The Riches Beneath Our Feet: How Mining Shaped Britain

Roger Burt looks at a study of mining that promises more than it delivers

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Reviewed by: Roger Burt
Author: Geoff Coyle
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £20

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When Oxford University Press produces a book with a title that suggests it will provide an overview of the contribution of mining to the shaping of modern Britain, it immediately attracts attention.

As the author notes, there is a vast existing literature on this subject, produced by academics and local historians, and it is therefore likely to be a work of major scholarship, bringing it all together and providing a synthesis that no others have been brave enough to attempt. Unfortunately, the reality falls very far short of that.

Coyle rarely progresses beyond a small number of old and now largely outdated texts, appears unaware of the extensive periodical literature, and relies heavily on snippets and ‘old sores’ about the history of mining gathered from tourist literature.

Long sections are wasted on what should be unnecessary background information – such as an overview of Britain’s geological history and how steam engines work – and there is a serious lack of balance in dealing with the subject material. Instead of focusing on the coal and iron industries, which clearly dominated the British mining sector and made by far the largest contribution in shaping British economic and social life, long sections are devoted to the relatively small non-ferrous, minor and precious minerals.

The mining and quarrying of stone, slate and ‘earthy’ minerals – now the dominant sector of the industry – also receives short shrift.

Very little indeed is attempted on central and much expected questions such as the contribution of mining to regional economic development, the importance of secure domestic raw material supply for industrial expansion, or the role of mining communities in the evolution of British industrial relations and politics.

Even if the book is intended only as the briefest of introductions to the subject, it falls far short of a wide range of similar material already available. So what is salvageable?

There are some useful sections at the end of the book on the entrepreneurial figures connected with the industry and some engaging anecdotes on the social condition of miners and their lives at work and in their community.

The appendix, on the uses of minerals, provides an unexpected but highly appropriate guide to precisely why the mining industries were so important to Britain’s industrialisation. It should have been a starting, rather than an end point.

This book clearly illustrates that engineers do not become good historians simply because they have an interest in the history of their profession. Commissioning editors please take note. 

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Roger Burt is professor of history at the University of Exeter