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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

The commodity which more than any other made possible Britain's lead in the *Industrial Revolution. There is believed to have been surface mining of coal in Roman Britain, and by the 13C it was a source of fuel in many regions. It became of economic importance only in the 15–16C, when its increasing use for firing bricks led in turn to brick hearths in which it could be more efficiently burnt as fuel.

By the 17C there was a major trade in coal down to London and the south of England from the first area of large-scale mining, *Tyneside. Improvements in the smelting of iron by Abraham *Darby and others in the mid–18C led to a surge of industrialization in Staffordshire and the *Black Country. By then Britain was the world's leading producer of coal, with new mines being developed throughout the country – in particular in Scotland, Yorkshire and the valleys of south Wales.

The appalling working conditions and the economic importance of their industry caused miners to take a leading role in the *trade union movement, a position maintained in the *General Strike of 1926. In 1947 the mines were nationalized under the National Coal Board (now British Coal), since when the industry has been much reduced. *Miners' strikes involved major political confrontations in 1974 and 1984. By the mid-1980s the number of collieries had shrunk from nearly 1000 after World War II to about 170; and the number of miners from about 700,000 to 200,000. Fears of future savage reductions in the industry were a major theme of the 1984 miners' strike; they were to be fully justified by subsequent events.

By 1992 there were 50 collieries and about 50,000 men working in the industry. In October of that year British Coal made a sudden announcement of a drastic plan; 30 of the remaining 50 pits were to close within six months. There were immediate political repercussions. The reaction at Westminster and among the public forced the government to agree to an enquiry, and in December a judge ruled that British Coal and the president of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, had acted with illegal haste in arranging for the immediate closure of ten of the pits.

But the reduced demand for coal from the privatized electricity industry (down from 65 million tonnes in 1992 to 30 million tonnes in 1994) made closure of many others inevitable. By mid-1994 there were only 8000 miners, working in just 16 pits (and not one of them in Wales); another 28 pits were being kept in good repair on a care and maintenance basis. This slimmed-down coal industry was *privatized in 1994 but has continued to suffer severe difficulties.

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