There are two stories that Jeremy Paxman tells in his new book, Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain. The first is the national story, how coal was the driver behind the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire. The country’s hunger for this black rock was needed for steam to drive the trains, and the Royal Navy to rule the waves. This insatiable appetite for energy came with a price, and that is the second story. The human cost. Those that lived in the coal mining villages of South Wales, the Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire, from the early years of the 19th century, worked 12 hours a day and 7 days a week. Women and girls worked down the mines, and young boys too. The numerous disasters, most tragic of all Aberfan, are movingly told, as accidents accounted for thousands of deaths. The numbers that died from illnesses such as respiratory disease will never be known.
Whilst the miners were suffering, their employers were not, and Paxman brutally exposes the fabulous sums accrued by the landed aristocracy; men such as the Marquess of Bute and the Marquess of Londonderry, and their descendants, raked in such vast amounts of cash that they literally did not know what to do with it. As a result, insane projects were embarked upon, and money outrageously wasted. Meanwhile the miners continued their struggle down the pits, desperate for proper representation and the holy grail of public ownership.
In 1947 the Attlee administration granted what the miners had always wished for, however a new set of challenges remained, and Paxman shows how successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, failed to square the circle of an efficient industry with a happy workforce.
Orwell’s line from The Road to Wigan Pier, ‘the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil’, was sadly no longer true by the time the Thatcher government had decided to break up the industry. And as Paxman lays out so effectively when dealing with that 1984/5 Miner’s Strike, it was clear that was the ultimate objective, and aided by blunders from the secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill. His account of the battle of Orgreave is particularly delicate, and the behaviour of various police forces shaming.
What is extraordinary is the scarcity of publications on the subject; not only on the history of coal-mining and its contribution to Britain’s rise in the 18th century, but of the Miner’s Strike itself. Thanks to Paxman, we now have a significant addition. Whilst passions still run high on both sides of the debate, what is certainly true is that hundreds of communities were dismantled, and their sense of betrayal by the political class lingers today. Paxman has made a vital contribution in ensuring this important episode of our history has finally received the attention it deserves.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.