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Rise & fall of coal-mining

Big companies develop the pits
Poverty and the rise of socialism
Wartime and after
Closing the pits


19th century coal mine with its rows of miners' houses, canal, and new railway line in the background. Slag heaps are piling up on the other side of the canal.

Big companies develop the pits
A few giant companies owned the coalfields of the North. Their absentee shareholders extracted enormous profits from the long hours worked by the miners in dangerous, unhealthy conditions.
See diagram of 19th century coal-mine

Company towns
To house thousands of workers in this previously rural area, the mining companies hastily put up rows of cheaply-built cottages which were rented to the miners. If they had an accident, or went on strike, they lost their house as well as their job.

  
1. Miners were born and died in these squalid roads of company houses - “corons”. The beaten-earth roads were dusty in summer and muddy in winter. The communities had few facilities - shops and bars were often owned by the company. Outsiders rarely visited “les Pays Noirs” (the Black Country) and knew or cared little about how the mine owners earned their profits. 2. Parents, children and grandparents were crowded together with few facilities - there wa little food on the table. 3. A few corons have been preserved.

French writer Emil Zola graphically described the harsh life of the miners in the “corons”. The company manager kept a vigilant eye on everything to avoid trouble with their ignorant and brutalised workforce. He closed the gates to the town at night. He could visit any cottage to check who was there, if there was a crucifix on the wall... He checked if miners went to Mass, where the priest threatened the wrath of God for those who caused trouble ... Their were educated at the company school, were discipline was harsh and they were taught to be obedient.


March of strikers

Poverty and the rise of Socialism
The coal industry expanded enormously in the 19th century, as railways and industry grew throughout Europe. Coal mining companies made fortunes, employed thousands more workers, and mined hundreds of thousands of tons of coal a year. The owners had their wealth, the law, and the state on their side - but slowly the miners organised themselves to improve their conditions. [More on
Emil Zola page.]

Wartime and the Depression of the '30s
The Nord coal basin was captured in the First World War. The Germans looted much of the equipment, and miners were forced to work on in harsh conditions to help the enemy's war effort. The coalfield was in the front line, and heavy fighting devastated the whole area. Many towns had to be completely rebuilt. The area prospered in the ’twenties. Local mayors took pride in stylish modern buildings, as well as in painstakingly restoring old historic buildings (see Béthune). The ’thirties saw mass unemployment amongst miners - a bastion of French socialism. In the Second World the mines were again occupied and brutally exploited. Many miners worked with the French Resistance. In 1941 a miners' strike led to 200 men being shot at Arras.

ww2
French miners working under German military supervision in World War 2.

  
1. The region's canals used to be busy with large coal barges
2. Mines were modernised in the last few decades of working
3. Miner with pneumatic pick
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Advertisement for miners - in the ’fifties they briefly enjoyed status as the best-paid workers

Slag heap - rubbish left behind by the mining era, now finding new uses.

Closing the pits
After 1945, France and Europe were very short of fuel - there were a few years when it was vital to dig out every possible tonne of coal. To rebuild the mines, immigrants from Poland, Italy and North Africa were attracted to the mining towns.

But as in Britain, by the ’sixties coal-mining in northern France was losing money. Cheap oil took over most of the markets for expensive deep-mined coal: electric trains replaced coal-fired steam locomotives; natural gas replaced the old gasworks; France started to generate nuclear electricity on a big scale.

As part of a European plan - the "European Coal & Steel Community", a fore-runner of the EU - the pits were helped to close down gradually. This plan gave the coal-mining communities time - and generous financial help - to attract new industries so ex-miners and their children could find other work.The last pit closed in 1990.

Change was a painful process. Mining left behind a depressing, dirty, carelessly exploited environment - but you'll see for yourself how it is turning out...
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<-How coal was formed......

<-Early coalmines

Places to visit:
Centre Historique Minier, Lewarde - Mining Museum,with tour underground.
Loisinord - dry-ski slope made on an old slag heap
St.Amand Nature Park - turning a devastated mining area into a green oasis for leisure...
Denis Papin Centre, Oignies - Mining museum & industrial railways.
Bruay Mining Museum - hear about life underground in guided tours by old miners

Related background information
Emil ZOLA's novel 'Germinal' - about a coalminers strike near Valenciennes in the 1860s. When published, its grim portrayal of the miners' lives shocked the French public.
First World War
Second World War
Nuclear Power in France
Diagram of 19th century coal-mine
How coal was formed under Kent and Northern France

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Industrial Revolution

Early coalmines
Rise & fall of coal

Early canals

Waterways
History of coal in northern France

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