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Discovering the unwritten history of the working class in Whitby

The legacy of mining and shipbuilding lives on in Whitby Folk Week among performers and attendees. PETER LAZENBY reports

The crash of metal on metal starts at 7.30am — that’s when the ship builders of Whitby start work each morning.

They’re building a fishing trawler. The vessel is just a steel hulk at the moment, but it’s growing as the riveters, welders and other skilled workers still involved in what is left of the shipbuilding industry in Yorkshire and the north-east of England get stuck in to their work.

Next to the steel hulk is a completed trawler awaiting its launch — magnificent, equipped with all the electronic devices involved in modern fishing — aerials, radar and the rest. In Blue Peter terms it’s the “and here’s one we completed earlier” moment.

The shipyard is Parkol Marine Engineering and Whitby is a small fishing port in Yorkshire which centuries back rivalled Liverpool as a centre of international commerce.

I’m in the town because it’s the time of our annual pilgrimage to Whitby Folk Week, a celebration of traditional music, dance and song. I’ve been going for 50 of the festival’s 53 years.

Folk Week takes over the town — every pub, club, community centre and public space is a venue for events of which there are more than 600 — those are the official organised ones.

Musicians gather and play for the joy of playing — simple as that. I’ve got my far from perfect tin whistle, and a singing voice which I mistakenly believe improves with lubrication.

Walking into the Middle Earth pub — 100 yards down the road from the shipyard and the house where we’re staying — and there are 40 musicians jamming together – fiddles, concertinas, flutes, whistles, banjos, accordions, even a French horn. They’re playing mainly jigs and reels, but with the occasional piece of baroch thrown in.

So what’s all this got to do with politics? Well, the whole culture of folk music, song and dance is political, at least to me. They’re the unwritten history of the working class — there’s one example I’ve written about before, but I’ll do it again.

Back in medieval times small farmers, peasants and serfs brought in the harvest of food they had grown by ploughing, planting, reaping.

Two-thirds of the food would be taken by the lord of the manor who owned the land and he and his lady would lay on a celebration of the harvest being gathered.

The farmers, peasants and serfs were all invited to the manorial hall to eat and drink, and were expected to sing a song thanking the lord and lady of the manor for their generosity in allowing the workers to keep one-third of the fruits of their labours to enable them to survive over winter.

These songs are known as “harvest home” songs and more often than not, in praising the lord and lady they contained lines like “may they sit at God’s right hand,” which in translation meant: “We wish you were bloody dead.”

So, getting back to Whitby Folk Week, the historic politics is there in some of the traditional songs but there’s more modern politics too.

Graham Pirt is a performer who has created his own show about the coal mining industry. Initially called The Miners’ Union its updated version is The Last Shift.

Pirt, who is from a mining family, first presented the show in 1984 to raise funds for South Yorkshire mining communities during the epic strike against pit closures. It covered the history of the mining industry from the year 1500 to 1900.

But as the industry is now gone he has updated the performance to take in the strike, the Tories’ privatisation of the industry and its final destruction.

Britain’s last deep coal mine, Kellingley in Yorkshire, closed in December 2015 — I was there when the last shift came out.

Kellingley was hugely influential in my own life and political development.

As industrial reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post I would take groups of trainee journalists on visits underground, insisting that we visited the quarter mile long coal face while coal was being turned. The dust, the noise, the sweat, the wet — I hoped that those young trainees would remember the experience when they moved on and were perhaps called on to write about the coal mining industry.

Pirt is from the north-east. He explains his affinity with the coal mining industry: “I was born in Jarrow. I was the first of my family not to go down the pit for the simple reason that they shut it — Craghead colliery.

“But I always kept my interest in coal mining because of my family’s involvement.

“I did my family history and discovered that my great-grandfather’s brother was killed in the pit. That was in 1873.

“I went further back, to the early 1800s. I found that some had emigrated to America, to Ohio, so I’ve got family there.

“I found that one miner, Thomas Pirt, had broken his ‘bond’ to the mine owner.”

The “bond” was a contract forced on miners by the owners which meant the miner could not leave his job. It was a form of tied serfdom.

“He was arrested and brought back,” said Pirt.

During the miners’ strike he was living in Dodworth in South Yorkshire, which had a pit worked by more than 1,000 miners.

Pirt was stopped by police on “numerous” occasions simply for moving around the community.

I felt an affinity with that too — I was arrested by police in 1984 in Nottinghamshire travelling with Yorkshire pickets — the first newspaper reporter to be placed under arrest for simply covering the strike.

In 1984-5 there was virtual martial law against striking miners with travel restrictions, unjustified arrests, police assaults on strikers and their families.

There are the lies of government and National Coal Board management — that there was no “hit list” of pit closures. That lie was exposed at the time and confirmed by the release of Cabinet papers years later.

Pirt’s presentation covers all that and more. He’s extended the show historically in both directions, delving back to the history of the industry in the 13th century, and covering the tumultuous industrial struggles of the 20th century and the final demise of coal mining at Kellingley in Yorkshire.

It’s a touring show and well worth booking.

So, back now to my daily 7.30am alarm call by the shipyard workers in Church Street in Whitby.

We visit the shipyard, which is thriving. There’s at least one woman shipbuilder working in the yard and the firm which runs the yard is headed by a woman, Sally Atkinson, a member of one of the two families which own the yard.

The business is so successful that they’ve opened a new yard in Middlesbrough and have on order books building trawlers for the next two-and-a-half years.

Sadly the workers at the Whitby yard are not unionised. Atkinson says there’s no need for a union because the workers are well looked after. I let that one go as she’s dashing off to collect kids from school and, as the Whitby Folk Week is at an end, there’s no time left to stand outside the yard handing out union leaflets. Maybe next year.

Meanwhile the fiddles, concertinas and banjos are striking up 100 yards down the road in the Middle Earth and at the Fleece, and the Endeavour, and the Black Horse. The music and songs beckon.

Whitby’s next major musical event is the town’s annual celebration of world music, Musicport, from Friday, October 19 to Sunday, October 21. Guests include Vieux Farka Toure, from Mali, son of the renowned African musician the late Ali Farka Toure. The event will have guest performers from Cote D’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Galicia, Republic of Ireland, Turkey, Namibia, Denmark, Sweden and Sudan, as well as the UK.

Graham can be contacted at


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