Decorated initial T

here has never been any shortage of calamities in coal-mining. As Friedrich Engels put it: ‘in the whole British Empire there is no occupation in which a man may meet his end in so many diverse ways as this one’. I sat down one lunch-time with an old Welsh reporter who had spent years in the mining villages of South Wales. He picked up a sheet of A4 paper and began to list on it the colliery disasters he could recall, along with the casualty figures. He had soon covered one side with the total number of dead from accidents between the 1850s and the 1960s. It came to almost 3,000. . . . The grand total, he claimed, was over 6,000 dead or killed by the Welsh mining industry alone. Thousands more survived to retirement, only to shuffle their way to coughing deaths from one of the respiratory diseases they had contracted underground.

Britannia at Barnsley. Fun (29 December 1866). Click on image to enlarge it.

Digging coal out of the ground is a horribly dangerous job. Between 1873 and 1953 85,000 people were killed in mining accidents in Britain. It was the disasters which took hundreds of lives, or dragged on with uncertain outcome which caught the fancy of flibbertigibbet newspapers. But the truth was that death could call at any time, and most of the victims died in ones or twos. Little by little, the numbers added up to enormous totals. It bears repeating that there were a great number of ways to lose your life – crushed, gassed, drowned, burned or even – as happened in at least one accident – being boiled alive in steam cauldrons. [24-25]

In March 1906. . . over a thousand miners had been killed in an explosion at Courrières in northern France [149]. . . . At Senghenydd [14 October 1913] 439 miners had been killed in the explosion, and one rescuer. All hope was now gone, and 440 became the official casualty figure for the disaster, a quarter of them aged twenty-one or younger and eight aged only fourteen. Two hundred widows had been created, one of whom had lost not only her husband, but four sons and three brothers. It was the worst accident in the history of British mining. . . . 542 children had been left without a father. . . . A 1914 calculation showed that a miner was severely injured every two hours, and one killed every six hours. And for each victim of a fatal accident there were dozens who suffered non-fatal injuries: a Department of Employment analysis suggests that between 1900 and 1950, 100,000 miners were permanently incapacitated through injuries at work. [154-55]

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