Until the middle of the eighteenth century, charcoal made from burnt wood had been the main fuel employed by industry. However, conserving timber supplies for use in the shipbuilding industry led to an increased use of coal which, by the end of the century, had become Britain’s most important natural resource.
Coal is unremarkable in its appearance but has been described as one of the ‘mainsprings’ of the Industrial Revolution, providing energy for the fashioning of metals and the generation of steam.
There was a dramatic increase in its use in the 1850s when improvements in engineering meant that it could replace coke as the main fuel for railway locomotives. At the turn of the century, 200 million tonnes of coal were being mined each year with an enormous proportion being used to fuel the steam engines that gave power to factories, and the locomotives which provided the backbone to the transport system.
Coal mining was an industry of small units. In 1913, there were 1,439 colliery companies in Britain, owning on average no more than two pits each. The atmosphere in the mines was dreadful, as were the working conditions and it is often said that ‘the coal mining industry must represent one of the worst exploitations of men, women and children to have taken place in Britain’.
The National Coal Mining Museum opened in 1988 as the Yorkshire Mining Museum and much of the collection came to the site in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many pits in the region were closing. The British Coal Collection, a large group of objects of national significance, became part of the Museum collections in 1995. The Museum continues to acquire items both by gift and purchase for its library and artefact collections, which help to tell the story of coal mining in England.
Coal mining has always been a very dangerous activity and the list of historical coal mining disasters is long. The Coal Mining History Resource Centre provides a searchable database of over 164,000 records containing the details of coal mining accidents and deaths in the UK. Some of the accidents are non-fatal like John Maunder ‘who slipped and fell from a stage’ in the Phoenix United Colliery in 1892 but William Batt was not so lucky and was ‘killed in the pit’, aged 33 in Kingswood, Gloucestershire in 1822.
Employment at the collieries was not only for men. Women and girls were employed across the mining industries in Britain and it was not uncommon for them to be employed underground although this was made illegal after 1842. In Silkstone, near Barnsley, women and girls died in a mine explosion in 1805, and a further seven (aged between 9 and 17 years old) died in a tragic flooding of the Moorside Pit in 1838.
In 1841, there were 2,350 women employed in the coal mines of the UK, one third of them in Lancashire. After 1842, the women and girls worked at the surface, pushing wagons from the pit head to the sorting screens, or sorting coal at the screen themselves.
The Bal Maidens website includes a searchable database of nearly 30,000 named individuals who worked at the mines, clay and slate works, and related industries in Cornwall and West Devon, as well as other resources and information relating to Bal Maidens.
What are you waiting for? Go and mine those resources!