Britain's Black Diamonds Reel History of Britain


Britain's Black Diamonds

Melvyn Bragg reveals archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. In south Wales, he looks back to the 1930s and salutes Britain's coal miners.


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Transcript


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Just over a century ago the motion camera was invented

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and changed forever the way we recall our history.

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For the first time,

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we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series,

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we'll bring these rare archive films back to life

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with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll invite people with a story to tell to step on board

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and relive moments they thought were gone forever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,

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come face to face with their younger selves,

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and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.

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This is the people's story.

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Our story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967

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to show training films to workers.

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Today, it's been lovingly restored

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and loaded up with remarkable film footage,

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preserved for us by the British Film Institute

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and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series we'll be travelling to towns and cities

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across the country

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and showing films from the 20th century

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that give us the Reel History of Britain.

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Today, we're pulling up in the 1930s

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to salute Britain's Black Diamonds - brave miners who risked their lives

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digging for the coal that powered an empire.

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We're at the Big Pit Mining Museum in South Wales and today we're going

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to look that most dangerous of occupations, coal mining.

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Coming up - the shocking truth

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about one of the worst disasters in coal mining history.

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Because they were killed

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three quarters of the way through the shift,

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they docked them a quarter of their wages.

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Thank you very much.

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'Surprising news about the safety equipment

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'used by coal miners in the 1930s.'

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In those days there'd be a flat cap,

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their own shoes, and they had to buy them.

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They weren't supplied with them.

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And we reveal the occupational hazards of working with pit ponies.

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If you've ever been bit by an horse, it's something you never forget

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cos it really is painful, I really can assure you.

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Today the Blaenavon Town Brass Band are playing just for us

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at The Big Pit Mining Museum in South Wales,

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which was once one of 500 collieries that dominated the landscape.

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We've come here because this is one of the few remaining monuments

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to our coal mining heritage

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and visitors can go underground

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and get a glimpse of what it was like to be a miner.

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100 years ago, British coal was king.

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It fuelled manufacturing,

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supplied heat for homes, and was our largest employer.

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In 1913, British mines produced a third of the world's coal

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and employed over a million men,

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who lived in close-knit communities around the collieries.

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After the First World War there was a sharp decline in output

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due to a global depression and the loss of export markets.

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On top of this, miners were beginning to be replaced by machines.

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As the miners toiled below ground for coal,

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they earned their pay the hard way and risked death on every shift.

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We've come to Blaenavon in South Wales

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to celebrate their bravery.

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Joining me are former coal miners and their families

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from all over the country

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with stories to tell about life down the mines.

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Many of them will be seeing the films we're about to screen for the first time.

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They'll be showing us family photos

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and revealing what life was really like

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for millions of coal miners at that time.

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Arthur Lewis lives in Essex, but he was born in South Wales

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and he knows first hand what it was like to be a miner before the war.

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In 1935, aged 14, he went down the pit as a coal miner's apprentice.

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Did you feel there was an option?

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Your life was, you were going down the mine, and that was that?

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That was it, because I went to school

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and at the age of 11, I was asked to go home

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and ask my parents could I go to sit an exam for the grammar school.

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But my father had been injured so badly

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that there was no money in the family.

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We were four boys and four girls.

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I never did go to grammar school,

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but at the age of 14, I went underground.

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Now aged 89, we're about to show Arthur

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films that will take him underground again,

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to a time in his life that he thought he would never see.

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But what memories will they evoke for him?

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My brothers and that, they used to get up in the morning,

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go down the pit and then they'd come home

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at the end of the shift and bath in front of the fire

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and my father never had his back washed.

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It weakened your back if you had your back washed.

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So although you put clean vests and shirts on,

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you never washed your back

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and a friend of mine who lived in Barry Island, near the seaside,

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he said you knew when the miners from the valleys came

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because their backs were always black!

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Like most boys from a mining community,

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Arthur followed his father and brothers

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down into the dark world of the coal miner.

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When you got off on pit bottom,

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there were lights for about 100 yards and then everything was dark.

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So all I had was a flame safety lamp and that was all the light I had.

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And I would walk then about a mile-and-a-half

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to get into the coal face

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and still my only light was this flame safety lamp.

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But somehow or another, in the black darkness,

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it seemed to be a lot of light.

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But you were never allowed to put it on the floor,

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cos if you knocked it over it went out,

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and if it went out, you had to go all the way back to the pit,

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to the surface, to get it relit.

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The safety lamp Arthur used was called a Davy lamp,

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first invented in 1815

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because naked flames from candles or oil lamps

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could easily ignite volatile gases.

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The Davy lamp saved thousands of lives and was still used

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well after the introduction of battery-powered torches.

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The films Arthur is watching

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reflect exactly the life he remembers below ground.

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Then you used to hack at the coal

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and we used to undercut the coal,

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I used to get down on my knees and undercut the seam of coal

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because we were only paid for large coal,

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so if you'd made a lot of small coal,

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went up the tip, you didn't get paid for it.

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Halfway through the shift

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somebody would look at the watch and say, time to have a break.

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So you'd go back up to where your clothes were,

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take out your sandwiches and your water, or tea, whatever you had,

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with your dirty hands, cos you didn't wash them anywhere.

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You might use a bit of paper if you were sensitive,

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but you just got on and ate it.

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Before the Second World War, mines were privately owned

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and often, if a miner suffered an accident,

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it was his own colleagues who would come to his aid,

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something that Arthur experienced first hand.

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If it was a serious accident, then I'd have to see to them.

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I was called to a man that was buried, and he was dead.

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We had to take him home and I had to lay him out on a table.

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I was 17 then.

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And we had to bath him on a scrub top table.

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Put a clean shirt on him.

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And, er, there was a coal fire raging in the kitchen

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and a room filled with napkins

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cos a baby had been born about three months earlier.

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Arthur's life as a miner in the 1930s was tough.

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The risks were high and the pay was low, but there was little choice.

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The General Strike of 1926 and the Great Depression

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had resulted in mass unemployment, so any job was better than no job.

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It was your life.

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You got up in the morning at four o'clock

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and you'd have to go out of the house

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by about quarter past five, to be down the pit by six

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and you knew you were down there for 7, 8 hours.

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But that was your life.

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You'll have some idea now

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about the working conditions of miners.

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For a lot of people watching, I'm sure,

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it looks like Dante's Inferno, or some kind of vision of hell.

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It could get up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

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There was no fresh air and until quite recently,

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very little safety indeed.

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So I'm going to take a tourist's eye view and see what it's like now.

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The Big Pit Mining Museum in South Wales

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was once a working colliery dating back to 1860.

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Now it's a world heritage site,

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attracting 165,000 visitors every year,

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and today I'm one of them.

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Paul Green, the Mine Deputy, is showing me around.

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So how deep are we going down?

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We're going 90 metres, Melvyn. 300 feet.

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We're going to travel at a maximum speed of two metres per second,

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unless this bloody rope breaks!

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Yeah? It's going to be a lot quicker!

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Watch the little step as you come out.

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At its peak in 1913, South Wales produced 60 million tonnes of coal

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due to the large rich seams lying under the surface.

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-See the coal seam back there?

-Yeah.

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So a seam of coal, rubbish and coal.

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Now this system used to work as a man and boy would work it.

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Father and son, yeah?

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Take the coal off, onto the floor,

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and then the lad would fill the curling box with lumps.

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Size of my fist, yeah?

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Into the curling box, tip them into the dram.

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What sort of equipment

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would they have had in the '20s or '30s, or even before that?

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The equipment they would have

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would be a mandrel, a shovel, a hatchet and a sledge.

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What about safety equipment?

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No. Flat cap. In those days it'd be a flat cap,

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their own shoes, and they had to buy them, mind. They weren't supplied with them.

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Working alongside the miners,

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pulling the drams, or tubs of coal, were the pit ponies.

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They first started working down mines as early as 1750

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and by the 1930s there were over 30,000 ponies

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working in British mines.

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So these are the stables?

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Yep. It's one of the original stables here at Big Pit.

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We had 72 horses working here in its heyday.

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Come down the mine at the age of four.

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And they would work eight hours a day,

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but they were very well looked after.

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If anything happened to that horse,

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whether he got injured or he'd die or whatever, they'd have an inquiry.

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If it was found it was a haulier's fault, he would have the sack.

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A mine owner had to buy another horse.

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He didn't have to buy another haulier, did he?

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-Horses got treated better than the miners.

-Better than the miners.

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-Yeah.

-They did.

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Since the Second World War,

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pit ponies were gradually replaced by conveyor belts and trains,

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but incredibly there were still 55 ponies working down

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the British mines in 1984.

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I'm about to meet someone who can tell me more

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about what it was like

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working with these incredible, hardy animals.

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David Bogg was a young pony driver

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at the Woolley Colliery in Yorkshire during the '50s

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when working with pit ponies was exactly as it had been in the 1930s.

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You obviously enjoyed working with the horses though, didn't you?

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I did. I liked working with the horses.

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You'd to walk... Well, you're supposed to walk it like,

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but...we never did! We used to lie them on the ground.

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You used to lie on the back of the horse?

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We used to sit on them and ride it.

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But the one that I had,

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it were a stallion and it were frisky all the time.

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It wanted to be off and it run me into the side once

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and put five stitches in me knee.

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The film David's about to see

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will take him back to the coal face of his yesteryears.

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What memories will our film recall for him?

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This film, Workmates, was shot in 1940.

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It was an account of the important part played by ponies

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in the coal industry.

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They were well looked after in the pits, the horses.

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They had stablemen. I mean, at Woolley Colliery, at one stage,

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when I were there, they had 'owt from between 60 and 100 horses.

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But I mean, they had more horses than what they needed,

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simply because if an horse needed shoeing, you'd got to,

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you've got to take another one. So they'd got to have substitutes.

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Injuries to pit ponies were commonplace,

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but their welfare was protected under the 1911 Coal Mines Act,

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which required every colliery to provide regular medical inspections,

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a good diet and clean stables.

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David remembers some of the occupational hazards

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of working with pit ponies.

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I found it really interesting watching that film

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when it showed you the horses, into the men's coats with it. Ha!

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I did think that were dead funny because...

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I've had that myself.

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I hadn't tied the horse up and, er, I've been that interested

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in getting the timber onto the belts and what have you, like,

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and I didn't notice that the horse were into the coats of the colliers,

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and of course it used to rip the coats and everything to get at it.

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Pit ponies stayed underground for 50 weeks of the year.

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Coming up for the colliery's two-week summer holiday

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must have been an unbridled joy for them.

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A good pit pony had to be even-tempered.

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More lively horses could be a danger to the drivers and to other horses.

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There were an horse there and they called it Jester.

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It were a black and white one.

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One day I were in the stables with one of the stablemen

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and this Jester, he bit this stableman on his arm here.

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If you've ever been bit by an horse,

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it's something you never forget cos it really is painful.

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I really can assure you.

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Anyway, this stableman, he wrestled this horse down onto the floor

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and bit him back.

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And many years later, I were talking to him about it,

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I says, "I remember, Des, when thou did that."

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I says, "Did Jester ever bit thee again?"

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He says, "No, the bugger didn't!"

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When David went from being a pony driver to a coal miner,

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he found out for himself just how dangerous the job could be,

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as he's about to see in this amateur drama-documentary

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from 1932, called Black Diamonds,

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which recreated a pit disaster

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to show the general public the hazards endured by miners.

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Look out!

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If you get hurt in a pit, it's usually where the roof falls in.

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I've been buried a few times. It ain't a nice feeling.

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But not too seriously. It ain't been big lumps of stone

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that's come and hit me and caused serious injuries.

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I always knew that life could be short.

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This were brought home to me quite early in me life when I were working

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at a pit, and there were a guy there I knew quite well.

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The whole roof fell in on him and killed him outright.

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That had a lifelong impression on me.

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It's something that I never got over, really.

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On Reel History today we've come to the Big Pit Mining Museum in Blaenavon in South Wales

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to remember the brave men who risked their lives down British mines.

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All mining communities live with

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the threat of disasters and loss of life.

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My own grandfather in a West Cumbrian coalfield

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was in a pit disaster in the 1920s

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after he'd come back from the First World War.

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Luckily, he survived.

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During the 1930s, there was an average of 800 deaths a year

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in Britain, making it the most dangerous occupation on land.

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One woman here today has a personal connection

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to one of the worst disasters in British coal mining history.

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Vicki Stradling from the Isle of Wight lost her Great-Uncle George

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when he was killed in a gas explosion at Gresford Colliery

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in Wrexham, North Wales.

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This is my father's family.

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My grandfather and my two uncles worked in Gresford.

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Everybody in the village lost somebody and I lost my great-uncle.

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Vicki is about to see news footage of that terrible day

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on 22nd September 1934

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when her Great-Uncle George and hundreds of others lost their lives.

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How will she react to watching the same news report

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that her family would have seen over 70 years ago?

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NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: 'Views of the coal mine in North Wales

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'depict the scene of the terrible pit disaster

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'involving such tragic loss of life.

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'A big explosion in the Gresford Colliery, near Wrexham,

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'in the early hours of the morning

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'occurred when 400 men were working below.'

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'Of these, 200 men were able to make their escape to the surface at once,

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'but the remainder were trapped

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'and it is from these victims that the ghastly death roll is composed.'

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I had to sort of wipe a tear from my eye when I saw the film of Gresford.

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'The exact figures cannot yet be accurately computed,

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'but the scene at the pit head

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'as news is anxiously awaited tells its own story.'

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Vicki's grandfather, Walter, Great-Uncle George and Uncle Arthur

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were all miners working at the Gresford Colliery

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when the disaster happened.

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Vicki reads from her father's diary.

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He was 13 at the time.

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He said, "I remember when the Gresford Colliery explosion

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"happened in 1934.

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"265 men were killed

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"and I believe almost every child in my school lost a relative.

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"My uncle George was killed.

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"My elder brother Arthur was in a different part of the pit

0:20:470:20:51

"at the time, and I vividly remember him waking Dad

0:20:510:20:54

"during the night to tell him the terrible news."

0:20:540:20:57

Vicki's uncle was on the rescue team

0:20:570:20:59

that struggled to extinguish the fire

0:20:590:21:02

and reach any possible survivors.

0:21:020:21:05

Uncle Arthur told me

0:21:090:21:11

that the man next to him, when they were on the rescue team,

0:21:110:21:16

because the masks were made of rubber and they sweated a lot,

0:21:160:21:20

it was so hot down in the pit,

0:21:200:21:22

he took off his mask to wipe the sweat off his face

0:21:220:21:25

and dropped down dead at the side of him because of the gas there.

0:21:250:21:28

The disaster claimed 266 lives and the fatal section of the mine

0:21:280:21:33

where it happened was sealed for safety.

0:21:330:21:36

The bodies of those men still lie there today, entombed forever.

0:21:360:21:41

Incredibly, the pit owners docked the wage packets of the dead miners.

0:21:410:21:46

Because they were killed

0:21:460:21:48

I think it was three quarters of the way through the shift,

0:21:480:21:52

they docked them for the last...

0:21:520:21:54

they docked them a quarter of their wages.

0:21:540:21:56

It's absolutely horrendous, isn't it?

0:21:560:21:59

Donations for the bereaved came in from across Britain

0:21:590:22:03

and the colliery closed during an inquiry.

0:22:030:22:06

After six months, it reopened

0:22:060:22:08

and the remaining miners returned down the mine.

0:22:080:22:12

They felt it was difficult, I think, but then what option did they have?

0:22:120:22:16

That was their job

0:22:160:22:18

and it must have been very, very difficult for them to go down,

0:22:180:22:23

knowing that the bodies of the miners, I mean, they sealed it up,

0:22:230:22:26

but it must have been difficult for them to go down knowing that,

0:22:260:22:30

but they did, because that was their job.

0:22:300:22:32

The people of Gresford never recovered from the tragedy,

0:22:320:22:37

but their loss wasn't entirely in vain.

0:22:370:22:39

The trade unions continued to campaign hard for improved safety

0:22:390:22:44

and an end to private ownership in the coal industry.

0:22:440:22:46

They were very brave men and... miners are very brave men.

0:22:480:22:55

They work in, worked in very difficult conditions.

0:22:550:22:59

These people were indeed,

0:22:590:23:00

as it said in the film you showed us,

0:23:000:23:03

the Black Diamonds of the country.

0:23:030:23:05

They fuelled the country.

0:23:050:23:08

# There is a valley called the Rhondda

0:23:200:23:25

# Where I was born

0:23:250:23:29

# So many years ago... #

0:23:290:23:33

Up and down Britain in places like this,

0:23:360:23:39

for generations men - and their sons, often - went down the pits.

0:23:390:23:43

I'm going to talk to somebody whose father and father before him

0:23:430:23:47

for eight generations went down the coal mines.

0:23:470:23:51

After spending 16 years down a pit near Pontypridd,

0:23:510:23:55

Ceri Thompson is now the curator of the Big Pit Museum.

0:23:550:23:59

I'm joining him in the old pithead baths to find out

0:23:590:24:01

what was done to improve conditions for miners in the 1930s and beyond.

0:24:010:24:05

Even though it was improving a lot in the 1920s and 1930s,

0:24:070:24:11

most of the coal was cut by hand especially in South Wales.

0:24:110:24:16

In other coalfields like Scotland, they had machinery cutting the coal,

0:24:160:24:20

but in South Wales they didn't.

0:24:200:24:21

It was still basically working with muscle.

0:24:210:24:24

Also, of course, it was the early days of the pithead baths.

0:24:240:24:27

So you got dirty underground and you took that dirt home with you,

0:24:270:24:30

which made life very difficult for the families,

0:24:300:24:32

especially the wives

0:24:320:24:34

because basically the wife was there to boil water

0:24:340:24:37

and one doctor in the 1930s said

0:24:370:24:39

you had more cases of children being scalded

0:24:390:24:42

and women being injured in the house

0:24:420:24:44

than there were men being killed and injured on the coal face.

0:24:440:24:47

So it was more dangerous to be a housewife in that period

0:24:470:24:51

than to be a miner on the face.

0:24:510:24:52

Pithead baths started to emerge after the First World War

0:24:520:24:57

and were paid for by the Miners Welfare Fund,

0:24:570:24:59

supported by a levy of one penny per ton of coal raised in Great Britain.

0:24:590:25:04

Those miners lucky enough to have baths could wash in comfort.

0:25:040:25:08

The story of the development of the pithead baths

0:25:110:25:14

is quite a fascinating one.

0:25:140:25:15

You've seen this building.

0:25:150:25:17

It's got a flat roof, it's got glass illumination in a lot of places

0:25:170:25:20

and it's actually arranged as a washing machine for miners,

0:25:200:25:24

if you think of it.

0:25:240:25:25

They come in one end clean.

0:25:250:25:27

They put their clean clothes in a locker,

0:25:270:25:29

they walk through to a dirty locker, which we're in now,

0:25:290:25:32

they put their dirty clothes on and then they go to work.

0:25:320:25:34

What happens to the dirty clothes between days and between weeks?

0:25:340:25:38

Well, I used to change my socks once a year if they needed it or not,

0:25:380:25:42

to be honest with you.

0:25:420:25:43

As time went on, the Miners Welfare Fund

0:25:430:25:46

also paid for recreational facilities such as bowling greens

0:25:460:25:49

and tennis courts, which helped create communities

0:25:490:25:53

and strengthen the bonds between workers.

0:25:530:25:56

However terrible it was,

0:25:560:25:57

there does seem to be an unbroken sense of camaraderie

0:25:570:26:01

-that came not so much out of the work, but because of the work.

-Yeah.

0:26:010:26:05

I think the work on the coal face ensures that you work together.

0:26:050:26:10

You have to work together, otherwise you die, basically.

0:26:100:26:14

So there's no point in arguing with people.

0:26:140:26:17

You've just got to get on with them

0:26:170:26:18

straightaway, and actually go on together.

0:26:180:26:21

These were very hard men,

0:26:210:26:23

but they could be very gentle men as well, you know?

0:26:230:26:25

A lot of the hobbies they had

0:26:250:26:27

wasn't to do with cock fighting and bull baiting and what have you.

0:26:270:26:30

They used to play instruments, they used to write poetry.

0:26:300:26:34

Around the chapels and miners' institutes,

0:26:340:26:37

sporting and social activities flourished.

0:26:370:26:41

Choirs, brass bands, dog racing and dances

0:26:410:26:45

were all immensely popular pastimes.

0:26:450:26:47

The biggest shame is really that the communities have gone.

0:26:470:26:50

But it's also nice to be part of a team working underground.

0:26:500:26:54

Like I said, we usually got on with each other.

0:26:540:26:56

I can't remember disliking anybody I worked with on the coal face

0:26:560:26:59

and, er, you did have the feeling...

0:26:590:27:02

It's difficult. It's not tangible,

0:27:030:27:06

but there's a feeling that... you belong somewhere.

0:27:060:27:09

It's been great hearing about the sense of community

0:27:190:27:22

that was strengthened in one of Britain's massive industries

0:27:220:27:25

in the 1930s.

0:27:250:27:27

In 1947 coal mining was nationalised

0:27:270:27:29

and along with that came vast improvements to working conditions.

0:27:290:27:34

But the industry continued to decline and in the 1980s,

0:27:340:27:39

Margaret Thatcher's government announced the closure of 20 pits

0:27:390:27:43

and the loss of 20,000 jobs.

0:27:430:27:45

In its heyday the British coal industry had 2,662 collieries.

0:27:450:27:51

Today, it's a shadow of its former self. Only 15 remain.

0:27:510:27:55

Well, to tell you the truth,

0:28:010:28:02

I'm a bit overwhelmed about what's happened today.

0:28:020:28:05

So much work, so much suffering really,

0:28:050:28:09

so few people massively rewarded.

0:28:090:28:11

But at the end of it what remains

0:28:110:28:14

is the feeling of the people round here,

0:28:140:28:16

what they made of themselves

0:28:160:28:18

because of and despite everything,

0:28:180:28:21

and out of that they brought their own character,

0:28:210:28:24

their own virtues and music.

0:28:240:28:27

And we salute them.

0:28:270:28:28

Next time on Reel History:

0:28:310:28:34

we're at Cliveden House in Berkshire,

0:28:340:28:36

remembering the party days of the roaring '20s.

0:28:360:28:39

These bright young people all got together

0:28:390:28:42

and had all these different themed parties.

0:28:420:28:44

They were always dressing up.

0:28:440:28:46

Sometimes they weren't in their ordinary clothes for several days.

0:28:460:28:50

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:29:120:29:15

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.

At the Big Pit Mining Museum in south Wales, Melvyn looks back to the 1930s and salutes Britain's 'black diamonds', brave miners who risked their lives digging for the coal that powered an empire. Vicky Stradling tells the shocking truth about one of the worst disasters in coal mining history. Melvyn goes underground to learn about the limited safety equipment used by coalminers in the 1930s. And David Bogg reveals the occupational hazards of working with pit ponies.