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Dusty Digging: The National Union of Mineworkers Archive


The National Union of Mineworkers headquarters sits on a busy intersection opposite a series of training cafes in a plate glass Barnsley College building. The Yorkshire Miners’ Association opened their offices on the corner of Huddersfield road in 1874.  In 1992, the National NUM office was moved from Sheffield to Barnsley. For decades, area and national union officers have finished using files and put them wherever there was space.  Now every attic and cellar is stuffed with papers – an invaluable record of mining history.  

The main hall in the NUM headquarters was opened in 1912 and designed to honour mining work.  There are stained glass panels in the windows depicting miners.  Visitors who want to look at papers from the NUM collection get to work in this remarkable environment. Banners with Portrait of Dennis Skinner and Clement Attlee overlooked the table while I consulted the National Union of Mineworkers (Yorkshire Area) Minutes.

Researchers working in the NUM great all with papers in the foreground and banners in the background

Researching at the NUM archives

A well catalogued archive can be almost like Argos, you write down a number and people bring you what you’ve ordered. The NUM headquarters is much more like a charity shop.  I went looking for some files about the closures of our case study pits and didn’t find them all, but I ended up looking at material about canteen workers’ equal pay claims from the 1980s.

For a historian, used to dealing with files that archivists have tidily organised and catalogued, the NUM files seem like chaos, but getting them to this stage has been the result of significant work. The access that we have had during this project is only possible because of Paul Darlow, a researcher and former miner at Woolley and Houghton Main.  He scoped and organised the material and ensured that papers were as safe as possible in a building that leaks.  His work has been part funded by the University of Nottingham. Visiting the NUM collection underscores how the importance of archivists’ work.

A file box with 1972/4 strike written on the outside. The file box has dirt in the bottom

I emptied the dust and grit out of this boxfile, before I put the material back in again

The difficult years after the 1984/5 strike and the contraction of the industry have affected the NUM’s ability to preserve their files. When working on this project, we have found again and again that the location and state of archives relating to the coal industry have been shaped by the industry’s rapid and contested ending.  What papers are where, the state they are in and how they are catalogued is the result of a series of decisions, the most important of which were made as mines were being closed (a future blog post will discuss the location and state of NCB records). The present historical moment continues to shape possibilities for the survival of the NUM archives, as austerity reduces the options for funding this vital work.

Paul Darlow shows ex-miners, researchers, students (and many who fit into more than one of those categories) round the Miners’ Hall and helps them find material they’re interested in.  There are people who care about the NUM records and are interested in ensuring their long-term survival, but so much more that needs to be done to ensure that happens.  Some papers are rotting and all need to be cleaned to ensure they are free of mould spores, a process that would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Banners of Dennis Skinner and Clement Attlee

Dennis Skinner and Clement Attlee watching over

In in an ideal world, the NUM collection would survive in Barnsley and future researchers would also get the opportunity of having Dennis Skinner and Clement Attlee judge their photography skills in a building created by miners to celebrate their work.  In this world, the hope is just that it survives. Hope is not enough of course, and applications are being made for funding that would preserve and protect this collection.

Our project supported NUM in applying for a grant from the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn trust.  That grant has been successful and Paul Darlow will lead a project that brings more people in contact with the NUM archives. The more people are aware of the priceless archival resource within the NUM headquarters, the better chance we have of preserving it.

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