REVIEW by Peter Goulding

NWR Issue r36

Disability in Industrial Britain: A Cultural and Literary History of Impairment in the Coal Industry, 1880–1948

I remember the landlord of the pub I first worked at telling us about his grand-dad. ‘When he died, he was just there in bed – nothing – his arms and legs like sticks. He had pneumoconiosis, and he couldn’t even lift a cup to his lips. And he’d been a bull, mind.’ A bull: strong, big with rippling muscle, a king of graft.

When I picked up this book, I thought that disability would have little to do with coalmining. As I read, it became clear that disability has everything to do with the industry, and that I’d already known that subconsciously, raised as I was on stories of accidents, kids' TV drama and GCSE history about the industrial revolution. It was not just the miners who suffered from crushed feet or black lung, but the wives who became worn out with the sheer effort of lifting water for bathing, living in poor conditions and raising children. I had unthinkingly associated coalmining with what able-bodied men did before they lost fingers or their chests collapsed with black-lung. Of course, pit communities were full of people who had already experienced that, and the able bodied rolled dice against the machinery while microscopic scars accumulated in their lungs.

My second surprise was how relevant I found it. Disability in Industrial Britain examines disability and mining in south Wales, Scotland and the north-east of England. The closing of the period it studies coincides with that point where the coal industry was nationalised and the NHS came into being. All those arguments about safety in the workplace, compensation and medical treatment should by now (I thought) have become outdated. The coal industry – on a large scale – is finished in Britain, although as I write, there are controversial plans to resume opencast coal mining in County Durham. And yet, throughout this books are stories that still ring true. The struggles described with company doctors and the compensation boards made me think of friends currently battling with Atos assessments for the Personal Independence Payment conducted on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions.

While large disasters with tens or hundreds of deaths were shocking and newsworthy, the real story here is of a war of attrition: small accidents with a drip-drip of a few deaths here, a few deaths there. And for every miner who died, one hundred more were injured. Alongside the men, the miners’ wives used up their bodies in a a source of unpaid support for the wage-earners: the sheer hard labour involved in keeping a house fed, clean, and the terrible toll of multiple pregnancies.

Disability in Industrial Britain makes an essential point: disability is not the same as affliction. The disability arises from how social relations treat the individual with an impairment. An impairment requires the individual to be given a level of support: social, medical or financial. Authoritative chapters explore how disability was affected by the broader economy of coalmining, I personally found the complex interaction of medicine with miners and their bodies utterly fascinating. A complete picture is given with chapters about the systems of financial support that prefigured the Welfare State and the social interactions of disabled people within their complex web of family and community.  It shows how central the issue of injury and disability was to politics – strong within the coalfields – that still shape our politics today.

This book brings ‘disabled’ ghosts into the light. It does this by blending academic writing with well-chosen examples from court records and Trade Union minutes. These are fascinating in the glimpse they offer into individuals' real lives. In the chapter on social relations we meet George Preece, miner with two false legs crocheting pictures of battleships.  Other examples abound: recollections of impersonal medical examination, legal fights over whether a man with one eye was really unfit to work at the coal-face as he had another yet to lose. 
I liked the use of fiction and non-fiction written by people with first-hand experience of the mines across the entire book, often the miners themselves. The book’s final chapter: Sites of Struggle, examines the rich vein of working-class literature, and teases out attitudes about disability from fictional narratives written by working-class people from within the communities themselves. The most striking of these was ‘Hangman’s Assistant’ by David Alexander, a creepy and Kafka-esque tale of a pointless execution, bitter with the symbolism of silicosis, the hangman’s limp and the pointless bureaucracy of power.

Disability in Industrial Britain will be read by academics and students. I would also recommend it for writers and artists who want to portray disability or coal-field life. For a writer, doing good research is as important as finding a character’s voice or making their actions consistent with who they are. I would like to think that someone could take this book, chase the sources and work it into creative non-fiction, for a wider, non-academic audience. I would read it.

When we look at rather than through disability in coalfields literature it becomes plain that, rather being a marginal experience or rhetorical device, it is the fulcrum on which much of this writing pivots.

Peter Goulding’s book Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene is published by New Welsh Rarebyte on 4 June (ebook), price £9.99 and 29 October in print, price £11.99.


previous review: Suzanne and Gertrude
next review: Fight and Flight: Essays on Ron Berry


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