The second day of our intensive teaching week focused on coal, specifically the rise and fall of coal in the North East of England.
Sandra Bell kicked the day off with a great introductory talk entitled ‘Carboniferous Capitalism and the North East of England’. Sandra started right from the beginning with coal’s early association to the monasteries before explaining how rights to coal mining were then held by the state. This changed locally in 1239 when Newcastle was granted a royal charter to lessen restrictions on the extraction of coal. By 1334 Newcastle was the fourth-wealthiest town in England, based on its coal trade spurred on by demand driven by the growing iron and glass making industry.
The lack of wood in the 18th century led to a growing demand for coal for domestic heating, this drove mines deeper and was aided with the development of the Newcomen Steam Engine in 1712; to pump out the new, deeper mines and later of course James Watts’ improved version from 1769 onwards – a pivotal moment for coal as the relationship between steam and coal was formed. Fast forwarding slightly Sandra explained the vast scale of the coal industry in the north east; the region’s 400 pits employing 250,000 men and producing 56 million tonnes of coal/year at its peak in 1913.
Sandra also explained the shift in power from the coal companies (with their annual bond for 1 year’s labour) to the introduction of a two week contract in 1872, as well as the rise of the unions… A seminar and lunch break later we re-assembled outside of Anthropology for a coal walking tour of Durham; learning about the rich coal heritage that surrounds us as we go about our studies in Durham this year.
We made slow progress into town; stopping frequently for Sandra to enlighten us with her fantastic knowledge of the history of Durham. The last stop of our walk was at the grand Durham Miners Association Headquarters where we were kindly given a talk in the council hall, explaining the history of the DMU, of the building itself, as well as plans for its future.
As afternoon turned to evening we concluded our Coal Day with a drink at the Market Tavern in the centre of town, a tavern where on 20th November 1869 a meeting of delegates met and established Durham Miners’ Mutual Association. A big thank you to Sandra, as well as the DMU, for the time you gave to us today.