Miles Oglethorpe
Losing our mines
The legacy of the deep coal mining industry lives on, deeply embedded not only in the mining
communities, but also in the fabric of villages, towns and cities.
In 21st-century Britain, the mention of coal tends
to elicit relentlessly negative memories, ranging from
miners’ strikes, flying pickets and crippling diseases to
subsidence, pollution and unemployment. Yet without
coal there would have been no energy to fuel the
industrial revolution, and no wealth to support the
art and architecture that enriched British society
throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Today
there is very little understanding of the extent to which
coal underpins our quality of life, or of the immensity
of the industry that has sustained it. Equally there
is little awareness of the extent to which our historic
environment is comprised of elements produced by or
relating to the coal industry.
Coal was such an integral part of daily life in the UK
that it was taken for granted to the extent that it became
invisible. It was responsible for providing almost all our
energy, either directly through domestic fires in houses
across the country, or indirectly via steam generated in
coal-fired boilers powering the machinery of industry,
and the locomotives carrying goods and people within
the densest railway network in the world. Even town
gas was generated from coal by gasworks situated in
big cities and small towns, and the bricks from which
a significant proportion of buildings were constructed
also emanated from the coal industry. Equally, much
of the invisible infrastructure beneath our feet, such as
drains and sewers, was constructed using clay products
manufactured by coal companies.
The extent to which coal dominated our lives
is demonstrated by the fact that as recently as 50
years ago over 100,000 people were employed in the
mining industry in Scotland alone. A decade earlier,
the National Coal Board (NCB) had been created
with the nationalisation of the industry on 1 January
1947. The scale of its physical legacy is revealed
by the extraordinary range of assets taken over by
the state. These included 1,500 working collieries,
30 fuel and briquetting plants, 55 coke ovens and
chemical by-product plants, 85 brickworks, 1,803
farms, 140,000 houses, 27,000 farm houses and
cottages, and 275 shops and business premises. Other
items included swimming baths, cinemas, private
mineral railways, wharves, depots, retail milk rounds,
a holiday camp, a bicycle track, and 177,000 mainline
railway wagons and locomotives.
These details mask the fact that the coal industry
was in a desperate state in 1947. Working conditions
were generally poor, and years of inadequate
investment both before and during the war had led
to poor productivity and morale. At the same time,
demand for coal was rising, propelled by the needs
of post-war reconstruction. The NCB responded by
LadyVictoria Colliery,
Newtongrange,
Midlothian, home of the
Scottish Mining Museum
since the 1980s (Historic
Scotland, 2008)
Rothes Colliery in Fife,
the first Scottish superpit,
opened in 1958 and
demolished in 1993
(Crown Copyright:
RCAHMS, SC446437)
embarking on a programme of major new sinkings and
reconstructions, combined with the closure for those
mines that were considered uneconomic and unsafe.
The result was the creation of a new generation of
confident colliery buildings. In Scotland, many of
these were to the design of the Austrian architect Egon
Riss, who became the NCB architect north of the
border following nationalisation.
This was the golden era of the coal industry. No one
doubted its supremacy, but its dominance was soon
to be challenged by a sequence of setbacks. The first
of these was the impact of a sequence of ‘pea-souper’
smogs in the early 1950s in which thousands of people
perished, and which resulted in the imposition of
clean-air legislation in 1956 and 1968, curtailing the
burning of coal in towns and cities. In the meantime,
steam locomotives were being replaced by diesel and
electric traction on the railways, and competition from
C O N T E X T 1 0 9 : M A Y 2 0 0 9
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Ramsay Colliery pithead
baths at Loanhead,
Midlothian, are now part
of a scrapyard (Historic
Scotland, 2007).
heavy ceramics industries produced huge quantities
of bricks and specialist architectural materials such as
special shapes, copes, paviors, roof and ridge tiles, and
chimney cans that continue to comprise important
elements within the fabric of our streets and buildings.
Equally, the housing associated with some of the
colliery companies was often of high standard, and in
some cases has survived relatively intact. In the case
of Newtongrange, for example, the imposition of a
conservation area by Midlothian Council helped to
ensure the survival of an outstanding pit village.
As for the collieries themselves, even those buildings
and structures that have survived continue to pose
formidable maintenance problems. None were built
with anything other than function and profit in
mind, and their long-term survival requires significant
resources. Attempts were made to protect a selection
of the best colliery buildings, such as the older engine
houses at Barony Colliery in Ayrshire, but despite
listed-building status, it proved impossible to save
them.
The maintenance issues arising from combinations
of mild-steel frames and common brick is nowhere
better demonstrated than at Lady Victoria Colliery,
where large parts of the surface arrangement have
had to be closed to the public because weathering and
corrosion have rendered them dangerous.There remain
questions as to the extent to which these buildings
can be saved in the long term, but the situation has
been greatly assisted by the award in March 2009
of a £1.3 million capital grant by Scottish ministers.
Together with the adjacent village of Newtongrange,
the colliery comprises one of the most important
surviving monuments to the coal industry in Europe.
Less visible, but perhaps equally important, is the
legacy left by the Miners Welfare Fund (MWF).
Following its establishment in 1920, the MWF built
facilities for miners and their communities using
funds levied from the coal companies. The work of
MWF is most commonly associated with the fine art-
deco architecture of the pithead baths that it funded,
but it also supported the creation of a wide range of
educational, cultural and sporting facilities across the
coalfields.
In Scotland, the bulk of the MWF pithead baths
were the work of architect JA Dempster. Although
most disappeared in the carnage of the 1970s and
1980s, there are a few survivors, such as at the former
Ramsay Colliery in Loanhead, Midlothian. Today the
work of the MWF is continuing through the activities
of the Coal Industry Social and Welfare Organisation,
which also maintains networks of clubs and supports
the former coal communities through education, social
work and health programmes.
Deep coal mining may be a tiny fraction of what
it was half a century ago, and most of the mines
themselves have long since disappeared, but the legacy
of the industry lives on, deeply embedded not only
in the mining communities, but also in the fabric of
villages, towns and cities across the UK.
Manor Powis Colliery
pithead baths near
Stirling were designed
by JA Dempster in 1933
(RCAHMS).
Miles Oglethorpe is
head of policy liaison
and modernisation in
the chief inspector’s office
at Historic Scotland.
petroleum also began to impact on demand for coal.
The 1960s heralded the introduction of nuclear
power which was ultimately to attract government
subsidy away from the coal industry. A further setback
took the form of the arrival of natural gas, first from
the southern North Sea, and in 1977 from the massive
Frigg field via St Fergus in Scotland. Soon all the UK’s
town gas works were closed. The parallel demise of
much of the country’s energy-hungry heavy industries
such as iron and steel further diminished the demand
for coal.
The physical disappearance of the industry that
ensued is well illustrated by events in Scotland. Having
started out with over 200 nationalised collieries in
1947, these were reduced to 65 by 1967, 11 by 1987,
and none by 2002 when the last mine, at Longannet
in Fife, was accidentally flooded. The final years
of the industry coincided with privatisation, which
accelerated the process of demolition and clearance
of mining remains. Today there is little recognisable
evidence of mining in large parts of the Scottish
coalfields, although open-cast mining continues apace,
with half the UK’s production of coal now coming
from Scotland. At the same time, most gasworks
buildings were demolished.
The extent of the disappearance is extraordinary,
given the omnipresent nature of the industry. Even
spoil heaps have vanished in reclamation programmes
driven in particular by the awful consequences of the
Aberfan disaster in 1966. Today in Scotland only a
handful of pit headgear survive as monuments and
the only coherent surviving colliery complex is Lady
Victoria Colliery at Newtongrange in Midlothian, now
the site of the Scottish Mining Museum.
The picture is not quite as stark as it might seem.
As the inventory of assets taken over by the NCB
in 1947 indicates, the coal industry included a lot
more than the mines themselves. Coal’s associated
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CONTEXT 109 : MAY 2009