As we approach the end of 2015, we’re looking back at what could charitably be described as a mixed year for British industry. Some sectors, like metals, have seen hard times whilst others, like pharmaceuticals and autos have gone from strength to strength. There’s one industry, however, that has finally reached the end of the line. Once of key importance to the nation and the lifeblood of countless towns, UK coal has completed a spectacular fall from grace. A combination of cheap overseas coal and a push towards greener fuels has seen an industry which once employed a million people now employ precisely none. So, as Kellingley mine pulls its last haul from the ground and its workers hand up their hats, we take a look at the history of the British mining industry.
The history of coal in the UK goes back long before mass mining capabilities were available, as sea coal would wash up on the shores of Northumberland and Scotland, and is recorded as being in use during the 13th century. Indeed, it was such a common fuel source that the substance was banned in London because of its dangerously high pollution levels during the time. The earliest coal mines in the UK were built in the North East of England in the 1500s. These earliest deep mine shafts were immensely dangerous but were an important element of growth in the British economy, helping spawn entirely new industries.
The opening of new coal mines and expansion of existing mines accelerated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as the Industrial Revolution kicked into full gear. This had the added effect of boosting the population and prosperity of Lancashire, Yorkshire and South Wales, which all benefitted hugely from the huge amounts of coal that these areas had. Indeed, coal was so abundant in Britain that that supply could be ramped up to meet almost any kind of demand. Demand went from 3 million tons in 1770, up to 6.25 million tons in 1770 and to 16 million tons by 1815. By 1830, this had risen to over 30 million tons.
During the First World War, the need to maintain the coal mines became crucial to Britain’s war efforts, and into the Second World War this importance led to Britain’s coal mines being purchased and nationalised by the Government, under the control of the National Coal Board. New energy forms like nuclear power, well as the emergence of oil and natural gas meant that from the 50s onwards the UK mining industry went into a steady decline, and under Margaret Thatcher the coal industry was shrunk further, damaging hundreds of thousands of families across the country.
In January 2009, the South Wales Valleys last deep mine put, the Tower Colliery in Hirwaun closed, leaving Wales without an active coal mine. Today, England’s final deep coal mine at Kellingley is shutting up shop for good, leaving the days of Britain’s mining dominance to an end, and truly marking the end of an era for British industry.