In the 19th century the coal mines of Great Britain provided the primary source of energy for the industrial revolution. Coal powered the steam locomotives, ships, steam engines in mills etc. It also generated heat and light in the form of coal gas and later electricity. Coal processed into coke made blast furnace production of iron and other metals possible. Coal did much of the work then that oil and natural gas do now, including as a substitute for the growing chemical industry.
Coal miners and their families were in a number of ways a people apart. Many lived in small mining villages isolated in the countryside and made up almost exclusively of mining folk.
Their work underground made them invisible to most other people, as did the fact that many did shift work outside normal working hours.
Credit: Independent Labour Party Publications
These communities were tightly knit and egalitarian; Primitive Methodist by religion. In the 19th century they lived in single room cottages inadequate for accommodating their large families. This housing was often owned by the pit owners, so the miners could face eviction if they went on strike.
Before the Truck Acts of 1831, truck shops or company stores were run by the pit owners where miners and their families bought food etc at extortionate prices - often with tokens rather than proper money.
Diseases were common, such as emphysema, pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, miners’ nystagmus (an eye condition), as well as many degenerative conditions such as arthritis.
Coal mining was a very dangerous job, with a long history of mining disasters (e.g. Pretoria Pit in Atherton, Senghenydd). The dangers came in many ways: flooding and drowning from underground rivers, collapsing of the many miles of tunnels that deep cast mines required, suffocation from carbon monoxide, and terrible injuries from breaking machinery.
Trusting the skill of your fellow workers was the only safeguard against injury and/or death. In some ways it was a bit like being in the infantry in the army. The coal face was the front line, and the enemy were the constant sources of danger.
One of the prime movers behind the drive for nationalisation was the aim of improving the industry’s safety record. Pay was always determined by productivity so what mattered was how much coal a miner won from the ground, not how long a day he worked. No employer wanted to pay a miner to make the pit safe, or remove valueless rock and spoil.
Before nationalisation in 1947, private pits would flood each others’ workings because they competed with each other. The environmental damage was enormous, a legacy with which we are still contending.
From the beginning of the 20th century the coal industry was in decline, with the steepest decline after the second world war. In the two decades from 1950-1970 around 100 North East coal mines were closed. On 2 March 1968 the last pit in the Black Country, Baggeridge, closed and pit closures were a regular occurrence in many other areas.
In 1979, 130 million tons of coal was being produced annually from 170 underground mines, but by 2010 the three remaining mines produced only 17 million tons.
In terms of employment, jobs in the mining industry peaked in 1920 with 1,200,000 but by 1960 the workforce had been halved to 600,000, albeit due in part to mechanisation.
Some of the factors contributing to the decline in the coal industry were:
- North Sea oil and gas
- Nuclear power
- Concern over coal’s role in CO2 emissions and global warming
- Clean Air Act – a response to London’s great smog of 1952, the act was in effect until 1964. In ‘Smoke control areas’ only the burning of smokeless fuels was permitted.
Find out more about songs in the Library collection about mining and mineworkers, ranging from the 19th century to the 1984/85 miners' strike, here.
John Beswick was a miner at Agecroft Colliery in Salford, until its closure in 1991. Listen to this emotive account of his experiences at Agecroft, inspired by two paintings which he donated to the Library (5 Mins)
These paintings (one of them pictured here) and this audio are part of our large collection, relating to mining, people and working conditions. Visit our Library and explore our collection.
Click here to find out more about Agecroft and the Library's 2012-2013 oral history project about it.
Click here to find out more about mining unions and the 1984/85 miners' strike.
Related Object of the Month
December 2010: Pretoria Pit disaster serviette
The Library's object of the month for December 2010 is a serviette commemorating the mining disaster at Pretoria Pit, near Bolton, on 21 December 1910. Lancashire's worst pit disaster and Britain's third largest loss of life from a single mining accident happened at the No. 3 Bank Pit belonging to the Hulton Colliery Company.
Resources in the Library about miners and the mining industry
Early 19th century:
Accidents in coal mines 1812-1844 and pitman’s strike 1844. (Mostly to do with mine safety and the Haswell Pit disaster) - Shelfmark: J25/9
Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Annual reports 1893, 1898, 1900-1944 - Shelfmark: T15
Lancashire and Cheshire Miners’ Federation, Annual reports 1897-1944 (not complete) - Shelfmark: T20
National Coal Board, Memoranda of agreements 1945-1986 (not complete) Shelfmark: T19
National Union of Mineworkers, Annual reports 1945-1957, 1968-1991 (not complete) - Shelfmark: AF Mining Box 5
National Union of Mineworkers, Nottingham area, Gedling branch: branch records 1985-1993 including minutes, letter book, cash book and other papers - Shelfmark: AF Mining Boxes 7-18
Archive of Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures – two banners, plus 14 boxes of material from 1992 to 1995, including letters of support and letters sending donations, minutes and accounts, media including publicity materials, literature relating to Parkside Pit Camp, petitions, address lists and visitors' book, papers relating to fundraising, videos, photographs, poetry and songs - Shelfmark AG LWAPC
To search the catalogue for more resources click here.