The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

The highly compressed remains of swamp forests, which at various times covered large areas of Britain, exist today as seams of coal. Coalfields are generally situated on the edges of the upland masses of the north and west.

Coal was first obtained on a commercial scale as far back as the thirteenth century, notably in Northumberland, from sites where the seams actually outcropped and where the nearby rivers or coast afforded a means of transport. Much of the coal in the exposed coalfields has been exhausted and nowadays it is almost always necessary to penetrate a mantle of younger rocks in order to reach the coal measures, thus leading to the development of a concealed coalfield. Coal is mined from seams under the sea in Durham, Cumberland and Fifeshire (Scotland). In certain areas the coal occurs at easily worked depths, as in South Wales, but in other areas earth-movements have meant that the coal measures have been sunk to unworkable depths.

A wide variety of coals are produced in Britain. Coals vary in their characteristics and qualities, but those in Britain belong to the following main types: 1) Anthracite, with a high carbon content, is found only in South Wales. It is a very hard, shiny, clean coal with 90—95 per cent carbon, and burns with very little flame. It is absolutely smokeless and gives great heat and leaves little ash. Once it was important for ships, and now is used in central heating plant. 2) Steam coal, with 80—90 per cent carbon, has similar properties and does not break down to slack in transport. It is found mostly in South Wales. Similarly important for ships in the past, it is now used in central heating and the manufacture of domestic fuels. 3) Bituminous coal, with 60—80 per cent carbon, is black, shiny, not smokeless, gives out moderate heat and leaves much ash. It is used for gas making, power stations and for coking plants. 4) Lignite or brown coal is not important in Great Britain. It has a low carbon content (45—65 per cent), is brown or black, very soft, smoky, and leaves much ash. It is the midway stage between peat and coal.

Most coal comes from the Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire field, which produces about 60 per cent of British output. This field is one of the easiest to mine because there are fewer faults, and the coal seams are particularly thick. Some 10 per cent of total output is produced respectively in South Wales and the Central Lowlands of Scotland. Both these areas have suffered from declines in the coal industry, and the South Wales coalfield, which rivalled the YorkshireNottinghamshire-Derbyshire field in importance in the early years of the twentieth century, has suffered particularly from a fall in the export of coal. Other important coalfields are to be found in North-East England (the Northumberland and Durham area), the Cumberland coalfield, the South Lancashire coalfield. The production of coal in Kent (South-East England) started in 1918, and the annual output of about 1 million tonnes is used only in the local domestic market.

Coal played a crucial part in the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In its peak year, 1913, Britain’s coal output reached 292 million tonnes, and the industry employed over a million workers. By the end of the Second World War production had dropped to below 200 million tonnes, largely because the thickest and most accessible seams had been worked out. Moreover, exports had declined and the mines had suffered considerable loss of manpower. In 1947 the coal industry was nationalized on capitalist lines, because the private owners were no longer able to make a profit which satisfied them. The National Goal Board was set up to manage the industry. This purely capitalist nationalization carried out both due to economic necessity and the pressure of ‘the working class, turned profitable for monopolies.

At the start of nationalization there were about 960 working pits, but by the beginning of 1989 this number had fallen to 94. During that period the number of miners fell from over 700,000 to 200,000. Many smaller mines were closed and quite a number of large pits modernized. The share of coal in the energy balance of Great Britain is decreasing while that of oil is rapidly growing.

In 1989 the coal industry produced about 102 million tonnes of coal. About 2.2 million tonnes of coal is exported annually to West Europe.

The long-term strategy of the British government is to reduce the number of collieries to about a hundred, employing an average of one hundred thousand miners. This will cause further decline of coal output and the tens of thousands of miners face the bleak future of becoming unemployed. This explains the intensive struggle of the miners for their vital rights to work. A vivid manifestation of their persistence is a unique 1984—5 year-long strike which proved the determination of the miners to defend their elementary rights.

Although many good seams of coal have now been worked out due to the early development of the industry, total coal reserves in Britain are estimated at 190,000 million tonnes, which are sufficient for at least three hundred years at the present rate of consumption.

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