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Century of poetry and war

PART 3: the the second world war


Cleator Moor by Norman Nicholson

From one shaft at Cleator Moor
They mined for coal and iron ore.
This harvest below ground could show
Black and red currants on one tree.

In furnaces they burnt the coal,
The ore was smelted into steel,
And railway lines from end to end
Corseted the bulging land.

Pylons sprouted on the fells,
Stakes were driven in like nails,
And the ploughed fields of Devonshire
Were sliced with the steel of Cleator Moor.

The land waxed fat and greedy too,
It would not share the fruits it grew,
And coal and ore, as sloe and plum,
Lay black and red for jamming time.

The pylons rusted on the fells,
The gutters leaked beside the walls,
And women searched the ebb-tide tracks
For knobs of coal or broken sticks.

But now the pits are wick with men,
Digging like dogs dig for a bone:
For food and life we dig the earth -
In Cleator Moor they dig for death.

Every wagon of cold steel
Is fire to drive a turbine wheel;
Every knuckle of soft ore
A bullet in a soldier's ear.

The miner at the rockface stands,
With his segged and bleeding hands
Heaps on his head the fiery coal,
And feels the iron in his soul.


  the first world war
  the 1930s

  the second world war
Judging Distances  GO
How to Kill  GO
A Front  GO
Cleator Moor  GO

the 1930s
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voice

'black currants': coal
'red currants': iron ore
'corseted': a corset is a close-fitting bodice stiffened with strips of metal
'waxed': grew
'jamming time': season when fruits are ripe for making home-made jam (meaning here that the coal and ore are not 'in season': the mines have been shut down). The idea of jam as 'riches' or 'good luck' is perhaps also present.
'wick': Cumbrian dialect for 'alive' (here, as in 'crawling with')
'turbine wheel': for example, a rotary motor in an armaments factory
'knuckle' (like 'knob' earlier): lump
'segged': blistered, calloused
' heaps on his head the fiery coal': 'heaping coals of fire on someone's head' means doing good to someone who has done something bad, to encourage remorse
'feels the iron in his soul': suffers mental pain and bitterness (from the expression 'the iron entered his soul')
Both these last two expressions come from the Bible (the Old Testament), and would be as familiar as proverbs to any church-going community.

Cleator Moor is a town in Cumbria and a few miles inland from the old port of Whitehaven.

(About 10 miles to the south is Sellafield. Britain's first nuclear reactor was secretly built in the late 1940s on the site of an old ammunitions factory at Windscale, now called Sellafield, for making plutonium for atomic weapons. In 1956 the first atomic power station was built at nearby Calder Hall. The Windscale reactor was also the site of the first nuclear accident: in 1957 a fire released large quantities of radioactivity into the air. Cows' milk over 200 square miles was affected as the cows ate contaminated grass, and had to be thrown away, mostly into the sea. There has subsequently been controversy about cancers developing in some of the people living in the area at the time of the accident. The use of the name 'Windscale' was largely discontinued by the authorities in the 1980s because of its associations.)

Cleator Moor grew quickly in the 19th century, as the industrial revolution demanded more and more locally-mined coal and high quality iron ore. The region became criss-crossed by a network of railways transporting the coal and ore. But the industry declined in the 20th century. After the Wall Street crash in America (1929) the whole of Europe was affected by loss of trade, and many areas of Britain endured poverty, hardship and hunger. As the poem says, women were driven to scouring the beaches for lumps of coal or sticks washed up by the tide, to fuel their fires at home.

But in the mid-1930s the government feared that there would be another war in Europe, and ordered armaments factories to start up again. Once again coal and iron were needed to make military equipment and weapons.

Today there is only one working mine in the region of Cleator Moor: the iron ore mine at Egremont. The last coal mine closed some years ago, and the remaining buildings at its pit-head have been converted into a mining museum and heritage centre.

The poet Norman Nicholson was born in Cumbria and lived there almost all his life. In 1936, when he was 22, he joined the Church of England; his Christianity was very important to him. So was his poetry, all of it vivid and direct.

In this poem, which is rather like a ballad, 200 years of local history are quickly and vividly evoked. The rich 'harvest' of coal and iron at first brings prosperity to the region. But the really prosperous are the property-owners, managers and investors; so when their finances collapse, as they did in the early 1930s, the local people suffer poverty and hardship. There are no longer any jobs for them. But when armaments are wanted, it's a different story: the miners are back at work - and working fast, because it is 1940 and war has begun.

This history in itself is a metaphor for the exploitation of workers anywhere and at any time in world history - and for the way workers can become, without being consulted, part of the arms business. For those reasons alone it's an interesting poem. But the last three verses show that the poem is not just descriptive, it is also critical, and critical of war.

In 1940 the country people ('we') are digging the soil to grow crops and nourish life with the food they provide. But the miners dig the land to nourish death. The iron ore will be turned (in furnaces fired by coal) into the steel of weapons. And the miners know it. The poem's striking final image is of a single miner, representing them all. The man stands wielding his hammer at the rockface, his hands blistered and bleeding from hard, urgent work: a hero? No. Look at his set face and troubled eyes. He knows that the labour he has been asked to do - and which has restored his livelihood, if only for a while - will bring about the deaths of other men. His better luck is also a cause of bitterness, guilt and shame. Or so the poet thinks, and asks us to think so too.

How does the poet hammer this home? Look at the end-of-line rhymes from start to finish. Almost all of them are half-rhymes, and no verse has two pairs of full rhymes - except the last. They ring out strongly like the climax of a song. So do the familiar phrases, with their images of coal and iron. But now the phrases are turned, hammered, into a different meaning and resonance. The miner is heaping coals of fire on his own head: his work turns him into a man doing good and harm at the same time. The iron ore in his hands is the cause of pain to his soul: he is a man torn in two.

That is what war does. And too few people realise and understand their own responsibility for the path of armaments from the factory to the killing field.

The closeness of Cleator to Sellafield also opens the way to thinking about the military uses, and the dangers, of nuclear power. The path to war is not only the practical one concerning the manufacture of weapons, but the political one: do we want governments which don't 'feel the iron in their soul'? Shouldn't we acknowledge that pain of responsibility ourselves?

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