Barony: A Fight for Life
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Towering above the Ayrshire landscape off the road passing the country house of James Boswell’s father to the village of Auchinleck stands the famous ‘A-frame’, what remains of Barony Colliery.
Barony Colliery, c.1987. Crown Copyright.
On 8 November 1962, Barony’s No. 2 shaft collapsed entombing two contract workers Thomas Fyvie and George Wade along with oversman Henry Green and deputy John McNeil. The personal disaster for the families of Thomas Fyvie, Henry Green, John McNeil and George Wade was part of what labour historian John Benson described as, ‘a steady drip-drip of death’ (p.39–40), associated with coal mining. As the former miner, colliery manager, and national president of the colliery managers’ trade union Jim Bullock (who had himself lost one of his older brothers in a pit accident) put it: ‘Tragedy is never far from the great pulley wheels that haul coal and men from the depths’ (pp.9–10). It was also a collective disaster both in terms of how these deaths resounded around the community and, with the filling in of no.1 shaft, the closure of the colliery.
The collapsed Barony No. 2 shaft, November 1962. Crown copyright.
Front page of the Cumnock Chronicle, 9 November 1962
Prior to the Barony shaft collapse, the area had suffered two major pit disasters in just over a decade. The first of these was the inrush at Knockshinnoch Castle Colliery, in New Cumnock, in 1950 which claimed 13 lives but captured public imagination with the daring rescue that saved most of the remaining 135 miners trapped underground and was broadcast to international audiences by Pathé and subsequently formed the subject of the 1952 film, The Brave Don’t Cry. The second disaster was an explosion at Kames Colliery in Muirkirk in 1957 when 17 miners lost their lives.
The area scarcely needed a reminder of the effects of colliery closures either. In 1947, the vicinity around Barony Colliery boasted 15 collieries. Less than twenty years later, around half of those had closed. These formed part of widespread closures across the Scottish coalfields, which numerically peaked between 1958 and 1964. On nationalisation in 1947, 81,000 were employed in the Scottish coal industry, by the late 1960s, 60,000 of those jobs had been lost. Hence the resonance when National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Scottish Area official (and future Scottish Area President and NUM Vice President) Michael McGahey announced to a local audience in the Cumnock and Doon Valley in 1966: ‘What we are experiencing is not the normal process of life of closing down exhausted pits, but the deliberate, premeditated murder of an industry’. Added to this was the fact that the National Coal Board, Scottish Division, had in 1949 considered Barony to be a major commuter pit for the Ayrshire coalfield to absorb miners from closing collieries and be a major producer exploiting the coal reserves of the Mauchline Basin.
Coming together these events were devastating to communities already suffering the after-effects of disasters and closures. However, the fight for Barony’s life provides an (unusual) example of a successful campaign to keep a colliery open, partly as a result of community mobilisation and in part because of political connections and expediency. More broadly, the experience of Barony’s effective closure between 1962 and 1966 tell us much about the challenges of nationalisation — and tensions between local, Division/ Area and National officials both within the National Coal Board and the NUM — and the long-term effects of the pit closure programmes on the industrial politics of the coal industry. The week following the Barony shaft collapse the local Labour Party MP Emrys Hughes (and son-in-law of Labour’s founder James Keir Hardie) declared to the House of Commons (HC Debs, Col.1091, 20 November 1962): ‘This problem of the Barony is the problem of the whole of the industrial and mining areas of Scotland.’
Barony also speaks to the drawn-out effects of deindustrialisation more broadly, what American scholar Sherry Lee Linkon has referred to as the ‘half-life of deindustrialization’, workers and communities living with the constant threat, and effects, of closures. Local experiences provide rich insights into understanding both how such events and ongoing change were received and responded to, and how this impacted on the nationalised industry.
If the narrative of workplace closures typically follows a grim arch from announcement throughout fight for life to despair, the long-fought Barony campaign demonstrates the agency, creativity and resilience of community mobilisation. Barony’s survival owed much to broad based civic action by the local trades council, town councillors, and churches, as well as the NUM. Sam Purdie, an engineer at the nearby Cairn Mine who sat on the Cumnock Trades Council, and was a leading light in the campaign to save the Barony, recalled the devastating blow of the closure and the building of a community campaign from its first meeting:
“What a shock not just for Auchinleck but for Cumnock, Catrine, and remember all those suburbs in Cumnock, Netherthird, had all been built on the basis of the mining industry. Shock. So, first thing I said, coincidentally we’d not long had a meeting of the Trades Council in Cumnock: “Well, we’ll need to see what we can do here”. So, we had a meeting down in Auchinleck, a community centre, about a dozen of us — a minister, the two provosts, the NUM guy. And we decided well what we need to do is get the public on our side. So, we had a public meeting, Emrys [Emrys Hughes MP] was there, one of the Moffats [this would have been Alex Moffat (1904–1967), by then President of NUMSA and former President of the Scottish Trades Union Congress] came from Edinburgh. It was a fairly high-powered meeting. The hall was packed.” – Interview, Sam Purdie, with Andrew Perchard, 25 March 2019
Such testimony, alongside town council and NUM branch records, as well as local media coverage, provide a rich picture of community mobilisation. NCB records provide an equally nuanced story demonstrating tensions between local and Scottish divisional management over the closure and attempts at re-development, and similarly between the local NUM branch, area official and the Scottish Area headquarters over lay-offs and the prolonged re-deployment of miners (with some have daily round commutes of 60 miles considerably extending their working day). These everyday exchanges speak to the realities of living with the ‘half-life of deindustrialisation’; trivial to the casual observer but indicating the impact of closures and growing anger emerging from the coalfields. It was just such anger that would fuel the national disputes of the 1972, 1974 and 1984–5 miners’ strikes. In Scotland, such anger was also influential in the politics of home rule.
The Barony’s survival also hinged on the support of influential political actors and a change in political administration. Ultimately the local political context in Ayrshire would be influential in securing Barony’s survival with the appointment of the Rt Hon Willie Ross MP as the powerful Secretary of State of Scotland in Harold Wilson’s Labour Government that first came to power in 1964. Ross had held the neighbouring constituency, Kilmarnock, to Emrys Hughes since 1946. Ross commanded considerable sway and autonomy on Scottish affairs in Wilson’s cabinet.
The NCB conceded to sinking a No. 4 shaft at Barony in 1963 with the Colliery returning to full production in 1966. The legacy of this, visible through Barony’s colliery consultative committee minutes, though was apparent through constant problems in understaffing and a perpetual fear of imminent closure. It also continued to affect the industrial politics of the pit; when the NUM branch was canvassed about industrial action in 1982, it returned one of the lowest votes in support of action in the Scottish Area. It may well also explain why after December 1984, the colliery saw a steady, if not overwhelming (until the last fortnight), flow of miners back to work during the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike. With even its newer neighbour Killoch Colliery closed in 1987, Barony held out until 17 February 1989 and its remaining workforce of 400 were laid off.
The last cage at Barony was wound by Archie Glover. Archie Glover’s widow, Margaret Glover (herself the daughter of an Ayrshire miner), recalled: “… he said time and time again if the pit opened he’d go straight away. He loved the pit…The men, the community, the closeness of it… It was his life. He was a miner.” – Interview Margaret Glover, with Andrew Perchard, 26 March 2019
Abandoned Barony Colliery buildings, c.1989–1990. Crown Copyright.
Today the Barony A frame looks out over the Ayrshire landscape, a reminder of its mining past. As at countless other mining sites, the loss of life and an industry are memorialised in a headstone. Its memory is also captured in the words of the Scots poet, and former Barony miner, Rab Wilson:
The ‘A’ Frame, lik some occult wicker-man, Grim emissary of some auncient god, Wha, like a god, demandit sweit an tears, An the bluid o thaim that wir sacrificed Oan the altar o Mammon an progress.
John Benson, British Coal Miners in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1989)
Jim Bullock, Them and US (London, 1972)
Andrew Perchard, The Mine Management Professions in the Twentieth-century Scottish Coal Mining Industry (Lampeter, 2007)
Andrew Perchard, ‘“Broken Men” and “Thatcher’s Children”: Memory and Legacy in Scotland’s Coalfields’, International Labor and Working-Class History 84 (2013), pp.78–98.
Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester, 2008)
Rab Wilson, Accent o’ the mind. Poems chiefly in the Scots language (Edinburgh, 2006).