3. The Scale of the Industry

3.1: The Number and Size of the Collieries

The first official list of collieries was published in Robert Hunt’s Mineral Statistics for 1854. It included 45 pits, but noted that in addition to these “...there are many small ones; these are worked so irregularly that they can scarcely be estimated...” (Robert Hunt (1855: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans: London) Mineral Statistics of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for 1853 and 1854, pp. 70 & 120-121) Some idea of the degree of inaccuracy of Hunt’s figures can be gained from the report of the Royal Commission on the coal industry, published in 1871 which listed 64 working pits, compared to Hunt’s 55. (Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Several Matters Relating to Coal in the United Kingdom, Volume I, C 435 (1871: HMSO: London), pp. 63 & 64; Robert Hunt (1869: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans: London) Mineral Statistics of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland the Year 1868, pp. 194-195)

A partial explanation for such discrepancies may be found in the fact that there were different interpretations of the word “colliery,” a problem which had been recognised in the Royal Commission report of 1871, where official statistics were criticised because “In some cases a number of pits are returned as one colliery; in other cases, each pit is given as a separate colliery.” (Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Several Matters Relating to Coal in the United Kingdom, Volume I, C 435 (1871: HMSO: London), p. 66)

Locally, for example, Coalpit Heath was always counted as a single colliery in official statistics, although Elijah Waring, collecting evidence for the Children’s Employment Commission in 1841, found that the works consisted of eight pits. (Children’s Employment Commission, Appendix to First Report of the Commissioners, Mines, Part II, Report and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners (PP 1842, XVII), p. 39) This was still a problem in 1895, when, in the List of Mines, five concerns (Argus/Malago, Camerton New Pit/Camerton Old Pit, Foxcote/Huish/Lower Writhlington/Upper Writhlington, Mackintosh/Newbury and Old Mills/Springfield) are listed by their twelve constituent pits although a single figure is given for the number employed by each concern; by contrast, the Waldegrave collieries at Radstock (Ludlows, Middle Pit, Tyning and Wellsway) are, on this occasion treated as four totally separate entities, although they were often treated as one on other occasions. (Year 1895. List of Mines in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Isle of Man (1896: HMSO: London), pp. 312-314)

The Royal Commission report of 1871 includes a list of 150 pits which were no longer working by 1868, but even this is incomplete, for it includes only 14 pits in the Nailsea area, whilst a recent local authority survey found 98 shafts (all dating from before the 1880s) in an area of approximately six square miles. (Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Several Matters Relating to Coal in the United Kingdom, Volume I, C 435 (1871: HMSO: London), pp. 63 & 64; The Nailsea and Clapton Coalfields: A Report on the Conditions of the Mines and Shafts (1980: Woodspring District Council: Weston-super-Mare), Appendix II)

B R Mitchell has suggested the existence of several national trends in the coal industry during the period up to 1914, (B R Mitchell (1984: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) Economic development of the British coal industry 1800-1914, pp. 5-6 & 321) and examination of a graph of the total numbers of collieries Information in existence during the period from 1854 suggests that both Bristol and Somerset followed these trends to some extent:-

i) There was a large-scale sinking of new pits during the early 1870s.

ii) There were a number of peaks and troughs in activity in the coal industry, the most notable peaks occurring in 1873, 1883, 1900, 1907 and 1913. Although it is impossible to comment on 1900 from the data available, the graph would seem to suggest that there was an increase in investment at around the time of the other peaks, resulting in the number of collieries reaching a peak within three to five years.

The question of the size of the collieries is rather more problematic. It is not possible to classify them by output since there is no single year before nationalisation for which the output of every colliery is known. It is therefore necessary to consider the number of men employed, although this is not available for every colliery until the late nineteenth century.

John A Bulley has suggested that before 1750 most pits were relatively small, the five pits at Kilmersdon, for example, being considered exceptional because they employed 88 men and boys at the end of the seventeenth century. He estimates that, during the period from 1800 to 1850, the average Somerset pit had between 100 and 150 workers. ( John A Bulley (1953) ““To Mendip for Coal” - A Study of the Somerset Coalfield before 1830, Part 2: Masters and Men,” Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archæological & Natural History Society, XCVIII, pp. 17-54, 32)

The List of Mines provides details of the number of workers at each colliery from the 1890s. Both Roy Church Information and Barry Supple Information have analysed this data for certain years, although using different size categories, and their figures can easily be compared with those for Bristol and Somerset. They reveal that the majority of collieries employed between 100 and 500 men and that the average colliery in both districts was smaller than, although still in the same size bracket as, the national average. Mitchell has suggested that in 1889 the average colliery employed 600 to 1,000 men and produced 200,000 to 300,000 tons per year. (B R Mitchell (1984: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) Economic development of the British coal industry 1800-1914, p. 45) It seems doubtful that any Bristol or Somerset colliery then employed this many men, since, even by 1895, the largest colliery had less than 600 workers; in view of this, and the fact that 54 collieries produced a total of 1,381,101 tons, it seems extremely unlikely that any of them produced as much as 200,000 tons.

It is notable that the large number of very small pits which were characteristic of the earlier phases of the area’s history and which were still to be found in the Forest of Dean had disappeared by the 1890s; this may, perhaps, be accounted for by the exhaustion of the majority of the seams that could be worked by such pits, although it was still proved possible to work outcrops of coal at Kingswood, St George, Troopers Hill and High Littleton during the strike of 1926. (Fred Moss (1986: Bristol Broadsides: Bristol) City Pit, p. 52; Fred Flower (1990: Millstream Books: Bath) Somerset Coalmining Life, pp. 11-12)

The largest colliery recorded was Kingswood, with 927 workers in 1913, although it could be argued that it should be regarded as two separate entities, Speedwell and Deep Pit, as had been the case in earlier copies of the List of Mines; furthermore, its size seems to bear little relationship to its profitability, since its owner, Bedminster, Easton, Kingswood and Parkfield Collieries Ltd was in receivership by the following year. (Year 1913. List of Mines in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Isle of Man (1914: HMSO: London), p. 241; Coal Industry Commission. Volume II. Reports and Minutes of Evidence on the Second Stage of the Inquiry, Cmd 360 (1919: HMSO: London), p. 896) The other large collieries were Greyfield (723 men in 1907), Dunkerton (651 men in 1920), Norton Hill (697 men in 1920), Radstock (757 men in 1899) and Writhlington (702 men in 1924), although, once again, the latter three actually consisted of a number of merged collieries. Greyfield and Dunkerton were closed shortly after the dates given, whilst the others survived, in a reduced state, into the NCB era.

It is difficult to know what conclusion to draw from this information. Church has suggested that there was a close relationship between mine size, technology and the depth of pits, with owners sinking fewer and larger pits to keep their capital expenditure to a minimum, although he develops his argument using productivity data for individual pits, a source not available for Bristol and Somerset. (Roy Church (1986: Oxford University Press: Oxford) The History of the British Coal Industry Volume 3, 1830-1913: Victorian Pre-eminence, pp. 389-398)

3.2: The Size of the Workforce

The first reasonably accurate measure of the number of workers Information in the coal industry is provided by the censuses from 1841 onwards, and Mitchell has calculated the corresponding figures for earlier census years. He himself admits that these estimates are, in fact, little better that informed guesses, whilst the census figures themselves must be regarded with some suspicion, since not only do they differ from the figures collected by the Inspectors of Mines from 1851 onwards (although these are themselves known to be inaccurate), but they also have their own well-known inaccuracies in relation to occupation details. (B R Mitchell (1984: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) Economic development of the British coal industry 1800-1914, pp.102-106; Edward Higgs (1996: HMSO: London) A Clearer Sense of the Census, pp. 94-115)

As a result of the Mines Regulation Act of 1872, more accurate returns were made from that year onwards. These clearly show that the fluctuations in the size of the labour force Information in Somerset reflect national trends rather more closely than those in Bristol where, apart from a period of relative stability from about 1900 to 1920, the labour force was in constant decline, a clear sign of the poor health of the industry, bearing in mind that, between 1841 and 1914, the increase in employment in the coal industry was greater than that in any other except domestic service. (B R Mitchell (1984: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) Economic development of the British coal industry 1800-1914, p.102)

The Regional Survey Report noted that, from 1920 to 1938, there was a general decline in employment in the coal although “… in few, if any, of the other areas was the reduction so proportionately severe as it was in this coalfield,” although it added that the decline of the number of workers in the Bristol district called for special comment. (Bristol and Somerset Coalfield Regional Survey Report (1946: HMSO: London), p. 25)

A number of authors have commented on the problems caused by migration of workers into and out of the area. Mitchell claims that Bristol and Somerset were notable sources of labour for the South Wales coalfield, attributing this, at least during the period leading up to 1914, to the fact that they were “stagnant or declining.” (B R Mitchell (1984: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) Economic development of the British coal industry 1800-1914, p.119) The second part of this statement is clearly only partly true, since employment and output in Somerset were continuing to expand. Since no detailed analysis of the population structure of the coalfield has been carried out, it is not possible to comment on the origins of those who continued to work in the area.

In 1884 W Morgans noted that in Somerset there was “a very objectionable tendency of some… colliers to neglect their work in summer for erratic agricultural occupation, when they know they are wanted in the pits.” Due to the mechanisation of agriculture, however, many were deprived of such work and “…some colliers fare so badly in the summer months that they are induced to migrate, and do not return…” (W Morgans (1884: John Wright & Co: Bristol) A Survey of the Bristol Coal-field, pp. 51-53)

In 1915 H Stanley Jeavons also noted the interchange of labour between the mines and agriculture when he attributed the low wages in the coalfield, at least in part, to the fact that “… this comparatively small coalfield is surrounded on all sides by agricultural districts in which there is always a surplus of youthful labourers…” (H Stanley Jeavons (1915: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co: London; reprinted 1969: David & Charles: Newton Abbot) The British Coal Trade, p. 80) By 1919, however, the position seems to have changed, for the Council of the Somerset Miners’ Association was informed that complaints were “being continuously received” from the Agricultural Workers’ Union regarding miners working on farms. [Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, minutes of Council meeting 29 August 1919]

In October 1934, Fred Swift, the agent of the Somerset Miners’ Association, was approached by the manager of the Bath Unemployment Exchange who advised him that there were vacancies at Snowdown colliery in Kent. Although the SMA decided to take no action to inform their members of this, [Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, minutes of Council meeting 19 October 1934] Fred Moss, who worked at Speedwell colliery from 1921 to 1932, remembers that a number of Bristol miners went to work in Kent, attracted by the better conditions in the pits there. Although some workers came to Bristol from South Wales and the Forest of Dean, few remained for long when they discovered the working conditions in the pits. (Fred Moss (1986: Bristol Broadsides: Bristol) City Pit, p. 65)

Although the recruitment and retention of labour seems to have been a constant problem, The problem was not, however, addressed until World War II, when the pool of surplus labour created by the decline of industry and on which it was able to draw was absorbed by other industries and the armed forces. In 1943, Fred Swift, the agent of the Somerset Miners’ Association, attributed the problem to the difficulty of recruiting boys to the industry, when he reported on a conference of pit production committees:-

I put a question to that conference. I said, “Every man in this meeting, managers, officials and miners’ representatives, who has a boy working in the pits put up his hand.” Only one solitary hand went up, and I believe that his boy was over 30 years of age. That indicates the reason we have this man-power problem…. (R Page Arnot (1961: Allen & Unwin: London) The Miners in Crisis and War, p. 374)

When, following the fall of France in 1940, there was an increase in unemployment amongst miners in South Wales, the Mines Department attempted to transfer some of the surplus workforce to Somerset. The owners said that they would be able to find work for 1,132 men and estimated that this would result in an increase in output of 5,190 tons per week, but informed the Department that there were “difficulties in the way of securing labour, notably the low earnings of Somerset miners,” and as a result, no workers were transferred.[Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, Fred Swift's evidence to the National Arbitration Tribunal, Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, 14 October 1942]

3.3: Output and Productivity

Hunt often failed to give separate output figures for Bristol and Somerset, and in some years he combined them with those for the Forest of Dean to give a single figure for Gloucestershire and Somerset. Separate figures are available for 1860, however, and they show that even at that late date, Bristol’s output exceeded that of Somerset by 542,000 tons to 400,000. Some credence may be given to these figures since they are somewhat similar in scale to those given in the report of the Royal Commission on Coal Supplies in 1905: c532,235 tons for Bristol and 525,000 tons for Somerset. There is still, however, some need to treat the figures with a degree of caution, since the same curiously precise estimate is given for Bristol for the years 1870 to 1873, whilst in 1871 Somerset’s output had leapt to 673,878 tons and from then on it always exceeded that of Bristol. (Final Report of the Royal Commission on Coal Supplies, Part II, Report of Sir William T Lewis on the Available Resources of District A (South Wales, Monmouthshire, Forest of Dean, Bristol and Somersetshire), Cd 2354 (1905: HMSO: London), p. 13)

Although the figures published from about 1870 onwards are more reliable than those given by Hunt, it is often unclear whether they refer to the total amount of coal raised from the pits or the saleable coal left after the deduction of the weight of any rubbish removed, coal used at the pits and the miners’ free coal. As a result it is possible that there are minor discrepancies from year to year.

During the period from 1870 to 1946 output from Somerset followed the trends for the United Kingdom as a whole, whilst Bristol showed a continual slow decline(no figures are available for Bristol from 1904 to 1911 as they were combined with those for the Forest of Dean). Bristol’s output peaked at 571,050 tons in 1875, whilst that of Somerset continued to rise until 1916, when it reached 1,241,000 tons. In 1854 the total output of the coalfield amounted to 1.62% of the United Kingdom total, but this steadily declined, never exceeding 1% after 1871, and representing only 0.32% by 1946.

Any attempt to go beyond these statistics and to determine the efficiency of the industry by measuring productivity, however, is rather more problematic. The question of the most meaningful method of determining productivity has been the subject of considerable debate for some years, and a number of measures have been used:-

i) Output per man-year (OMY). The major inherent inaccuracy of OMY, as Norman Gemmell and Peter Wardley have pointed out, is the fact that the data from which it is derived records the output for a complete year and the number of workers at a particular point in that year (usually the last pay-day). (Norman Gemmell & Peter Wardley (1996) “Output, Productivity and Wages in the British Coal Industry before 1914: A Model with Evidence from the Durham Region,” Bulletin of Economic Research, 48, pp. 209-240, 219) Unfortunately, however, for years before 1914, this is the only measure of productivity available for Bristol and Somerset. A graph of this data Information illustrates its unreliability; the large peak in the Bristol figures in 1936 is the result, not of any increase in efficiency, but of the closure of two of the three collieries in the district before the date on which official manpower figures were recorded. Indeed, in view of the relatively small number of collieries in existence throughout the period under consideration it must be asked whether OMY has any value whatsoever as a measure of productivity in this coalfield.

ii) Output per man-shift (OMS). Since figures detailing the number of shifts worked were not published on a regular basis OMS cannot be calculated and thus it is necessary to rely on published figures. The earliest figures available are those for 1914 and 1918 given by Sir Frank Beauchamp in his evidence to the Sankey Commission, following which there is a brief gap before quarterly figures were published until the strike of 1926. After this, however, the figures for Bristol and Somerset were combined with those for six other minor districts until 1942, although the Regional Survey Report gives a combined figure for the two districts from 1930 and some figures for this period have been obtained from other sources. The position is further complicated by the fact that both annual Information and quarterly Information figures are given. The usefulness of the figures is further limited since details of OMS underground and at the face are not always given and the most complete set of data available covers all workers.

iii) Output per labour hour. David Greasley has suggested that this is the most useful measure of output and that, ideally it should deal with shifts worked at the face. It seems extremely unlikely that sufficient data has survived for Bristol and Somerset to calculate such figures. (David Greasley (1990) “Fifty Years of Coal-mining Productivity: The Record of the British Coal Industry before 1939,” Journal of Economic History, L, pp. 877-902, 880)

iv) There have also been attempts to measure productivity by constructing more complex mathematical models of the industry which introduce more variables beyond the basic output, number of workers and time worked. Since, once again, the scarcity of data makes the construction of such a model for Bristol and Somerset impossible at present, it is not proposed to comment on this method of measurement here. (Norman Gemmell & Peter Wardley (1996) “Output, Productivity and Wages in the British Coal Industry before 1914: A Model with Evidence from the Durham Region,” Bulletin of Economic Research, 48, pp. 209-240; David Greasley (1990) “Fifty Years of Coal-mining Productivity: The Record of the British Coal Industry before 1939,” Journal of Economic History, L, pp. 877-902)

It is not possible to comment on Church’s statement that OMY and OMS rose modestly during the early and mid-Victorian period, since the earliest data available dates from the early 1870s. However, his related contention that the Eight Hours Act resulted in a decline in OMY and OMS would seem to be of limited relevance to Bristol and Somerset, since by the late nineteenth century a shift (or “turn”) was eight hours in Bristol and nine in Somerset. (Roy Church (1989) “Production, Employment and Labour Productivity in the British Coalfields, 1830-1913: Some Reinterpretations,” Business History, XXXI, pp. 6-27, 7; Jonathan Presto (1884: John Heywood: Manchester) Five Years of Colliery Life; or, The Adventures of a Collier Boy in a Somersetshire Coal Mine: A Narrative of Facts, p. 10; W Morgans (1884: John Wright & Co: Bristol) A Survey of the Bristol Coal-field, p. 49) This did not mean, however, that only eight or nine hours were worked at a stretch, since as a Bristol miner explained in the 1890s

We work eight hours for a turn. We go down at six o’clock in the morning, and come up at four o’clock in the afternoon, working a turn and a quarter straight off. On Saturdays we come up at one o’clock, so that we work seven and a quarter turns (meaning days) a week. (Jonathan Presto (1884: John Heywood: Manchester) Five Years of Colliery Life; or, The Adventures of a Collier Boy in a Somersetshire Coal Mine: A Narrative of Facts, p. 10)

According to Jonathan Presto, himself a miner during the 1860s, any hours worked in excess of a normal turn counted as overtime and were, presumably, paid at a higher rate. (Jonathan Presto (1884: John Heywood: Manchester) Five Years of Colliery Life; or, The Adventures of a Collier Boy in a Somersetshire Coal Mine: A Narrative of Facts, p. 10)

For the period up to 1900, OMY for Bristol was generally higher than that for Somerset; figures for the succeeding years up to 1920 are not available, as they are combined with those for the Forest of Dean, but when they re-emerged in the 1920s the position had been reversed and Somerset now had the higher OMY. The reason for this state of affairs is unknown, but the most likely explanation is that it results from some difference in working practices between the two districts, possibly combined with the fact that most of the easily-worked coal had already been extracted in Bristol.

As stated above, the question of productivity in the coal industry in general has been the subject of a great deal of research, and one characteristic of all that research is that it has been based on much more detailed data than that which is available here. In view of the fragmentary nature of the data it is not possible to analyse the situation in Bristol and Somerset or attempt to advance any meaningful explanations of that situation.

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