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August 2022

Black Gold

Jeremy Paxman

William Collins

The book Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman is about the history of coal in Britain from the  beginning of systematic extraction of the resource at the start of the Industrial Revolution to the eventual decline of British coal mining in the period following WWII. The book begins with a period roughly corresponding to the beginning of the industrial revolution, and, therefore, the beginning of a period of heightened demand for coal, a period during which the importance of the resource steadily increased. Coal was the most effective and readily available source of fuel for the new machines, particularly, steam engines. The coal industry expanded and this fact would, of course, leave an impact on society; the landed gentry were entitled to royalties on the coal extracted on their lands making some of them very wealthy, whilst the miners became the “elite” of the work force, working for long hours in bad conditions, but with considerably better wages than other manual labourers. It was the difficult conditions that miners and other mine workers (including, women and small children) faced in the workplace that would bring the industry under increased scrutiny in the 19th century. Numerous mining disasters, many of which counted children amongst their victims, would lead to regulation of the industry; including, banning women and small children from working in the mines and sinking two shafts in every mine for safety reasons. At the same time steam powered ships were added to the list of machines requiring coal. It was these ships, the most valuable asset in protecting the growing British Empire, that lead to even greater extraction of high quality Welsh coal and the establishment of coaling stations throughout the Empire. Powering the navy and industry, whilst also heating homes, meant that by the late 19th century Britain was heavily reliant on coal. The use of this indigenous fuel made the country a military and economic powerhouse, although not without causing a certain amount of difficulties with miners redefining industrial relations by going on strike and the burning of coal becoming a public health risk in urban areas such as London. The extraction of coal reached an all time high in Britain in 1913. Thereafter, coal mining began to decline steadily until it reached its present state. In the interwar period, however, it remained crucial, continuing to provide energy for the country’s rail network, industry and power network. In World War II, coal was still indispensable for the British economy and this lead many young men to be “conscripted” into coal mining. These temporary miners were known as “Bevin Boys” after the minister responsible for the unpopular policy (with the men themselves who suffered the hardships of mining without the glory of fighting in the war) of sending some young men to the coalface instead of the battlefield. After the war in 1947, the Labour government nationalized the coal mines creating the National Coal Board, a long time objective of the miners and their unions. Throughout the post-war period the Coal Board saw productivity, and, indeed, demand for coal, decrease dramatically, and, slowly but surely, many mines began to close to the disappointment of miners who, despite having much better relations with the Coal Board than they had had with the previous owners, were uneasy about their own futures. This anxiety was heightened as the decline of coal, for example, as the railways became electric, was combined with the discovery of natural gas reserves in the North Sea. The final phase of British coal mining, an industry greatly weakened by the gradual closure of many facilities, came with the long and highly publicized strike of the miners during Margaret Thatcher’s government. The strike, led by the miner’s union leader, Arthur Scargill, hoped to avoid pit closures as well as securing better wages for the miners. The government had prepared for a strike hoping to avoid the embarrassment that the previous miner’s strike had caused to the Conservative government of Edward Heath and the protest failed ultimately giving the government even more leverage over the mines which were further decreased in number. The National Coal Board was subsequently renamed to the British Coal in 1987 and continued to operate for a decade until it was privatised as a marginal industry. Overall, the book is interesting as much for some of the recurring concepts it revisits as for the events it describes. The way that miners shaped the labour movement in the country, coal’s industrial impact as a potent form of cheap readily available energy as well as the role of coal in making an industrial and economic powerhouse of the country are important parts of British history. The ideological movements that developed around the mining industry are relevant to this day and despite the relative decline of the trade union membership in the summer of 2022 the struggle between government and the unions in Britain once more a matter of debate. Although perhaps not the most comprehensive book insofar as economic history is concerned, Black Gold is an accessible and enjoyable book to read which brings together many strands of modern British history.

My copy

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