The lasting legacy of the Welsh coal mines

Image: Dom Atreides via Flickr

When thinking about Welsh history, many events and narratives may come to mind. But one seems to prevail above the rest: coal. The coal mines of Wales, specifically the Welsh valleys, take centre stage in Wales’ history.

Old men tell tales to their grandchildren of what life was like down the pit, families visit museums to discover narratives of mining life and school children are taught about the long history of Welsh coal mining. These are all recognisable experiences for the people of Wales, people who are determined to keep the spirit of coal miners alive. The story of Welsh coal mining is often localised to the past, but the legacy of coal mining, and the effects of its decline, still echo throughout Wales today.    

The Welsh coal legacy dates back to the 19th century. A Global Subsidies Initiative report comments that the Welsh industrial revolution had been mostly focused around slate quarrying and iron-ore mining but by the mid-19th century, the coal industry boomed. It peaked in 1913 where 57 million tonnes of coal was produced by almost a quarter of a million miners. The GSI report goes on to discuss the effects of war and global recession on the coal mining industry which caused a series of strikes and mine closures. 241 mines in South Wales were closed between 1921 and 1936.      

Perhaps the most important and memorable part of Welsh mining history, for today’s generation at least, is the infamous 1984-5 miners' strike which saw coal miners fight “to retain their local collieries - for many the only source of employment”. The strikes and picket lines lasted just under a year. This long struggle to keep vital forms of employment within the community saw political turmoil, clashes with police, and an enormous amount of hardship, not only for the striking miners, but also for their families and surrounding communities.

The legacy of Welsh coal mining is rooted in this sense of community. A BBC Wales History article comments that at the beginning of the strikes “99.6% of the 21,500 workers joined the action” a number which “reduced to 93% by the end”. They remark that no other mining area “retained such a level”. This incredible fact unveils a strong sense of community and togetherness which is what makes the legacy of Welsh coal mining so moving and memorable.

At their peak, the mines not only provided employment and livelihood for working men but also provided a sense of community for towns. Working men’s clubs and miners' institutes provided a hub for the community, and mining jobs often ran in families which allowed generational legacies to form. The towns of the South Wales valleys were mining towns and there was, and still is, a sense of pride in that declaration.

However, when thinking about the coal mining industry, more specifically the closure of most mines, people often only see the immediate effects on Welsh communities. In reality, these closures not only had a detrimental effect on the communities and economy of the time but have also produced effects that have continued into 21st-century Wales.

The BBC reports that in coalfield areas outside of Wales there are “50 jobs for every 100 residents of working age”, but for South Wales there are only “41 for every 100 residents”. The job cuts that happened decades ago still affect employment opportunities and rates in the valleys.

The employment rate for South Wales, albeit in 2011 (although a more up to date figure will soon be provided by the 2021 Census), was 69%, compared to the England and Wales average of 76%, Sheffield Hallam University finds. The study found that for all coalfield areas, the employment rate was two to seven percent behind the national average. The effects of the coal mining industry, particularly the job cuts, are still prevalent in all coalfield communities, including South Wales.

The lasting effects, and continued pain and trauma, caused by the rapid closure of coal mines was recently brought to the forefront of the media once again. Boris Johnson made a remark about Margaret Thatcher’s infamous attack on the coal mining industry in the 1980s. The Prime Minister declared that Thatcher’s mine closures gave the UK a “big early start” regarding the ongoing fight against climate change. The PM’s comments appear as an attempted ‘joke’ on a serious issue that drastically affected not only the Welsh economy, but Welsh working-class life. At the time of writing, Johnson has not apologised for the comment.

This comment, whether intended as a ‘joke’ or not, could be said to attempt to reframe the true meaning behind Thatcher’s decisions and erase the damage caused for local communities. Thatcher’s attacks were not environmentally motivated but were instead politically driven.

The clash between the left-wing National Union of Mineworkers and the Conservative government, headed by Thatcher, was a calculated and meticulous political move. Thatcher referred to the miners’ leaders as the “enemy within” in her speech to the 1922 Committee and said they were “dangerous to liberty”. Johnson’s comments could be seen as reframing Thatcher’s choice to close the mines as an environmental one when her choice of words in this speech, and the careful planning of her attack on mining jobs, reveals a clearly political motive.  

While discussing Johnson’s comments, it is important to note that the UK does need to transition even further away from coal and other non-renewable energy sources in order to fight against climate change. Although we need to move away from coal and fossil fuels, and instead use renewables like wind and solar to fuel our country, we must not reduce the historic closures of coal mines to a simple win against climate change. While this move away from coal may help in the fight against global warming, if we make the coal mine closures all about an environmental win then we would be ignoring the very real pain that these closures caused for coal mining communities.

We must acknowledge that coal energy contributes to climate change while also acknowledging that the closure of Welsh coal mines caused detrimental damage to the working-class people of the South Wales valleys. These two facts can co-exist and neither invalidates the other. As we continue to transition away from coal, support for mining communities must be provided.

Despite the lack of support available for former mining communities, these communities still internalise a sense of pride over their coal mining history. The valleys of South Wales see their long legacy of mining mapped out onto its landscapes and its communities.

Blaenavon, a small town in South Wales, is home to Big Pit, a former colliery turned national heritage site. Its pithead winding gear juts out of the landscape, marking the site of where the shaft remains. The site even offers tours of the mine, allowing visitors to go down into the pit in a working lift. It is this determination to educate people about the long mining history of Wales that proves the impact of coal mining on Welsh communities will never be forgotten.

The history of coal mines regularly works its way into primary school lessons. Additionally, school trips to heritage sites like Big Pit are expected parts of school life in the valleys. Children are taught about this rich and significant history, a history that is still present in communities today. Even though the people of South Wales are looking to a new, vibrant economy, they do not want the future generations to forget about this vitally important part of Welsh history and life.

This determination to continually involve the history of Welsh coal mining in their lives, whether that is through museums or stories told amongst families, shows the undeterrable pride Welsh people have for their history. It proves that even though the once-booming coal mining industry is no longer a significant contributor to the Welsh economy, its legacy lives on. Its importance will not be forgotten by these communities, not for a very long time.