Before the First World War, two-thirds of the world’s coal came from Britain: Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman is a terrific history of British coal
Jeremy Paxman William Collins £25
Jeremy Paxman opens this terrific history of British coal with one of the mining industry’s worst tragedies ever. In 1862, 204 men and boys were blown up, knocked out, burned, gassed or drowned when a pumping engine collapsed at Seaton Delaval, a few miles north of Newcastle.
This was more than a local tragedy. Coal was Great Britain’s special gift from God. It had turned a set of undistinguished islands in the North Atlantic into the greatest nation on Earth.
Before the First World War, two-thirds of the world’s coal came from Britain.
Coal was Great Britain’s special gift from God. It had turned a set of undistinguished islands in the North Atlantic into the greatest nation on Earth (above, miners in a coal-mine)
As Paxman points out in his usual acerbic way, the development of coal production in Britain entailed a few wealthy landowners getting richer while everyone else paid a high cost for access to the commodity that heated homes, lit streets, powered railways and allowed the Royal Navy to rule the waves.
That cost was even greater if you happened to be the person labouring to get the coal out of the ground in the first place. No other industry, suggests Paxman, has more clearly accentuated the differences between someone such as John Crichton-Stuart, Marquess of Bute, who owned much of the South Wales coalfield and was said to be the richest man in the world, and the working men and women who laboured to make his fortune.
It was, suggested some, akin to the system of plantation slavery that was causing Americans to fight against each other in the Civil War.
Good things did come out of the Seaton Delaval incident, such as a law that mines should have a second shaft to make it easier to escape. It also doubled the price of coal extraction, which owners were unhappy about.
This, says Paxman, is typical of how the history of British coal mining has unfolded: cheap exploitation, followed by awful human disaster, followed by grudging changes to the law.
At no point did mine owners go out of their way to make things safer – but then, why would they? When 440 men were killed in 1913 by an explosion at a pit in South Wales, the company and manager were fined a total of £24.
No wonder that the trades union movement became so powerful in the coalfields. Paxman, though, is not afraid to call out poor behaviour. There is no getting away from the fact that British coal miners were increasingly less productive compared with their European neighbours.
Between 1913 and 1936, the amount of coal produced by a miner in a shift rose by 114 per cent in the Netherlands, 81 per cent in Germany and just ten per cent in Britain.
Ending on the 1984 miners’ strike, Paxman also has some less-than-kind words to say about Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. Scargill emerges as just as arrogant and self-serving as a 19th Century mine owner.
What a shame that he refused to be interviewed for this book, especially when you consider, says Paxman, cocking an eyebrow, that he ‘made a comfortable living’ out of the industry for so many years.