My song today is ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’. This song was written and recorded by American country artist, Loretta Lynn. It was originally released as a single in 1970 and became a Number 1 hit on the Billboard country chart. It eventually led to the writing and successful autobiography and film starring Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn. The film follows the story of country music singer Loretta Lynn from her early teen years in a poor family. It sees her getting married at the age of 15 and follows her life in her rise as one of the most successful country musicians and singers. Based on Loretta Lynn's 1976 biography of the same name by George Vecsey, the film stars Sissy Spacek (as Loretta Lynn) and Tommy Lee Jones in a supporting role.
‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ was released theatrically on March 7, 1980, and grossed $67.18 million in North America against a budget of $15 million, becoming the seventh highest-grossing film of 1980. It garnered critical acclaim and received seven nominations at the 53rd ‘Academy Awards for Best Picture’ with Spacek winning an award as the ‘Best Actress’. At the 38th ‘Golden Globe Awards, the film received four nominations and won two: one for ‘Best Motion Picture’, and Sissy Spacek won the other award for being ‘Best Actress’. The film is considered to be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ by the U.S. ‘Library of Congress’ and was selected to be preserved in the ‘National Film Registry’ in 2019.
While I was never a ‘coal miner's daughter’, my younger sisters Mary, Eileen, and Susan were. I was, however, a proud ‘coal miner’s son’, along with my younger brothers Patrick, Peter, and Michael.
I was my parent’s firstborn of seven children. I was born in Portlaw, County Waterford in the rebel part of Southern Ireland during November 1942. Although my father played football for the Irish National soccer team when I was born, in those days, soccer players received no wages, merely a return on their outlaid expenses. This was the era when a man was proud to play international football for the self-glory and honour of one’s country and not financial reward.
It was also a time in Ireland’s history when the working classes needed to make harsh choices in their struggle for daily survival. Jobs were scarce on the ground, and there seemed little prospects for any family man of any future economic improvement. Millions of Irish people decided to up-sticks from their beloved homeland and they emigrated to another country in search of greater prosperity and a more financially secure life for themselves and their families. In most cases, and in the knowledge of how hard they would initially find it to settle in a foreign country, most married men initially emigrated alone. It was only after they had settled in their new country and had managed to secure work and acquire suitable accommodation to set up a family home, did they send back for their wives and children to join them. Some men emigrated to America, some to Australia, but the overwhelming number of men came across the Irish Sea from Dublin to Liverpool, before travelling to different parts around England in search of work and a better life for themselves and their family.
In 1945, my father and I came to Bradford in West Yorkshire, where we lived with my father’s sister Eva for a couple of years. I was three years/going on four at the time. My mother and younger sisters Mary and Eileen remained living in Ireland. They planned to join me and my father after he had managed to get settled in England and secure a family base. Meanwhile, my father managed to obtain a job as a miner working on the coal face, while his sister, Eva, child-minded me during the day.
These were the days when pit accidents were still common occurrences, and the coal was hacked from the pit face by miners lying on their sides and stomachs on the cold and damp ground as they swung a pickaxe from a prostrate or a hunchbacked position. Miners would work an 8-hour shift but only ever got paid for seven hours, as their walk to the pit face at the start of their shift, along with their return walk at the end of their shift, would take half an hour each way and did not count towards their daily earnings. This lost hour daily was a constant complaint of the miners, along with the underground cloud of coal dust they worked in all day long.
My father used to tell me that there were many times when he was unable to see his workmate a few yards away because of the atmospheric screen of coal dust separating them. As for the daily breaks during their shifts, short rest periods were taken underground whenever possible, as the miners both fed or relieved themselves.
Being 1945/46, just after the ‘Second World War’ had ended, the country was still existing on food rationing, and bread and jam was the most common sandwich eaten by the miners, along with cheap fish paste, spread thinly between two bread slices, and swilled down with a flask of tea. Dad would tell me that when he got his sandwich out from his snack box, that while the bread would leave his snack box white, by the time it entered his mouth it would be turning black, and after he’d swallowed and digested it, his food would be lodged in a darkened stomach whose walls was lined with coal dust! I could never quite imagine having to eat a sandwich of jam and coal dust! As regarding miners being able to relieve themselves underground in 1945, there were no toilet facilities in those days to either urinate or defecate, and one was obliged to use the most public of toilets imaginable and available.
After my father had worked over one year with the NCB, he was eventually allocated a miner’s tied-property in Liversedge which was surrounded by fields and had a terraced-row of neighbours nearby, along with a Baptist chapel, a grocers shop, and a co-op. Being a tied-dwelling, my father and his family could live there as long as he continued to work for the National Coal Board, and he knew that if/when he ever left the employment of the NCB, we would have to relinquish the tenancy of our tied-cottage also. After obtaining the small property, dad and I left my Aunt Eva’s house in Bradford and he sent a letter back home to Ireland telling my mother that he had now secured accommodation and she and my two Irish sisters, Mary and Eileen were to join us in our new family home.
When my mother and sisters arrived in West Yorkshire, we all moved into our ‘little cottage’ as I fondly remembered it. My memory of our first family home, from where another two brothers would be born, was of it being a small country cottage with lush green fields surrounding it. My earliest memories included having to visit the outside compost toilet night and day. I also vividly remember all the hens and chickens running around the house perimeter; some who laid their eggs in the nest boxes, and others of more independent means in the pecking order, who liked to play hide and seek with me, by choosing to lay their eggs in the surrounding fields.
I also clearly recollect our first family table. It was a large tea chest positioned upside down, and from which we ate in turn. There were two small rooms in our little cottage; one where we ate and lived, and the other which held a double bed that eventually slept all seven household members. My parents would sleep at the top end of the family bed and their first five children would sleep at the bottom end. As we all slept top to tail, the bed covers would comprise of one blanket with three or four coats thrown on top for extra warmth.
On the wall in our ‘living room’ hung a tin bath which my father bathed in each night after arriving home from the pit. The children would bathe in the tin tub once weekly (on a Friday evening) in descending order of age, with myself being second in line to use the bathwater after my father had washed the coal dust from his body. Being the oldest, I got to jump in the tub immediately after my father got out. I was then followed by my sister Mary, and Eileen would follow her, and so on, down the line. Because it took a long time to boil enough pans of water to fill the tin tub, the dirty water could not be replenished by exchanging it with clean after my father had washed all the coal dust off his body. So, we all used the same water and added another pan load of hot water as it got colder and dirtier. Because I was always second in line for a Friday bath in the tin tub, I would supplement my father’s bath by pouring a pan of clean warm water over his soapy head to finish him off. Being third in line, it fell to my sister Mary to pour warm water over my head to get the soap out of my hair and eyes, and so on down the line. However, our Mary would always be trying to get one over on her big brother, and instead of pouring warm water heated on the stove over my head, she would deliberately pour cold water over me, laughing her head off when I jumped up naked with fright!
I also fondly remember going to Bradford open market on the Number 64 double-decker bus to buy half a dozen new chicks. Dad and I would make this journey three or four times a year, depending upon how many hens had been killed, plucked, and cooked for the family table during winter months. I never had it in me to kill a hen or a turkey and would squirm whenever I witnessed my father wring and snap one of their necks for the cooking pot. Dad would let me carry the chicks on the bus on the return journey from the open market, and I was always peeking inside the cardboard box air-vent cut-outs at the little yellow fluffy creatures inside.
It was my job to feed the chickens and hens every day before and after school, and I was also given the jobs of collecting the hen’s eggs from the fields around our little country cottage. As eggs were still on ration by 1950, we would sell most of ours to supplement the family income, as eating any egg that wasn’t a powdered egg was considered as a luxury for a working-class child. Naturally, some eggs would be saved for my father to eat. I remember, much to the chagrin of my sisters Mary and Eileen, that whenever my father was given a boiled egg to eat by my mother, being the child keeper and feeder of the hens and chickens in my father’s absence, I would often be rewarded with the top of the egg that was sliced off to eat. That was if I managed to persuade my mother to ‘slice’ the egg top generously with the blade of a knife instead of bashing it to bits with the back of a spoon! For most family meals though, when we did eat well, it would be a staple diet of potatoes, cabbage and bread and jam.
Near to our ‘little cottage’ was an elderly lady who had a Labrador dog. She was unable to walk the dog any longer due to her arthritic legs, and in return for me talking the dog a walk daily after I had finished school, she would give me a few pennies to buy sweets at the grocers’ shop across the road. I loved that dog to bits, and I imagined it as being ‘my dog’ whenever I walked it. It had a long strand of thin rope as a leash and was a black Labrador mix.
When I was aged nine years, my parents obtained a three-bedroomed council house on the newly built estate of Windybank, nearby. The day we moved should have been one of my happiest but ended up being was one of the saddest I can remember. I should have been happy like my parents and siblings were because we were moving into a brand new house of enormous size, where I could share a bed with my sisters Mary and Eileen in our own bedroom instead of being one of seven in a bed, sleeping head to toe. Also, now we would have two flushing toilets (one inside and one outside) and neither of which we had to share with any of our neighbours. In addition, our household bath was a new ceramic one set into the wooden floor and was not a tin tub hung on the kitchen wall! As to the hot water that filled our future baths, the heated water came out of taps instead of a boiled pan; and there was a lock on the bathroom door that enabled one to bathe in private.
Why was I sad, I hear you ask? It was because I was leaving my best friend, the black Labrador whom I had naturally renamed ‘Blackie’ unknown to its owner. When we walked to our new house one mile away, Blackie saw me and followed. I shooed him away as my parents reminded me that he was not my dog, but no matter how often I shooed Blackie away he followed me like a faithful shadow. Eventually, the only way that I could get Blackie to stop following me was to shout at him and throw small stones in his direction. As I pelted my canine friend with unfriendly words and stones (aimed to frighten and not hit), the tears streamed down my cheeks.
Even though the Forde family now lived in a new council house on a new estate merely twenty yards away from a row of six different shops which sold everything any household could want, my mother insisted that we still get the family groceries daily from Harry Hodgesons, the grocer across the road from our old house, a good half-mile away. It was my job to fetch the daily grocer’s items. Often when I went to Harry Hodgeson’s shop, I might catch sight of Blackie, but would not be able to let him see me, just in case he took it into his head to follow back to my new home. Leaving our house to collect the daily shopping, my mother would supply me with a written list which I considered made me look childish when I handed it over the counter to Harry Hodgeson. So, I would learn by heart the list of items as I walked the half-mile to the grocer’s shop and would recite each item boldly to the shopkeeper. Mum never gave me any money to pay for the shopping and would simply tell me to give Harry the list upon which she had written a few private words at the bottom of ‘Please add to what we owe and I will straighten up on Paddy’s next payday!”
Near to our ‘little cottage’ where we had been the first Forde homestead was Harry Hodgeson’s grocer's shop that was owned and managed by Harry Hodgson and his wife Marian. The early 1950s were still lean years in Great Britain, and very early on, after arriving in West Yorkshire in 1946, the very first person my mother made friends with was the local grocer and his wife. Harry became a twenty-year lifesaver to the Forde family, and for the first two decades of my life, he allowed my mother to ‘tick’ the weekly groceries to feed and keep the Forde family. For 18 years, all the food supplied to the Forde household ‘this week’ would be paid for out of my father’s pit wage he would receive ‘next week’. This practice of the food being paid for one week after the eating of it was known as living on the ‘tick’. It was common practice for every large family on Windybank Estate to ‘tick’ their weekly provisions. I bet that when poor Harry Hodgeson eventually died, his little red book with all the names of his creditors must have revealed thousands of pounds owed to him. I wonder if any debtor in the little red book honestly forgot to pay their dues to Harry’s estate?
I have two other memories of my father as a miner. I recall one year when his colleagues at the pit went on strike. My father, having a large family of seven children to feed at the time could not afford to put his principles before the feeding and protection of his family, and he was one of the few miners at his pit to cross the picket line. He always said that ‘a poor man could never afford principles that cost him money’. While this ‘scab’ action of dads did cause him some embarrassment afterward when the men returned to work, he was respected enough not to be ‘sent to Coventry’ by his working colleagues. It remains somewhat ironic that I would become the youngest trade union shop steward in Great Britain at the age of 18 years, and that my brother Patrick would be a textile shop steward for a dozen years also after me at the same textile firm in Hightown, Liversedge.
When I was first married, one summer morning, I took my two sons James and Adam to see the ‘little cottage’ where the Forde family had started family life living in West Yorkshire. I had told them often about my happy childhood years growing up there. When we got to the location where once our ‘little cottage’ had once stood, the original dwelling had been demolished, and in its place had been erected a double garage. Within the space of one morning, my cherished memories of our idyllic ‘little cottage’ surrounded by green fields and hens running around were shattered to smithereens. Seeing the garage standing there now, told me how small a property our little cottage must have been that we had lived in for five years. The nearby co-op of my youth was now a pub called the ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ and what had once been the green fields of my youth surrounding our first family home had also disappeared. The fields had since been concreted and covered up by expensive housing which no working-class family I knew could ever afford to live in or own. My return visit effectively led me to remove the rose-coloured spectacles I had worn for so long. It also told me though, that happiness and contentment in one’s childhood have much more to do with feeling loved and less to do with having lots of money, being able to eat well, or living in a big expensive house which had a bath that didn’t hang on the kitchen wall and a toilet which need not be shared with one’s neighbours!
In my late forties, I had my first book published. Since then, I have had 64 books published. I have enjoyed writing many of my stories for children, young persons, and adults, but the book which gave me the most pleasure to write was ‘Tales from the Allotments’. This book was written as a testament to the miners of Great Britain and I dedicated it to my father. The story is ‘timeless’ and is set in the last century. It tells of a mining village where the sole employment to be had for twenty miles is the colliery. When the pit becomes economically non-profitable to its owner and is subsequently closed, and every man in the village is made redundant, the village becomes a living graveyard. Initially, the miners wallow in their own misery and become deeply depressed. Many up-sticks and move to new parts in search of new employment and a new place to live; some experience broken marriages, some take to the drink and a life of idleness, and some decide to stay living in the only place they have known and loved. The lucky miners in the village are the ones who have an allotment where they relocate their energy and rediscover an inbred sense of community, close comradeship, and friendly rivalry. This book can be purchased in either e-book format or hard copy from www.smashwords.com and www.amazon.com with all book-sale profits going to charitable causes in perpetuity (£200,000 given to charity from book sale profits between 1990-2002).
During the 1990s, after Norma Major (wife to the Prime Minister), had read from one of my books to school children in her husband’s constituency of Huntingdon, I was invited to ‘Number 10’ for an afternoon visit. I was there two hours with my ex-wife and was given a guided tour of the premises by Norma Major and John Major personally. (The Prime Minister joined us during the last ten minutes of the tour). We were shown the Banquet Room where foreign dignitaries are frequently entertained by the Prime Minister of the day, and I sat at the desk of Sir Robert Walpole, the 18th-century British politician who is generally regarded as having been the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain.
After the Prime Minister joined us, he showed us into the ‘Cabinet Room’ where important ‘business of State’ is discussed and decided around the large oval-shaped table. Only one chair around the table has arms, the which the Prime Minister sits in. John Major smiled as he invited me to sit down in his chair. I naturally obliged, knowing that I would never get a second opportunity to do so.
Our afternoon visit was concluded by having afternoon tea in their private upstairs apartment with the Prime Minister and Norma. Tea comprised of a modest cup of tea and biscuits, and a bun (baked by Norma’s own hands of course). The month was February, the year was 1992 and the weather was cold. The country had witnessed the eventual decimation of the coal mines with the start of pit closures under the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; a policy which John Major continued with when he also took up Office.
The Prime Minister was a very likeable and affable person who can place a stranger immediately at their ease. When he speaks with you, he makes you feel as though you are the only person other than himself in the room. I liked him very much as a person but not as a politician. Politically, I considered him to be a washout, and someone who had not served the North of England well at all with his continued closure of our mines and the inevitable loss of many mining communities.
As we drank tea and chatted politely, John Major asked me. “Are you and your wife warm enough, Bill?” Although my father had died one year earlier, he would have turned in his grave had I not defended the mining communities at the only opportunity I would ever get to have face-to-face with the man who was still closing them down. I replied politely, “ I am warm enough, Prime Minister, but the rest of the people in the North aren’t, especially since Margaret Thatcher started to close down the pits; a policy that your government has continued with!” In fairness to John Major, he took my criticism on the chin, but his wife, Norma, nearly choked on her cup of tea. After that visit, there was a distinct ‘cooling-off’ between Norma Major and myself. I had previously exchanged half a dozen letters of correspondence with Norma Major prior to my invited visit to Downing Street. During such correspondence between us, she had always started off her letter with the informal introduction ‘Dear Bill’. I also received a signed Christmas Card from Norma and the Prime Minister in December prior to my visit. However, after my visit, and my criticism of her husband’s policy in continuing to close down the mines, I only ever received one more letter from Norma which commenced, ‘Dear Mr, Forde’. I knew then that her change from her informal ‘Dear Bill’ to the more formal address of ‘Dear Mr. Forde’ indicated that there would be no further Christmas cards being received from ‘Number 10’.
A few years later I received the M.B.E. in the New Year’s Honour’s List for my charitable and literary work, along with my contribution over the years to the West Yorkshire Community (I had been the youngest Trade union shop steward in Great Britain at the age of 18 years). Who knows, perhaps, I might have initially in line for a higher gong before Norma took the huff after my criticism of her husband’s policies to his face, as I scoffed down one of her home-made buns in their Downing Street apartment during that cold February afternoon?
Love and peace Bill xxx