A journey through the British Coal commons. Part 1.


Last weeks discussion about unsustainable forms of fossil fuels, more specifically coal, aroused deep feelings in me taking me back to my beginnings in a small coal mining community in North Wales. It left me feeling that in honour of my ancestors, the hardships they endured, the battles they fought and sometimes won, I should use this opportunity to share my perspective on the political economy of coal – the development and demise of working class solidarity, and the British coal industry.

In the year 1911, my Taid (Welsh for grandfather), like so many generations of his family before him, started work in the Welsh coal mines. He was 11 years old. He worked 6 days a week, and everyday he walked 3 or 4 miles to the pithead before being transported a further 3 miles underground, where, sometimes crawling on his belly, unable to stand up straight, and at other times up to his knees in toxic liquids, he worked twelve hours a day, digging coal from the bowels of the earth. When his twelve hours were done, he walked the 3 or 4 miles home again.

According to the 1911 census , 5% of British children aged between 10 and 14 were in employment that year. Yet when we think about child labour, we imagine it to be something that happens somewhere else – in that place we call the ‘developing world’, or, as we in the world of development call it, the Global South . Indeed, we would seem to have suffered a collective amnesia with regard to the normativeness of child labour in Britain during the first half of the last century, and probably well beyond. 

The conditions in the mines were clearly dangerous, and certainly not a place you would want to send your child. But there was something very special created by this experience of hardship, poverty and struggle, and that was the sense of social and community cohesion. The communities that grew up around the mines were close knit – everyone knew everyone else and people were never shy of asking their neighbours for help. Maybe it was the interdependency of these communities that bred the sense of communitarianism, which in 1912 (5 years before the Russian Revolution) led to the publication of The Miners Next Step, a document demanding a minimum wage and a seven hour day; and, rejecting calls from some quarters of the industry for nationalisation, demanding that control of the mines to be given to the workers.

Influenced by the views of Marx and Engels, the miners were seeking to create a coal commons.


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