Ex-King Coal

Arthur Marwick

  • The History of the British Coal Industry. Vol. IV, 1913-1946: The Political Economy of Decline by Barry Supple
    Oxford, 733 pp, £50.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 19 828294 X

‘You never seem to be able to get the numbers right in this industry,’ lamented Sir Norman Siddall, who bravely filled the gap between the Coal Board chairmanship of Sir Derek Ezra, supreme servant and subtle bureaucrat of consensus, and that of Sir Ian MacGregor, vieux terrible of confrontation. ‘There is either too much or too little.’ Not since 1913, in fact, have the figures seemed roughly right. Coal had been ancillary, rather than essential, to Britain’s early Industrial Revolution. Demand had fluctuated consideraoly throughout much of the 19th century, but by the end of that century it had achieved a crushing dominance as the source of heat, light and power, not just in Britain but in the expanding world economy: in 1913 coal provided 75 per cent of the world’s energy requirements, 99.5 per cent of Britain’s own. In that year the British coal industry produced 287 million tons, one-third of which was exported (much of it in the form of fuel for foreign steam ships), with the rest absorbed in industrial and domestic consumption; about 10 per cent of the world’s need for coal was met by Britain, whose coal exports made up 55 per cent of all coal traded internationally. Output fell during the First World War, and there were a number of crises as the Government sought desperately to maintain the coal supplies critical for the national war effort. The war over, it became clear that the world now had too much coal for its needs, that alternative fuels (particularly for shipping and transport) were widely available and usable, and that former British markets were not only producing their own coal supplies but offering them on the international market at prices which the British industry found difficulty in competing with. British coal then suffered a decline in production and employment so nicely paced, and a series of self-inflicted wounds so exquisitely contrived, that the Second World War and the period of reconstruction which followed were marked by one continuing crisis of productivity. Though some sort of stability was seemingly restored to a steadily shrinking industry, getting the numbers right continued to be difficult as oil resources fell and rose in accessibility and nuclear resources rose and fell in acceptability.

Coal may be taken as the extreme case of the run-down of Britain’s traditional heavy industrial base, with all the repercussions this entailed. But as an extreme case, it is also a special case, in which the paradoxes are not simply statistical. As an economic and political phenomenon, the coal industry, in its heyday when the economy so manifestly depended upon it, and in the public agonies of its long and erratic decline, was highly visible: but as a set of social conditions and human relationships it was, even at the height of the most violent picketing of 1984, almost totally invisible. More than any other industrial workers, the miners have pursued their physical existence and their political and cultural being in their own separate and often remote one-class communities. A sense of mystery, a not entirely innocent curiosity, a sometimes maudlin romanticism, have attached themselves to the lives of miners, not utterly distinct from that which attaches to the priesthood. It is well-known that, even as working conditions generally have improved, of all industrial work mining is the most arduous and uncomfortable and the most dangerous. ‘All of us,’ wrote George Orwell in 1937, ‘owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.’ Herbert Smith, President of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, told a wages inquiry in 1924 that in the previous year

212,256 men received injuries disabling them for more than seven days, and in addition 1,297 were fatally injured. These figures mean that: Every working day more than five persons were killed. Every five hours the clock round a life was lost. Every 215,000 tons of coal raised was stained with the crimson of one man’s blood. Every working day 850 men and boys were injured.

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