What To Do With The Pitheads – Tom Brown

aerial photo of a derelict mining pithead in Staffordshire, with many trees and other greenery around it

1967 Syndicalist Workers Federation article on reclaiming the land used for mining.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 27, 2022

Pit heaps and landscape gardening —are the two compatible? Landscape gardening now means a small lawn, a dozen daffodils and a shrub each side of the door of a semi-detached in Hendon. But in its golden age during the 18th and early 19th centuries it meant gardening on the vast scale of the landscape. English landowners turned away from the Italian gardeners and their ideal of a flat rectangle covered by geometrical pattern, and engaged English workers who followed nature's pattern and gave us the many beautiful landscapes we think are the sole work of nature.

The greatest of these gardeners, Capability Brown, faced with a flat landscape, relieved it by undulations doubtless inspired by the rolling hills of his native North country. Why then should not the ugly, threatening waste heaps of mining be made friendly by trees and covered by nature's green mantle?

The Waste Lands

Mining desolates every land it touches. A couple or so generations pull from the earth the better part of its wealth then the land is left spoiled, marred, shunned. Yet farming can go on for a thousand years and make the land richer. This is a small island with little natural wealth and a rapidly increasing population, therefore all scourged acres should be returned to purposes of human wealth and happiness.

Other industries have added to mining's crime against the land; sand pits, quarries, chemical wastes and abandoned factories add to the nightmare landscape. Yet it need not be so. The economics of capitalism, including State capitalism, declares it "uneconomic" to extract all the mineral wealth or restore to mankind the countryside it spoiled. Social economics would declare it most uneconomic to destroy in a few years what should be useful to mankind for long ages.

I have seen a few. attempts to make pleasant the pit heaps, some less than half-hearted, some very well done. But I offer you a better reference than my observation. In 1963 Mr. Keith Joseph had issued from the Ministry of Local Government a large pamphlet, well illustrated, on New Life for Dead Lands (HMSO, 4s.) giving seven examples of such pod work, two of which I have visited.

At Wallbrook, Staffordshire, the Coseley Urban District Council, short of building land, acquired for £5,520 18 acres of derelict pit land. For £5,160, a local contractor cleared and levelled the pit waste. Drainage, a problem aggravated by extensive building, was cheaply solved by directing the surface water into one of the disused pit shafts. "The soak. away was so successful that there are regrets that so many old shafts have been filled in."

At Ince (Lancs) some frightfully derelict land was taken over by the urban and county councils. Coal had been mined there for 100 years until 1908, since when it has become an eyesore and a menace to health. Pit heaps and shafts, chemical waste, concrete foundations, stagnant water, a canal branch and basin scarred the landscape, and sulphur stank.

The Cost Of A Banquet

The owner donated the land, a civil engineering firm was engaged to tip the concrete and old buildings into the canal. 48,000 cubic yards of pit shale were excavated and used to level up low-lying land. Burnt red shale was spread a foot deep on a housing site as an extra foundation, sift from the canal was spread as soil. This work cost £10,520, little more than the cost of a municipal banquet

Eighty houses were built, 32 acres were turned into playing fields, giving, a track up. to AAA standards, three football pitches, a cricket ground, a bowling green, a mini-golf course, and four tennis courts.

The .32 acres were landscaped for £1.340, grass established and trees and shrubs hid the old shafts and lined the whole area.

At Wombwell (Yorks) Mitchell Main closed in 1955, leaving deserted the usual pit heaps to fill the eyes with dust and tee soul with despair. The NCB sold the 44 acres of tips to the county council for the "glad-to-be-rid-of-it" price of £5.

Three sharply pointed hills stubbed upwards on the skyline. The tops of these were removed by heavy earth-moving machinery, the hollows between partly filled, a more reasonable gradient established and a maximum height of 80 feet established. The land was ditched and fenced. For all this work £9,000 was paid. It was feared that the hidden fire of the heap would burst out. This fear was proven false.

Fertilizer and lime were spread and the area sown with grass seed. This cost £1,230: the area was then prepared for planting trees. Afterwards cattle grazed and now trees are growing over a pleasant landscape.

Croxdale tip, near Durham city, can be seen from the North Road and the main-line railway, but no one will recognise it as a tip. In the mid-1950s the Durham County Council took over this tip and successfully changed the contour, sowed grass and planted pine, birch and alder trees over the whole area, straight into the shale; no soil or fertiliser was used. Now the one-time eyesore is a green and pleasant ridge, 120 feet high, roiling down to sweet pasture land.

It's Up To You

Much has been learned from such experiments as these. The cost is a fraction of what was feared, it is possible to grow grass, trees, flowers, even oats on pit waste heaps. Ugliness, dirt, danger to health, the massacre of innocents are not the inevitable price of "Progress".

Previous governments have made it easy for county, borough and district councils to do something about the lost lands, but the councils, even when deprived of these chief excuses, "It's impossible" and "It would cost millions", are apathetic. But there is a cure for municipal apathy; the council is not a faceless Whitehall or a faraway Government. It is known and, like the waste land and the spoil heap, is near your doorstep. Demonstrations to the council chamber and the homes of councillors, if sufficiently strong and often, get the council, and the tip, moving.