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The Making of an Industrial Society, Whickham: 1560-1765.

The debt owed to the coal industry for Britain's industrial revolution has been recently reprised by E. A. Wrigley, who notes that "It was not from the soil but from beneath the soil that the raw materials of a new economic age were drawn."(1) A single collier's toil furnished "a quantity of energy that utterly dwarfed what could be gained in any other way."(2) The volume produced by David Levine and Keith Wrightson explores the process of industrial development in one coal-rich Durham community over two centuries. Throughout this pivotal period the riches beneath the soil assumed preeminence over the richness of the soil itself, while the Tyneside parish of Whickham underwent profound alterations in its social and economic life. The authors trace elements of continuity and change within a key industry during England's industrialization process. This book will be a staple for readers searching for an excellent study of a local community, for social history at its finest or for a history of one of the central trades of the industrial period.

The parish of Whickham is presented as archetypical of the coal bearing regions of the northeast in that the catalyst for growth originated not within the parochial setting but in the London market. London's demand for coal and the price it would pay were the motive forces behind the original organization of the trade. Thus, Whickham is part of a larger phenomenon "by virtue of its geology, its geographical location, its previous involvement in coal production, and its availability ... for exploitation, Whickham was firmly incorporated into a national market". A significant discontinuity in coal mining is identified in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The holders of the "Grand Lease" advanced the extraction of coal in an unprecedented manner and the tension was fixed from then on between the suppliers of coal and a metropolitan market hungry for cheap fuel. Conditions within this market determined the initial nature of the early coal trade and exerted continuing intermittent pressures affecting both hewers and sellers of coal.

Whickham was the site of early and relatively easy coal extraction during the Elizabethan era. With the surge in demand in the first quarter of the 1600s mining moved gradually from the drier high ground, into the more costly flood-prone low lying areas. Both types of mine sites came to depend on the construction of waggonways to haul the black ore to the river wharves. The waggonways, linking pits to waterside, over-running fields and meadows, were visible symbols of the transformation of Whickham from a fertile agricultural parish to a scarred landscape where the getting of coal predominated over all other enterprises. Copyholders were initially glad of the subsidy to their agricultural income. But, by 1620, there were complaints of unsafe "undermyned" houses and meadows that were "quyte spoiled and cankered". The authors paint a sensitive and balanced portrait of a community convulsed, where the constraints of supplying a distant market are played out amidst an ambivalent population, with profound social and economic consequences. Agriculture and mining co-existed for a time, to the initial financial benefit of many in the rural community, only to see agriculture overwhelmed by the interests of coal from the 1620s onwards.

Levine and Wrightson chart the sometimes radical alterations within Whickham's society. Landholding mirrored these changes. The few great copyholders who emerged over the seventeenth century claimed genteel status, while the numbers of small and middling tenants proliferated. Some were simply cottagers, living on subdivided holdings and owing their livelihood to the coal trade. A dual economy survived into the next century, although more and more of the growing population relied on what lay beneath the land and the employment it afforded. The parish swelled with incomers anxious to work directly or indirectly in mining. As the industrial base of the parish grew the population profile reflected the exigencies of one of the very earliest industrial settings. Mortality rates, in particular, confirmed the harshness and danger of the work performed. Only the continuing lure of relatively high wages and the work available in the coal field, or adjacent iron works, bolstered Whickham's population through the late seventeenth and into the eighteenth century.

Coal brought dangers. But coal also brought wealth to some and comparative plenty to many over some part of their life cycle. The growing ownership of new material goods by Whickham's householders reflected rising levels of prosperity; new "decencies" were gradually working their way through the domestic market. In this as in other trends the parish followed national patterns. Although the society of Whickham changed quite dramatically as its population became larger, more mobile and more socially differentiated, social cohesion remained and profound disorders were avoided. This was no "set of ungovernable people."(3) Whickham is clearly distinguished from the Kingswood coalfield, the former being "contained within the judicial boundaries of a single large parish" which maintained social control.

Levine and Wrightson refute the commonly held view that the mining community was a "race apart." The authors ably make the case that Whickham's network of family, friends and neighbourhood mirrored contemporary kinship patterns and preoccupations. Traditional relationships survived in a society in transition. In this parish, as elsewhere, concepts of public social obligation altered; at the same time a parochial administration developed which assumed responsibility for much more of the care of the poor. Paternalism affected the new lords of industry who accepted responsibility for their working population. Simultaneously, the pitmen developed a self-conscious recognition of their collective industrial power with the formalization of the pitman's bond. They exercised this power with restraint in periods of crisis, within a community which tacitly recognized the rights due this workforce. The mineral power released from the tracts of Northeast England brought into existence one of the earliest industrial communities. David Levine and Keith Wrightson have chronicled the emergence of this society in terms which will forever humanize the growing mass of sooty faces which marked its advent.


1. E. A. Wrigley, Continuity, chance and change: The character of the industrial revolution in England (Cambridge, 1988), p. 73.

2. Wrigley; p. 77.

3. Robert W. Malcomson, "'A set of ungovernable people': the Kingswood colliers in the eighteenth century" in An Ungovernable People: The English and their law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Brewer & John Styles, eds. (London, 1980), pp. 85-127.
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Author:Lemire, Beverly
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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