Royalty at the coalface — Queen and Philip visit Silverwood

Royalty at the coalface — Queen and Philip visit Silverwood

By Gareth Dennison | 20/04/2021

Royalty at the coalface — Queen and Philip visit Silverwood


YOUNG miner Gary Mitchell was panicked when summoned to Silverwood pit’s management in the summer of 1975.

The teenage trainee had been queuing to collect his cheque from the deployment office at the colliery — only to be refused until he went to see the bosses.

“They wouldn’t let me have it,” said Gary, now 64. “I wondered what the hell was going on here. They said I had to go to the manager’s office.

“I was shaking like a leaf... I thought I was going to get sacked or something!

“I went into the conference room. There was this great big oak table with management on one side and a few other people who had been picked on the other.

“We stood there listening to management for two hours, not having a clue what was going on.

“Then the royal visit was mentioned, and I was told I would meet them at ten’s tailgate. That was the first I knew that there was even a visit.

“We rehearsed a couple of times beforehand. They used the manager’s secretary as the Queen and someone else played Prince Philip.”

The Duke joined the Queen on the memorable day at Silverwood. She was following in her grandparents’ footsteps — King George V and Queen Mary were there in 1912 as part of an industrial tour.

The visitors spent over two hours at Silverwood on July 30, 1975.

They arrived by Royal train at the colliery sidings at a platform specially constructed for the big day, and then travelled by car for a few hundred yards to the colliery offices.

They were met by National Coal Board chairman Sir Derek Ezra, Mr LJ Mills, board member, and Silverwood general manager Peter Lawrence. Lamps and self rescue apparatus were issued and demonstrated by Mr Lawrence.

The Royal visitors were presented with deputy’s yard sticks, specially carved in Yorkshire wood by an NCB area engineer from Worksop.

Underground, the Queen was accompanied by the pit’s nursing officer, Ivy Foulkes of Wingfield, who had interrupted a family holiday in Southport.

Ivy said: “I took equipment down in case she fainted or anything else happened but everything went smoothly.”

Gary (left), who was the youngest coalface trainee at the time, said: “I was at ten’s tailgate with Tony Kilgallon, my instructor, and Billy Highton. It was a long wait and a hot day.

“I had on overalls from when I did underground training about four years before.

“Pete Lawrence introduced the Queen to me, and then the Duke of Edinburgh followed, after a bit of a gap.

“He asked me what my dad did and I told him he was a motor mechanic, and that he wouldn’t want to work in a pit. The Duke started laughing, and said that was often the case.

“They went on the coalface and we could hear the machines start up. After that the Duke got halfway walking back and just turned and went back.

“The machines started again, and it turned out that he’d wanted to have a play on the machines.

“The look on the Queen’s face was a picture! We thought he’s going get a telling off when he gets home!”

Gary, of Ravenfield, added: “As I came back down the gantry afterwards, there were guys dishing out beer bottles.

“I went for one and they asked if I was old enough. I said: ‘Course I’m old enough!’ Management were all upstairs having a big meal.”

The Queen’s outfit — white overalls, gloves and headscarf — matched the pit’s new look.

Preparation for the visit had seen white chippings spread across the site, huge girders painted to match and a great deal of whitewashing underground.

“The whole thing must have cost millions,” said Gary. “In one of the photos from the day, you can see a shot-firing curtain, which you were meant to have there all the time. That was the only time I ever saw it. We got all sorts of safety equipment, most of which disappeared again afterwards.

“A couple of days before, the area was swarming with special branch checking everything.”

In the pit bottom, the Queen unveiled a plaque commemorating her visit.

The Advertiser reported at the time: “The plaque was in stainless steel and mounted on a slab of Yorkshire stone and set into the wall of the pit bottom roadway.

“The Royal party travelled to S10’s face some 1.75 miles from the pit bottom, travelling first on a rope hauled manrider and then transferring to a manriding train for the remainder of the journey.

“S10’s a face in the Swallow Wood Seam, and is a fully reserved training face where men from other collieries in the South Yorkshire area are trained under the supervision of experienced workmen to operate the latest coalface equipment. It is also a major contributor to the colliery’s output of more than one million tons annually.” A picture of Gary shaking hands with the Queen was among the gallery put up on the baths wall after the visit.

“I didn’t know my photo had been taken,” he said: “I think they were charging 50p each. I knew my grandma and mum would want one so I got a couple. At least they didn’t charge us for the beer on the day.”

Miners were more often known by nicknames than their real names. “I was known as the Queen’s trainee, even when I was in my 30s,” said Gary, who spent 20 years at Silverwood.

“I loved working there and I hated it. It’s strange. I hated the job itself. It was hard, dangerous and sometimes, towards the end, it felt like paid slavery.

“There were fewer and fewer people, and you’d be up to your knees in sludge.

“But I’ll never forget the laughs. Everybody was a comedian and I can honestly say that at the end of most shifts my sides would ache from laughing so much.

“And you knew that if you were injured, these guys would get you out. That’s what they did.”

Neil Bingham, of Silverwood Colliery Heritage Group, said: “A lot of people still speak about that visit and have memories about the day. My dad booked the day off.

“He had spent so long whitewashing and painting the place that he was sick of it all and wanted no part in the day!”

* For more about the heritage group, search on Facebook, email silverwoodheritage@out or call 07495 489776.

Mind your language

FORMALITY was forgotten during the two-plus hours the Royal couple spent at Silverwood, the Advertiser reported.

And warnings to miners to watch their language while in the Queen’s presence were also heeded, the coal board said.

The paper’s coverage said: “After more than an hour underground, the Queen and the Prince talked and joked with crowds of miners waiting to go down the pit for the afternoon shift.

“By the time the Royal party emerged from their underground tour, just before noon, hundreds of miners had gathered in the pit yard waiting to be wound down into the colliery. Some waited on the gantry at the pithead and, as the Queen and Prince Philip emerged, they chatted with several of them.

“Then, as the Royal couple came down from the gantry, informality took over. The Queen and Prince were often surrounded by the men, all anxious for a close up view of the Royal couple.

“The Duke spotted a knife hanging from one man’s belt, a knife complete with a large spike. ‘I suppose that’s for getting Boy Scouts out of horses hooves,’ joked Prince Philip.”

NCB officials had been worried, the Advertiser said, that the Queen might hear “some traditional miners’ earthy language”.

A coal board spokesman said the underground loudspeaker system could not be switched off for safety reasons.

But he said: “The men were warned to watch their language, and everything went without a hitch.”

The previous day, the Queen and Prince Philip went to Herringthorpe Leisure Centre — where the Duke turned his 20-minute stay into a “walkabout”.

The Advertiser reported: “On several occasions, he wandered right away from the Royal party to chat casually with young people proudly displaying their sporting skills.

“And, outside the leisure centre, he leaned over the wall of the ramp to the main entrance to chat with people in the thronging crowds.

“In the gymnasium, the Duke broke away from the Royal party to chat with members of the Rotherham Gymnastics Club, who were putting on a display for the Royal couple.”