The Riches Beneath Our Feet:
How Mining Shaped Britain

Geoff Coyle

Oxford University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
The Riches Beneath Our Feet is a potted history of British mining from prehistory down to the present. Eight chapters survey different mining industries, covering: prehistoric flint mines; copper and tin; lead and zinc; coal; granite, stone and slate; salts; iron and steel; and gold, silver and precious stones.

Coyle can't hope to be comprehensive in this, but he picks out a few mines, regions and events for more in depth treatment, finding a good balance between general overview, brief regional histories, and local detail.

"The English Midlands were home to major iron mines, mainly in Lincolnshire. Pieces of ore, with their distinctive colour and weight, can often be seen in the gravel of drives and car parks. The ore deposits were widely spread across the country, one running from Lincoln as far south as Grantham and beyond, while others were in the vicinity of Scunthorpe. Most workings were open-cast quarries, but about 16 mines were underground. As there was no tradition of mine-work in Lincolnshire, men were imported from places such as Cornwall and Derbyshire, but local men soon saw that the mine might be easier work, and better paid, than long hours of labour in the fields. The first mine opened in 1868 and closed in 1885 after 500,000 tons of ironstone had been extracted. Thereafter, mines and quarries came and went until the last one closed in 1968, though there are still large reserves of ironstone."

These chapters touch on different mining techniques and refining methods. There is a separate chapter on power sources for mining, covering hand-powered equipment, water wheels, and the development of the steam engine.

"For decorative work, granite was turned on a lathe to make pillars for buildings, often with a cylinder cut out to leave a hollow core. That reduced weight and saved money on expensive granite, the cylinder being sold as a roller. The difficulty was that the heat generated from friction on this hard stone was so great that the cutting tool soon lost its 'temper', or toughness, and became softer than the granite it was supposed to cut. The ingenious solution to that was a rotating disk of tool steel that had time to cool before it next came into contact with the stone."

There's also treatment of the social and economic history of the different industries.

"The lead industry underwent many changes, but independent miners dominated the mines until about the mid-eighteenth century. They would contract with the mineral owner for the right to mine a 'meer' — about 30 yards — along the vein. However, when the mineral owners wanted easier administration and raising of capital for opening and drainage of larger mines, the meer system was abandoned in favour of areas or sets to be mined, and the free miners became employees."

Basic geological information is provided in these chapters where it is necessary context. A separate chapter gives an overview of the geology of the British isles. And there's a twenty-page appendix with a table of common British minerals, giving their uses, common ores, chemical composition, appearance, and major mining locations.

Some of the perils and risks of mining are covered with particular industries, but an additional chapter describes some of the great British mining disasters, most notably in coal mines. This also covers the development of safer equipment and techniques, and the slow progress of health and safety legislation.

A fair bit of social history features in this. The chapter on stone and slate, for example, covers the Penrhyn lockout of 1900 to 1903. But Coyle finishes with one chapter on mine owners and another on mining communities and mining engineering.

"The miner's recreation was limited by poverty and exhaustion until conditions and wages improved after the Second World War. Until then the Methodist and Baptist chapels played a big role, with various celebrations, and an emphasis on temperance. Sport was popular, with the League version of rugby being strong in the northern mining districts. There is an element of truth in the cloth-capped whippet fancier, and pigeon racing attracted fanatical support. Naturally, the pub, or the Miner's Welfare, where beer was cheaper, featured strongly, especially where men worked in a hot pit. It was quite common for women to go to the pit on pay-day and demand the pay packet lest her man drink it all and leave her with nothing except the pawn shop."

A brief closing chapter looks at the possible future of Britain's mining industries. (In several places in The Riches Beneath Our Feet Coyle mentions that mines have been turned into tourist attractions, but doesn't provide details. A useful appendix might have listed the best preserved and most interesting sites for each industry.) The bibliography is broken down by chapter, making it easy to find further reading on particular topics.

The Riches Beneath Our Feet packs a lot in to its two hundred and fifty pages, without ever being dry or slow. It is recommended to anyone after an introduction to British mining.

October 2010

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%T The Riches Beneath Our Feet
%S How Mining Shaped Britain
%A Coyle, Geoff
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2010
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199551293
%P 267pp