Mining and Miners

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					‘All downtrodden with work’: personal, public and political
         images of mining and miners 1920-1970.

                          Draft Paper for SPHERE

                              Please do not cite

Christine Wall
Working Lives Research Institute
London Metropolitan University

December 2008

  ‘All downtrodden with work’: personal, public and political images of mining
                           and miners 1920-1970.

Although there have been visual representations of mining and miners from as long as
there has been an industry, with a large number dating from the eighteenth century as
part of the literature associated with the industrialisation of British industries, the
iconic images discussed here are those from the mid-twentieth century. It might be the
case that the image of the miner, blackened from coal dust and emerging into the
daylight after an underground shift, was the iconic representation of the heroic, male
manual worker in Britain: a worthy comrade to Lewis Hine’s construction workers in
the U.S. But this would be to ignore the origins of this particular representation, the
way in which it has been co-opted and used in different historical and political
contexts and its current salience in a post-industrial culture. Using Raymond
Williams’ notion of the ‘selective tradition’ (1977: 115-120) this paper sets out to
show how ‘an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped
present’ are ‘powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and
identification’. Williams is speaking here of the selective tradition in the context of
hegemony, explaining his use of the term as ‘a specific, economic, political and
cultural system’ (1977: 110) one which orders the everyday practices, values and
experience of living but one which also must be seen as ‘the lived dominance and
subordination of particular classes’. This framework is particularly useful for
understanding the way in which certain images of mining and miners have remained
current, and others subordinate, in discourses describing the British coalmining

It has been suggested that the heroic figure of the muscular miner originates in literary
texts, especially those written by middle-class observers of working class life (Feaver,
1988). Perhaps the most famous are the description of miners’ working lives by DH
Lawrence in Sons and Lovers 1913 and George Orwell’s paean to broad shouldered
narrow- waisted bodies of miners in Road to Wigan Pier. From these texts the image
was visualised in the 1930s in, among many sources, documentary film the GPO Film
Unit’s Coal Face made by Cavalcanti and edited by William Coldstream and Bill
Brandt’s photographs. These images gave a national homogeneity to what was, in
reality up until post-war nationalisation, a highly localised industry in terms of its
structure, working practices, culture and political affiliations.

The British coalfields extend from a few scattered in the South West to the deep
mines of the South Wales valleys and then in a band through the centre of England
extending from Kent, through the Midlands, including North Wales, through
Yorkshire, Cumbria and into Scotland. [see map] Prior to 1947 collieries were owned
and operated by many different organizations and companies, and the owners of coal
royalties (the rights to exploit the coal) were often different from the owners or
lessees of the land surface. Coalmining was labour intensive, mechanization was low
in the interwar period and mining communities grew up in close proximity to the pits.
However differences between regions and also within regions were acute. For
example in South Wales small entrepreneurs could start a colliery very cheaply where
coal could be found close to the surface in anthracite fields, the colliery owner might
be one of the community and have face-to-face contact with his workers. This was in
contrast to those mines that required deep working and consequently a large
investment of capital in order to reach the coal in the first place and were run by

owners remote from the workforce. Oral histories of miners from this era highlight
the differences between these two types of enterprise and the negotiating skills
necessary to secure a decent wage, based on complicated price-lists, as well as the
physical skill and endurance needed to cut the coal from the face (Evans 1976).
Coalmining before mechanization was extremely hard labour. The following,
unusually evocative, description by an economic historian is designed to explain how
the intensity of effort in the work shaped the ‘psychological significance of work for
miners’ (Supple 429).

     [Illustration 1] Hand-hewing had in the main to be carried out by a hewer lying
     on his side on an uncomfortable surface in a cramped and claustrophobic space;
     haulage systems were dependent on muscle power to supplement animal or
     mechanical energy; there was a constant need to use shovel and pick in the
     construction and maintenance of roadways as well as in the transfer of coal
     between face; and tub or conveyor; perpetual manual labour was involved in
     supporting roofs and moving equipment and supplies. Moreover, the
     expenditure of effort was undertaken in darkness, and in choking and filthy
     conditions, frequently exacerbated by penetrating dampness and/or scorching
     heat. And the fatigue of all this was only exacerbated by the common need
     (given the rarity of mechanical transport or horse haulage for face workers) to
     travel between pit shaft and coalface on foot, often crouching, for an average of
     over 30 minutes in each direction (Supple 429-430).

However oral histories from the same period emphasize the complexity, intensity,
liveliness and humour of the relationships between working men and boys
underground: attributes so often missing from both textual and visual representations
of miners at work.

     And it was a wonderful society! Each couple would go to their stalls. First
     there’d be a little rest period; all together – sitting down together. Perhaps
     twelve couples: the boys over here and the men over there – fifteen or twenty
     yards between them…. And, of course, looking back, what was interesting to
     me in those talks: you start the week, Mondays; talk would be nothing but
     chapel, you see: ‘Who was preaching with you last night? What was his text?
     And as you go through the week, things were going away from chapel. Looking
     forward now to what the team was going to do on Saturday – the rugby team in
     each place you see. (Evans 159).

The selective tradition: the disappearance of pithead baths
The British coal industry has its own official history: a five volume study
commissioned before nationalization but supported by the National Coal Board and
published over the period 1984 -1993 by a series of notable academics. The volumes
covering the interwar period 1913-46 and the postwar period 1946-1982 contain a
number of illustrations, including photographs of the interiors of miners housing
composed to reveal the domestic problems caused by having to wash after work in
houses where there was no bathroom or running hot water. One of them, photographer
unknown, shows the ubiquitous tin-bath, which became a visual short-hand for
depicting the hardship of miners’ lives and the effects on their wives and families.
[Illustration 2]

But strangely, what this official history omits to show is examples of the pithead
baths, which were introduced during the 1920s and 1930s to many of the larger pits.
These facilities were financed after the1920 Mining Industry Act established the
Miners Welfare Fund: funded initially by an output levy on coal of 1d per ton and
after the1926 Act an additional 5% levy on coal royalties. The fund was administered
by a committee of representatives of employers, royalty owners, trade unions and
independent members appointed by the government and superseded in 1939 by the
Miners Welfare Commission (MWC), which in turn was wound up and became
integral to the National Coal Board after nationalisation in 1951 (Ashworth :533).
The MWC was not allowed to provide housing but had to administer the fund in the
interest of the ‘the social well-being, recreation and conditions of living of workers in
or about coal mines’ (Ashworth: 527). In the first few years of the fund grants were
given for seaside holidays, boys’ clubs and the building of convalescent homes and
hospitals. But after the Samuel Commission of 1926 had pointed out that in
comparison with Germany, where pithead baths were a compulsory part of mining
installation, only 2 per cent of British miners had access to washing facilities at work,
most expenditure went on the building of baths, with part of the running costs met by
miners paying for their use. The inability of miners to change their work clothes
before leaving the pits had serious consequences on the domestic working life of their
wives, mothers and landladies. Miners’ homes were dominated by the need to prepare
hot water for washing the men and their filthy clothes, often twice a day for men on
different shifts. It was popularly believed that miners did not want pithead baths and
had to be persuaded of their usefulness: miners were seen as ‘primitive’, wedded to
tradition and myth, for example the belief that washing the spine would decrease their
strength. However records of the MWC architectural committee charged with
designing and building the baths show otherwise. At a public meeting at the RIBA in
1938 Will Lawther, vice-president of the Mineworkers Federation, stated that it had
been miners themselves who demanded the building of pithead baths. In response to a
question that asked whether miners had objected to cleanliness being ‘imposed on
them from above’ he went on;

       There can be no question whatever that the miner does appreciate what has
       been done. While I have no doubt that many of you believe him to be a rough,
       uncouth, unkempt animal, despite the fact that now and again he has produced
       a playwright and a novelist, perhaps not quite as good as Shakespeare but a
       good deal better than some, there is no doubt that the miner does appreciate
       this scheme. RIBAJ, (45) 9:429

 Lawther finds himself with the thankless task of arguing for the basic humanity of the
miners against the entrenched class-ridden prejudices and aloofness of many of the
architects in the audience. By contrast the architects who worked within the
committee of the MWC appear to have worked in close contact with the users of the
baths. Miners’ advice and observations were canvassed at first-hand and four
‘experimental’ baths were built in four different districts to ensure that the opinions
and knowledge of the users were incorporated into designs before the main building
programme was initiated. On completion the baths, and other buildings provided by
the MWC, were run and maintained jointly by miners, owners and representatives of
the MWC giving a sense of ownership to the miners that carried on into the post-war

The chief architect was J.H. Forshaw, later to become Architect to the London County
Council and draw up the County of London Plan and Greater London Plan for post-
war reconstruction with Patrick Abercrombie in the 1940s. The committee prided
itself on a number of improvements over the German designs for pithead baths: the
separation of washed and unwashed functions, which included separate entrances and
circulation, and separate locker systems for home and work clothes. The lockers
became the unit around which the rest of the building was planned and were designed
so that warm air circulated inside them and escaped through louvres to then warm the
interior of the locker room. Showers were usually provided as individual cubicles,
each with a specially designed peg for hanging towel and locker key. Miners entered
in their street clothes, changed out of them, hung them up in their ‘clean’ lockers
which also held soap and towel, and then walked through to their ‘dirty’ locker where
they put on their pit clothes and left their soap and towel ready for coming off shift
and using the showers which were usually positioned at right angles to the lockers.
Beyond the ‘dirty’ lockers were drinking water taps for filling their bottles and a boot
cleaning and greasing room, positioned adjacent to the pit entrance and the cage-lift
which took them down into the mine. Canteens were often built next to the bathhouse
and in some cases swimming pools were added to the complex. In the areas where
women still worked sorting the coal at the pithead, separate rest rooms and baths were
All the buildings were modern in appearance, favouring flat roofs, standardised
fittings (but individualised lay-outs to suit miners’ preferences), and white external
finishes. The committee stated ‘we do not feel justified in allowing expenditure on
ornament and decoration, but our architects are able to achieve results of architectural
worth relying solely upon line and well-proportioned surfaces’: a statement that
echoes the modernist manifestos of Corbusier and the Bauhaus. The work of the
architects division of the Miners Welfare Commission represents the essential
qualities of early British modernist architecture: a programme of building
incorporating standardised fittings and details using a common architectural idiom
and, rather than aiming for aesthetic recognition, driven by moral concerns. Forshaw
compared the pithead baths with the, ‘essentially civic and monumental character’ of
the RIBA Headquarters in Portland Street, and declared them ‘no less civic in their
social requirements’. He also pointed out that they were a stimulus to civic
improvement in that town planners often reclaimed derelict land nearby to create
parks and playing fields. For Forshaw, the ‘history of a country is largely the history
of its social architecture’ and the baths were important examples of both civic and
social architecture and with a strong moral component. He considered that:

       The pithead bath springs from a desire for self-respect, which, at bottom, is the
       right of the miner to be on terms of equality with his fellow-countrymen. By
       the medium of the baths the mining community established and will maintain
       its contact with the other communities of the nation without a sense of
       isolation as in the past’. RIBAJ, (45) 9:427

Forshaw, as a modernist, believed in not just the symbolic function of modern
architecture as progressive but in the moral values attached to buildings, which aimed
to improve the lives of their users. The wider aims of this program of welfare
building, to shift prejudice and integrate a community perceived as separate and
outside mainstream society because of their occupation, are typical of the radical

nature of many early modernist architects in aiming for goals of ‘compassion,
happiness and conscience’ rather than material success (Powers 2007:10). The pithead
baths buildings were gleaming, white additions to the architecture of nineteenth
century towns and villages, and many of them were built in remote rural areas – their
starkness and modernity must have been striking, and they must also have marked out
mining as a progressive, modern industry. In 1946 Mark Benny compared the
nineteenth century antiquated pithead gear with the ‘clean, bright, new grace of the
pithead bath-and-canteen building’.1 Compared to the lack of other examples of
modernist design in Britain, especially in housing, they were remarkable buildings for
the 1930s.

The building programme accelerated in the late 1930s but was interrupted by the
Second World War. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1947, 366 collieries had baths
with provision for 450,000 men in an industry with a total manpower of 703,000, that
is, provision for nearly two thirds of the workforce. They were nearly all destroyed in
the hasty demolition of mining infrastructure that came after the defeat of the miners
in 1984. Only four of the many hundreds built have listed status and have been saved
as examples of mining heritage, mainly due to intensive campaigning by local people.
But what is notable here, is the absence of these buildings from cultural
representations of miners and mining communities. Their existence had the potential
to undermine the polarity of the powerful, if fictitious, narrative of the working-class,
grimy North as opposed to the superiority of the South. Understanding and
appreciation of Modern architecture was a key component to the identity of the
cultured, educated middle-classes for most of the twentieth century: the very presence
of these early markers of modernity did not fit with imagined geographies of pit
villages and towns where deprivation, dirt and polluted lives were supposedly the

The poor condition of the photographs illustrating this architecture of miners’ welfare
buildings, copied from bound architectural journals dating from the 1930s, in itself
testifies to their neglect as historical documents. There are not any photographs of
modernist architecture in the official history of British coal and few in architectural
histories apart from later buildings from the 1950s (Elwall). Those few examples left
standing are recorded on websites and in mining museums but Raymond Williams
‘selective tradition’ is seen in action here, with the nineteenth century pithead winding
gear remaining as a symbolic totem of the mining industry: not the gleaming, white,
clean lines of the baths and canteens built by the Miners’ Welfare Commission.

Painting, politics and nationalisation
 Although the baths made a significant impact on the lives and families of those who
used them, at the time, perhaps because of their geographical isolation they did not
seem to affect general perceptions of the miner and his industry. Miners were well
aware of the way in which they were perceived and represented, and one of the most
direct ways of countering this was through creating their own images of work and
community. This was achieved very successfully in the work of a group of artists,
some of them working miners, who started to meet and paint together in a Workers
Educational Association (WEA) class set up in a mining town in the North East.
William Feaver gives a comprehensive and sympathetic account of these men in
Pitmen Painters (1988). The Ashington Group, as they became known, were prolific

painters and their work was exhibited in London, Germany and China from the 1930s
and up to the 1970s. One of the founding members was Oliver Kilbourn, who
commented in 1939, ‘I’m sick and tired of miners being portrayed like lumps of wood
– all downtrodden with work’ (Feaver 1988:105). He remained a working miner until
retirement as well as becoming a respected artist, his paintings depicting the skill and
expertise of the work carried out in cramped conditions but also the mutual trust and
camaraderie of the work team. Kilbourn produced Coal Face Filler, during the war
years as well as a series of pen and ink drawings Drilling Shot Hole and Coal Face
Drawers that vividly portray the concentration, intensity and complexity of work
underground. [Illustrations] Kilbourn thought that after spending about a third of his
life in semi-darkness his eyes were attuned to subtleties where outsiders could only
see gloom. This is apparent from comparing Kilbourn’s work with sketches made by
Henry Moore, salaried as an official war artist, who spent two weeks in a colliery
drawing miners at work. Moore’s miners are faceless beasts of burden, dumb victims
of mindless toil in the hellish environment of the mine not the clearly articulated
individuals working on precise tasks, seen in Kilbourn’s work. Although this
comparison must be seen in the context of the Ashington group’s rejection of abstract
representation in favour of art based on direct experience and observation: to the
critics they remained ‘naïve’ amateurs.

The group also produced a fine body of work representing life beyond the coalface,
Kilbourn’s Saturday Night, attests to the continuation of an all-male workplace into
time-off for singing and drinking. The pigeon loft was another male hobby depicted in
the paintings while women appear infrequently, and rarely as subjects, apart from in
Kilbourn’s work (see Proggin’ the Mat c.1938). But the paintings they produced of
life outside work show sunny living rooms, gardens, conversation and a warmth and
liveliness not usually, for the 1930s, found in middle-class descriptions or
fictionalised accounts of their domestic surroundings. In fact there is a marked lack of
dirt and grime in the group’s paintings, however, all of these representations, whether
textual or visual, were created by men. Feaver’s account of the formation of the
Ashington group in 1934 reveals that there were originally two ‘girls’ who attended
for about six weeks but when they left women were not ‘encouraged’ to join (Feaver,
1988:17). He also includes part of personal correspondence made with Oliver
Kilbourn’s wife, Peggy, on the subject of the output of the group,

       Mining pictures would not be welcomed by wives to hang on walls at home;
       landscapes would be considered more suitable. The women had enough of
       mining dominating their lives and frequently, when there were several workers
       in the house, reducing them to slaves. Many of the women were never able to
       go to bed except at weekends and just dozed in a chair to fit in with the
       different shifts. (1988:47)

Although the hardship of miners’ lives between the wars was well-known –
government and charity reports and newspaper reportage on infant mortality, under-
nourished families and poor housing abounded, and Bill Brandt’s pictures of men
scavenging on slag heaps were widely published2. The sense of miners as ‘a race
apart’ allowed them to be vilified during the Second World War for low productivity
and in 1943 the fact that they went on strike for higher wages highlighted their
ambivalent position in the public eye. From being objects of pity miners rapidly
became objects of contempt. Supple explains falling productivity on a crisis in

manpower caused by large migrations of young men away from the coalfields in
search of work throughout the economic depressions of the 1920s and 30s. This had
far-reaching consequences on the age composition of the mining communities left
behind. By the later years of the war coal output was so low that Ernest Bevin,
Minster of Labour, initiated the Bevin’s Boys experiment, whereby young conscripts
were sent to work in the pits in an attempt to increase coal production. At the same
time the older men, who had experienced the low employment of the inter-war years,
were very aware of exploitation by management and the coal-owners: for many,
management was ‘a system of organised and authorised bullying in an atmosphere of
noise, heat, dust and blasphemy’ (Supple 565). They became distant from their union
leaders as the war progressed and by 1943/44 reported low productivity, high
absenteeism and a series of strikes over a pay award resulted in deterioration in public
attitudes towards the miners. Miners were vilified in the press for their ‘selfishness’
and cartoons in Punch, and other establishment newspapers, depicted them as
working against national interests and as a another, internal, enemy ‘front’ that had to
be dealt with by the coalition government – an image disinterred by Margaret
Thatcher in the 1980s when she described striking miners as ‘the enemy within’.
[Illustration – Western Mail cartoon]
 But by November 1943 The Times reported that over 30,000 wartime workers were
on strike including 24,000 at engineering factories in the West of Scotland and bus
drivers and conductors in Morecombe and Lancaster, so it would seem that miners
were singled out among other workers for their intransigence in the face of appeals to
the war effort (TUC HD 6661).

Natasha Vall has documented how after nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947
the regional art of the Ashington Group and other mine artists was ‘incorporated into
the utopian optimism of the State’ (Vall, 2004:15). The newly formed National Coal
Board bought many paintings and mineworker artists were exhibited in a major
retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1973. The work is now scattered
between local museums, the National Mining Museum and private owners. The
insistence of Kilbourn and other artists on painting what they knew and what they
saw, from direct experience, gave them an integrity that can be characterised, in
Raymond Williams’ words again, as a ‘structure of feeling’. Their work provided a
counter-narrative to the dominant representations of miners as ‘a race apart’, as dumb
beasts of burden and of their communities as deprived and inward looking.

These hidden and destroyed cultural artefacts of the past have a ratifying effect on the
present representation of miners and their communities. The continuation of the use of
the ubiquitous ‘tin-bath’ to signify miners, rather than a white, modernist pithead
bath, actively maintains a nineteenth century perception of mining as a ‘backward’
industry3. An industry that was resistant to modernisation: that resistance exemplified
by the low productivity of its workers and their reluctance to embrace new technology
and working practices. It does not include the complexities and vagaries of global
capitalism, the ruthlessness of the Conservative governments in the 1980s and the
changing markets for coal, which were only some of the reasons for the closing of pits
and the radical changes experienced by former mining communities.
The paintings produced by mineworkers give us access to individual experience as
eloquent as any written memoir. They are also examples of cultural struggle: the

periodisation of this paper coincides with the productive life of Oliver Kilbourn a key
figure in this attempt to resist dominant discourses with structures of feeling
originating from a specific place4.
The destruction of an architectural form that specifically referred to the collective
work process in its design and function and also, in its location, to the wider
community is an extreme example of the selective tradition. These buildings, together
with much of the built infrastructure of the pits, were destroyed by British Coal
(formerly the NCB) after the national miners strike in 1984. This can only be seen as
a deliberate policy of obliteration, as, up until this date, these buildings had been well
maintained and were fully functioning. How effective and rapid was this relegation to
the realm of history can be understood from this quote from the sculptor Anthony
Gormley recounting the time he first saw the site for the position of a new, major
commission in 1994.

      It looked just like a megalithic mound and I like megalithic mounds. And then
      they told me that the mound was actually what was left of the old pithead baths
      of the St. Anne Colliery, one of the two collieries in the Lower Team Valley.

      (Transcript of BBC Radio3 Interview with John Tusa, nd,

The resulting sculpture, the ‘ Angel of the North’ overlooking the A1 has become a
national monument, but arguably, not to the demolished pithead baths.
Raymond Williams stated that although historical work can recover evidence that can
illuminate reductive, hegemonic versions of the past it is of little use and will remain
marginal unless ‘lines to the present, in the actual process of the selective tradition,
are clearly and accurately traced’ (Williams 1977:116). This process has been
undertaken only partially here but these examples, of built form and paintings, can
still be understood as part of history and experience with potential to directly connect
with the present.

  Benny, M (1946) Charity Man: a coalfield chronicle, George Allen and Unwin, quoted in Supple,
  Reports of Investigations into the Industrial Conditions in Certain Depressed Areas (Cmd.4728);
Report on the Overcrowding Survey in England and Wales, Ministry of Health, 1936; ‘A Stricken
Coalfield. Stagnation in South Wales’, The Times 28 Mar.1928, are among many references cited in
Supple, pp 427-475.
  See cartoon p 29 in ‘De-industrialisation and Identities in Flux: the Case of South Yorkshire Coal
Mining Communities’, Kirk and Wall, SPHERE Work Package 3.
  See, Longhurst, B. 1991, ‘Raymond Williams and local cultures’ Environment and Planning, v 23
229-238 for a longer discussion of this.



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