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The Riches Beneath Our Feet: How Mining Shaped Britain.

The Riches Beneath Our Feet

How Mining Shaped Britain

Geoff Coyne

Oxford University Press 284pp 20 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0199551293


One major but unremarked feature of Britishness in recent centuries has been the close link between national economic greatness and coal. At least that link was there until some 20 years ago. The great strength of Geoff Coyne's book is that he shows the importance for Britain not only of coal but of mining for many other minerals from prehistoric times to the present.

The Riches Beneath Our Feet is the type of book which would be highly suitable for courses in civic society. It provides basic information about all varieties of mining. Few readers are likely not to be surprised at the geographic extent of past mining for some minerals. Coyne provides a clear account of where and when mining took place, the numbers of people likely to have been involved, the methods of extraction and the dangers involved, the value of the minerals and their common use. It is lucid both on the history of mining and on the engineering and chemical processes involved in the different industries. In many former mineral mining areas all that remains are substantial quarries, blocked mineshafts and ruined buildings. In the case of coal, in several areas there remain shattered communities. The mining past is something future generations should understand.

The book also has interest for landscape historians. Coyne tells you where to see the industrial archaeology of now defunct industries. For instance, he tells us of the remains of some of the Duke of Devonshire's mines along the road from Pateley Bridge to Grassington. He is equally informative about surviving machinery, such as the wonderful, huge Laxey waterwheel on the Isle of Man.

Coyne shares his enthusiasms with the reader, one of which is the waterwheel, the 'queen of mining power resources'. He also brings in anecdotes from his experiences as a mining engineer. Writing of the two-tube Lancashire boiler used with coal mine winding engines, he recalls that' people working on the surface made a point of keeping in with the boiler man, as there was a guaranteed supply of hot water for tea and usually a small stove on which bacon could be fried.' As for the 18th-century and earlier practice of ventilating a mine shaft by a furnace at its foot, he makes the aside: 'Even writing about all these open fires in gassy mines makes me nervous.'

Coyne also discusses with sympathy the often appalling working conditions of the miners and their families. In the wet conditions in lead and zinc mines he comments that while the horses were protected by leather coats, the men and boys who worked with the horses were easily replaceable so received no protection. Similarly, with the sieving and washing of crushed rocks, the work was carried out outside in all weather, but when expensive machinery was introduced, the work was carried out undercover in sheds. His book discusses coal and other mining disasters as well as the human and ecological costs of lead and other refining.

Given that at its peak production 100 years ago a million men worked in coal mines, let alone the numbers working in slate quarries and other mines, most British people have ancestors who were miners. In my case, one great grandfather was badly injured in a winding accident, another died young from black lead refining. This very wide-ranging study of mining should interest many readers. And as well as its scope, The Riches Beneath Our Feet is a lucid and readable work.

Chris Wrigley is the author of A.J.P. Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe (I.B. Tauris, 2006).
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Author:Wrigley, Chris
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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