Not all coal is the same. The lowest ranks – the closest to peat – are lignite and sub-bituminous coal, known in Britain as brown coal. These have been estimated to make up nearly a third of proved global reserves, but are not much exploited in areas where higher-grade coal is available, because they produce a lot of smoke and relatively little heat (they are also difficult to transport and store, not least because they can spontaneously combust). Next comes bituminous coal, or steam coal. Dark brown or black, and usually layered or banded, steam coal is widely used in electricity generation (by the 1970s, this was the destination of more than half the coal used in Britain). Dry steam coal was particularly in demand for use in steam ships, until the advent of the aeroplane and the oil tanker. Coking steam coal – which has a low sulphur content – is used to make coke, which is used in smelting iron ore. The highest rank of coal is anthracite, which burns the hottest and with the least smoke. It is black or steel grey, brilliant, and clean to touch. It used to power the Great Western Railway, and before gas-fired central heating became widespread, was a popular choice for domestic heating, because it produces little smoke or dust.
Coal has less orthodox uses, too. In a memoir written with her friend and fellow activist Betty Cook, Anne Scargill recalls attending a debate over the relative merits of nuclear power and coal with her husband, Arthur, president of the National Union of Mineworkers from 1981 to 2002. The scientist who was arguing for nuclear power had brought a rod of uranium in a plastic case and a piece of coal. He showed each to the audience, then held up his hands to demonstrate how dirty the coal had made his gloves. ‘What would you prefer?’ he asked. ‘The nice, safe, clean technology of nuclear energy or Mr Scargill’s dirty, polluting, nasty piece of coal?’ ‘When I was a young man working down the pit,’ Scargill replied, ‘I occasionally suffered from dyspepsia and heartburn. I relieved the symptoms by sucking on a piece of coal, as it is a good antacid. I will eat this dirty lump of coal if this gentleman will eat his uranium rod.’
Britain has major coalfields across the central belt of Scotland, North-East England, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and South Wales, as well as smaller ones scattered across the country, including in such seemingly unlikely locations as Kent. (There are also coal deposits in Ireland, but these are relatively unexploited.) Coal-mining was common in medieval Britain, but was mainly for local use, or for lime-burning and smithing. With population growth and declining supplies of wood in the later 16th and 17th centuries, however, coal was transformed into the habitual fuel of much of the country. By 1700, around three million tonnes were produced annually, an output many times greater than that of the entire rest of the world. At this point, the North-East coalfield was by far the biggest producer, dominating the seaborne trade to London. Industrialisation was driven by, and turbocharged demand for, coal: by 1850, 63 million tonnes were being produced annually. South Wales and the Midlands now began to rival the North-East coalfield in terms of production. The different histories and geologies of each coalfield produced distinctive patterns of work and trade union organisation. But there were common features. The men’s work was always arduous, dirty and dangerous. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell described the mines of the 1930s as like ‘hell’: ‘heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space’; the miners did ‘a dreadful job … an almost superhuman job’.
Women were banned from working underground by the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act. Margaret Hedley’s account of her great-grandmother’s married life in the first decades of the 20th century illuminates the conditions faced by women in pit villages. Susan Jopling gave birth to five daughters in a tied cottage in Ludworth in County Durham. The village was isolated and insular; when a decent new road finally opened in 1927, a county councillor remarked that Ludworth had, until now, been like the South African town of Mafeking, where British troops were besieged for seven months in the Second Boer War: ‘all hemmed in with no road out and a bad road to get in’.
After the First World War, a Durham council report on Ludworth’s pit cottages remarked that it was ‘painful to look upon these houses as the general outlook is one of squalor and neglect’. There were shared earth closets in rows behind the houses; ashes had to be dumped inside to minimise the smell. Pumps from the pit supplied the village water tanks; when the pit stopped working as a result of flooding, the water supply to the village became irregular or stopped altogether. The same thing happened when the miners went on strike or were locked out by employers (a million miners were locked out for seven months following the General Strike in 1926, when employers imposed lower wages and longer shifts). Two of Jopling’s children died as infants; another daughter died in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic, leaving three young children: by now in her sixties, Susan took on the care of two of them. Her husband, Jake, also caught the flu, which led to a deterioration of his eyesight, which was already poor due to miners’ nystagmus, a condition that some doctors at the time thought was caused by poor light down the pit, and others thought was malingering. The family knew that if Jake’s eyesight became too bad for him to work for the colliery company they would have to leave the tied cottage within two weeks.
Miners’ wives didn’t generally work outside the home: they didn’t have time, and in any case the ideology of the male breadwinner reigned in pit villages. Susan’s youngest daughter Bella had worked as a housekeeper for the local schoolmaster, Bossy White, but after her marriage in 1924 her labour was confined to the home. Her wedding exemplified the patterns of gender segregation common in many mining communities; after the celebratory meal, all the men – Bella’s new husband included – left for the Colliery Inn, leaving the women at home: women never went to the pub.
To many observers, like Orwell, and many sociologists of the mid-20th century, miners were archetypal workers of the industrial age. But that age was coming to an end. Deindustrialisation is often associated with the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher – and there was a sharp contraction in manufacturing and mining during her time in power. But accounts of deindustrialisation should begin much earlier, and we shouldn’t think of it as a single process. Ewan Gibbs and Jim Phillips, in their studies of Scottish miners and the decline of coal, and Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson, in their comparative account of the coalfields of South Wales and County Durham, describe the particular fate of the coal industry, which was not typical, but a special case.
Coal production peaked in Britain in 1913, when 292 million tonnes were mined, and employment in the industry peaked shortly afterwards, in 1920, at well over one million. After that, the general trend was downwards for both employment and output. In the interwar period, global political upheavals and economic depression led to a critical fall in demand for exports of British coal; in the ‘hungry 1930s’, domestic demand fell too. After the Second World War, coal was taken into national ownership by the Attlee government, which argued that ‘Britain’s most precious … raw material’ had, for a quarter-century, been ‘floundering chaotically under the ownership of many hundreds of independent companies’. The new National Coal Board immediately set about rationalising the industry – closing small and unproductive pits – and investing in new technology. For the first ten years, jobs held up, but from the late 1950s, contraction began and between 1959 and 1969, employment in the NCB’s deep mines almost halved, from 658,000 to 336,000. Oil, natural gas and nuclear power were starting to supplant coal. The bargain between the miners and the state was that job losses would occur, but when they did those miners who wanted to remain in the industry would be offered transfers to other collieries. The state would guarantee full employment as well as encouraging industries to move into areas where mines had closed: in practice this mainly meant offering incentives to multinationals to set up branch plants, like the Caterpillar earth-moving-equipment factory, which opened at Uddingston in Lanarkshire in 1956 with regional financial assistance. The attitude of successive governments seemed to accord with the belief of many trade unionists, workers and communities that the collieries were, as Gibbs puts it, ‘a communal resource and source of employment as opposed to the property of senior management to be disposed of according to the logic of profitability’. The NUM leadership of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, schooled in the hard lessons of the interwar years, was deeply invested in making a success of nationalisation and accepted the bargain with the state.
Rationalisation didn’t have an equal impact on every coalfield. Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, which had large and more easily accessible reserves, and served the domestic market, did relatively well, while the peripheral coalfields, including those in South Wales, Scotland and North-East England, saw very significant decline. But, critically, in the 1950s and much of the 1960s the total number of jobs in manufacturing in the UK was still growing, offsetting those lost in mining. In the testimonies of former miners and their families, this era is remembered fondly. Nationalisation was a success. Relations with managers improved, as symbolised in the ceremony on the day the NCB came into being, 1 January 1947, at Horden colliery in Durham, when the trade union lodge secretary and the pit manager came together to bury an actual hatchet. The NCB’s huge investments transformed a technologically backward industry into a far more productive one. Miners were given a much more significant voice in the running of pits, and were consulted on closures. Mining got safer – the rate of fatal injury halved in the 1950s and 1960s, compared with the 1920s and 1930s – and there was a new pension scheme. While governments in the interwar years had taken action to improve welfare in coalfield communities, efforts after 1947 were more extensive. The NCB took responsibility for pithead baths, medical facilities and canteens, and funded provision for convalescence, retirement, education and recreation, including events such as residential drama weekends for members of thespian societies in the coalfields.
Women’s lives were changing, too. Many of these new and expanded amenities – like pithead baths – had a significant impact on women’s work. Improvements to colliery housing and new council houses also substantially lightened their load. Miners’ wives increasingly had access to hot running water, electricity, washing machines and other such luxuries – though the pace of change could be slow in pit villages. In the early 1960s, Betty Cook, then in her early twenties, was living with her husband and young sons in a pit house on Brick Row, near the village of Woolley, halfway between Barnsley and Wakefield. When they moved in, the house had bare stone floors, cold running water, a copper boiler, paraffin stove, coal oven and a shared outside toilet. There was no bus service or shop; the women relied on mobile shops operating out of vans. When Woolley colliery built a new plant to wash the coal and ran it during the day, it used so much water that the families on Brick Row often found themselves with none.
But the gradual lightening of the domestic load made it easier for miners’ wives to join the paid labour force. Some got jobs with the support of their husbands; some won over reluctant partners; and some did it against their wishes. Betty persuaded her husband that if she worked, he’d have to give her less housekeeping and could spend more money on what he really cared about, which was going to the pub. Now living in a council house with a bathroom and hot water (Brick Row had been condemned), Betty got a job at Empire Stores, a mail order company in Wakefield, picking out orders in the warehouse. Nervous at first, she ‘seemed to be continually saying sorry’, but, she writes, ‘it was all worth it … for the financial independence.’ It would have been almost unthinkable for a miner’s wife from a generation or two before hers – for a woman like Susan or Bella Jopling – to get a job against the wishes of her husband, let alone to leave him. Indeed, when Betty finally left her husband, her mother implored her to go back to him, and told her that Don ‘had been round to see her and that he had cried’. Betty’s son, though, reassured her that she had done the right thing.
In the 1950s, governments and civil servants had worried about the stranglehold the miners had over UK energy. By the 1970s, there were alternative sources of energy, but coal was still the main fuel used for electricity generation. A series of events, however, made the Conservative Party determined to break the power of the miners. As younger generations took over the NUM leadership in the late 1960s and 1970s, the union grew more critical of pit closures, and of the falling behind of miners’ pay relative to other manual workers. This set the scene for the first national coal strikes since nationalisation, in 1972 and 1974. Electricity shortages led to power cuts and a three-day week; Edward Heath’s Tory government fell; miners won a record pay increase and seemed to have secured the industry’s future with a new government Plan for Coal. The NUM was firmly in the vanguard of Britain’s increasingly powerful and combative trade union movement; indeed, Arthur Scargill seems to have gone around the country encouraging dissatisfied workers wherever he found them to go on strike. At a Co-op conference on the Isle of Man, he set about organising the hotel staff to fight for better pay and conditions: ‘Within a day or two,’ Anne Scargill recalls, ‘he won a deal and by the time we left they had formed a union branch.’ The labour movement was a force to be reckoned with.
Thatcher was determined to change all this. After 1979, production subsidies for coal were removed, and the Thatcherites laid the foundations for a showdown with the NUM. Coal was stockpiled at power stations and by 1984 the government was confident that there were enough reserves to ensure the lights would remain on and the miners would be defeated. The strike began in the spring of that year (a bad time for the miners) and in a haphazard way, when miners in Yorkshire came out in response to the sudden and chaotic announcement of pit closures in their area. The strike spread around the country without, controversially, a national ballot, and the lack of such a ballot was used by many Nottinghamshire miners as a justification for crossing the picket lines. In this highly productive area, thought by many to have a secure future, a majority of miners continued to work. The strike directly involved more than two hundred thousand workers and their families. Elaborate picketing and fundraising networks were set up. Groups of women from the coalfields formed support groups, set up soup kitchens, distributed food parcels, held women’s marches, organised fundraising and joined the picket lines. Anne Scargill and Betty Cook were prominent in this movement, and credit the strike with developing their self-confidence and strengthening their political beliefs. Both have continued to fight for social justice and to stand on picket lines ever since. The women’s movement, and the alternative welfare state it created, played a pivotal role in enabling the miners to continue with the strike for as long as they did. The DHSS reduced the benefits paid to striking miners’ families on the basis that they were receiving strike pay, which officials knew was not, in fact, happening. The NUM could only afford to pay small picketing allowances, and by the end of the strike, financial hardship was acute for many strikers and their families. Almost exactly a year after it began, the strike was called off. Some spent years paying off the debts they had accrued.
Arthur Scargill had long argued that the government wanted to destroy the mining industry. After the strike, this is exactly what the NCB did. At the end of 1983, there were 170 NCB mines operating in Britain. Ten years later, there were seventeen. The NCB stopped co-operating with the NUM over the running and the running-down of pits. Managers began to talk about cost per gigajoule: coal was just one source of energy in a global market. It was cheaper abroad, and by 2001, more coal was imported than was mined in Britain. Collieries were disposed of according to the logic of profitability. This took place in the context of very high unemployment – more than three million people in the middle of the Thatcher decade – and a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs, which fell from nearly 8 million in 1973 to just over 4.5 million in 1999.
New Labour accepted the effective end of the coal industry in Britain. Blair got rid of the party’s constitutional commitment to nationalisation in 1995, the same year the rump of the industry was privatised. Beynon and Hudson suggest that New Labour gave up on ‘any idea of the state as an engaged actor within the economy’ and are scathing about New Labour’s regional industrial policy for the coalfields, which did little more than offer incentives to multinationals to situate plants, warehouses or customer service jobs in these areas. The wooing of multinationals had been a strategy of governments before: what was different now was the technological and global economic context. Manufacturing required far fewer workers than it had in the heyday of Fordism. Trade unions were far less powerful, and New Labour did little to change this; indeed, low wages and quiescent workforces were meant to help attract multinationals. By the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, these companies were increasingly moving production or customer services to places where they could get better profit margins. In 1987, the closure of the Caterpillar factory at Uddingston was announced, just four months after the UK government had committed £8 million of investment. New Labour’s other regional policy was the creation of growth hubs – ‘agglomeration’ was the buzzword – but this did little for the former coalfields as the hubs were formed around cities.
The result in coalfield areas has been the replacement of skilled work that had decent pay and conditions with lower-paid, less skilled and more precarious jobs. Factories and pits have been replaced by call centres, distribution hubs and retail parks, although these are often not exactly where the old pits were, because such businesses cluster near good transport links. Many redundant miners were encouraged to claim invalidity benefits in order not to show up in Thatcher’s unemployment figures; they were subsequently punished for this as the welfare regime has grown more hostile to supposed malingering over the last two decades. Some ex-miners found skilled and rewarding new careers; many did not. Faced with redundancy, low-skilled work and going on benefits, many men felt, as a miner from Horden put it, like ‘kites without wind’.
For women in the coalfields, the picture is more complex: the slow normalisation of paid employment for married working-class women began in the 1950s and 1960s, and in many ways it has been a positive change, though their work was, and is, likely to be low-paid and insecure – women have long had jobs in retail outlets and warehouses. But the acceleration of the growth in women’s paid labour since the late 1980s has been driven by financial necessity: the male breadwinner wage is a thing of the past.
Mining was dangerous and bad for your health, and many ex-miners continue to suffer from chronic illnesses. Miners’ nystagmus became less common after the Second World War, perhaps due to better lighting, but the huge amounts of dust generated by mechanical cutting led to higher rates of pneumoconiosis, a condition caused by coal dust damaging the lungs. Ex-miners also have high levels of myocarditis, TB, bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. In 2011, Horden had the highest percentage of residents on health-related benefits in the UK. The end of mining has also brought new health problems: in 2013, one in six adult residents of Blaenau Gwent, once represented in Parliament by Nye Bevan, were taking anti-depressants.
The testimonies of former miners and their families in these books are pervaded by a sense of loss. One of Beynon and Hudson’s interviewees (they don’t supply his location) recalls that
they couldn’t wait to get rid of the evidence, they were guilty as hell and they knew it and now there’s not a sign of where we used to work … All what we done for all those years … what our forefathers had done for all those years – and don’t forget the First World War was won on bloody coal in them ships – but all of a sudden, we didn’t count for naught.
Some mines have been turned into heritage sites, tourist attractions or parks. Many have just disappeared. The past has been erased.
Siobhan McMahon, who was interviewed by Gibbs, describes the changes in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire:
the jobs aren’t coming to the area anymore. And when they do come, it’s not … the skilled jobs … Tesco coming’s great … But our town centre’s decimated because it’s charity shops, it’s bookies, it’s pubs … people aren’t remaining in Bellshill. They’re seeing it as a town to build nice new houses in, absolutely, because it’s halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh so it gets you along the motorway. That was never what it was supposed to be about. That was never what Bellshill was.
A big Tesco and good road links don’t add up to much in comparison with hewing the nation’s ‘most precious raw material’ out of the earth.
The closure of the pits has also led to changes in the politics of the former coalfield areas. The trade union movement is much less strong, though union density remains higher in South Wales and North-East England than in many other areas. But the political implications of deindustrialisation are not uniform. In North-East England, there is strong support for Brexit, and in the 2019 general election Labour was supplanted by the Conservatives in the former mining constituencies of Bishop Auckland, North West Durham and Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat), an event we’re supposed to refer to as the crumbling of the ‘Red Wall’. In South Wales, there is also strong support for Brexit, yet support for Labour remains strong – though not as strong as it was in the days when the party’s votes weren’t counted but weighed. In Scotland, many coalfield constituencies supported remaining in the EU and now vote SNP (the Labour vote there collapsed in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and in the 2015 general election). Gibbs argues that the growth of support for Home Rule and, latterly, for independence in these areas does not mean the abandonment of class identities in Scotland; rather, he suggests, working-class and national identity have fused. The moral economy that postwar trade unionists constructed, which emphasised government’s responsibility to industrial communities, has profoundly shaped what Gibbs describes as the ‘“social justice” discourse of collective partnership and a shared national interest’ that predominates in contemporary Scotland. The politics of class hasn’t disappeared, though its articulations have not remained the same. Deindustrialisation has led to a cascade of changes in the economy and society; its impact on Britain’s coalfields since the 1980s has been severe. But it doesn’t inevitably mean a decline in workers’ rights and collective security. That depends on politics.