In 2011, I was help­ing one of my soci­ol­ogy stu­dents get started on an essay.  She wanted to write, she said, “some­thing on coalmin­ing com­mu­ni­ties”. I sug­gested she nar­row the topic, since coal min­ing was, until rel­a­tively recently, a wide­spread indus­try in the UK. She responded by sug­gest­ing that she could look at “some­where up north, where all the coalmines were”. Though she was Kent born and bred, she was taken aback when I told her that until the 1980s, there had been a thriv­ing coal indus­try in Kent that had once employed thou­sands of men.

I thought about that con­ver­sa­tion recently at a meet­ing at the pit­head of the long defunct Snow­down Col­liery, between Can­ter­bury and Dover in East Kent in the south-east of Eng­land. I met with a var­ied set of peo­ple inter­ested in sav­ing what remains of the pit­head build­ings – includ­ing the local MP and coun­cil­lor, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the his­toric build­ings trust, and three for­mer min­ers. The site offers the last remain­ing above ground evi­dence that there was ever a Kent coal­field. When coal extrac­tion was ended in the mid-1980s, the wind­ing gear was destroyed but many of the ancil­lary build­ings were left intact. The pas­sage of time has not been kind to them; saplings have sprung up across the site, birds nest in exposed rafters and bram­bles, and ivy cling to the walls. How­ever, the plan is to pur­chase the build­ings from the coal author­ity and cre­ate a mixed use devel­op­ment, which would, in part at least, memo­ri­alise the local coal industry.

Indus­trial her­itage projects like this can be con­tro­ver­sial; for some they rep­re­sent ‘smoke­stack nos­tal­gia’ or even ‘ruin porn’ – the uncrit­i­cal cel­e­bra­tion of tra­di­tional indus­tries while ignor­ing their numer­ous neg­a­tive lega­cies.  Dur­ing the 1980s, some on the left in the UK lined up to attack the growth of the her­itage indus­try, a Dis­ney­fied ver­sion of the nation’s mate­r­ial past.  They argued that the sen­ti­men­tal, con­ser­v­a­tive, and largely uncrit­i­cal preser­va­tion of the built envi­ron­ment glossed over more crit­i­cal aspects of his­tory, includ­ing evi­dence of working-class life.

Lately, this con­cern has lighted on the con­tem­po­rary pub­lish­ing trend of cof­fee table books that offer beau­ti­ful images of on indus­trial ruins. Shelves in the fine art sec­tions of cer­tain book­shops groan beneath the weight of this dein­dus­trial aes­thetic.  While crit­ics don’t always say so, I think the objec­tion is, at least in part, to the absence of labour both sub­stan­tively and rhetor­i­cally in the text. These books cel­e­brate beauty in decay and the grandeur of decline, but most men­tion lit­tle or noth­ing of the peo­ple who once toiled in the build­ings or their fate since closure.

When the group was assem­bled at Snow­down col­liery, we set off for a quick tour of the site. The var­i­ous build­ings were pointed out, their orig­i­nal pur­pose explained, and their pro­jected use out­lined. After a time the dis­cus­sion turned to a rather involved debate about the legal issues which beset the own­er­ship of the site and might still scup­per plans for its restora­tion. As the dis­cus­sion extended and became more spe­cialised, I felt a tug at my sleeve as George, one of the for­mer min­ers present, invited me for his own tour of the site.  We walked around the pit­head and talked about the mine in its hey­day, and about the vil­lage and com­mu­nity it had sup­ported. This mine, along with much of theKent­coal­field, had been pop­u­lated by min­ers look­ing for work who trav­elled down from the north of Eng­land after the Great War in 1918. He talked about the way these incom­ers had been dis­trusted by the local pop­u­la­tion and the way that legacy still per­sists at times, includ­ing in the way  the Kent coal­field dialect still car­ries traces of north­ern influ­ences, reflect­ing the rel­a­tive iso­la­tion of coalmin­ers in this area.

As we walked among the decay­ing build­ings, we reflected not so much upon the archi­tec­ture, impres­sive though that was, but on the skill of the crafts­men who had ren­dered mate­r­ial the architect’s plans — a ped­i­ment here, a per­fectly exe­cuted cir­cle of brick there. Towards the end of our infor­mal tour, I asked George why he wanted to see the build­ings saved.  It was, he said, because so many of his friends and fam­ily mem­bers had worked there, been injured or killed in the pit, “good men” he said. He wanted some­thing phys­i­cal left to invite peo­ple to pause and think about one aspect of Kent’s indus­trial past and the part played by working-class peo­ple.  When I told George about my for­mer stu­dent, he laughed and agreed this gen­er­a­tional amne­sia was com­mon even in his own vil­lage where chil­dren and young adults, who in for­mer times would have them­selves made their way into col­liery employ­ment, were now almost entirely igno­rant of the pur­pose of the site’s buildings.

This, then, is the real the value of our indus­trial past. For­mer fac­to­ries and other build­ings can­not all be saved of course, but some should be, and his­tor­i­cal sites should include the sto­ries of labour – both in the sense of the work itself and the trade union move­ment — and of working-class peo­ple. With­out phys­i­cal reminders of pre­vi­ous ways of liv­ing and being in the world, our abil­ity to read the past is impov­er­ished. Their mere exis­tence elic­its mem­ory and debate. Impor­tantly, such remem­brance is not sim­ply nos­tal­gic. Rather, I believe, it reflects a more com­plex desire for recog­ni­tion for working-class life, the acknowl­edge­ment that some­thing impor­tant went on here that oth­ers should know about now and in the future. The desire to pre­serve indus­trial her­itage sites does not ide­alise the past — the deaths and injuries George spoke of surely negate that. Rather, it speaks to a sim­ple desire for dig­nity. George and his for­mer work­mates became involved in the preser­va­tion project due to a sense of debt they feel towards their work and com­rades. They seem to feel a moral respon­si­bil­ity, a cus­to­di­an­ship for their indus­try, even though it is long deceased.

Kent is a county that has seen more than its share of indus­trial loss. How­ever, traces of this legacy are often dif­fi­cult to find. The County is known as the ‘Gar­den of Eng­land’ a phrase that high­lights the agri­cul­tural land­scape but masks the once exten­sive indus­trial and man­u­fac­tur­ing aspect of the region includ­ing chem­i­cals, gun­pow­der pro­duc­tion, paper-making, ship and sub­ma­rine con­struc­tion, and elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing. This his­tory is some­times marked, a plaque here or pos­si­bly a her­itage trail there, but it is all too easy to lose the big­ger pic­ture of the rich and vibrant working-class cul­tures and com­mu­ni­ties that were cre­ated as a by-product of indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. That is why projects like Snow­down should mat­ter to us.

All images copy­right Tim Strangleman.