Andy Royston celebrates his parents, Joan and Colin, Yorkshire born and bred.
Inspired by Sam Monaco’s moving tribute to his own parents.
The older I get, and the more people that I meet, I’m beginning to realize that I must be the luckiest man in the world.
I didn’t think so when I was a kid, growing up in a small farming village at the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfields. I didn’t think that I was anyone special really. In a tiny place like Hemingfield, tucked away in the Yorkshire fields, there were always those who seemed bigger and stronger and brighter than me.
But I didn’t notice something very important. Me and my brother and sister grew up in a paradise.
Mum and dad both grew up in a town called Hoyland, which is just east of the Barnsley/Sheffield turnpike in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. Back then this small town was surrounded by coal mines. There was winding gear and muck stacks everywhere you turned; pit buzzers sounded the shifts and the coal trains ran back and forth day and night.
Beyond the coal dust and the clank clank of coal trains the area was still farm land and a good walk in any direction would have you out in the fresh Yorkshire air. Local hills were criss-crossed with footpaths that dated back to before the days of the industrial revolution. The area was rough edged, overgrown and beautiful – and it’s no wonder that the area is now on the Heritage trail, those last remnants of industry now a popular tourist destination. Elsecar Heritage has one of the oldest in-situ steam engines in the world, and some of that early industry is now lovingly preserved. Pity they pulled down the Town Hall clock, mind you…
Both sides of my family were colliers from way back. We can track their mining heritage right back to the Napoleonic wars, mostly in the mines around the old Fitzwilliam mining lands.
Dad’s family up from further down the Dearne Valley. Armthorpe. Markham Main. Doncaster way. Elsie, my grandma, had been raised by a widowed 1st World War mum who’d spent time in the workhouse before re-marrying, so hadn’t had it easy.
Elsie wasn’t schooled much – I remember her taking literacy lessons at Barnsley Tech once her husband had passed away, so that she could write out her Christmas cards. She was so proud of my going to study for a degree – she felt that she and her husband had paid a lifetime of taxes, so it was wonderful that someone in the family was finally taking some of it back.
Dad was also raised by Arthur, my taciturn grandfather, a rough edged coal miner who never had a lot to say to us kids. By the time I got to know him he’d retired, after working through half his mining days fighting off pneumoconiosis. His mother had been one of the leading lights of the Doncaster Labour Party and an early suffragette – not that we’d have known much about that without Gran filling us in.
Dad was one of three brothers, and for a time they lived right on the doorstep of Cortonwood Colliery – in a long gone hamlet near Brampton called Concrete Cottages. This was very spot where, in 1984, the great miners strike began. It was inevitable he’d be down the pit too, where his elder brother Keith worked as a banksman on the winding team, just up the road at Elsecar Main before moving to Halifax with his young family in the 1970s where he would work in carpet manufacturing. Terry, the youngest, a bit of a rock and roller, had other plans…
Dad was always a sporting bloke. Cricket and football were his games, and he played one or another every chance he got. He was as fit as a butchers dog, and must have cut more coal from the Cortonwood seam than just about anybody. In those days miners used to walk miles to work through the countryside along canal banks and footpaths, and I think this made outdoorsmen of many a collier. At the School Sports Dad’s Race he won a cup for ten years consecutively. No-one came close.
Mum grew up in a mining family too, especially on her mother’s side. The Howarths go back to Lancashire, Derbyshire and the Isle of Man, all attracted to the workings of the canals, foundries, railways and coal mines that grew along the Sheffield turnpike during the 1800s. They’d lived in Rockingham, Tankersley and Hoyland Common – Kes country for you movie buffs.
My mother’s father, Bill Hill, was turned down by the war effort for medical reasons and was out of work a lot of the time, save for a spell of window cleaning, when he used a motorbike and sidecar with ladders attached. He was a bit of an awkward bugger and us kids didn’t see a lot of him. His family, though decently housed in a brick-built council place, grew up poor. Gran scrabbled for coal along the old coal slag heaps and only half-jokingly used to tell her daughters “Marry a collier, you’ll never go cold…”
If mum brought anything away from her childhood it was a love of books and music. Grandad’s mum ran the little library in nearby Jump, and if there was any consolation to life with a touchy father it was his bookishness. It took her all the way to a scholarship at the prestige Barnsley Girls High School where she picked up a love for romantic poets and painters. I would certainly see the benefits of that growing up.
She adored the glamour of the cinemascope movies, where Stewart Grainger, Mario Lanza and Doris Day brought those Rogers and Hammerstein musicals to life. Cinema was cheap and popular in those days, when hardly anyone had a TV set.
Marry a Collier…
Mum and dad went through a classic Yorkshire courtship in Hoyland, then with two or three decent cinemas and some classy pubs, only some of which have survived. Dad was living up at Queensway, Hoyland when they met in 1957. There was a decent network of Workingmen’s Clubs (with their CIU signs) with their club turns to provide entertainment. Mum and Dad married young and moved to a village close to Cortonwood, further down the valley, in a smart little terraced house on Garden Grove, Hemingfield.
In the marriage photographs the two of them look just like Elizabeth Taylor and Conrad Hilton, so glamorous and full of hope. And that’s where I come in, the chatterbox in the cowboy hat, to disrupt things.
Being the first born boy into a family of four sisters and one brother, I was always going to get a little spoiled as a toddler. Mum, working part time at a Chemist shop in the nearby town of Wombwell, put her literacy to good use – I was given a fine start, learning my ABCs off of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packets, and encouraged to draw draw draw.
Dad showed signs of settling down, swapped his motorbike for a little Austin and never seemed to take a day off work. Mum and dad then did something amazing – taking advantage of a deal being offered to young miners by a local developer and they made a beautiful decision. They got onto the property ladder, taking on a brand new red brick bungalow right alongside wheat fields, and planned for more kids. A great place for us kids to grow up.
Dad was a practical man, who had done a painting and decorating apprenticeship before going down the mines. His job was tough, but I never heard a moment’s moaning or complaint. Methane (firedamp as they called it) was a real problem in the Silkstone seam at Cortonwood. Blow outs were feared after the pit experienced a bad ‘un in the sixties which lifted the floor of a face and killed several men. None of this came home with him – he washed off the coal dust on the pit head and strolled home along the canal bank, birds singing and moorhens scuttling across the waters.
The Hill’s Are Alive
Mum’s life revolved around her family. Those Hill sisters filled my early life with hairspray and lipstick and soon gave me lots of cousins to hang around with. I just loved them all and still do. At the heart of it all was Grandma Lily – the kitchen table at the back of their house was a constant flow. Gran loved us kids, and her face lit up every time a toddler entered the room.
The Hill girls all married and had kids – two married soldiers and would spend some time out on distant barracks. Mum, and her youngest sister Pam both married miners, and her beloved brother Eric – the spitting image of actor Stanley Baker – came back from his National Service and put on the miner’s hat too.
I wasn’t the spoiled little lad for long – I think in total Gran had about over a dozen nippers running around under her feet. Most of us lived locally, or near enough to make a Saturday of it. In those early days, the summer walks up the hill to Grandma Lily’s was a highlight of the weekend, until mum, sensing her two sons were getting too boisterous, persuaded Dad to take us along to local cricket and football games he played in and later coached. Dad was the man with the magic sponge – and he had to use it on me one time when I fell awkwardly, breaking an arm, disrupting the game while he was subbed off to look after me. Barnsley Beckett Hospital, plaster pot on my arm and home in time for Match of the Day.
I loved these trips – bloody cold a lot of the time, but it gave me a lifetime love of live football matches, especially on cold and frosty Saturdays. After all those days watching dad from the touchline, I love watching a match through the game rather than above it in the grandstands. Years later my season ticket at Loftus Road (QPR’s West London ground) was right by the dugout, close enough to smell the liniment. I’m eternally grateful to Dad for giving me that sporting interest. Mum gave me my love of art and design, while Dad gave me my lifelong love of sports.
Best of Times
Thinking back to those days I can’t believe what a beautiful time this was. Working folks, especially miners, were never comfortably off, yet here we were, well fed, well clothed, and not a care in’t world.
Mum and dad were infants through the war, and with the mines being essential for the war effort, the conflict didn’t effect the community as much as it did elsewhere in Britain. We still lost family though – both grandmothers lost brothers fighting out in France, Italy and North Africa. The area may have been blighted by foundries, coal mines and all kinds of black foul smelling monstrosities, but we were miles from the nearest town and the hills rolled on regardless.
What made it for us all was the way that the newly nationalized coal mines had brought comparatively high wages and benefits to the area and finally a collier could feel proud on the job. A strong Labour-ran council built good houses, maintained public parks and bus services to the point that the kids of miners, even out in the sticks like we were, had good access to education and healthcare.
Dad, to our eternal good fortune, worked without accident or mishap, save from the usual cuts and bruises. His forty-plus years underground didn’t effect his breathing as badly as it had his poor father.
Mum and dad got us out to the seaside once a year, took us to North Wales, Scarborough, Bridlington and Cleethorpes to run wild on the North Sea sands. Sure, we got there on a Yorkshire Traction bus – dad’s cars weren’t really up to the trips out to the coast in those early days, but those days were always golden. We were taken camping, and learned to share Dad’s love of the outdoors. All those years of early rising to walk those miles to the mine soon rubbed off on me too, beginning with a lengthy village paper round before a three mile walk across the hills to the High School.
All Grown Up
As I got older and cockier, I used to drive dad crazy with my increasingly loud opinions. Mum and us kids were complete natter cans, and with the radio permanently on too it must have driven dad, who worked morning, noon and night shifts, crazy.
It’s no wonder that his smart-arse artsy son (me) became increasingly hard to talk to, went punk rock, and pogoed off to art school. It’s very likely that he couldn’t wait to see the back of me! I was a bit of a menace to my little brother and sister too; I’m sure they uncorked a bottle of nettle pop to celebrate my buggering off.
I was fortunate too, that I had a full education grant to get my university level education, and when I left home to study in Manchester I did it without a thought to what it all meant. I just fell right into it. It didn’t register at the time what an achievement it had been to be the first member of either of our families to get an honors degree. I was so lost in my own adventures.
Coal Not Dole
The huge coal mine closure program of 1984 began at the very mine where three generations of Roystons had worked. Our lot had been working Cortonwood going back to the days of pit ponies and Davy lamps. This mine was where the 1984 miners’ strike began, where they prophetically set up the Alamo, the last stand against pit closures. Cortonwood was picketed round the clock throughout a near year-long strike. I’d left home by then, and was spared the full force of this tough time in our family’s life.
It was the stupidity of the decision that started it all – the closure of Cortonwood came just two days after they had been told the high-quality seam of silkstone coal they mined had another five years’ life. It was a good, well run mine, with a good safety record and plenty of coal still to be dug. Three weeks earlier 80 new miners had been transferred there. It didn’t make sense to anyone – it seemed like decisions were being made by people who didn’t know the facts about the place, or the impact the pits’ closure would have on the area. Only later did it became clear that a whole industry was being changed.
The pride I have in my father and mother steering us through all that, hanging onto the house and making sure Simon and Amanda were looked after, knows no bounds. As always Dad wasn’t moaning or complaining – but even now I don’t know how they survived it all, how they got by.
During the miners strike Dad and Mum also did some amazing things: They ran a toy drive for miners families – the house was FULL of bags of toys from all over the place. Dad got particularly stuck into this and wanted to keep busy and help others. Dad and Mum also took in Aunt Pam, Uncle John and their entire family when they had to move out of their house in Elsecar during the strike. I recall them staying with us for a number of months.
Some of my best memories of them both were family gatherings – Hosting Christmas and New Year parties – Dad in his smoking jacket, Mum laying on a spread. Snowballs, Cherry B and Tia Maria doing the rounds alongside the Party 7. Very jolly / snoring people sleeping all over the place. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee party – Dad was life and soul with his red, white & blue pointy hat, leapfrogging across the front garden. Mum make a crown cake creation complete with fruit gum jewels and an amazing spread, including eggy boats complete with sails.
Back home in Hemingfield, both my brother and sister grew up too. My brother to work initially in office work (by this time the pits were all closing and there was no work like there used to be), then as a professional driver on long distance European runs. Simon, as a teen, once knocked on the pit door himself, but with the closures there was no work to be had. My sister, always a snappy dresser, went on to get her degree in fashion before working at prestige fashion houses in London. I didn’t give Mum and dad any grand kids – I know they’d have loved them so much if I had; but as we all watch our wonderful Elizabeth (my niece, just starting out in college) grow into a beautiful and talented young woman the future of our little family is in good hands.
Thick and Thin
Mum and dad have stayed together through thick and thin. Sometimes I wondered how compatible they were. Dad the action man, always up and out doing sports, or sitting by a river with his fishing rod. Mum knuckling down to her artful cake decorating and curling up with a good book or three.
In a month or two they’ll be boarding a plane to Florida, still pulling together, and still keeping upbeat and positive. Sure, as they approach their eighties, health issues are kicking in, but when Dad’s got his glass of Bud and his cuban cigar all those concerns will fade away.
I left Yorkshire in the late seventies, yet have always felt I have a welcome back in the old county. Even from this long distance, 4,328 miles to be exact. My love and appreciation for this wonderful couple who fed, clothed and educated me, giving me a childhood with not a thing to every worry about, is undiminished.
They seem unsuited in many ways – dad’s a doer, mum’s a thinker – and is they move towards their old age it must be a strain. But here they are, still going strong and getting on with things. I’m very very proud of the both of them.
Jackie, my partner in crime, put it very clearly to me just now.
How lucky I am in that my parents both have always made their love of me very clear.
I do hope that they feel the same way about me.
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