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Last Updated: Monday, 17 November, 2003, 11:33 GMT
Miner shortage threatens pit museum
Beamish drift mine
The drift mine has been open since 1970
A County Durham museum kept open as a lasting testament to the area's mining heritage may be forced to close because a miner cannot be found to run it.

Bosses at the award-winning Beamish Museum, say its drift mine could close unless a former pitworker can be found to teach future generations about the area's history.

The sprawling outdoor museum, which boasts traditional sweet shops, banks, and a local pub, with staff dressed up in traditional clothes, also features a real drift mine, which brought coal from the seams 100 years ago.

The original mine originally opened in the 1850s, providing jobs for more than 100 years, before being re-opened as a tourist attraction in 1970.

Almost every visitor to Beamish takes a tentative step into the underground darkness of the pit.

'Safety checks'

But to comply with health and safety legislation, museum bosses need a minimum of two fully qualified miners to carry out the relevant safety checks and to talk about life down the pit in the early 1900s.

Following the retirement of miner Martin Gallagher in September, the museum has been unable to find a replacement and now faces, at best, streamlining the pit's opening hours or, at worst, having to close it completely.

Jane Gibson, the museum's head of historic operations, said: "We need a fully certified mines deputy, someone who is qualified to carry out the required safety checks and who is fully trained in emergency procedures.

"But more than that, we need someone who is passionate about their profession and someone who has worked down the mines and will be able to describe to the public what it was like.

"They must also be able to relate stories and describe to visitors about the conditions and how life really was.

'Terrible shame'

"Most of the little children that come to the pit will have had someone in their family working in the mining industry and it's a way of touching their family history.

"Our last remaining miner, George Wilkinson, is holding the fort during the winter months.

"But unless we can recruit someone before 2004 we will have to cut the number of days we can open the pit to the public and at times be forced to close it completely, which would be a terrible shame.

"Two decades ago there were a lot of miners out of work and we benefited from that situation.

"But now new ones aren't being trained and many of the original miners are reaching retirement age."

Anyone interested can contact Ms Gibson on 0191 370 4010.

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