The Final Lump of Coal in Britain’s Stocking
The closure of the last deep pit mine in the United Kingdom marks the end of an industry that built an empire.
Within a few years, there will be no visible reminder that coal was once dug out of the ground at the Kellingley Colliery.
As it has gone with so many other towns in Britain — Creswell in Derbyshire, Rhodesia in Nottinghamshire, Mardy in South Wales — so it will go with Beal, in North Yorkshire, the town where Kellingley was located. Today, these are small towns and villages — some with only one street, one pub, and one shop — but once they were places of international importance, whose coal powered the Industrial Revolution, drove the steam trains on Victorian railways, and fueled the ships that fought World Wars I and II.
The coal industry — a business that once defined Britain — ended in any meaningful sense with the closure of Kellingley, the last deep pit mine in the United Kingdom, on Dec. 18, though, realistically, the industry has been on life support since 1990. When the workers at Kellingley finished their final shift, surrounded by members of the media, it was with feelings of dejection and anger, but also with a calm resilience. The 450 remaining miners simply bid farewell to their jobs; some exchanged high-fives, others shuffled off to an uncertain future with somber looks on their faces. The men once employed there will have to find alternative employment. The local shops and services that relied on Kellingley’s trade will have to find customers elsewhere.
Coal has been mined in Britain since the Roman times. The Romans called it “the best stone in Britain” and carved jewelry out of it, then marveled when that jewelry could be set on fire. They would soon begin mining it for fuel, but only out of small drift mines. It would take the Industrial Revolution to bring on the golden age of coal — and the era of the deep pits that have come to shape the image of British mining we have today.
Coal was made for the new demands of the industrial era. It was more efficient than wood and could be used as fuel to power steam engines; in its “coked” form — purified in an airless, high-temperature oven — it could be used to heat homes cheaply. Coal fueled the Victorian railways, which themselves transformed daily life in Britain, connecting people, food, and industry over greater distances and at a faster pace than ever before. The British Empire was built up and governed via the journeys of steamships, which crisscrossed the oceans with bellies full of — what else? — British coal.
By the 1890s, coal was creating wealth on an unprecedented scale. Coal business made headlines on the front pages of major newspapers across the globe: Around the turn of the century, a deal for supplying coal to a shipbuilding company was made at the coal exchange near Cardiff docks — the first 1 million pound contract in the history of industry. The British navy fought World War I using millions of tons of coal, dug out of the ground by a labor force considered so important they were excused from military conscription so long as they kept digging to feed the furnaces that fueled the war effort. At its peak, in 1913, more than 3,000 pits were producing 292 million tons of British coal, with 96 million tons sold on world markets.
The coal boom transformed leafy backwaters in South Wales, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands into bustling towns. Migrants traveled to Britain from Spain, Italy, and Ireland for good wages, and coal villages became melting pots of different nationalities with street names to match. In South Wales, there are still streets named for the nationalities of those who inhabited them: Spanish Row, English Street, and Italia Villas. It was coal migrants from the Bardi region of Italy who first introduced South Wales to ice cream.
Life in these towns could be bleak, sometimes notoriously so. Thousands died in accidents and explosions every year as the demand for coal surged. Conditions underground were grim: Men worked in seams that were barely 3 feet high, walking up to two miles underground before arriving at digging sites. They completed every task by hand, setting up roof supports, digging, and then dragging tons of coal to the surface every day. The dust and humidity were intolerable; many died of respiratory illnesses before the age of 30. At the end of the day, the miners emerged, whole bodies covered in black dust, to head back to their families, who often lived in cramped, squalid conditions.
But the constant presence of danger and hardships also had the effect of creating tightly knit communities: Towns formed pit brass bands, pit village rugby and soccer teams, and pit choirs. Part of the reason why the coal industry, and the culture surrounding it, has such a distinctive identity within the wider British public imagination today is in part because coal towns — with their danger, poverty, sense of community, and the ever-looming possibility of “industrial action” — had about them a certain brutal romance: men who went into the bowels of the Earth and suffered immeasurable struggles to dig out black rocks to feed their families. The wider drinking and violence embedded in mining communities also helped to forge the idea that these were men apart, as depicted in the novels of D.H. Lawrence, and romanticized and sexualized by George Orwell in his working-class travelogue The Road to Wigan Pier:
“It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that, just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waistline, and the constant bending would be impossible. You can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it — the line of bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed.”
The success of the films Billy Elliot, released in 2000, in which a young boy uses ballet to escape the brutalizing effects of a coal strike in the north of England, and Pride, released in 2014, in which the gay communities of London help support striking mining communities in Wales, demonstrate that the fascination with coal mining and mining communities remains as strong as ever.
The coal industry resonates with the British public in a way few other industries have, before or since. This is in part because of the workers themselves — immortalized in art and literature — who risk their lives on a daily basis amid strong bonds of friendship with their fellow men, in an industry that at times seemed more suited to the Middle Ages than the 21st century.
But coal also carries such cultural weight because the British were the best at it: British coal burned longer, and it burned with less smoke. Perhaps more importantly, Britain was at its best when it was pulling it out of the ground. The country’s sense of nationhood — its industry, its railways, its empire, its military victories — was all tied up in these black hunks.
Coal would never again see the glory days of World War I. The end of the war saw a drop in annual output to 169 million tons by 1921 — the French and German economies were in no position to acquire the same tonnage of British coal as they did before the war — and miners’ livelihoods took a hit. Although many have described the nationalization of the coal industry, in 1947, as the beginning of another golden age for British coal, the reality is that the post-World War II era was one of gradual decline. By 1965, coal output hit 192 million tons, but did so with a dramatically reduced workforce — an industry that had employed more than 1 million men in 1925 was down to 390,000 by 1967. Coal was seen as old-fashioned; railways moved from coal to diesel and then to electricity. North Sea gas was beginning to have an impact at the National Grid, and cheap coal imports were available from Poland and the USSR for the first time.
But then, just when it looked like coal was about to fade away into obscurity, it exploded back into the public consciousness one last time, in a way that would again leave a lasting impact on the nation. The miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s defined modern Britain’s relationship with unions and labor. In a series of increasingly aggressive confrontations, the miners union took on the Conservative government of Ted Heath in a row over wages. In 1972, the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike and picketed power stations causing severe electricity shortages. In 1974, a further threat to take industrial action and picket power stations led to the fall of the Heath government. Further strikes in 1979 saw the fall of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan.
When Margaret Thatcher arrived at Downing Street in 1979, she was determined to show that she would not be a victim of a labor movement increasingly dominated by the militant miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill. In series of all-or-nothing showdowns over a 12-month period from March 1984 to March 1985 over the decision to close Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire, the Conservative government brought to bear the full force of the British state. In the years leading up to the dispute, the government and the National Coal Board increased coal stocks at power stations to ensure the lights stayed on. It changed laws to make declaring a strike difficult and participating in one even harder. The police were prepped for action. There was no way the miners were going to win, and in the end they returned to work with no agreement in place, knowing that a final flourish to save the industry had come to nothing.
The Thatcher government had set out to break not just the miners union, but unionism writ large. In the aftermath of the dispute, hundreds of loss-making collieries were mothballed. A few financially viable pits were privatized and kept running in the short term, but vast swaths of industrial Britain were shuttered virtually overnight. With the pits closed, the surrounding towns and villages, typically in rural areas with little else around, no longer had any reason to exist. Retraining schemes intended to give the miners new skills had little impact; many were unable to cope with the transition and, decades later, remained unemployed.
The years since the miners’ strikes have offered few reprieves: Cheaper alternative coal sources have come available from China and Africa. Under pressure to counter the threat of global warming, successive British governments have made the decision to encourage nuclear power. Today, nearly 20 percent of U.K. energy comes from nuclear power. The current Conservative government announced this year that it wants to phase out all coal-burning power stations by 2025. There is no going back.
The Kellingley Colliery may have been a modern, 21st-century, fully mechanized deep pit mine, but the work was still not easy. The miners spent at least two hours getting down from the surface to the coalface six miles away — part of that journey lying face down on a conveyor belt. The humidity in the pit was often 98 percent, the temperatures well over 86 degrees. Seventeen men were lost to rock and machinery falls over the course of the mine’s 50-year history.
Some will be happy that they and their sons will never have to work in such a horrible place. Some will miss the camaraderie and the bonds of friendship that carried over well after the final bell to end a workday had been rung. Britain will miss them, too — or at least what they stood for — but not enough to keep the country from moving on without them.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images