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24 November 2021

How Britain was built on coal

The mining industry once defined the nation. Its absence still haunts today’s politics.

By Robert Colls

For nearly 200 years, coal used to be everywhere. In the rivers and on the beaches; in neat piles outside coalhouses and heaped high on to lorries and trains, ready to be delivered to staithes and then dropped into ships’ holds where trimmers would walk mountains of it down flat. Nearly every factory and power station was powered by coal. Every household burned it raw. Every family depended on it for its warmth, its nourishment and good cheer. People used to eat it. People used to brush their teeth with soot scraped off the back of the chimney. The coalman and his boy were a filthy demon pair known to every housewife who ever hung out her washing.

Gaslight and smog brought their own urban aesthetic. You could see it and smell it. You could hear it hiss and crackle in the grate. You got it up your nose and in your eyes, while miners got it down their throat and in their lungs. On the wrong end of a blast, they could find it in their ears and anus. As a boy, Tommy Turnbull remembered coalface workers at Harton Colliery in the 1930s going hard at it without a break, a jam sandwich often stuck in their mouths like dogs carrying a bone. It wasn’t until I left home for softer southern lands that I realised that snot was green not black.

This “filthy rock”, writes Jeremy Paxman, “performed an act of magic upon a set of lands of undistinguished size in the North Atlantic”. One part of his book Black Gold traces the history of the British coal industry from the mid-17th century up to its demise at the end of the 20th, and the other part finds its moral theme in George Orwell’s notion of coal as the basis of modern civilisation. Orwell’s point about, “you and I and the editor of the Times Literary Supplement… and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants” all owing “the comparative decency of our lives” to miners was true in 1936, and remains true for much of the world today.

[See also: What will it take to overthrow King Coal?]

By 1938, the number of miners in Britain had fallen to 782,000 from its 1920 peak of more than a million, but the UK remained the world’s largest producer and exporter of energy. Unlike every other country, Britain had more coalminers than agricultural workers and it had them early. By 1800, coal was supplying virtually all our thermal energy and not only that, British coal was by far the cheapest, three times cheaper than American.

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If energy costs were low, other costs were high. The economist RH Tawney estimated in 1920 that annual deaths from coalmining were the equivalent of one full-strength British infantry battalion. That is, about 12,000 men every ten years. With the exception of deep-sea fishing, no other labour compared.

Paxman’s best advantage over academic historians is that he isn’t one. He tells a good story and he doesn’t mind who knows it. Ebullient and condescending at the same time, he is particularly good on set pieces. We get his point about the iniquity of a system of “royalties” where landowners just took the money without doing the mining. We get his point about safety and the law – no industry was more regulated, no workers more investigated. He absolutely makes his point about the difference between the class that made a life out of coal and the class that just made money out of it. When it came to the death of a pit, the money men could just walk away, but the lifers had nowhere to walk to. And he nails the lie about Winston Churchill ordering troops to fire on striking miners at Tonypandy in 1910.

But in true panto style, Paxman sees all coal-owners as villains, and all miners as their victims. There’s not much in the book that tracks standards of living, few insights into class relations, and no real effort to assess the engineering achievements. There’s also a trickle of errors. Paxman is an excellent journalist and a good listener. He really gets it, but whether he really got all of it is another question. The miners’ “bond” was not serfdom; it was a one-sided contract in an industry always short of skilled labour. In the 1840s the young coal-putter Patience Kershaw did not push 15 tonnes; she pushed a coal truck, not a London bus. It was the Tyne Improvement Commission (1850), not Armstrong’s Swing Bridge (1876), that eradicated the heavers known as keelmen. Ramsay MacDonald was not a former miner; that was Keir Hardie. The sociologist Mark Benney was never a former miner either. He was a former burglar.

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On 1 January 1947 the miners’ lodge secretary and the manager of Horden Colliery celebrated the nationalisation of the coal industry by ceremoniously burying a hatchet in the pit yard. At that moment, there were 126 collieries in County Durham and 194 in south Wales. In a couple of generations there were none, and The Shadow of the Mine concentrates on why – and how – that happened, at the hands of the National Coal Board (NCB), an organisation that the miners had willed into existence.

It starts in 1945 when a committee recommended raising productivity by merging the cutting, roofing and conveying of coal into a single operation. By the 1980s, the NCB had achieved a remarkable success – one of many – in raising “output per man-shift” tenfold from 1.25 tonnes in 1951 to more than 10 tonnes by 1983. The diagrams and drawings of hydraulic props and supports in the NCB’s training manual Underground Support Systems (1979) make coal production look as clean and technical as a sausage factory. But kicking along a 3ft seam while an “Armoured Flexible Conveyor” ripped and roared its way along the face, deafening and blinding all in its path, made mining in Durham or south Wales a completely different experience from anything their fathers and grandfathers had known. This was power-loading, and because most existing pits were geologically unsuited to compete against cheaper fuels, it defined mining, and the contraction of mining, in the postwar period.

[See also: Why the world must abandon coal power to avoid climate catastrophe]

It is in their highly visceral approach to the business of cutting coal that Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson’s excellent book differs from Paxman’s broader and more romantic account. They start by skilfully comparing the two coalfields – south Wales’ 20 valleys and County Durham’s inland west to coastal east – before moving on to the bitter 1984-85 strike and its aftermath. Here they get close to how that gulf between managers and miners – the gap between production figures and earnings, output and safety, trust and lack of it – became insurmountable, regardless of what had once joined them together in a common national enterprise.

Those who argue for ever more state intervention might want to look away now, because whatever forces of solidarity and principle the miners brought to the strike, like the Romans of old, the state not only broke them, but wiped out their every trace.

First, from the 1960s, there was the scheme to transfer men to pits with a future, a good policy in a torrid decade for the closing of mines. Second, there was the gradual introduction of aggressive bonus incentives for face workers. Third, there was Margaret Thatcher’s determination after 1980 to have done with the NCB and break the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). This involved building coal stocks, monitoring activists, cutting state benefits, coordinating police powers, decimating British Steel (a major consumer), importing foreign coal, overriding colliery review procedures, and enhancing pension and severance schemes (“the lumper”). 

[See also: Was Donald Trump’s “war on coal” real, or just the market at work?]

Thatcher also made sure that she enjoyed the advice of senior executives from rival energy companies, including BP, Shell and the nuclear industry, as well as a few free-wheeling Tory spivs from public relations and advertising. Finally, the appointment in 1983 of the Scots-American metallurgist Ian MacGregor as head of the NCB, to take on Arthur Scargill, the Marxist president of the NUM, was a match made in hell. One said he wanted to save the industry by bringing down a democratically elected government. The other said he wanted to save the industry by closing pits. British coal-mining was never going to get out of the 20th century without shrinking and much of it had happened already, pit by pit, if not willingly then at least with broad consent on both sides. But when the NCB lost the miners’ trust, and the difference between shrinkage and oblivion narrowed, the mining unions started to see the writing on the wall.

And so, the NUM was divided and lost the strike, and 400 years of economic and social history was lost with it. Mining areas were massacred, even those that had not supported the union leadership. Social problems flared in Labour strongholds once noted for their community. A generation later, many of these places voted for Brexit and for the Tories, and the Labour Party expressed not only its regret, but its entitlement.

Prompted by this, Beynon and Hudson end with Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” (1959). Borstal boy Smith, a natural athlete, is given special privileges so that he might run in a cross-country race against a prestigious public school. At the finish he is miles ahead but when he sees the whole prison establishment up on its hind legs and cheering, he slows, and stops, and loses their race in order to win something he dared call his own.

Robert Colls is a historian and a member of the panel advising on the restoration of the Durham Miners’ Association headquarters at Redhills

Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain
Jeremy Paxman
HarperCollins, 320pp, £25

The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain
Ray Hudson and Huw Beynon
Verso Books, 416pp, £20

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This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos