By: Mike Church, Writer and Performer.
They talk of miners now being a dying breed of men as memories of pit life fades with every passing year. Next year will see the fortieth anniversary of the last big Miner’s Strike (1984-85) that was a seminal moment in British history and sounded the death knell for so many mining communities in South Wales.
John Gates is a very rare breed of miner indeed. He can talk to you at length about how the Germans used friction props in their pits compared to the hydraulic props used in the UK. He can talk to you about the scientific instruments that were miner’s lamps; he can talk about air flow, trap doors and safety. He is a walking encyclopaedia about the technical skills and the very real dangers of working down the pit.
His life has been dominated by mining but when it all disappeared he reinvented himself in a number of new ways. He was the ultimate adult learner as he refashioned his whole life after years underground. Now in his eighties he continues to be a teacher and a learner. John’s story is so unique that it has been made into a folk song, he’s been the subject of a book and he has been written about by a fashion student in London for their final dissertation. He has even appeared on Woman’s Hour on Radio Four!
John’s life story is a lesson to all of us about resilience, learning and change.
When he was made redundant he found solace and new life through adult learning. He swapped the coal seams for French seams and became a dress maker and an embroiderer. He made his daughters’ wedding dresses and began teaching his skills to a whole new group of interested learners.
He left school in 1956 with absolutely no qualifications but then slowly in the 1990’s he began collecting them like confetti. He graduated with a degree in his forties and then gained a PGCE so he could embark on a new career as an educator.
He was the Adult Learner of the Year in 1998. He spoke at the Millennium Dome in 2000 and was then invited out to Australia in 2002 as their international guest for their Adult Learners Week. He was asked to talk about using education to overcome redundancy.
He has now travelled the world as a beacon of hope and a shining example of what can be achieved in tough times, if you allow yourself to explore new avenues of growth and challenge the stereotypes so easily wheeled out for men and for women.
It was an absolute privilege for me to get to know John and record his life story in book form. That book, ‘From coal seams to French seams’, was launched at a special miner’s event at the Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl in April 2023 and every copy was eagerly snapped up.
John Gates is an inspiration to all of us and I haven’t even mentioned his work with the Men’s Shed movement and his involvement with Parc Prison in Bridgend.
Let’s hope that just by reading this a little bit of his appetite for life will rub off on all of us!