Within a few years, there will be no visible reminder that coal was once dug out of the ground at the Kellingley Colliery.
As it has gone with so many other towns in Britain — Creswell in Derbyshire, Rhodesia in Nottinghamshire, Mardy in South Wales — so it will go with Beal, in North Yorkshire, the town where Kellingley was located. Today, these are small towns and villages — some with only one street, one pub, and one shop — but once they were places of international importance, whose coal powered the Industrial Revolution, drove the steam trains on Victorian railways, and fueled the ships that fought World Wars I and II.
The coal industry — a business that once defined Britain — ended in any meaningful sense with the closure of Kellingley, the last deep pit mine in the United Kingdom, on Dec. 18, though, realistically, the industry has been on life support since 1990. When the workers at Kellingley finished their final shift, surrounded by members of the media, it was with feelings of dejection and anger, but also with a calm resilience.
The 450 remaining miners simply bid farewell to their jobs; some exchanged high-fives, others shuffled off to an uncertain future with somber looks on their faces. The men once employed there will have to find alternative employment. The local shops and services that relied on Kellingley’s trade will have to find customers elsewhere.
Coal has been mined in Britain since the Roman times. The Romans called it “the best stone in Britain” and carved jewelry out of it, then marveled when that jewelry could be set on fire. They would soon begin mining it for fuel, but only out of small drift mines. It would take the Industrial Revolution to bring on the golden age of coal — and the era of the deep pits that have come to shape the image of British mining we have today.
Coal was made for the new demands of the industrial era. It was more efficient than wood and could be used as fuel to power steam engines; in its “coked” form — purified in an airless, high-temperature oven — it could be used to heat homes cheaply. Coal fueled the Victorian railways, which themselves transformed daily life in Britain, connecting people, food, and industry over greater distances and at a faster pace than ever before. The British Empire was built up and governed via the journeys of steamships, which crisscrossed the oceans with bellies full of — what else? — British coal.
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