16 August 2017

The Coal War and Family History

Politics, coal, mining and undermining have had a long, interrelated history.  Even today, in England and elsewhere, political views may tend to correlate with experiences of former coal mining areas.

In recent years, here in Australia, much of the economy has been focused, perhaps too heavily, on the mining industry.  My husband's maternal family has been strongly connected with the mineral mining industry in Australia, as have many other migrant groups and low-skilled workers.

In the past, many young women, like my mother-in-law, preferred to live - and marry - outside mining communities, when offered that choice.  They did not want the worry of their husbands - and sons - being killed or injured in one of the regular mine accidents.  In fact, there was a major mine disaster nearby on the day my in-laws married.

When you were growing up, did your way of life seem to be normal to you, and did your experiences seem fair?  Was the environment in which you lived ordinary to you or somehow unusual?

In the 20th century, there were power engineering industries of the English Midlands where my family lived.  There were many type of engineering work in the area then, just as there are today.

My grandfathers both worked as engineers at the same factory from the late 1940s until they retired.  They contributed to the production of the huge transformers used in coal-fired power stations.

My childhood in England during the early 1970s had been affected by events such as the three-day week, and the high inflation of prices experienced as a consequence of the 1973 oil crisis and the high unemployment of the subsequent recession.  I did not understand why my parents seemed to have so little money.  They never appeared to have any savings at all when I was growing up.

Whenever I looked out of my bedroom window in my middle childhood years, a huge coal-fired power station dominated the skyline.  I just considered it to be horrible and ugly.

My father worked in technical and engineering jobs but he never worked in a factory or a mine or a power plant.

Was anyone in your family directly or indirectly involved in mining or power generation in the 19th or 20th centuries? 

Have you mapped your family history in relation to coal?

My mother's great grandparents and earlier ancestors would have been familiar mainly with a small area of Shropshire dotted with coal and ironstone mines.  The mines dominated their lives.  When a mine closed down or reduced its workforce, the miners would move elsewhere.  My mother's maternal grandparents went to live in Wednesbury, which was then in the south of Staffordshire:

There are three excellent sources of information about the area:

A history of Wednesbury by Bev Parker

Wednesbury mining history forum

Mining in the Black Country by Mick Pearson

Around the world, there has been a long history of mining accidents.  A knowledge of that history could easily save lives, if implemented.  A knowledge of the risks of disease can also prevent suffering, at least when there is openness about the causes of pneumoconiosis and other lung problems.  There are still health problems in mines today.

My husband's maternal grandfather injured his leg in a mining accident in the 1930s.  He died of lung disease in the 1940s, long before being eligible for an old age pension.

Why should anyone risk life and limb just for somewhere to sleep and eat?  My husband's grandparents came to Australia to escape fascism in the 1920s.  Were they any safer at their destination?

All my mother's family heritage is associated with the 19th century mine workers who lived just to the north of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire.  My maternal 19th century ancestors, as men, women and children, would probably have been familiar with corfs and hurrying, both before and after 1842.  There is a fifty page section of the Children's Employment Commission (Mines) report of 1842 available online in relation to Shropshire.  The report lead to the Mines and Collieries Act 1842.

Do you know much about the 19th century mines and communities of Shropshire, or Staffordshire, or anywhere?  Do you know if any of your ancestors were members of the Midland Counties Miners' Federation?

Most British industry in the past two hundred years has developed in relation to cheap, accessible coal and the efficiency of transport routes, starting with canals.  Do you know much about the historical relationship between British coal mines and the development of British canals?

You may have heard of data mining and data about mining.  When I was young, I wanted to distance myself from anything associated with mining and roughness.  I worked in offices in London, though politics has long been one of my major interests.

Australia, 1887
City smog is bad for anyone's health, though there are dangers even in rural areas from coal seam fires.  People near the Hazelwood coal mine fire in Australia know this from their own experiences.  Who should own potentially dangerous assets, in your view?  And who should benefit most from those assets?

I am reminded that 1816 was the year the Davy Lamp was first trialled.  I have managed to trace my maternal line back to that time, when my ancestors were living in the mining community of Dawley in Shropshire.

1816 was the Year Without Summer.    What were your ancestors doing in 1816?  What would they have considered to be a normal way of life?  What were your ancestors doing in 1916?

Do you now consider your past and present experiences to be part of a normal way of life?  How do you define normal?

When I lived in London, the 1984-1985 miners' strike seemed more remote in relation to my own life than the events of the 1970s.  Did the strike have any effect on you and your views of politics and economics?

During the 1980s strike, I worked at the BBC in the production office of Newsnight in the television current affairs department at Lime Grove Studios in west London.  I was in my early 20s and only vaguely aware of my family history.  Coal mines were closing during that time, just as they had in the past.

There was much conflict between miners and the police on the picket lines.  There were extremist views expressed by political players on both sides of the dispute.  I could not understand why so much television news coverage was devoted to the strike when there were so many other significant issues in society.  Nor could I understand why anyone would want their sons and grandsons to have jobs in coal mines.

There had been mining in Shropshire since Roman times.  Miners had often faced possible death or injury on a daily basis.  The mines where my 19th century ancestors worked had closed down long before 1984.

With coal being a major cause of climate change, the war on the environment, and the poor, continues.  How do you look at your family history in this context?

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