From pit to palace: Kate's coal mining ancestry

In some ways, it is a modern day rags-to-riches story. The family of Kate Middleton, soon to marry Prince William, comes from modest roots built around coal mining. Now, in the span of four generations, royalty looms. (March 2)
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 5:18 PM

HETTON-LE-HOLE, England -- She's not exactly a coal miner's daughter, but Kate Middleton has deep family roots in the grim coal pits of northern England.

Middleton has already captivated the world's imagination with her Cinderella story of going from middle-class girl-next-door to queen-in-waiting, but until recently few knew of her family's connection to coal mining, once a prime source of Britain's prosperity that has now fallen on hard times.

Her great-grandfather left coal country nearly a century ago in pursuit of a safer way of life in the London area, but his siblings stayed behind and spent their working lives in the coal pits. She still has relatives in the area who expect her to bring a practical, no-nonsense approach to royal life once she and Prince William tie the knot at Westminster Abbey on April 29.

John Harrison, a cousin who still lives in Hetton-Le-Hole - once a bustling mining center now down on its luck - doesn't expect Middleton to act all high and mighty when she officially becomes a princess.

Harrison believes she still has a bit of the coal country in her, a head-screwed-on-straight practicality more common to the grit of northeast England than the gilded parlors of Buckingham Palace, with its priceless art collection and stifling protocol.

"I think she's going to stamp her northeast way of life on William," said Harrison, who has lost touch with Middleton's side of the family but still plans to celebrate the royal wedding with his family's own party-of-the-year. "She's told him they're going to be more normal, more down to earth."

The fact that the offspring of a coal mining family will soon be a princess - and a likely future queen - is taken by some as proof that Britain's once-rigid social system has become more malleable.

"It says a lot about social mobility," said Geoff Nicholson, a retired genealogist who lives in Hetton-Le-Hole, the town 270 miles (435 kilometers) north of London where Middleton's ancestors lived.

"They certainly wouldn't have done that in the hundred years before that. They went from the bottom to the top."

The upward mobility - tabloids are calling it "From Pit to Palace" - began when Middleton's great-grandfather Thomas Harrison, fed up with the grim prospects of life in a coal town, packed up and took his family to the London area, not with any grand plans, but simply to get cleaner, safer work.

Harrison, using his carpentry skills to avoid the coal pits, left behind most of his brothers and sisters, including his brother George, who became John Harrison's father. Thomas Harrison moved first to Ealing, a suburb west of London, and his granddaughter Carole eventually married Michael Middleton, who came from a successful family of lawyers and businessmen.

That was a distinct step up in the world. Their daughter Kate Middleton went to the best schools, and met a prince. They had an eight-year, on-again-off-again courtship that - finally - led to an engagement in November.

It was not unusual for men to leave the coal regions if they could, said Kate Reeder, a curator at the Beamish Museum that documents the region's history. She said coal mines in the Hetton area reached their peak in 1913 - when miners were relatively well paid - but then went into a sharp decline that prompted some men to abandon the mines in search of better jobs.

"It was a really, really unhealthy activity," she said. "Just being underground for most of your life is not a healthy thing to do, plus there's the dust and the noise and the repetition of their work, and a lot of dangers from the machinery, and from explosions and gas incidents. So it's not unusual for people to leave."

Many who left did well for themselves, but the Harrison story is unprecedented.

"I suppose it's a bit like winning the lottery," said John Harrison. "You're not going to get any money out of it, but at least you'll have memories. We'll still be working class, but it's a nice feeling to know there's something there in the family, that we're going to be related to royalty."

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