Engaging Our Youth

When Yesterday Was Young – NCMME Trip with Research Group

Sunday 9th July 2017

On the 9th of July 2017, we returned the National Coal Mining Museum for England, this time taking with us our research committee so they could experience both the underground tour and the workshops which could be provided by the museum. For this visit, I acted as both an assistant for the younger students as well as a researcher, analysing and recording about the workshops for later revisiting.

Due to previous experience within the museum, I was aware of some of the items which were offered within the area, such as the underground experience and research centre/library. Yet, when traveling to the museum, I could still feel the anticipation of returning, as there were many areas of the museum that I hadn’t yet seen and the workshops would also be a new experience. However, my focus were the students who I would be helping. My group consisted of three chaperones and a small group of ten students.

After being greeted by Jayne Ambrose, who is the Education Officer at the museum (I had previously met her briefly on our first visit), she guided us to our room, which we could use to store our bags and coats and eat during lunch. Not much time was spent within this room, as we soon set off to our different workshops. Our group began with the underground tour.

Underground Tour/Museum

I had enjoyed the underground tour when I first visited the museum and I was excited to experience this return in a different light, this time trying the workshops and other experiences which could be offered to our younger students (11-13 years). After readying the students, securing their helmets and ensuring they had the light strapped around their shoulder, we were guided to the glass over a hole, which showed the depth of which we would be descending. This took the students by surprise and some of them became unsure of the activity. When we arrived at the cage, which would take the students down into the mine, four of our students decided they could not go down out of fear of the underground. Myself and the chaperones tried to convince them to go through and try the mine, stating that if they felt uncomfortable, they could be brought back up to surface quickly and promptly. They still decided to stay above ground so I agreed to stay with them and explore the museum, bringing them back within the hour. As the others descended, I took my small group to some of the different exhibits in the museum to see what could be learnt.

I decided first to take them to the pit ponies, to see the items which could be used to care for the pony as well as some of the competitions and awards the ponies and miners could have won. The ponies were not all at the stable, one being ill. Regardless, the students still enjoyed seeing the items hung and laid in the stables. They picked these items up, tested their weights and tried to guess what each item could be used for, before looking at the information about them. Two of the pit cats, which had residence in the museum came through the stable and the students asked about the cats. As I had already met one of these animals, I informed them that one of the cats was very old, around 22 years of age and was both deaf and partially blind, so they must be careful not to startle it. After asking what pit cats were used for, one of the workmen who walked around the area informed us that the cats were employed to keep the rat or mouse population down in the mines. These animals would be kept in the pony’s stables and would hunt the mice or rats as their regular job role. The students were interested in the cat’s roles and were taken back by the fact that these cats would be kept with the miners and ponies underground. I also informed them briefly about the role of the canary in the mines and how they would be used to detect gases as their lungs were so small they would react quicker than a human, and I used the real canary’s aviary to show the difference of size in comparison to a human.

After discussing animal roles within the mine, I took the students through some of the other exhibits within the museum, so they could see and experience as much as they could whilst waiting for their classmates to return from the underground experience. We looked through the Control Rooms, where it could be seen that there were several different ways in which the mine was controlled, and the students read information as to how the gentleman at the desk of the control room would work. They learnt how the Control Room was used to monitor how coal was moving underground, which was vital for production targets. They seemed drawn to the room due to its presentation of the man at the desk, which they thought was both humouring, though curious, as they were unsure of his role to begin with and had wanted to know more.

The last area we visited before returning to the group was the Coal Interface Gallery, which showed how the coal was mined and the different mechanical and natural ways in which the coal was extracted and exported from the mine to the surface. They considered the different machines and tried the puzzles which were provided throughout this section of the museum, clearly enjoying the interaction they had with the exhibit. Again, it was interesting to note how each student interacted with the museum, as there was a clear difference as to how they chose what areas they wanted to explore and look at. Either they would be interested in the information or entertained by the activities. Only one of the students which I was assisting read through the information before continuing (without prompting from myself). The others seemed disinterested in the long paragraphs of information which were strewn across the walls. After about ten minutes trying the different areas of this section, I called the students back and walked them to the underground tour area, where we waited for the others to return.

Once all the students were together, they ate lunch in the room which we had been provided. I asked them to calm down before we began our next workshop “Dig Deeper.” The workshop was just next door, and we walked into the room and sat down, waiting for the miner to arrive.

Dig Deeper

When the miner arrived, he wore the same equipment which was worn by any miner whom would take us down and show the underground tour. He greeted the students and walked quickly to the centre of the room, where he kept a storage box which looked similar to that of a table.

This box stored items which were integral to the workshops, with examples of miner wear, miner’s items, lamps and even a canary. And atop the table was a geographical interactive model of the Caphouse Colliery, including layers of the earth which depicted the scope and depth which miners faced each day.

Our first section of this workshop was about the geographical and scientific information surrounding the process of coal. We were informed that coal was created by trees becoming crushed and compact whilst decomposing in the ground. He also explained how deep and old coal could be, pointing at his chart as he did so. How did the coal get underground? He would ask and then answer the question, ensuring that everyone understood his answer. What was coal used for? Questioning our students, making them focus, then providing the facts before we forgot the question that was asked. It was an interesting way to teach, however, I didn’t feel like I learnt anything new from this section, as much of it correlated only facts and figures rather than personal experiences.

Then the miner asked the students questions about the personal worries of mining, such as food and drink within the mine. They had to answer what they thought was correct even though a lot of the information we were provided, the research committee had very little knowledge on at the time. As part of the steering committee, I had already researched much of this information, however every so often there were pieces I didn’t know, such as honey being a common item to drink as it helped to clear and soothe the throat. This section was very comical, as the miner often made a joke or two as he explained the situations that could happen underground. Rats that could climb into the bait tins, and bread which smelt less than appetising, but was delicious with a spread of jam or butter. He then showed how this was developed during 100 years, how t the mining community developed through better technology advancements.

The miner explained in detail the struggles and real-life experiences which he had experienced in his time as a miner, including both the good and the bad experiences, not with our group, but with an older group of Enter students. He commented on just how close the mining community was, how everyone was a marra and a neighbour. With the others, he also shared traumatic experiences, such as one of his mining companion losing an arm whilst fixing faulty machinery. During these moments, he was solemn, even speaking teary-eyed about the experiences. It was a true person who the students were speaking to, rather than a researcher and it was clear that this gentleman had experienced the grit and pleasures of a miner’s life.

Some of the information which we received during this workshop were quoted within our When Yesterday Was Young heritage museum. We used them as they truly captured the essence of a miner, his spirit and his voice. The community and the friendliness of the mining communities, the pride which they held for those around them and themselves.

Sally Fletcher Workshop

After the Dig Deeper workshop, we quickly visited the Sally Fletcher Workshop, which was our next visit in the assortment of workshops planned during the day. Before attending the workshop, I had little knowledge of what it was about. I knew that Sally Fletcher would be a woman or young girl from the mining community and the description explained that it was a 19th century miner discussing children and women in the mines.

This workshop began with the performer, “Sally” greeting us at the door. From the beginning she was an interesting character, as she never left this persona. It made the entire workshop feel more immersive. After two other of the same workshop, this performer stayed confident. Instantly, she involved the entire group, speaking in harsh and low tones to the younger ones to “Get in the room. Quickly!” Chaperones were also involved in the workshop, being treat no differently.

The workshop included the Women and Children’s Act of 1842 and in fact this was the focus of the workshop. It began by getting volunteers to depict the usual way a mining family would work, whilst sprinkling in small, unsettling facts such as the way in which the carts were pulled would cause baldness to the women and children sat in pitch black (as demonstrated in the Underground Tour) and pull on a rope. She called the child many names then asked us what we knew them as. She explained that depending on the region, the child would be called different things. In County Durham, we know them as the Trapper. The one responsible for opening and closing the wind roads to keep the mines ventilated, and often the one to be blamed for any accidents that may occur down in those pits.

After the introductory scene, it was explained that Sally was just a young child, working down in the mines, when the act was set up. We were told that utter strangers would visit these mines and ask many of the workers questions in regard to the conditions down there. These people were terrifying to a young child worker, and to show us just how she felt the performer asked the students to all come up with one question to ask the young Sally Fletcher and become the investigators of the mines. They would have to try to ask questions which would gain information about the terrible conditions in the mine and to do so, they would have to make these questions simple enough for a child in a mining community to understand whilst also being broad enough to gain a developed answer. We were then left alone to ponder what types of questions we would ask, and were given quite some time to think and develop the questions we may like to ask. I tried to encourage the students to ask questions which I had seen being asked in those days, and also to ask questions which were relevant, such as “What hours do you work?” or “Do you ever get punished?” These were the types of questions which I had seen when researching the original investigation of mines. I allowed the students to also discuss among themselves any possible questions which could be relevant.

When Sally came back into the room, the students sat up and asked their questions one at a time. Some of the questions which were asked by our students were similar to what was suggested and helped to piece together the miserable conditions which Sally had experienced. To avoid spoiling the workshop, I won’t go into too much detailing of what was discussed, but it was very interesting and really opened the student’s eyes to the real circumstances of the mining industry.

The last activity which we performed was a writing activity, in which the group were taught the melody and lyrics to a traditional mining song which they then sang, before being provided a blackboard and piece of chalk and being split into groups of two. Each group sat in a separate area of this room and discussed how they could write a verse to the song which would describe the miserable conditions in the mining using adjectives and adverbs to their advantage, with even the chaperones joining in to see what kind of descriptive sentences could be used within the song. After about ten minutes to think up a verse, all of the students returned back to their seating positions and shared their work. To start the sharing process, I began, reading my own verse to show that the students need not worry about sharing their own creations. Each of the students then quickly joined in, with some extremely well written pieces included, some of the students presenting clear thoughts in their pieces.

After finishing the workshop, two students stayed back with a chaperone to interview the actor and understand how to present a workshop, researching the different aspects of the museum and whether the job the woman practiced was enjoyable.

Reed Bed Tour

After the group re-joined once again, there was still room for one more activity. We decided to take the students to the reed beds and show them how the reed beds worked. The science behind the mining was presented by one of our chaperones, who had previously attended the tour.

We started from the top of the reed beds, where the water started with a rusty orange colour. This colour was due to the high amount of iron pyrite that was in the water. The first thing we learnt was that the system could only be operated at night, as the water would overflow from one of the tubs, then filter down into the next were new and fresh reeds would continue to act as filters for the water. Obviously, this could not be operated during the day as the water ran on the pathways which were used by visitors of the park. When you looked down, you could see the stain of red where the water would run. These filtering systems were purpose built in steep areas to allow for the water to move from one area to the next without using much electricity.

Walking further down the hillside, you could see that the water was being passed from one tub to the next, and as it continued on its journey, it became a more translucent colour, staining the reeds that lay in it a red-orange colour.

The further we walked the more translucent it became. As we walked past one of the pools, the students were informed that there were new reeds being planted in the pools to allow for quicker filtration. It was interesting to see the operations of the filtered water, but also to see the renewal process which was happening to this system. The system was constantly being refreshed and revitalised. It was also clear, when walking the dirt pathway, that the site was full of life and nature. As we hit a halfway point, the students noted a bird spotting house that showed a plethora of different birds and bugs, and allowed for bird watching and bug watching. After a quick stop at this point, we quickly continued our tour. The chaperone continued explain the system and as we hit the bottom of the path, there was a piping system which released clear water into a small stream, that in turn slowed to a river. This water was safely cleaned of iron pyrite and resembled little of its former self. The students were surprised to see such a drastic change in the water and asked why this was a system that was needed for the environment, which it was explained to them that the water was not safe and if it broke into the river as it was at the top, it would quickly poison the wildlife and fish which relied on that water.

Final Thoughts

After the day was over I pondered on the different pieces of information which I had learnt from this experience. Though I feel like a lot of the information was repetitive for myself, I think it befitted the research committee greatly as they received valuable information. For myself however, it was not as effective in giving me new information about mining. However, I feel that I gained new knowledge on how to engage younger audiences in the museum through workshops.

Jade, Youth Committee
Thursday, September 28, 2017