Coalmining was a notoriously dangerous industry and many of its workers experienced injury and disease. However, the experiences of the many disabled people within Britain’s most dangerous industry have gone largely unrecognised by historians. This book examines the British coal industry through the lens of disability, using an interdisciplinary approach to examine the lives of disabled miners and their families. The book considers the coal industry at a time when it was one of Britain’s most important industries, and follows it through a period of growth up to the First World War, through strikes, depression and wartime, and into an era of decline. During this time, the statutory provision for disabled people changed considerably, most notably with the first programme of state compensation for workplace injury. And yet disabled people remained a constant presence in the industry as many disabled miners continued their jobs or took up ‘light work’. The burgeoning coalfields literature used images of disability on a frequent basis and disabled characters were used to represent the human toll of the industry. A diverse range of sources are used to examine the economic, social, political and cultural impact of disability in the coal industry, looking beyond formal coal company and union records to include autobiographies, novels and oral testimony. It argues that, far from being excluded entirely from British industry, disability and disabled people were central to its development. The book will appeal to students and academics interested in disability history, disability studies, social and cultural history, and representations of disability in literature.
The Introduction sets out the aim of the book – to uncover the material circumstances, political interventions and social and cultural contexts of disabled people’s lives in order to understand both the lived experience and the rhetoric of disability. It explores the ways in which disabled people and a politicised discourse of disability influenced the nature of coalfields society along material, political and cultural axes, arguing that disability can be seen at the pivotal centre, as a site of struggle in industrial society. Opening with the case study of injured miner Frank Eaves and his struggle to secure compensation, the Introduction sets out the parameters of the book, explains its comparative and interdisciplinary nature, and discusses the methodological and theoretical complexities of studying disability history.
This chapter establishes the industrial and economic context for the book as a whole through a careful study of the coal industry in Britain in the period under consideration. It outlines the continued growth of the industry in the decades leading up to the First World War, levels of mechanisation, the character of employers and the role of women’s often unpaid labour in mining communities. The second part of the chapter focuses on the experiences of disabled workers, a group almost entirely neglected by labour historiography despite their numerical and social significance. The provision of ‘light work’, either underground or on the surface, was widespread but its extent and character waxed and waned with economic change, legislative interventions and the availability of labour.
This chapter considers the medical understandings of, and responses to, disability in a period of considerable change and development. If the pace of medical innovation and development was rapid in the nineteenth century, it quickened in the twentieth as new ways of studying, understanding and treating the miner’s body were devised and major institutions and movements emerged which focused on the health and rehabilitation of miners. The shifting consensus on lung diseases dominated medical discourse, but the eye condition miners’ nystagmus and the development of orthopaedics, including dedicated miners’ rehabilitation centres, were equally crucial. The chapter argues that, rather than being passive patients, disabled miners – together with their families and unions – had significant agency in the medical developments of this period.
This chapter outlines the major sources of welfare support to disabled miners in the British coalfields and the attempts made to ameliorate the fall in income that disability too often occasioned. Focusing on financial welfare rather than medical, the chapter highlights the extent to which each source of welfare placed limitations on its claimants, focusing on the experiences of miners themselves in navigating them. Beginning with a consideration of informal kinship and community networks that were drawn upon by disabled miners and their families, it then considers the complexities of the voluntary sphere that ranged from employer paternalism, to charitable effort and working-class mutualism, all of which provided assistance under different conditions, according to different values, and with a variety of consequences for disabled people. Finally, the chapter considers the total redefinition of the role of the state in the lives of disabled miners through the 1880 Employers’ Liability Act and the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act. The latter in particular represented and occasioned momentous changes in attitudes towards employers’ responsibility for accidents, but disabled miners experienced this as a mixed blessing as all manner of obstacles were placed in the way of the receipt of compensation.
This chapter considers the particular social relations of coalfield communities and situates disability within this social context. It assesses the ways in which the particular class, gender, familial, generational and occupational identities of coalfield society influenced the ways in which disability was understood and experienced, and also, in turn, the role of disability in the creation of new social relations. While the disabilities of miners were rooted in their experiences in the workplace, many of the consequences and implications of disability were experienced in other spaces. Thus, this chapter takes a spatial approach which considers the home, the street and public and religious spaces as crucial sites of disability. It explores life beyond the workplace for miners and their families, using existing oral testimony alongside autobiography, literature and the perspective of outside observers.
The coal industry has a reputation for stormy industrial relations and is often characterised as being marked by hard-headed employers and militant trade unions. Much of the attention in the considerable historiography has, understandably, focused on battles over wages and working conditions, yet miners’ trade unions placed safety, compensation and disability at the heart of their activities and campaigns, and devoted more of their resources to these issues than to wages or working conditions. This chapter evaluates the place of disability in the industrial politics of the coal industry, both in the sense of disability as rhetoric in union campaigning and coalfields literature, and also in the form of practical efforts by the unions and employers on disability issues. It ranges from the interactions of union lodges and colliery companies in individual contested compensation claims to the efforts of miners’ MPs and women’s groups to enact legislation in Parliament to safeguard the mining population as a whole. It argues for an understanding of mining disability as inherently political and central to the development of the industry.
This chapter analyses representations of disability in working-class coalfields literature of the twentieth century. It argues that in this writing the paradigmatic industrial worker (both men in the mines and women in the home) is an impaired worker. Indeed the ubiquity and typicality of disability in the communities represented in the literature arguably requires us to revise what is considered ‘normal’. This chapter looks at realist fiction, in which disability and disabled characters are often used to show the way different historical forces – in particular, economic and political forces – interact in modernist writing, with its emphasis on fragmentation and disjuncture. It considers the seam of disability humour and religious iconography which runs through much coalfields writing, including portrayals of the miner as a ‘disabled Christ’. In the second half of the chapter we focus on the centrality of disability to representations of community protest, solidarity and mutualism which in some ways anticipate disability theories of interdependency.
The Conclusion brings together the strands of the book in the context of an industry which continues to leave a legacy of ill-health, impairment and chronic sickness even after the last deep coal mine in Britain has closed. It argues for a perspective which respects the agency of disabled miners and their families, challenging theoretical structures and industrial historiographies which have left little room for the lived experiences of disabled miners and their families, or the fact that – far from being automatically excluded from the workplace – they were central to the social and economic landscape of the coalfields.