Coal-mining ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009

If, like Kate Humble, your forebears worked below ground, you can unearth a heap of information and vital records. Robert Burlison explains how to get the most out the resources.

In the 19th century vast quantities of coal were needed to fuel transport and power the factories, foundries and mills of industrial Britain.

By 1913, using little more than picks and shovels – even as late as 1900 only 1% of coal was cut by machine – more than one million miners were producing 280 million tons a year.

Coal has been mined in Britain since at least Roman times. At first it was won from shallow pits, but in time, when it became the domestic fuel of choice, miners were driven underground to exploit deeper, more generous, seams of this fossil fuel. Long before the Industrial Revolution, rural parishes were transformed into coal mining communities.

In the sylvan setting of Gloucestershire’s Ancient Forest of Dean, coal mining was first practiced in the 16th century. It was a similar story at Whickham in Gateshead, Northumbria, when the coalfields of north east England, with easy access to North Sea ports, were shipping 163,000 tons of coal a year to Elizabethan London.

In the mid 18th century when the railways revolutionised the transportation of goods and raw materials it enabled landlocked coalfields to compete on a national scale. There were soon hundreds of coal trains a day making the journey from the principle coalfields of Scotland, the valleys’ of south Wales, the Midlands and northern England to feed the domestic market or meet export orders. But when the First World War broke out in 1914 coal exports ceased virtually overnight and were never to return to their pre-war levels.

In the 1920s, a worldwide economic depression wreaked havoc on British industry and coal mining was no exception. Many mines struggled to survive in the face of increasing costs and falling demand, while others suffered lack of investment, became worked out or fought never-ending battles with water inundation or geological problems.

In 1947 the industry was nationalised but failed to halt the decline. After closures and job losses that led to the divisive miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, the few remaining mines returned to private ownership. Today coal is extracted from opencast pits in south Wales and in northern England where geological conditions are more favourable.

Photo © Getty Images

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