Lisa Nandy MP: Celebrating our mining heritage

Earlier this month we finally unveiled a tribute to our borough’s great mining heritage in Wigan town centre.
Lisa Nandy at the unveiling of the statueLisa Nandy at the unveiling of the statue
Lisa Nandy at the unveiling of the statue

Although the statue, which depicts a miner, a pit brow lass and a child, has been in place near to Wigan Town Hall – the site of the borough’s former mining college - since last year the pandemic has prevented it being officially presented to the public until now.

This was a stunning occasion which brought together former miners and their families, the mayoress, councillors and people from across the country who came to pay tribute to the men, women and children who, over centuries, built Britain’s wealth and influence and helped power the world.

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Over three centuries, more than 750 million tons of coal were mined from the vast Wigan coalfields, which over time had over 1,000 pits, large and small.

It would be difficult to underestimate the contribution of these pits and those who worked in them to the Industrial Revolution.

However, these achievements also often came with great costs to local people.

The unveiling ceremony was a powerful reminder of the sacrifices people in the Wigan borough made and continue to make as a result of working in the mining industry. Hundreds lost their lives in local pit disasters while countless others were left injured and unable to work.

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Two huge local mining disasters are still remembered and commemorated more than a century after they occurred.

In 1908, 75 men lost their lives in the Maypole pit near Abram. Only two years later, one of the worst mining disasters in Britain took the lives of 345 men at the Pretoria pit near Westhoughton.

One of the speakers at the ceremony, ex-miner Eric Foster OBE, worked at the Golborne Colliery at the time when an underground explosion took place on March 18, 1979 leading to the tragic deaths of 10 miners.

He spoke movingly about the need to honour and remember those who lost their lives while working in the mining industry.

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Meanwhile the legacy of lung diseases like mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, lasts amongst ex-miners in Wigan to this day and the fight for justice is not over.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that about 5,000 people die every year in the UK from asbestos-caused cancers, which can develop decades after exposure.

The North West records the second highest rate of death as a result of such diseases each year in the UK.

The statue, beautifully created by artist Steve Winterburn (who also made the nearby statue of Billy Boston), doesn’t seek to glorify our past but it does seek to honour the contribution made. Too much of the history we commemorate is the history of kings and queens instead of the ordinary, often extraordinary people, who built Britain. This month’s statue unveiling began to set that right.

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It was only thanks to the efforts of local people who came together through the Wigan Heritage and Mining Monument (WHAMM) charity, set up by Sheila Ramsdale and Anne Catterall, that the statue exists at all.

Many people helped to raise money for the statue, including the national and local press who helped raise awareness of the project and Wigan Council who supported us financially.

But fittingly and most movingly of all, it was made possible because of the small donations of hundreds of people, who gave in some cases the little amounts they had spare, to ensure it stands proudly in Wigan town centre today.

Wigan is famous the world over for our mining heritage but now there is no real trace of the huge Wigan coalfields this must not become forgotten history here at home.

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Children in schools only a few miles from where the statue now stands need to know about the contribution made by their ancestors.

If we don’t stand proudly by our history who else will?

What is more, towns like Wigan are owed not only a tribute to the past but investment in our future.

We still hold much engineering expertise in the local area thanks to our mining past. With the right investment we could see new jobs in clean energy-the research, solar, battery and wind jobs of the future. Why shouldn’t young people in Wigan power us through the next century just as those before them powered us through the last?

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