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Stories about the lives we've made

module:The workshop of the world

Industrial growth in late nineteenth century Britain

page:The coal industry: Part I


The coal industry had also grown substantially in the early nineteenth century. In the previous century, people had discovered how to use coal for a variety of purposes from making iron to using coal-generated steam to power machinery. At the same time the canals, and later the railways, made it cheaper to transport coal and thus encouraged its further use. Greater availability also created growing demand for coal for heating and cooking.

Underlying the triumph of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace of 1851 lay the coal that generated the iron and glass of the building and fuelled the railways that brought the great crowds to London. But this early growth of the coal industry was insignificant compared to its growth in the second half of the century.

STORY: The Heroic Age
SCENE: Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition
launch scene

Coal industry growth in the later nineteenth century

Before examining the growth in the later nineteenth century it is useful to understand the long-term trends by examining the following graph of UK coal exports over the long term from 1800 to 1978.

This graph shows coal exports as a percentage of production, not in terms of how much coal has been exported, or how much has been extracted.

Note that overall, the period we are looking at in this module showed growth - an increasing proportion of coal output was exported between 1865 and 1900.



Text only version

Open question

What differences are shown by comparison of the graphs of coal output and coal exports? Why do you think that these graphs show different trends?

Thus by the later nineteenth century the coal industry had experienced enormous expansion and had become increasingly dependent on exports. How long could this continue?

Employment in UK coal mines

The expansion of the industry was also seen in the figures for employment in the coal mines as above. These figures begin rather later, but in 1865 the coal mines employed nearly a third of a million people before a rapid expansion took place in the industry in the 1870s. This growth led to a pre-First World War peak of 1.1 million workers in 1914.

Regional impact of coal industry growth

As seen earlier, the increase in jobs related to the coal industry would have been far greater than the direct increase in coal miners. The increased number of jobs in the mines themselves would have indirectly generated other jobs providing goods and services for the mines and those who worked there.



Text only version

This map identifies the coal mining regions of Britain. With a few exceptions they all showed substantial growth in this period.

Open question

Which regions were the greatest producers of coal in 1900? What were the characteristics of those regions that did not grow substantially?

The north-east coalfield had been dominant in the early part of the century and remained so thereafter. Its location meant that coal could easily be transferred to the coast where cheap maritime transport was available. This gave it affordable access to export markets, and many parts of Britain, including the great city of London.

Coldbrook Vale, Wales. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

South Wales showed particularly dramatic growth, reflecting the quality of some of its coal and its easy access to export markets.

View of a coal mine, village and surroundings, 
Edmondsley, Co. Durham, c.1900. picture zoom © John Hare

The inland coalfields of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the midlands catered more for the domestic market, which had become more accessible via the development of the railways.

View of a coal mine, village and surroundings, 
Edmondsley, Co. Durham, c.1900. picture zoom © John Hare

Ready access to coal also encouraged other industries to locate and develop close to the coalfields. This further exaggerated the redistribution of population to these regions, resulting in greater population growth than would have been attributed solely to the coal industry itself.

As the nineteenth century progressed the number of large-scale mines increased. These new mines were dug either in new coal seams or to further develop existing small or shallow family mines. Exploitation of these smaller mines had been restricted by the limits of manpower or simple machinery, such as the horse gin, where a horse powered a wheel that hauled up the coal from below ground.

The new deep mines needed a new workforce, many of whom were housed in rows of new terraced cottages that became typical of coal-mining villages. D.H.Lawrence, who grew up in the Nottinghamshire coalfield at the end of the nineteenth century, described the development of the landscape at the start of his novel, Sons and Lovers. At this time, despite the building of these new mines, the mines and villages were still surrounded by the countryside, like ‘black studs on the countryside’.

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Bestwood. From Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.
    ‘The Bottoms’ succeeded to ‘Hell Row’. Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brook- side on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields away. The brook ran under the alder-trees, scarcely soiled by these small mines, whose coal was drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle around a gin. And all over the countryside were these same pits, some of which had been worked in the time of Charles II, the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the cornfields and the meadows. And the cottages of these coalminers, in blocks and pairs here and there, together with odd farms and homes of the stockingers, straying over the parish, formed the village of Bestwood.
    Then, some sixty years ago, a sudden change took place. The gin-pits were elbowed aside by the large mines of the financiers. The coal and iron field of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was discovered. Carston, Waite and Co appeared. Amid tremendous excitement, Lord Palmerston formally opened the company’s first mine at Spinney Park, on the edge of Sherwood Forest. About this time the notorious Hell Row, which through growing old had acquired an evil reputation, was burned down, and much dirt was cleansed away.
    The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block. This double row of dwellings sat at the foot of the rather sharp slope from Bestwood, and looked out, from the attic windows at least, on the slow climb of the valley towards Selby.
    The houses themselves were substantial and very decent. One could walk all around, seeing little front gardens with auriculas and saxifrage in the shadow of the bottom block, sweet williams and pinks in the sunny top block; seeing neat front windows; little porches, little privet hedges, and dormer windows for the attics. But that was outside; that was the view on to the uninhabited parlours of all the colliers’ wives. The dwelling room, the kitchen, was at the back of the house, facing inward between the blocks, looking at a scrubby back garden, and then at the ash-pits. And between the rows, between the long lines of ash-pits, went the alley, where the children played and the women gossiped and the men smoked. So, the actual conditions of living in the Bottoms, that was so well built and that looked so nice, were quite unsavoury because people must live in the kitchen, and the kitchens opened on to that nasty alley of ash pits.
    Mrs Morel was not anxious to move into the Bottoms, which was already twelve years old and on the downward path, when she descended to it from Brestwood. But it was the best she could do. Moreover, she had an end house in one of the top blocks, and thus she only had one neighbour; on the other side an extra strip of garden. And, having an end house, she enjoyed a kind of aristocracy among the other women of the ‘between’ houses, because her rent was five shillings and sixpence instead of five shillings a week. But this superiority in station was not much consolation to Mrs Morel.
Source: D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers, 1913. Penguin Edition 1970, Chap 1, pp.7-8


In Nottinghamshire, as elsewhere, mining was frequently found in villages dominated by the colliery, islands of industry within the countryside around. In these areas mining was soon the overwhelming employer, and this dominance allowed the miners to secure the political control of a constituency.

Indeed, around 1900, when Liberals were generally reluctant to have working class candidates, they made an exception in some of the mining seats. Here the miners were able to insist on constituency parties selecting a candidate supported by the miners. These Lib-Lab candidates preceded the formation of the Labour party.

Resource Descriptions

Coldbrook Vale, Wales.
View of a coal mine, village and surroundings, Edmondsley, Co. Durham, c.1900.
View of a coal mine, village and surroundings, Edmondsley, Co. Durham, c.1900.