“Now a Man” – Autoethnography and the National Coal Mining Museum

So, today I went with a friend to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to take their Underground Tour. The main purpose of the visit was as an exercise in ‘autoethnography’ –  “a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings”.

Basically, the idea was to take the tour and pay close attention to my own feelings and how I experienced it, and then draw things out from that.


We arrived late to the museum, having got horrendously turned around in Wakefield due to some less-than-helpful signs!

First impressions:

The museum opens very much like any other modern museum. Foyer, giftshop, large wall displays in dramatic colours.

Enter through the gift shop, please...
Enter through the gift shop, please…
NCM Gallery
The entrance to the main gallery

The main gallery is devoted to Mining Life, with reconstructions of miner’s cottages and cases with objects telling the stories of their lives.

This is a case showing the health consequences of mine work. The x-rays show the man’s lungs becoming irreversibly choked with soot and grime.

Miner's Lung
Miner’s Lung
Too late
Too late

There’s a stuffed rat in the bottom of the case – something for the children to squeal at.

Just your friendly neighbourhood rat
Just your friendly neighbourhood rat

We cross over the sunny yard to the head of the shaft, where the tours begin, and this is where things start to change. There’s a sense of excitement in the air, a slight whiff of danger that’s making everyone move faster as they approach – or perhaps nobody wants to be late for the last tour!

The warnings begin
The warnings begin

We gather in a cold shed-like building and scrabble for fitting hard-hats. This is where we realise – to the dismay of some – that there will be no photography in the mine.

There will be no phones.

There will be no iPods.

There will be no electronics of any kind.

Please hand in your electric car keys.

Please hand in your watches.

Hand in your cigarettes, your lighters, your e-cigs and your matches.

This mine is bound by contraband laws, as any working mine would be. This place is dangerous. You are not safe.

Goodbye to technology
Goodbye to technology

We file in past a window to hand in our contraband and receive our lights and battery packs for going underground.


I hand in my camera, and it’s gone. I can’t show you anything. You are now in the dark, like we are. Like they were.

First we stand on reinforced glass over a pit – the furnace shaft. It’s nothing more than a giant air vent; a fire at the bottom sucks air from the mine and pushes it up the shaft, taking away deadly gases and allowing them to be replaced by fresh air from the surface.

It’s a hundred and forty metres down.

The bricks run with black water seeping out of the walls, and the shaft is girdled at intervals by iron bands. It looks like a trachea. Like a throat.

We move on, to the pit head. Our guide, a bluff Yorkshire miner who insists on being referred to as BJ, points out initials carved into the lintel of the winding house. I make a note to take a picture later:

Emma Lister Kaye
Emma Lister Kaye

“Those’re the initials of the mine master at the time this block was built. She – yes she! – had this made,” he says.

“Emma Lister Kaye, she were called. Daughter of the owner.”

A brief pause.

“Can’t tell you how good a master she were though!” he adds with a smirk.

We move on, to where we begin our descent. Twenty of us crammed into a cage the size of an ordinary lift, and still not packed tight enough for our guide – he shoves us jovially and we are crushed against the wire. As we descend almost every person has their light on. We stare at the brickwork, at the dripping water, and the dirty wire. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done before.

At the bottom it is cold – very cold. The air is blowing relentlessly from a tunnel directly in front of us – the emergency exit, BJ tells us. Exit, ventilation shaft, lifesaver. If the lift breaks, he says, if something happens to the shaft, we can walk out. Six hundred metres, up a steep slope, bare slimy rock running with water. But still, he says…. we can get out. 

We’re underground for a long time – over an hour, although down in the pit time is malleable. We are there both moments and forever.

Everything is black or grey. Everything is hard – rock, wood, metal. The floor sometimes crunches and sometimes slips underfoot.

Our guide has worked the mines his whole life. He talks about this place like it’s his home, throwing out slang terms as if speaking a different language, rarely stopping to explain the strange words. It doesn’t matter. Down here, in the place, somehow you understand.

At times he invites us to crawl through the low, low tunnels that the miners used to follow. The young people rush at it – many of the older ones hang back and take the safer road. One older man follows us every step and every inch – he’s an old miner himself. He offers snippets of what was different in his mine and his time. We wonder – why has he come back? Does he miss the damp, the silence, and the dark?

In one place there’s a tableau of an early mining family. The father is on his stomach in an eighteen-inch coal face, passing lumps to his wife. Between them is one solitary candle. Further out, a six year old girl holds the string to the wooden door, or trap. Close by stands a pony to pull carts – he would have seen daylight and green fields for only two weeks every year, spending the rest down the mine.

“Turn out your lights,” our guide says. One by one, some reluctantly, we comply. One by one, the circles of illumination die.

We are in darkness.

The silence is total.

“This little girl sat here for twelve hours at a time, not daring to move because of the blackness.”

When the lights go back on it’s too bright, somehow. We got used to the dark.

As we go along BJ jokes familiarly, telling anecdotes about his life, his family, his late wife. He’s very likeable, very down-to-earth – very male.

I realise we’ve entered a very masculine space. The dirt, the sweat and the blood seems to seep into us from the walls, from our guide’s rough Yorkshire tones, from the wires and metal and teeth of the machines that we pass. I’m excited to be part of this, to see it all, but I feel myself being pulled in by the masculinity of the space. I speak louder. My excitement becomes bravado. BJ plays tricks on the some of the other ladies present – rubber rats and talk of spiders – and I and another woman present laugh louder than all the others.

“We’re different,” we seem to be saying.

“Accept us. We’re one of you. We don’t scream, we don’t run. We’re not afraid. We’re not one of them.”

I think back to Emma Lister Kaye. I wonder if she felt masculinised by the mines. If she felt the need to be louder, to be more fearless, to cloak herself in testosterone to play with the boys.

Up in the main museum there is a wall of quotes about mining.

NCM man
A man is not really a man until…

“I was now a man”, it reads, “For a man is not really a man in Durham until he goes down the pit.”

I went down the pit. I was now a man. Or a counterfeit of one.

On the way up we ride the same wire lift we used to descend. We don’t talk much, this time. Nobody uses their lights. We have become accustomed to the dark and the silence, no longer something to be desperately dispelled.

Back in the yard, some other examples of the machines we saw underground lie on display. Somehow out here they lose their power – their teeth are less sharp, their lines less hulking, their scale stolen by the space and the sky. Tamed.

A wheel from the pithead
A wheel from the pithead
A coal cutting machine
A coal cutting machine
The pithead
The pithead

It’s hard to shake off the darkness of the mine. We are still carrying its traces, dust in our lungs and smuts on our skin. We laugh it off but it has marked us.

Over on the grass stands another pony in the low evening light. It turns out that this pony is at another kind of work, but for that brief moment it doesn’t matter. He stands on soft green grass, with feathery trees beyond, under a wide and limitless blue sky. The contrast is beyond words.

“It really makes you appreciate the sunlight, doesn’t it?” my friend remarks.

Oh yes.

I turn my face to the warmth and feel the buttery light through closed eyes.

I hope never to forget the sun.

Under the sky
Under the sky

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