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Family History: Eddie Downes delves deep into the history of mining

EDDIE Downes comes from a long line of coalminers.

EDDIE Downes comes from a long line of coalminers.

His great-great grandfather hailed from north-east Derbyshire in the 1800s, with links to the pits of Shirebrook and the Worksop area.

Maternal and paternal grandparents lived in mining communities and came together in South Elmsall, the heart of a huge coalfield with famous pits such as Frickley, Grimethorpe and South Kirkby within walking distance.

This was where Eddie was born and still lives. Though mining has virtually disappeared from the area and its former collier families have had to rethink their futures, coal mining is still in Eddie’s heart.

“I would have been interested to talk to my relatives,” he said. “A lot of that ‘real’ history has been lost.”

Eddie doesn’t want any more of it to be washed away.

To that end he has set about putting together what he hopes will be a history of UK coalmining, a mammoth task that is now nearing completion.

Writing about mines instead of going down them would have pleased Eddie’s dad.

“My grandparents and father were pit men,” said Eddie. “My dad didn’t want me to go down the mines. He wanted me to ‘better’ myself.”

Eddie got seven 0 levels and four As in 1969 but really didn’t want to work in a bank.

Instead, he got a job in shipping, which didn’t work out, then as a brick drawer, in which his main job was to haul up to 40,000 bricks out of the kilns every week.

But then there was a chance meeting with a personnel manager from Frickley Colliery, who persuaded Eddie to train as a mining engineer.

He got a job at Frickley, then went on day release at Doncaster College for a year.

“There were 96 lads on that course, and only two got jobs,” said Eddie. “I was very lucky.”

He went on to gain a Higher National Diploma in mine management, which resulted ultimately in a job as a mining under-manager, second in charge at pits in the Doncaster field which employed more than 2,000 men.

Eddie eventually qualified as a geotechnical engineer, specialising in drilling and grouting.

For five years he travelled all over the world as a trouble-shooter, putting out underground fires and shoring up large rock-falls – and not just in coal pits.

He has worked at a copper mine in Zambia, and a tin mine in Cornwall. His skill was in demand in Canada and the US, in Spain and Germany, and he was soon in charge of his own contracting company, a sort of mines ‘flying squad’ employing 20 men.

“In its heyday, our company was one of just three in the UK,” he said. “We used a specially developed foam to starve fires of oxygen and seal them off, and we were happy to make 40 million ton rock-falls safe so that work could carry on.”

He has retired now and is devoting much of his time to completing his mining history.

“I’ve been thinking of doing this now for 17/18 years,” he said. “I feel that if someone doesn’t make an effort all this will be forgotten.”

He’s accumulated 5,000 mining pictures and thinks the finished book may have 350-400 pages of text.

Contents will include mining disasters, the history of mining, the effects of the canals and railways on how coal mining developed, the social effects of mining and, conversely, the effects on communities when the pits closed and thousands lost their jobs.

Eddie is still short of material from the Huddersfield area and is busy interviewing people and collating written information.

If anyone has mining memories, memorabilia and pictures, Eddie can be contacted on 07958 331262.

 

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