Astley Green Colliery is only a 30 minute drive down the M61 from me, but I’ve not been since 2012, so I decided that my first post-lockdown jaunt would be for a quick look. As of the time of the visit (June 27th 2020), the place hadn’t yet reopened for visitors, but that was fine as the photograph I had in mind probably didn’t need me to go on site.
The colliery is pretty much the only material evidence of Lancashire’s coal industry. While not as big as that in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire or the North East, the industry in Lancashire was widespread and long lasting, with the last mine (Parkside) closing in 1993 without exhausting its reserves. However, the coalfield had shrunk massively since it’s peak in the early 20th Century, when there were over 350 collieries . The Northern Mine Research Society lists 107 collieries at nationalisation in 1947, but by the start of 1970, only 13 remained. In April 1970 that number was reduced to 12 when Astley Green closed.
Unlike the rest of the collieries in the area, Astley Green was saved from demolition by the then lancashire County Council, due to the unique Yates and Thom of 3,300 hp twin tandem compound steam winding engine, the largest of its type in Europe. The site wasn’t preserved in its entirety, but the engine house, winding gear and the colliery offices were preserved.
Interestingly, I saw the above photograph at the Bernd and Hilla Becher exhibition at Cardiff earlier this year. Demolition was clearly well advanced by this point, although it appears to have been dragging on as this photo from 1970 shows demolition of the surface buildings and the other headgear well underway. A better view of the full extent of the site can be seen in this aerial photograph:
But it is the Becher photo that brought me back to Astley Green as I wanted a photograph to complement the one I took at Hatfield earlier this year. That one wasn’t anything like my usual style of photograph and I composed it tightly like some of the Becher photographs of colliery headgears. The light was very bright and low in the sky which made for some interesting contrast, that would be impossible to replicate in June. But, if nothing else I wanted a look to see what possibilities existed.
The gates to the site were shut, as the site wasn’t ready to admit visitors for another few weeks, but that was fine as I knew that the shot I wanted could be taken from outside the gates.
Although it’s not bad, I don’t think it’s as satisfying an image as the one from Hatfield for several reasons. Let’s take a look at the two side by side:
- light – the quality and angle of the light were completely different.
- angle – to get the photograph at Hatfield, I stood on a pile of rubble, thus elevating me 2 or 3 feet off the ground. At Astley, I was shooting from ground level. In addition I could get no closer due to the gate, and moving further away meant that the gate was in the way. I couldn’t move further to the right either.
- composition – I hadn’t realised that Astley had the apparatus (I think for lifting up replacement wheels etc) at the top of the headgear, which meant that the winding wheels were about 2/3 of the way up the image. Hatfield doesn’t have this feature so the composition is totally different. In addition, Hatfield has the upcast headgear in the background, with the winding wheel filling the gap (which is why I had to stand on the rubble to get this where I wanted in the frame.
To get an image that is more harmonious, requires an extension of the canvas at the top of the image, which sort of works, but there again the crop on the right of Hatfield is too close. This was to remove a staircase that stuck out quite a way and the photograph just doesn’t work with it in. So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this isn’t going to work, but hey, it was worth a try.
The point of this wasn’t to get a Becher-like comparison – I’m forty years too late for that as the number of headgears left is now a tiny fraction of what it was. But it did give me an idea of the complexities of what the Becher’s did, and an admiration for how they managed it on the vast scale that they managed.
To get a companion image for a project I am doing needs a headgear with the apparatus at the top, so it looks like I need to head to Barnsley Main and see if I can get the right distance away to make a similar image, but even then it’s going to take a leap of faith to present them together.
Please have a look at the Museum’s Website and pay them a visit: https://lancashireminingmuseum.org/