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John R. Hinde, When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island.

John R. Hinde, When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island (Vancouver: UBC Press 2003)

THE VANCOUVER ISLAND community of Ladysmith flourished in the early 20th century, its prosperity reflecting the exploitation of extensive coal deposits northwest of the town. Two events affected the community's growth during this period: an underground explosion in 1909 that killed thirty-two men and the Great Strike of 1912-14, perhaps the most cataclysmic of British Columbia's many strikes. Hinde's book describes the community and those events with considerable skill: it is a welcome addition to the growing literature on BC's coal miners and the province's coal mining industry.

The book's seven chapters describe the island's coal mining industry, the nature of the community of Ladysmith, the 1909 disaster, and the genesis and course of the Great Strike. Hinde begins at the beginning, however: the opening chapter, "A Selfish Millionaire," details James Dunsmuir's role in establishing the town of Ladysmith as well as the manner in which he forced miners to relocate there. This chapter makes excellent use of the 1903 Royal Commission on Industrial Disputes, which heard much testimony about the miners' relocation, although Hinde overlooks a very good unpublished study of that royal commission (Allan Donald Orr, "The Western Federation of Miners and the Royal Commission on Industrial Disputes in 1903 with Special Reference to the Vancouver Island Coal Miners' Strike," MA thesis, University of British Columbia, 1968). Generally, however, one of the strengths of this monograph is its broad scholarly reach. Hinde engages not only BC's labour historiography but also the rich historiography of the Maritimes as well as British and German studies. While he occasionally chastizes earlier writers (including this reviewer) for errors or questionable interpretations, his comments are thoughtful and his objections usually well supported by the evidence.

As Hinde's own account suggests, two American "internationals," the United Mine Workers of America and the Western Federation of Miners, played a considerable role on Vancouver Island in the decade leading up to the Great Strike. Not only did both unions attempt to organize the coal miners, their efforts also provoked a good deal of rhetorical hand-wringing in the press and elsewhere about the threat of foreign agitators, especially during the 1903 and the 1912-14 strikes. This being the case, Hinde might have gone to greater lengths to account for the unions' interest in the Island miners. Similarly, he has surprisingly little to say about the mining industry of the western US, despite that region's close links with British Columbia. As those familiar with the revisionist work of New Western scholars will know, there is also a rich literature to explore. For example, although Hinde's chapter on the 1909 explosion is very good, his discussion of mine safety might have profited from James Whiteside' s fine study, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry (Lincoln, Nebraska 1990), a book that includes an excellent summary of the common-law concepts--assumption of risk, the fellow servant rule, and contributory negligence--which informed the attitudes of courts and employers to mine safety, prior to the passage of liability acts.

That said, there is much to admire in When Coal Was King, a book that provides the reader with a good deal more than an account of Ladysmith and its miners. The third chapter, for example, includes an excellent description of work practices in coal mining, while the fifth chapter, "From Pillar to Post," offers a welcome revisionist analysis of the miners' much-discussed industrial and political strategies. The book ends with two chapters on the Great Strike, a topic on which Hinde has written before ("'Stout Ladies and Amazons': Women in the British Columbia Coal-Mining Community of Ladysmith, 1912-14," BC Studies, 114 (Summer 1997), 33-57). As with his earlier piece, the account here is insightful and challenging. He argues persuasively that the riots and accompanying violence of August 1913 were far from a "violent rebellion against the existing social order." (174) Rather, they "are best characterized as a form of social protest designed to restore the perceived moral balance of society, the economy and the community," (198) an analysis he substantiates with an excellent account drawn from a range of primary sources.

If the book suffers from any serious flaw, it is perhaps the tentativeness and brevity of Hinde's concluding comments. After providing his readers with considerable detail about Ladysmith's miners as well as a thoughtful analysis of their actions and the context in which those actions should be understood, Hinde has surprisingly little to say by way of conclusion. As in other parts of the book, he invokes the competing and complementary notions of community and defers to the trinity of gender, race, and class, but this hardly amounts to a conclusion. One is left wondering about the great silence that followed the strike. Hopefully Hinde will tackle that topic in a future book.

Jeremy Mouat

Athabasca University
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Author:Mouat, Jeremy
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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