The reign of King Coal is a story which is central to fully understanding modern Britain. Coal powered the industrial revolution, employed over a million miners at the industry’s height, shaped and sustained communities across the country, and has played a key role in the UK’s political economy. With the closure of Kellingley colliery, the country’s last deep mine, in December 2015, a defining chapter in British history comes to an end.
Although it had been mined in small quantities in Britain since Roman times, the story of coal as a major industry begins with the industrial revolution. From the 18th century onwards, demand for coal began to grow at an increasing rate. Several factors drove this, but its most important uses were as a fuel for steam-powered engines, in ironworks and metal smelting, and for domestic energy consumption in growing cities and towns. Then in the 19th century, coal grew to become the biggest industry in Britain in terms of workforce. It expanded from 109,000 workers in 1830 to nearly 1.1 million in 1913.
The early years of the 20th century proved to be the industry’s zenith, however. The period between World War I and II was one of crisis and catastrophic decline for coal. Its seemingly unassailable position was undermined by a series of economic factors – including the decision in 1925 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, to return sterling to the gold standard. This had the inadvertent effect of making British coal too expensive in its important, but increasingly vulnerable, overseas markets.
Coalbrookdale by Night by Philip James de Loutherbourg
As labour was the biggest cost in coal production, employers’ attempts to cut wages led to a series of bitter industrial relations disputes in the 1920s. The most well-known is the 1926 general strike, called by the Trades Union Congress in support of the miners. Although the general strike itself only lasted nine days, communities around the country’s coalfields held out for a further six months before finally conceding defeat.