The Records of the National Coal Board
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
To get to the records of the National Coal Board, you have to go to the National Archives, near Kew Gardens. On your way into the archive you pass ponds, well-manicured gardens and swans. The file series is labelled COAL and runs from COAL 1: Coal Records Prior to the National Coal Board: Deeds and Evidences to COAL 105: National Coal Board and British Coal Corporation: Films.
The files are full of information about mining, mining communities and wider life in Britain. In an extensive correspondence from the 1950s, the coal board tried to ensure that the St Leger race in Doncaster was not held on a weekday, because they believed this would decrease coal production. The Bickershaw Consultative Committee minutes contain repeated discussion about the quality and price of pies in the canteen. The changing format of the Markham colliery newsletter in the 1980s and 1990s shows when those making it discovered clipart.
As public bodies, the National Coal Board and British Coal Corporation were required by legislation to deposit files with the Public Record Office (the precursor of the National Archives). The files that are currently stored under the label COAL are there as a result of a series of decisions that were made both within the organisation and by archivists.
As part of our project we have been trying to trace the history of Coal Queens. From 1969, a series of regional and national pageants were held to select the Coal Queen. The competition was run by Coal News and the Coal Queen was a post held for a year. However, we have not identified any files relating to these competitions. Workers for NCB, British Coal and the Public Record Office each made decisions that information about Coal Queens did not need to be saved.
In the early 1990s, one of the many tasks that British Coal undertook in preparation for privatising the industry was disposing of all of its records. The records currently at the National Archive were those that were generated on the national level, but the NCB and British Coal were bureaucracies that generated reams of paper and each area also held extensive records. At that time, British Coal paid for substantial storages in Cannock and needed to dispose of these records as part of the privatisation process. The correspondence of the time suggests that British Coal’s priority was speed and that it wanted to persuade local offices to both take files and make quick decisions.
The substantial deposits of records from the privatised coal industry came to Record Offices without any funding for preservation or cataloguing. NCB records had to compete with other demands for council funds, including ameliorating the damage that the closure of mines had done to the local area. What regional coal industry material is available and accessible is dependent on decisions that were made in the immediate aftermath, by British Coal and who were deeply involved and influenced by the contraction and closure of the industry.
Record offices that had not catalogued their coal board material in the first twenty years after it was deposited have faced even greater difficulties in times of austerity. In the current environment, there is very little funding available to make material accessible. In the Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock, one deposit of NCB records had been fully accessioned, but there are 42 deposits that have been minimally indexed, or not indexed at all.
Over the next two years the remaining 42 deposits at Derbyshire Record Office will be catalogued. Warwickshire and Derbyshire Record Offices have recently been successful in a bid for ‘Mining the Seams’ a project that will involve both the accessioning of NCB files and digitisation of key sources. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, who fund health research. The availability of funds from the Wellcome Trust for such work is a huge relief for those concerned about the records of the mining industry, which is certainly full of records about health. However, health is just one of many aspects of British (and international) life that these records can shine light on, and it is unlikely that there will be funding to digitise other parts of the collection in the same way.
We’ve written about the National Union of Mineworkers files in Barnsley and how the history of the mining industry has shaped the current state of its archives. The availability and accessibility of the National Coal Board files is also very much a product of its history and particularly the rapid and contested decline of the Coal industry in the UK. It’s difficult not to compare the NCB files in National Archives, which are well accessioned and available for long opening hours, and those in the local record offices, where hours are often short and material that isn’t indexed is impossible to have found. These differences reflect larger inequalities in the regions where coal was mined over the last thirty years.