Miners’ nurse recalls going down the pit

A new book tells the story of former Yorkshire pit nurse Joan Hart, who earned the respect of miners by going underground to witness their working conditions and treat the injured. There were sad times, such as the miners’ strike of 1984-5, but she loved her job.

When Joan Hart joined Hatfield Colliery in Yorkshire in 1974 as nursing officer, one of her first acts was to have the medical centre repainted from a depressing navy blue to daffodil yellow. The move signalled the difference she hoped to make to the health of the 2,000 or so men who worked there.

But she knew if she were ever to make her mark, she would have to convince the miners to take her seriously. So Ms Hart made a pledge that she would go underground to tend to the injured.

‘Once the men realised that I was prepared to see the conditions they worked in, they began to accept me.’

Now aged 83, Ms Hart’s recollections of her 50-year nursing career have become a book. She met her co-writer, Veronica Clark, at a local writing group. ‘It’s just snowballed since then, with several publishers vying for the manuscript.’

Joan Hart was more often than not kitted out in overalls and boots

Born into a mining family, she started her nurse training in Huddersfield in 1948 – the year the NHS began – before finishing her course at Hammersmith Hospital in London.

Aged 24, she returned to South Yorkshire to run the medical centre at Yorkshire’s largest colliery, Brodsworth, where she had responsibility for the health of 3,000 men. She grew to love the job, only giving it up when the death of her father-in-law meant a move back to London. In 1974 she returned to Yorkshire to work at Hatfield Colliery, where she was to stay until 1988. Its closure in July, with the loss of 430 jobs, adds to the poignancy of Ms Hart’s memoir.

Often her role involved counselling the men, in what Ms Hart calls her ‘pit marriage guidance service’. ‘There were certain things that needed a delicate touch,’ she says.

In 1978, she witnessed a horrific disaster at the nearby Bentley Colliery, which resulted in the deaths of seven men, with 19 more injured. ‘It was a very sad time and when we were writing the book, it was something I didn’t want to remember,’ she says.

The miners’ strike of 1984-85, organised by the National Union of Mineworkers, was also an unhappy period. As a member of a different union Ms Hart could not withdraw her labour, although she says a huge part of her agreed with the miners’ reasons for going on strike. But she made sure she was there to treat anyone injured, whether inside or outside the gates. On one occasion, she says, she stood her ground when the police refused to remove handcuffs from an injured man.

While many might baulk at the idea of travelling thousands of feet underground to nurse, for Ms Hart it was one of the attractions of the job. ‘Going down the pit held no fear for me,’ she says. ‘I was never scared. I loved it’.

At the Coalface: the Memoir of a Pit Nurse, by Joan Hart and Veronica Clark, is published by Harper Element in paperback and ebook

This article is for subscribers only