‘All downtrodden with work’: personal, public and political
images of mining and miners 1920-1970.
Draft Paper for SPHERE
Please do not cite
Working Lives Research Institute
London Metropolitan University
‘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 industry.
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 period.
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 built.
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 1 Compared to the lack of other examples of pithead bath-and-canteen building’.
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 norm.
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 2scavenging on slag heaps were widely published. 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’ 3. An industry that was resistant to modernisation: that resistance exemplified industry
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 4. originating from a specific place
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.
1 Benny, M (1946) Charity Man: a coalfield chronicle, George Allen and Unwin, quoted in Supple,
1987:477. 2 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. 3 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. 4 See, Longhurst, B. 1991, ‘Raymond Williams and local cultures’ Environment and Planning, v 23
229-238 for a longer discussion of this.