Britain was the first industrial nation, undergoing a revolution that was reliant on indigenous supplies of energy to fuel manufacturing. For around 200 years this supply was dominated by one resource: coal. Yet today the British coal industry is a mere shadow of what it was.
British coal mining began as early as Roman times, when it was extracted from ‘exposed’ surface coalfields. However, as demand increased during the 18th century, ‘concealed’ coal was increasingly exploited, often from deep underground. Coal arguably shaped Manchester’s industrial explosion more than any other city in the UK, and in 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater opened his eponymous Canal, to move coal from his Worsley mines to the city centre. Coal drove Manchester’s growth as the world’s first industrial city, powering its famous cotton mills.
As well as firing the Industrial Revolution, coal exports also became major business. At its peak in the early twentieth century, Britain exported as much coal as the whole world had at the start of the current millennium, and the coal industry was the country’s largest employer with over 1 million miners. However growing international competition, use of oil, and economic depression hit the industry hard, and during the inter-war era British coal was in a parlous state.
Coal was also to play a central role in British political development. Although miners’ wages were unstable and conditions harsh, they were typically some of the best paid workers and tended to vote Liberal in the late nineteenth century rather than embracing socialism. However, by 1914 their unions, representing the largest group of the organised working class, were at the centre of the emergence of a more class-based politics. This helped the rise of the new Labour Party.
After 1918, militancy among the miners was increased by employers’ attempts to cut wages and the government’s failure to reform a fragmented and inefficient industry. This culminated in 1926 in the General Strike, when the Trades Union Congress (TUC) agreed to back the miners. However in the face of a determined and well-organised government, the TUC quickly backed down. Many miners remained on strike for months before being forced back to work by poverty. Coal’s position at the heart of British industry was well and truly broken, and it slumped into irretrievable decline.
Following the election of the first majority Labour government in 1945, and the passing of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act in 1946, the coal industry was taken into state ownership on 1 January 1947. At this stage, the UK economy was almost singularly reliant on coal energy to fulfill its energy needs.
Yet in the years that followed, the use of coal in servicing Britain waned significantly. The Clean Air acts of 1956 and 1968 forced industries and homes to seek out alternative energy sources, whilst the prospect of oil imports from the Middle East and the establishment the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority saw coal’s relative monopoly over UK energy production slowly disappear. Additionally, the 1960s saw the emergence of North Sea gas as a competitor.
The 1960s consequently represented a period of great change for the British coal industry. The domestic demand for coal had reduced to such an extent that a large number of coal mines were closed down, and existing ones underwent sweeping technological updates in order to increase the efficiency of the supply chain. The closures resulted in over 400,000 miners being forced out of the industry, leaving a tumult of social divisions and conflicts in its wake.
However, despite the threats posed to the industry in the 1960s, coal was still supplying roughly half of Britain’s fuel consumption in the 1970s (46.6%) and much of British transport and power networks were still disproportionately dependent on coal. The 1972 Miners’ Strike is illustrative of the enduring relevance of coal as a fuel. It was the first time the miners had voted to strike since 1926, resulting in the declaration of a State of Emergency on 11 February and the instituting of the infamous three day week in order to save electricity. This resulted in government concessions; wages were raised, and the coal industry’s importance had been acknowledged in kind.
The 1970s and 80s saw a sea change in the international coal market. Oil companies diversified into coal when oil prices spiked during the 1970s, and offered surpluses to European markets. The competitiveness of international coal prices forced British industries to move away from domestic coal, leading to more mine closures. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher took aim at the coal industry for representing a monopoly interest counter to market forces. Thatcher’s confrontations with the Unions and, in particular, Arthur Scargill, resulted in a year of striking action between March 1984 and March 1985 when the miners’ Union representatives conceded defeat. That same year, Britain closed 25 unprofitable mines.
From this point, there was to be no recovery for the coal industry, with large swathes of mines decommissioned during the 1980s and 1990s. This resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and the devastation of entire mining communities. King Coal had been dethroned.