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Coal Mining

The rise and fall of a once-great industry

Main image of Coal Mining

No other industry has had such a profound effect on the economic, industrial, and political history of Britain as has the coal industry. As David Lloyd George said, "In peace and war King Coal is the paramount lord of industry." The industry had literally powered the industrial revolution. The unions' and coal owners' political activism, and the unions' involvement in the Labour Party and major strikes in the 20th Century gave it huge political significance.

Although the industry developed largely to supply the home market, by 1913 a third of its output was exported - produced from over 3,200 mines employing over one million men (ten per cent of the workforce). These facts alone placed the industry in a pre-eminent position. Add the fact that the industry supplied the furnaces of the iron and steel trade and the steam engines of the railways and shipping, as well as the domestic household market (though coal and coal-gas) then its pre-eminence in the British economy was assured. Indeed the 1893-94 miners' strike saw the first intervention of a British government in an industrial dispute, such was the concern over the detrimental effect on the economy of a shortage of coal.

The period before the First World War saw an increasing breakdown of industrial relations. Tensions increased with the Tonypandy Riot in 1910, when miners were locked out and troops deployed. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) wanted a national minimum wage and national wage agreements, while the coal owners wanted neither. The result was the 1912 strike, leading to further government intervention. The strategic importance of coal during the First World War led to state intervention on an unprecedented scale, with mines being taken into government control (ending only in 1921). The miners used their new-found bargaining strength to improve pay and conditions as well as to gain access to government circles.

Lack of investment during the war, the postwar slump and stagnating trade saw the beginnings of the decline of the industry. During the war Britain had lost some of its overseas markets, a situation exacerbated by Germany being allowed to export coal to Italy and France in part payment of war reparations. The government's determination to stay with the Gold Standard meant a strong pound further reduced export trade. The trade slump also meant that domestic usage dropped. The traditional industries such as iron and steel required less coal as their productivity decreased. The coal industry's productivity also decreased as the coal became harder to mine. In order to ensure profitability, the coal owners sought to reduce wages and increase working hours. The MFGB and the coal owners were on a collision course, ultimately resulting in the 1926 General Strike. The strike officially lasted 9 days, however the miners tenaciously continued for another 6 months under their leader A.J. Cook's demand, "Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day." Eventually, however, they had to admit defeat and returned to work accepting lower wages, longer hours and district, rather than national wage agreements.

The aftermath of the strike and the world economic depression from 1929 hit the industry hard. Mines closed and unemployment reached nearly 60 per cent in some desperate areas - even Edward, Prince of Wales, on a visit to a depressed South Wales mining village, declared that "something must be done." Not until the nation began rearming for the Second World War did the industry recover. This war saw even more state intervention and an urgent need for more miners as the industry expanded to cope with war demand. A scheme to use military recruits in the mines was introduced by Ernest Bevin; among this generation of 'Bevin boys' were comedian Eric Morecambe and actor Brian Rix.

The MFGB had called for nationalisation of the industry in 1894, a cause taken up by the Labour Party in 1906 and finally realised in 1947 in the shape of the National Coal Board. The harsh winter of 1947 led to a coal shortage - a critical situation for a reviving economy and for households largely dependent on coal for fuel and heating - which led to grumbling about nationalisation. Investment was urgently needed, and in 1952 the NCB published 'The Plan for Coal', a national plan for the reconstruction and reorganisation of the industry. This plan was a qualified success. Output dropped slightly between 1947 and 1960, in spite of the loss of over 100,000 miners and nearly 250 pits, but the industry was more technologically advanced and economically stable - all changes reflected in the NCB's long-running cinema series Mining Review (1947-83).

In spite of the economic stability, the 1970s, and more so the 1980s, saw growing worker militancy led by the renamed MFGB, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The increased use of oil and nuclear power for electricity and the advent of natural gas reduced coal's market still further, in spite of increased productivity in the industry. The 1972 and 1974 miners' strikes were concerned with pay, inflation having hit the British economy. The strikes were successful because of the contemporary oil crisis, with the need for coal assuring the miners a strong bargaining card. Indeed, the 1974 strike was seen by many as causing the downfall of the Conservative government. The Conservatives fought the 1974 election campaign on the slogan 'Who governs Britain?' - meaning the unions, specifically the NUM, or the government. The electorate apparently decided that the Labour Party was best-placed to deal with the miners.

The 1980s witnessed a further contraction of coal's market and calls for a reduction in its government subsidy. With the appointment of Ian MacGregor as chairman of the NCB, a series of pit closures was announced. What began as a strike by Yorkshire miners shortly became, under the leadership of the NUM's Arthur Scargill, a national strike. The strike was one of the most bitter, divisive and violent in Britain's history. The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, referred to the miners as the, 'enemy within', while Scargill referred to her government's actions as, 'something reminiscent of a Latin American state'. The strike failed and pits closed. Mining communities, once noted for their exceptionally strong social and cultural identities, were reduced to ghost towns. Mine heaps were landscaped and collieries dismantled or turned into heritage sites. The NCB was renamed British Coal, privatised, and taken over by UK Coal. The announcement of further pit closures in the early 1990s was met with a relatively muted response from a now emasculated NUM. King Coal was reduced to a handful of mines, 4,000 employees and an annual turnover of £340 million by 2005 (compared to £4,930 million in 1982).

Simon Baker

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Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Mining Review (1947-83)Mining Review (1947-83)

Monthly film magazine for the coal industry and mining communities

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