/It does.”
Nowadays, as coal has gone into decline (it is said to be at its lowest level of consumption in over 150 years), so has the sight of coalmen. Although there are still coal merchants, they are much fewer in number but the work is much cleaner; they tend to be small family run businesses that have been around for a number of years and have diversified their products, selling smokeless fuel and logs.
Patrick Barron is originally from South Birmingham, of Irish heritage and came to London to be an actor. His plays have been recommended, workshopped at the Royal Court, Young Vic and performed at the Tabard Theatre. He has done various jobs and spent a lot of time on Shepherd Bush’s Green trying to get his thoughts straight. He is currently writing 32 poems on the central line in a response to Danny Dorling’s book ‘The 32 stops’ (Penguin books).
The coal men come calling on a Tuesday
waiting by the kerbside with the coal bagged
three of them
lift up the coal on their backs
as if they were carrying their own mothers across a river
unlatch the side door
walk blackened and silent between
weed and hedgerow
come down the garden path
to lift the coal shed door
open your mouth coal shed
And it does