The closure of the only deep-pit mine left in the United Kingdom marks the end of an industry that built an empire
January 3, 2016 12:00 AM
South Durham miners at work at the coal face, 1871
By Steffan Morgan
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 defined Britain for more than a century — essentially ended with the closure of Kellingley, the last deep-pit mine in the United Kingdom, on Dec. 18.
When the 450 remaining miners at Kellingley finished their final shift, some exchanged high-fives while others shuffled off to an uncertain future with somber looks on their faces. The men once employed there will have to find new jobs. The local shops and services that relied on Kellingley’s trade will have to find customers elsewhere.
Coal has been mined in Britain since 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 began mining it for fuel, but 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 industrial era. It was more efficient than wood and could fuel power steam engines. In its “coked” form — purified in a high-temperature oven — it could 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 and governed via 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 made headlines across the globe: Around the turn of the century, a deal for supplying coal to a shipbuilding company was the first 1-million-pound contract in history.
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. At its peak, in 1913, more than 3,000 pits were producing 292 million tons of British coal.
The coal boom transformed leafy backwaters into bustling towns. Migrants traveled to Britain from Spain, Italy and Ireland for good wages, and coal villages became melting pots of different nationalities.
Coal and the Industrial Revolution spawned in Britain similarly transformed nations around the world, most notably the United States, which grew into the next great empire and saw immigrants flock to its small towns and growing cities like Pittsburgh to mine coal or work in coal-fired industries.
Hardships and friendships
Life in British coal outposts could be bleak. Thousands died in accidents and explosions every year. Men worked in seams barely 3 feet high after walking up to 2 miles underground to reach 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. The miners and their families often lived in cramped, squalid conditions.
But the constant presence of danger and hardships also created tightly knit communities: Towns formed pit brass bands, pit rugby and soccer teams and pit choirs. One reason the coal industry and the culture surrounding it has such a distinctive identity within the British public imagination today is because coal towns — with their danger, poverty, sense of community and strikes — 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 drinking and violence also helped forge the idea that these were men apart, as depicted in the writings of D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell.
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 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. The workers themselves — risking their lives on a daily basis in an industry that often seemed more suited to the Middle Ages than the 21st century — have been immortalized in art and literature.
But probably the main reason coal carries such cultural weight is that Britain’s sense of nationhood — its industry, its railways, its empire, its military victories — was all tied up in these black hunks.
Decades of decline
Coal would never again see the glory days of World War I. The end of the war saw a drop in annual output and miners’ livelihoods took a hit. The post-World War II era also was one of gradual decline.
By 1965, coal output had risen to 192 million tons, but it 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 and cheap coal imports became available from Poland and the Soviet Union.
But then, just when it looked like coal was about to fade into obscurity, it exploded back into public consciousness one last time, in a way that again would 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, a miners’ strike caused severe electricity shortages. In 1974, a threat to again picket power stations led to the fall of the Heath government. Further strikes in 1979 saw the fall of Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan.
When Margaret Thatcher arrived at Downing Street in 1979, she was determined to tame a labor movement increasingly dominated by the militant miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill. In a series of showdowns in 1984 and 1985, the Conservative government brought to bear the full force of the British state. It stocked coal at power stations to ensure the lights stayed on during job actions. 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.
The Thatcher government had set out to break not just the miners union, but unionism writ large. In the end, hundreds of loss-making mines 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 miners new skills had little impact; many were unable to cope with the transition and, decades later, remained unemployed.
The final blows
The years since the miners’ strikes have offered few reprieves: Cheaper alternative energy sources have become available from China and Africa. To counter the threat of global warming, successive British governments have encouraged nuclear power, which today accounts for nearly 20 percent of British energy. The current Conservative government plans 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 6 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 its 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.
Steffan Morgan is an award-winning television producer and director based in Cardiff, Wales, and a former lecturer at Cardiff University. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.
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