British brass band marches on with miners’ legacy, 40 years after milestone strike

Memories of the U.K.’s once-mighty mining industry are fading but 40 years after an epoch-defining strike, Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band still embodies the close ties that once bound the community.

“It’s like the band, when times are hard, we stick together,” said Ray Sykes, chairman of the year-long 1984-85 strike, from the practice hall that has been his second home for 70 years.

Miners at Frickley Colliery, in the Yorkshire town of South Elmsall in northern England, prided themselves on being “second to none” during the action against planned pit closures.

Very few broke the strike, which was once described as “the decisive social and economic confrontation of Britain’s post-war era” that hastened the demise of heavy industry.

The mine, which employed 3,000 workers at its height, eventually succumbed and shut in 1993.

However, the mines were the foundation of the regional economy, and without them, communities are still suffering economically.

But the brass band marches on — consistently still ranking in the world’s top 10 — and keeps Frickley on the international map.

Mr. Sykes, 77, said the heaviest toll had been the gradual fracturing of the community bond, forged in the unforgiving and often dangerous subterranean world of heat and dust.

‘Losing camaraderie’

Camaraderie spread through the community above, he said. “Sadly we are losing it, and you can see it happening in the village,” he said.

He likened the pit closure’s effect on the community to “a son losing his father”.

The community’s social life largely revolved around the mine — including not only the band but local football club Frickley Athletic, which is still plying its trade four leagues below professional level.

On March 16, the club marked the anniversary by wearing the same shirt as the team wore in 1984. On the back was written “The Miners United will never be defeated”.

Hundreds packed the club’s 100-year-old main stand, which was decorated with a flag depicting firebrand union boss Arthur Scargill being arrested during the strike.

Wounds unhealed

But wounds opened during the miners’ strike are not yet fully healed.

“The violence in the village was quite nasty, really nasty, and I would not like to see that ever, ever again,” said Mr. Sykes, whose father and grandfather both worked at the pit.

Pete Wordsworth, a miner from the age 16, who stopped working in 2015, said the most ardent strikers “are still saying that they would not speak to a miner who went back to work. They are really, really bitter.”

He is now deputy mine manager at the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, which has special exhibitions marking the strike’s anniversary.

“All the small villages had really good communities and everybody pulled together,” he said, in the shadow of the old mine’s winding gear. But pit closures “fragmented” those communities, he said. Miners moved to find work and more educated people left.

Even the celebrated band came close to shutting during the strike, as financial hardship whittled its numbers down to just eight.

Its reputation for excellence was its saving grace, helping it to attract talented players from hours away with no links to the pit.

They are now trumpeting the area’s heritage and identity.

“That’s what keeps this band going, the name,” said a visibly emotional Mr. Sykes, beating his hand on the 119-year-old band’s logo, over his heart.

One such newcomer is cornet player Tabby Kerwin, who makes a two-hour round trip for each of the twice-weekly practices.

“Everyone does it for the love of it and for the legacy, for the history,” she said before practice.

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