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World War 1


Coal Mining In the First World War 1914-1918

The peak output of coal in the UK was in 1913 when 287,430,028 tons from 3,015 Collieries was produced by 1,127,890 men and boys and 93 million tons was exported.

When the War began in August 1914 there was an immediate rush of miners from all parts of Britain to enlist in the forces. For many it was a way of getting out of drudgery in an industry that was dangerous, dirty and generally hard work.

The powers that be in Parliament lead by the Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Liberal) 1906-1915, were not too alarmed as it was thought that the War would be over by Christmas. However it dragged on for a further 4 years with huge losses of life on both sides.

More and more miners left the pits to replace the ones who would not return and many mines were closed because they were either short of workers or closed on economic grounds. Many other pits concentrated on coal production but the much needed bye work such as maintenance of roadways etc. was ignored until the stage was reached where coal could not be produced from those underground districts and they were closed prematurely with the inevitable loss of production.

Demand for coal was insatiable to fuel the ships, power stations, coke ovens, home use and industry to make munitions for the War.

Even management personnel left at some Colliery Companies leaving the organisation to old men. Some pits were depleted of skilled workmen and in some instances men were sent back from the forces and honourably discharged to be able to train others in the art of mining. New coal face workers had to be instructed by a collier with a minimum of 2 years’ experience at the coalface.

The Barber Walker Company of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire lost 450 men and 4 managers, one George Dixon manager of High Park and Watnall Collieries being killed in action. Of the Blackwell Colliery Company employees of 4,455 a total of 1,128 left to volunteer.

1914 - The average cost of coal at the pithead was 10 shillings a ton. Output for 1914 was 265,643,030 tons, exports falling to 59 million tons. Average earnings were £79 per year. Manpower 1,133,760 men and boys. There were 1,219 fatal accidents.

Bugine was the first to convert coal to oil. A plant at Welbeck Colliery Notts produced English Spirit at 1s 3½d a gallon for use in motor vehicles and motorbikes.

First Treasury notes £1 and 10s issued. Income tax 1s 3d in the £.

Minimum Wages Act of March 1912 had been passed after a national miner’s strike of 6 weeks. A War bonus of 15½% was added to this towards the end of 1914.

Herbert Asquith took over as Prime Minister 1915-1916.
David Lloyd George (1916-1922) succeeded in 1916 with a Coalition Government.

8 Royal Engineer Tunnelling Corps were formed in February 1915, one being the Sherwood Foresters of the Midlands. Up to 30,000 were operational in France from March 1915. Both sides tunnelled under each other’s trenches and planted explosive charges to blow up the soldiers. Who better to dig trenches and drive tunnels but miners who were skilled in that type of operation. Some of the managers who had volunteered were commissioned and put in charge. Many of the tunnellers would be decorated for acts of bravery at the battles of Mons, the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres. The Nottinghamshire Miner’s Association acted as a recruiting sergeant in opposition to the anti-war militancy of the Miner’s Federation of Great Britain.

1915 - In February 1915 the Coal Mining Organisation Commission was formed to inquire into the industry with a view to promoting the necessary production of coal during the War.

Price of Coal (Limitation) Act 1915 was passedin July 1915. It was a wartime measure. Coal price was 12s 6d per ton.

The price of pit ponies varied between £8 and £15 10s each.

Strikes were outlawed and industrial action forbidden.

A national register was compiled to find out who was employed in the various industries.

In December 1915 there was a further 5% increase in wages.

Output for 1915 was 253,179,445 tons, exports fell again to 43.5 m ton.
993,600 men and boys.
Average earnings £105 per year.
Income tax was to be doubled to pay for the War.
There were 1,297 fatal accidents.
The War continued and some women were drafted into the engine house and lamp room at Waleswood Colliery in South Yorkshire. This caused a lot of bother as a job was done by a disabled man who had been put onto heavier work that was too much for him. A strike was threatened so the women were removed.

Pit lads went on strike at Gedling and Wollaton Collieries leading to a loss in production and colliers were laid off until the lads’ grievances had been sorted.

Socialist Labour Party - Jack Lavin an Irish immigrant working at Welbeck Colliery, (Notts) formed the Socialist Labour Party.

Absenteeism committees were set up at the Collieries and men were threatened with the sack albeit coal production needed to be improved. At some pits seams were abandoned due to lack of manpower.

1916 - May 1916 the Military Service Act applying to married men came into force. There were exemptions for skilled men in key occupations.

In June 1916 the Government prohibited the recruitment of miners. The miners’ union voted overwhelmingly against conscription.

The UK agreed to supply coal to France as most of the French mines were in the war zone.
The price of coal was now 15s 7d per ton.
Output for 1916 was 256,348,351 tons, exports 38.4 m tons.
998,100 men and boys.
Average wage £127 per year. There were 1,313 fatal accidents.
Price of pit ponies varied between £12 and £20 each.

A German Zeppelin made a raid on Pleasley Colliery (Derbys) in 1916, dropped 2 bombs. No damage reported. Thought to be a practice air raid.

There was a further Zeppelin raid on Sheffield on 26 September 1916 and another at Kiveton Park Colliery on 19 October 1917. No damage reported.

Tip fires caused by spontaneous combustion were required to be doused to prevent giving enemy aircraft directions.

1917 - In February 1917 the Government took over the running of the mines due to the War and the Board of Trade took over from the Home Office under the Defence of the Realm Act. A Coal Controller was in charge and an advisory committee of 7 coal owners, 7 workers’ representatives. The Government took 80% of the excess profits.
The Coal Controller’s share went into a pool and an amount given to owners who failed to make a profit.

A further War bonus of 4.2% was granted in February 1917. Also a flat rate increase of 1s 6d per day for all over 16 years of age and 9d for boys was granted in September 1917.

Government released 20,000 men from mines throughout the country in April 1917.

Price of beer in Nottingham was fixed at a minimum 5d from 1 August 1917.

Electric battery hand lamps were introduced at a few mines in preference to oil lamps.

Pit Props - Due to German U boat submarines sinking ships carrying vital supplies of pit props 4/5 imported at a cost of £3.5m from the forests of Scandinavia the Forestry Commission was created so that home grown timber could be used. Of course fir trees mature at about 40 years so it was assumed that wooden supports would always be used but in the 1930s and 1940s steel supports were widely introduced at the large collieries.

Mines Rescue Stations continued to be opened.

Uniform flat rate wage increase in September 1917. The price of coal had risen to 16s 9d per ton.
Coal Controller divided the country into 23 areas in October 1917.
Output for 1917 was 248,473,120 tons produced by 1,021,300 men and boys.
Exports 34.99 m tons.
Average earnings £129 per year.
There were 1,370 fatal accidents.

Rationing - On 25 February 1918 meat, butter and margarine was put on ration, followed by coal, gas and electricity from 20 March 1918. On 19 June 1918 general rationing was introduced.

Butty system abolition in some pits, but the system lingered on for some years in certain areas.

School leaving age was raised to 13 on 13 March 1918 leading to a shortage of boys in the pits.

Conscription was raised to 50 years of age to boost the numbers at the front.

Second part of the War wage was granted giving a total of 3 shillings.

Women of over 30 years of age were given the vote.

Nottinghamshire Miners’ Association acted as recruiting sergeant from 10 April 1918. 50,000 more colliers were released.

Absenteeism committees were re-established in June 1918.

General food rationing introduced from 19 June 1918.

The price of coal had reached £1 a ton in June but escalated to £1 4s 0d by September 1918.

The Great War ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918.

Men returned from the forces to ‘a land fit for heroes’. Many ex miners did not return to the pits and many who had been injured did return but were only offered the lowest paid jobs. Men with one arm or one leg, one eye were set on as the coal production had dropped alarmingly.

Manpower in the industry did rise for several years up to 1924 when over 1.25 million were employed.

Overall a quarter of the UK miners had volunteered for service.

181 British and Dominion tunnelling officers perished underground and at least 1,500 died in tunnels.
The price of pit ponies rose dramatically from £15 to £32 each. Thousands of horses used for hauling heavy equipment, artillery and ammunition in diabolical conditions had been killed in the War.
Output for 1918 was 227,714,580 tons, exports 31.8 m tons.
Average earnings £158 per year.
There were 1,401 fatal accidents.
12% of the coal produced was cut mechanically.
3,000. Pits were owned by 1,500 different companies.
The case for Nationalisation of the mines was rejected.

Sankey Commission report of 1919 granted a 7 hour day for underground workers.
First UK inland oil well was drilled at Hardstoft near Tibshelf, Derbyshire on 15 October 1918 and oil was found on 27 May 1919.

1919 - By 1919 there were 2,549 pits and the price of pit ponies had soared between £26 and £45 each due to the scarcity.

Bob Bradley