Black gold: a brief history of coal mining in County Durham

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If you go back 75 years, Durham’s main export was not education, but coal.

At the time, the University had around 1,100 students, spread across 7 colleges. In 1944, there were around 100,000 mineworkers spread across around 230 collieries in Durham, the historical epicentre of coalmining in Britain. Written records go even further back, with evidence of shallow coal digging taking place in the 13th century, and deeper level mining taking place in the 17th century.

The Industrial Revolution was coal-thirsty: the precious mineral was needed in steelworks, railway locomotives, and as a cost-effective method of heating city homes.

This demand spawned hundreds of mines, with hundreds of thousands of mineworkers being sent digging deeper veins for little pay and with little protection.

In line with other coal-mining areas, the Durham Miners’ Association was formed, to protect workers’ pay and conditions interests against those of somewhat exploitative mine-owners. 

In 1944, there were around 100,000 mineworkers spread across around 230 collieries in Durham, the historical epicentre of coalmining in Britain

Many developments in labour law, such as a minimum wage, safety regulations and a minimum age were born out of mineworkers’ industrial disputes. They were persuasive; vast swathes of the economy relied on their labour. As a strong part of the wider trade union movement, they were also strong supporters of the development of the Labour Party, the first nationwide party of the working class.

After the First World War, Labour got into government for the first time, creating the NHS and National Insurance, as well as nationalising certain industries. In 1947, the expansion of the state through nationalisation stretched to coal mining, creating a National Coal Board. 

Between 1950-1980, coalmining diminished slowly in Durham due to pit exhaustion, but many villages and towns still relied economically on their mines. By now, mineworkers were well paid, and spent their money in local economies. However, many mines were unprofitable, and Margaret Thatcher thought that closing unprofitable mines would significantly help reduce inflation.

She would lock heads with the more militant tactics of Arthur Scargill, the infamous leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, who rejected closing unprofitable pits as long as they contained coal. This was the battleground on which the 1984-5 miners’ strike would be fought.

Some students involved in local politics helped with distributing food and clothes and were supportive of the strikes

For one year, the 13,000 miners in Durham received no pay. The local economy stood still. Anecdotally, some students involved in local politics helped with distributing food and clothes and were supportive of the strikes. However, donations of food and money from already cash-strapped students could do little to impact the thousands on strike.

Many struggled to get by, having to rely on support from friends and family. Around 40% of mineworkers in the Northeast had to break the strike to go back to work. The brunt of the strikes was felt by wives and children, a huge contrast with the wealth and prosperity that the University held at the time. Thatcher’s victory over the miners’ strike preceded a decline in trade union membership.

Durham’s surrounding towns and villages, like all other mining-intensive areas, faced decline after the strikes, with their mines gradually closing in the aftermath.

Durham still remains the symbolic centre for many in the trade union movement. The annual Miners’ Gala attracted 200,000 trade unionists in July last year, one of the largest trade union events in Europe.

It is easy to forget while walking around the city today, that a large part of the history of trade unionism lies here, under our feet.

Image: It’s No Game via Flickr

One thought on “Black gold: a brief history of coal mining in County Durham

  • Mines were closing for many years before Margaret Thatcher.

    Reply

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