What Happened to Deep Coal Mining in Britain?

History Hit

3 mins

01 Jun 2019

On 18th December 2015, the closure of Kellingly Colliery in North Yorkshire, England, marked the end of deep coal mining in Britain.

Coal was formed between 170 and 300 million years ago. It began life as forests and vegetation. When this plant-life died, it rotted away and was buried and compacted into layers underground. These layers formed seams of coal that can run for hundreds of miles.

Coal can be extracted in two ways: surface mining and deep mining. Surface mining, which includes the technique of open-cast mining, retrieves coal from shallower seams.

However coal seams can be thousands of feet underground. This coal must be mined using deep-mining.

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History of British coal mining

Evidence of coal mining in Britain dates back to before the Roman invasion. However the industry really took off during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

Throughout the Victorian period, demand for coal was voracious. Communities grew up around the the coalfields of the north of England, Scotland and Wales. In these areas mining became a way of life, an identity.

Coal production reached its peak in the early years of the 20th century. Following the two world wars however the industry began to struggle.

Coal mining

Employment, which at its peak stood at more than one million men, dropped to 0.8 million by 1945. In 1947 the industry was nationalised, meaning it would now be run by the government.

The new National Coal Board invested hundreds of millions of pounds into the industry. However British coal production continued to suffer due to increasing competition, particularly from new cheaper fuels such as oil and gas.

The government ended its subsidisation of the industry in the 1960s and many pits, considered uneconomical, were closed down.

Union Strikes

The National Union of Mineworkers, the industry’s powerful trade union, called a series of strikes in the 1970s and 80s in response to pay disputes with the government.

With the country heavily reliant on coal for electricity, strikes had the capacity to bring Britain to a standstill. In 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes forced the conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath to reduce the working week to three days in order to conserve electricity.

The strikes arguably played a key role in Heath’s defeat to the Labour party in the 1974 general election.

During the 1980s, the situation of the British coal industry continued to deteriorate. In 1984 the National Coal Board announced plans to close a large number of pits. The NUM, led by Arthur Scargill, called for a strike.

Miners rally in 1984

The Conservative Prime Minister at the time was Margaret Thatcher, who was determined to quash the power of the miners’ union. Not all miners agreed with the strike and some did not participate, but those who did remained at the picket line for a year.

In September 1984 the strike was declared illegal by a high court judge because a union ballot was never held. In March the following year, the strike ended. Thatcher had succeeded in diminishing the power of the trade union movement.

Privatisation

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In 1994 the industry was privatised. Pit closures came thick and fast during the 1990s as Britain relied more and more on cheaper imported coal. By the 2000s only a handful of mines remained. In 2001 Britain imported more coal than it produced for the first time in its history.

Kellingley Colliery, known locally as The Big K, opened in 1965. Up to seven seams of coal were identified at the site and 2,000 miners were employed to extract it, many of whom relocated from areas where pits had closed.

In 2015 the government made the decision not to grant Kellingley the £338 million required by UK Coal to secure its survival for three more years. The planned closure of the pit was announced in March.

Its closure in December of that year was marked with a mile-long march by more than three thousand miners and their families, supported by cheering crowds.

Kellingley Colliery

The closure of Kellingly marked the end not only of an historic industry but also of a way of life. The future of communities built on the deep mining industry remains unclear.

Title image: ©ChristopherPope

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