Object in Focus-Miner, Kevin Hedley
Most miners that have worked in a colliery have fond memories of their time spent in the coal mining industry. Though the work conditions down the pit and on the surface were incredibly challenging, miners developed tight knit communities and forged lifelong friendships with their colleagues.
Collecting objects associated with mining life help to preserve the stories of Northumbrian mining communities. Many of the people engaged in the industry are still living in parts of South East Northumberland where the industry was once dominant.
Often, donations are made to the museum by family members when a former mining industry participant has sadly passed. Donations directly from miners are rarer, and understandably so, as the objects donated are often treasured mementos of days gone by.
So when direct donations are made, it is all the more special. Woodhorn Museum was approached last summer by a miner from Woodhorn Colliery who not only wanted to donate a unique item but was also happy to speak to us about his life as a miner. Recording oral histories from miners from the Ashington Coal Company between 1894 and 1986 is an incredibly important thing to do, and of course our opportunities to do some decrease every year, so we were thrilled when Kevin and his family had got in touch.
Kevin was happy to tell us his stories, and we are privileged today to share some excerpts from our conversation with him. We hope to share Kevin’s story in full later this year.
We hope you enjoy reading about Kevin’s experiences as much as we did hearing them.
This is Kevin’s Story
Kevin was born in the village of Heddon-On-The-Wall at his grandma’s house in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and grew up in Chester-le-Street, and later Choppington . He spent a lot of his younger years in and out of hospital due to his asthma and had a spell in the RVI aged 17 for several weeks.
During his time at Rothbury convalescent home, he remembers being told about the surprise that would make him happy when returning home. Expecting to see a new bicycle upon his return, he was instead greeted with a new baby sister in her cot.
Kevin enjoyed woodworking and practical skills at secondary school, and completed his education in 1958. He got a job as an apprentice fitter for £3 a week in a factory that was primarily staffed with women working on sewing machines. His friends were earning as much as £6 or £7 down the pits, so Kevin eventually took a training position at Woodhorn Colliery in 1959, aged 16.
Kevin’s new career choice might seem surprising to anyone who had known him growing up. As a child he suffered from excruciating lung problems, brought about by asthma and he underwent lengthy treatment for extended periods of time. His family were deeply concerned about his health and how it would be affected working down the mines, but during his apprenticeship Kevin worked mainly ‘on bank’ (above the ground). Young Kevin was an apprentice maintenance fitter in his first role at the Colliery. He recalls his typical day of work, starting at Woodhorn at 8am and carrying around the fitter’s tool bag trying to keep out of trouble. His apprenticeship lasted for five years. Kevin recalls It was the happiest time in his life.
Maintenance fitter-repair and replace machinery.
Kevin met some lifelong friends during his career in the collieries and has no regrets, despite being told he should never work down the pits due to his health conditions. Like many miners, Kevin describes the camaraderie, with everyone always helping each other out.
Something that stays with Kevin is his first experience of the cage. He described himself as terrified, gripping on to the sides for dear life hoping it would stop moving, and when he saw how everything ran it was mind blowing. When he first got over the shock of going down the pit his life changed forever.
Kevin always wanted to be a singer. His colleagues down the pit always enjoyed him belting out a tune and his singing aspirations saw him and two of his good friends form the Kevin Hedley Trio. In Kevin’s words ‘we just used to enjoy it ya kna’.
The Trio auditioned for the BBC for Gala Day and were asked to record for the big event. Kevin puts his excellent singing voice down to being from a church-going family, and he always enjoyed singing at Sunday school. He loved performing at Butlins and La Dolce Vita, with special guest Jackie Collins.
It was also music that was the starting point for Keving and Brenda.
Kevin married Brenda aged 24. Brenda was also from a mining family born and raised in Linton. They purchased the terraced colliery house his parents lived in for the sum of £1,600 and settled down to start a family. Kevin and Brenda had two children together.
After his time at Woodhorn, he transferred to Newbiggin Colliery until it closed, and then to Lynemouth for five years, and then Ellington. Whilst at Ellington he carried his inhalers, but a law passed dictating that he was no longer able to work underground. After this, he mainly worked above ground in the workshops.
Kevin talks of his sorrow during the miners’ strikes, because of the hardship and poverty that the communities had to endure, alongside the loss of his beloved profession. He was part of a union and supported the striking actions to the end. Unfortunately, he lost friendships during the strikes, which he recalls as extremely saddening.
Kevin says, ‘happy days’ when he recalls the Miners’ Picnic, as a youngster his health prevented him from attending. He recalls one occasion where he drove his father’s second-hand car to the picnic. On the morning of picnic day, he went to collect his pals and head to Bedlington. Travelling from Bedlington to Morpeth on a camber, the car began to struggle and broke down. After telephoning the AA for more fuel, Kevin remembers the embarrassment amongst his friends, and he was not asked for a lift again after this!
Kevin left the pits in 1985. In total, Kevin gave 26 years’ service at various collieries.
After leaving the mining industry, Kevin started a decorating company with a friend for a couple of years and then pursued a series of other jobs. These includes working on the lifeboats at Amble, and then as an aluminium worker, which took him to Gibraltar and Morocco. With the decline of the shipping industry, he went to work at Reg Vardy as a driver before his well-deserved retirement. In his later years, he has travelled to Australia, Greece, and other places in Europe with his beloved wife, Brenda.
Kevin was interviewed at Woodhorn Museum, on the 16th of June 2022
Kevin’s model of Heapstead no. 1
In 1962-64 whilst living at Newbiggin, Kevin based his design on Hempstead No 1. It is made from wood and has been decorated with water based blue paint so that it would stand out. He made the fragile model an acrylic cover and attached it to a hardboard base.
The heapstead is an elevated framework of wood or iron above ground, to the top of which the pit is continued above the surface, to provide the necessary height to pass the coals over the skeens into the waggons.
Skreen is a frame 4 or 5 feet wide, and 11 to 15 feet long, the upper side of which inclines from the heapstead to the top of the coal wagon. It is furnished with iron or metal bars placed at the distance of from to ¾ of an inch apart, upon which the coals are teemed as they are drawn out of the pit. The coals which pass over the skreen are sent away as best skreened coals. The small coal which passes through the bars falls into the duff (muck) box.
Kevin gave the piece to a good friend and schoolteacher who wanted something to help educate her pupils about life as a coal miner. The model then spent many years at a school in Doncaster before returning to Kevin.
On 27th February 1981 Woodhorn Colliery closed and the remaining workforce were transferred to other pits. From 1966 coal was no longer brought to the surface at Woodhorn but went by underground conveyor to Ashington Colliery.