‘The story of coal is the narrative of modern Britain but few miners remain’


In Jeremy Paxman’s book Black Gold, coal is on trial, like one of his Newsnight victims. Leeds still had mines when he was born there in 1950, but evidently he has no family connection with the industry

Striking miners pour into Sheffield hours before the NUM executive, led by Arthur Scargill, arrived for their crucial talks
Striking miners pour into Sheffield hours before the NUM executive, led by Arthur Scargill, arrived for their crucial talks in 1984

World leaders in Glasgow for the climate change conference might not wish to hear it. But the story of coal is the narrative of modern Britain.

Black diamonds ” made our country the Saudi Arabia of the Industrial Revolution. It fuelled the ships, trains, factories and homes for 200 years.

Only now is the narrative drawing to a close. Just a handful of miners remain and the National Union of Mineworkers is a noon shadow of its former self.

There are few physical reminders of an industry that once employed one in 20 of the working population.

The muck heaps that towered over pit rows have been turned into country parks. Steel headgear no longer stands silhouetted against the sky.

Removal of some of the victims of the Senghenydd colliery disaster at the Universal Colliery near Caerphilly, Wales on 14 October 1913


Popperfoto via Getty Images)

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Only the occasional winding wheel, sat like a statue in former mining villages, recalls the saga of King Coal’s turbulent years.

But the history continues to fascinate, brought to light in a new account by Jeremy Paxman.

In his book Black Gold, coal is on trial, like one of his Newsnight victims. Leeds still had mines when he was born there in 1950, but evidently he has no family connection with the industry.

Nor does he admit going down a mine or knowing any miners, but he is ineluctably drawn to the “magical rock”. He says: “The true secret of England’s greatness was the power unleashed by coal.

Workers pause in silence as a survivor is carried



“This filthy rock performed an act of magic upon a set of islands of undistinguished size.”

The sorcery began with the Romans, and mines appeared in the Middle Ages. By the 17th century they were digging deep in Somerset, the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire.

A dirty, messy product, coal was never going to have a good press. Nor were the men who dug it, at constant risk to life and limb. But this is their story, and the way of life they built around their workplaces.

The miners’ strike started in Yorkshire in early March 1984



They lived in hovels without water or sanitation, while the dukes who were paid royalties on every ton that came up the shaft built gigantic fortunes.

At its peak, output hit 300 million tons in 1913, hewn by 1.2 million workers.

Coal created the Victorian-era power of the Royal Navy, and when converted to gas lit the nation’s homes and streets.

But mining was, in Paxman’s words, “a wholly natural crucible for conflict”.

The Daily Mirror’s front page in 1913


Daily Mirror)

The coal owners fought early attempts to form unions, and even when the National Union of Mineworkers achieved its cherished goal of nationalisation in 1947, strikes continued.

It was the General Strike of 1926, triggered by coal owners’ demands for wage cuts, that gave the miners their prime place in history.

The national walk-out, when A. J. Cook was a miners’ union leader, lasted only nine days. Miners stayed out for six months and returned to work defeated.

It shouldn’t have happened again, but it did in 1984, under Arthur Scargill, when the NUM called an all-out strike, unwisely without a national ballot. It was the bitterest dispute in living memory, and Paxman lays the responsibility at the door of Margaret Thatcher, who told ministers: “We will have a miners’ strike, and we will win it.”

A. J. Cook led the miners and the miners led the strike


Print Collector/Getty Images)

Paxman, who identifies himself as a one-nation Tory, calls Scargill “a weaselly-faced communist with a sharp tongue and nasal voice (and… one of the world’s worst comb-overs)”. Charming.

Paxman says the struggle Arthur led “was between miners who were small ‘c’ conservatives, who wanted to preserve a mining way of life, and a new species of Conservatives who couldn’t stand the old way of doing things and had the forces of the state at their command”.

He reluctantly admits that Arthur was right: the government lied, and the coal industry was to be destroyed – to which he might add the NUM and the trade union movement with it.

Ever the controversialist, Paxman suggests the Aberfan disaster of 1966, which claimed the lives of 116 school children and 28 adults, might have been the fault of the miners, in part at least. He says: “How many knew of the potential dangers, and kept silent because without the tip there would be no mine, and without the mine, the village would be likely to die.”

Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour Party, down a coal mine in 1957

The suggestion that miners covered up the risk of a fatal tip slide on Pantglas junior school to keep their jobs at Merthyr Vale colliery will come as downright offensive to some.

Black Gold is scathing about the communities left behind by King Coal’s demise. Paxman, 71, says: “The towns remain sickly places.” This is just industrial tourism. The pit villages fight to survive around their clubs, sports and close family kinship.

Paxman says: “I never met a miner who wanted the same life for his children.”

For some, that’s true, but how many has he met? I could have introduced him to plenty during the Great Strike, the point of which was to save pits and jobs for the next generation. In the 1980s, mining was well-paid, and safer than occupations such as construction.

The strikers’ slogan was “Coal Not Dole”, not “Shut Our Pits and Give Us Redundancy”. That was the brutal reality they were forced to accept.

The moral of Black Gold is the story of coal isn’t over yet, and probably never will be. Paxman has read his own version of the last rites but others will come after him to revise the history of this deeply emotional slice of British history.

  • Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain by Jeremy Paxman is published by William Collins and priced £25.


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