Getting the coal was a murderous, antisocial activity riddled with conundrums. To gather the material that made Britain the first urban nation on earth, the miners often lived in isolated rural communities – meanly laid-out villages of flimsy houses where everyone knew each other’s business and interior sanitation was frequently unheard of. The villages had usually been thrown up to service the mine, which might have been sunk in the middle of nowhere. These communities therefore tended to be tight-knit and spawned their own clubs – anything from vegetable gardening to pigeon-fancying. Sometimes these villages had their own meagre arrays of shops, often including ‘tommy shops’ owned by the mine proprietors. Occasionally, they had churches, more commonly a chapel where Nonconformists worshipped. There was, naturally, no street lighting: you could hear the miners setting off for their shifts in the small hours of the morning from the clatter of their hobnailed boots on the street. Until helmets (initially made of compressed cardboard) became compulsory, many continued to wear their own flat caps below ground well into the 1970s. . . .

At work underground, the miners were quite beyond the inclination or ability of their employers to supervise them. When they plunged into the ground inside their metal cage they travelled from a world with rules recognisable to the rest of society, into a nether region in which boys became men very fast. What light they had came from candles, and later from safety lamps, which illuminated very little. Some pits were hot, in which the miners toiled half – or completely – naked. There were no sanitary facilities, so men relieved themselves where they stood or crouched. Many colliers had dark blue scabs running down their backs ‘like the buttons on a coat’, where their bodies had been cut as they tried to hack with their picks at another face. ‘One for all and all for one’ was much more than a slogan: the miners organised themselves, knowing that if one of them made a mistake, they could all pay for it with their lives. . . .

There was a home-grown hierarchy within the mines. Despite great variations depending upon terrain and time, the basic formula for working a mine went something like this: the fit young men nearest the coalface were the highest paid, which meant that a miner was at the peak of his earning powers in youth and early middle age. Often he was assisted by one of his children, a brother or family friend working as a ‘hurrier’, to load and then push away the waggon he had filled with cut coal. Miners might be well paid, but everyone else in the labour movement recognised that they earned it. [20-23]

Links to Related Material


Paxman, Jeremy. Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain. London: William Collins, 2021. 376 pages. [Review]

Last modified 24 November 2021