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Nine Centuries of Coal (1958)


Main image of Nine Centuries of Coal (1958)
35mm, 34 min, black & white
DirectorJ.B. Napier-Bell
Production CompanyBasic Films
SponsorNational Coal Board
ProducerJ.B. Napier-Bell
PhotographyLarry Pizer

Players: Miners of the Forest of Dean, their wives and children

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A history of coal-mining from the 11th century to the 20th.

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A typical educational film of the 1950s that developed from director J.B. Napier-Bell's own work in Forward a Century (1951). That film relied on historical prints to show the similarities and contrasts between Britain in 1851 and 1951 by means of the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain. Napier-Bell was also inspired by the Shell Film Unit's Transfer of Power (1939), which charted the development of power from the wooden cog-wheels of wind and water-mills to the gears of motor cars and turbines.

The film combines prints, animation, historical reconstructions and models to convey a history of coal mining in Britain from the 11th century. By far the most effective sequences are the reconstructions which were filmed in the pits of the Forest of Dean and used the families of the Forest of Dean miners. The action scenes, coupled with the voice-overs of children and adults relating their experiences of working in a pit, are particularly touching and evocative. The scripts were presumably culled from the various government reports into working conditions during the middle of the 19th century. The Forest of Dean pits lent themselves well to filming as they had no gas. Other pits had extensive safety measures owing to the danger of explosions and filming was thus limited.

The only real difficulty in filming in the Forest of Dean mines lay in the staging of explosions. Explosions were needed to show the danger of gas (firedamp) and the development of safety measures such as Humphrey Davey's lamp. By using 'magicians wool' (cotton wool impregnated with magnesium), a large flash could be filmed which would not create large quantities of smoke or other gases.

Effective use is also made of actual working engines and machinery. Tyneside Colliery, Lambton engine works and Monkwearmouth colliery had functioning machinery from the 19th century and their machinery is featured in the film. The coastline of Pembroke provided the landscape for the opening scenes of people gathering sea coal for the local monasteries. This tradition of collecting sea coal lasted well into the 20th century and was graphically portrayed in the film Seacoal (1985).

Simon Baker

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (30:40)
Coal Face (1935)
Erulkar, Sarah (1923-)
National Coal Board Film Unit (1952-84)
The National Coal Board - The Documentaries