Book Review: Images of the Past – Coalminers by Brian Elliott

Images of the Past: Coalminers by Brian Elliott.

Images of the Past: Coalminers. By Brian Elliott. Published by Pen & Sword History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. £12.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. $24.95. 2015. 158 pp. Illustrations. Softcover.   

We all have an image of the life and working conditions of the coalminer and his family, whether from the movies, a governmental report, the news media, or the occasional image in a book. It is only when you see a collection of good quality photographs on the subject do you really come to appreciate the diversity of experience and hardship that a miner may experience.

Here is a collection of photographs in the “Images from the Past” series that gives a broad perspective on the life of coal miners and their community from around Britain (as opposed to one coal field).

The book begins by providing portraits and profiles of the miners. Here we find not only photographs but also copies of portraits, and sketches from a variety of media and time periods, showing a complete range of clothing for the working miner from 1814 to the present. In the following chapter on ‘Women and Children’ we see realistic museum dioramas, early carte-de-vistas, posed studio and informal on-the-job photographs of women and children, underground and on the surface. For the section on the ‘pit top’ we see the surface workers – engine drivers, cage operators, the pit baths (a major improvement), men getting into and out of the cages, plus surface operations from major operations down to a small adit driven into the side of a hill opened by striking miners to get fuel for their families. The chapter on the underground shows the hardship of the job, including everything from miners working with picks on their sides recovering coal from very narrow seams, to the large modern coal cutting equipment with conveyor systems to remove the cut coal.

The final chapters look at the strikes, lockouts and miscellany. The pictures of the 1972 strikes resonated especially with me as I grew up in a coal mining area and I was leaving that summer to go off to college to work toward a degree in Mining Engineering (which I got), but it was a time of uncertainty within the whole industry. The strikes and the lockouts required the ongoing support of the women and the community. The final miscellany shows images of the miners who gave their lives during the Great War, the strength of the unions, the closure of the pits and the development of the museums remembering the industry.

The photographs have good extensive explanatory descriptions, and they identify many of the people pictured. The images themselves are geographically diverse from all over England, Scotland and Wales. There is no index, so you cannot easily find images of individuals or places. This book of good clear photographs provides a good overview of the industry through time and place and is highly recommended.

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