• Keith Gildart and Andrew Perchard

On Behalf of the People: Work, Community and Class in the British Coal Industry, 1947–1994

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

On 1 January 1947 the British coal industry was formally brought under state control with signs at collieries erected declaring that they were now managed by the National Coal Board (NCB) ‘on behalf of the people’. It was part of the raft of public utilities nationalised by the post-war Labour governments (1945–51) of Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Across the coalfields, the NCB’s distinctive black and yellow flag was raised by the oldest or youngest miners at colliery ceremonies.

Commenting in the NCB’s in-house magazine Coal four years into nationalisation, in 1951, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Sir William Lawther hinted at the monumental task confronting the nationalised industry, repeating a recent conversation with Ernest Bevin — Labour’s Foreign Secretary, and former wartime Minister of Labour and erstwhile General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union — in which Bevin acknowledged: “you were right, Bill, when you said it would take a decade’s hard work to nationalise mining after the Act was signed”.

Nationalisation created the largest public corporation outside of the Communist bloc at the time, employing 695,000 employees and 1,400 collieries, formerly controlled by 800 separate firms and individuals. The complexities of the task were further underlined by the fact that the largest of the private companies, the south Wales firm Powell Duffryn, previously controlled 40 pits and employed around 40,000 while some of the smallest operations managed tens of employees. Added to this was the fact that nationalisation had relied on the support of various different constituencies (miners, mining engineers and politicians), all with differing visions of what form public ownership should take. Part of that complexity was also coalescing a patchwork of differing coalfield traditions together.

Image of three men with coal on their faces underneath a sign that says 'This Colliery is Now Managed by the National Coal Board On Behalf of the People'

Added to the burden on those working in the industry, and the government, was the fact that post-war Britain confronted what John Maynard Keynes referred to as an “economic Dunkirk”. Against these challenges, the Fabian economist G. D. H. Cole observed in May 1947, “coal is our currency”. As late 1960, coal was responsible for 99% of energy production and 70% of that consumed in the UK.

In the decades that followed nationalisation, the coal industry was transformed from one in which the bulk of coal was hand-got to one in which it was largely extracted on mechanised faces. Accompanying this were profound changes in consultation and management. Almost immediately after nationalisation, the older coalfields of Durham, Northumberland, Scotland, Lancashire and south Wales, experienced concerted and prolonged contraction. While negotiated with the coal industry unions, the scale of these closures caused profound disruption to coalfield communities and family lives. Initially, the NCB and unions sought to mitigate this through new developments and then transfers to other coalfields. In many regions the relationship between mining communities and the industry changed too as more of those employed in the industry commuted to work.

As coal faced increasing competition from oil, nuclear power and gas, the closure programmes ramped up through the 1960s-1980s. The pace and scale of the contraction is visible from the fact that an industry that still employed 609,000 in 1960 employed fewer than 150,000 in 1984. On the eve of privatisation in 1994, British Coal (the NCB’s successor) employed 44,000.

The ‘on behalf of the people’ project, funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council, uniquely explores the nationalisation of British coal and its impact on miners, officials and managers, as well as their families, from the coalfields up, capturing the complexities of the industry, workplace and community life. With the two other researchers on the project — Dr Ben Curtis and Dr Grace Miller — we are exploring this experience through the focus on eight collieries spread across the British coalfields: Bickershaw Colliery (Lancashire); Easington Colliery (Durham); Prince of Wales Colliery (Yorkshire); Annesley-Bentinck Colliery (Nottinghamshire); Markham Colliery (Derbyshire); Barony Colliery (Ayrshire); Tower Colliery (Cynon Valley); and Point of Ayr Colliery (Flintshire).

We hope you will follow the project through the website and our Twitter (@NCB1947) or Facebook accounts. We will be posting blogs about each of the collieries and the project regularly. Towards the end of the project, we will be putting on a travelling exhibition in association with our partners, the National Mining Museum England, the National Mining Museum, Scotland, and Big Pit in Wales.

If you worked at one of the collieries named or grew up in a mining family in one of these locations, and would like to get involved or find out more about the project, please get in contact.