Cymru Culture

Articles / Erthyglau

The Coal Industry - Blessing or Curse?

(June 01, 2016)


The Coal Industry - Blessing or Curse?

Miner's Rescue, by Les JohnsonMiner's Rescue, by Les Johnson
Bronze, on a pennant sandstone plinth

Welsh National Miners' Memorial, Senghennydd

Someone once said, Wales wasn't blessed with coal, it was cursed with it. According to some, and to misquote Winston Churchill, the coal industry offered only blood, toil, tears and sweat. Small scale mining had been in existence for thousands of years. Both stone and bronze axes have been found in coal seams, showing that our predecessors had been mining there. During the Roman occupation of Britain, every coal field (except for those in North and South Stafford) was being exploited by the end of the second century CE.

The Industrial Revolution would not have happened without coal. Coal enabled steam engines to be built, extending international trade, powering railways and steamships. Coal mines proliferated in the nineteenth century. They were very dangerous places for the men, women and children who worked in them - for eleven or twelve hours daily in awful conditions, with the women and children working for less pay than the men.

In 1839 an accident in the Huskar mine near Barnsley, Yorkshire, when the mine was flooded by a stream, killed eleven girls between eight and fifteen years and fifteen boys between nine and eleven years old. In 1842, A Royal Commission of Enquiry resulted in banning women entirely and boys under eleven years old from working in pits; the ban on women was mainly because they were working in trousers and bare-breasted rather than any other reasons!

Thousands of miners have died over the years, and even more injured, in explosions, fires, roof-falls, and accidents both underground and at the surface. Children also died in the Abefan disaster (1966). The lives of hundreds of thousands of coalminers have been shortened by lung diseases caused by coal and other dust (bronchitis, emphysema, pneumoconiosis, silicosis and COPD). Further misery has left miners with the legacies of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), Vibration White Finger (VWF) and beat or coal miner's knee. Each affected miners' family suffered indirectly too. That was the cost of the industry in blood, limbs, diseases and lives.

Senghenydd CollieryUniversal Colliery, Senghennydd, Glamorgan;
site of an explosion on 14 October 1913, resulting in the deaths of 440 men

Many Welsh speaking communities disappeared as a result of the influx of large numbers from England and Ireland, drawn by the industries that had developed around the coalfields of the Heads of the Valleys, Gwent, Glamorgan and westwards. This contributed to the official stigmatisation of Cymraeg; begun under the Laws in Wales Act 1535 (which made English the only language of the law courts and said that those who used Welsh would not be appointed to, or paid for, any public office in Wales) and continued with Treachery of the Blue Books (Brad y Llyfrau Gleision), published in 1847.

The number of Welsh speakers fell dramatically during the 19th and 20th centuries. At the same time many Welsh-speaking people left rural areas to find work in London and overseas. Even though there were some 40 Welsh language publications in the middle of the 19th century, use of Welsh began to fall. However at the beginning of the 20th century, even in the south and east almost half the population spoke Welsh. Two distinct language groups became prominent in Wales, a Welsh speaking region in the north and west where more than 80% speak Welsh and the south and east where less than 10% speak Welsh.

Yet a great number of benefits accrued from the hardships and comradeship in coal-mines: political ideals of personal and social responsibility developed. Miners, like other workers, attempted to support each other and improve their working conditions from the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Coalminers took part in the Merthyr Riots (1831), supported the Chartist campaign*, which culminated in the Newport Rising (1839), and made efforts to begin labour unions in Wales and England.

The National Union of Mineworkers were prominent in the development of the Trade Unions Congress. Miners paid part of their salary to hospital and library funds, so were an important voice in starting the National Health Service and in some ways were prominent in starting the Workers Education Association and education for common people in general.

Campaigns to improve conditions in the workplace were started, beginning the origins of the Health and Safety at Work Acts and so on, as well as Acts defending rights in the workplace and democracy in general in the modern age.

Was the coal industry a curse or a blessing? The jury's still out.

Mike McGrane, June 2016.

* Chartists advocated The People's Charter, published in 1838, which called for six reforms to the UK parliament:

1. Universal suffrage - a vote for every man over twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime;
2. No Property Qualification - Members of Parliament had been required to own property before being allowed to stand for election to parliament;
3. Annual parliaments – governments could remain in power for as long as they received the support of a majority of MPs;
4. Equal representation – some 'rotten boroughs' were controlled by an individual patron, enabling as few as six people elect two MPs;
5. Payment of Members – to enable anyone to serve a constituency as an MP, not just those with private incomes;
6. Vote by secret ballot – to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote (elections had been by show of hands, resulting in widespread intimidation and victimisation).

Except for the call for annual parliaments, every point in the People's Charter is now in force.


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2016


Click here to return to the Articles - Erthyglau page

Powered by Create