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The south Yorkshire coalminers, 1870-1914 : a study of social and occupational cohesion Wolfe, Celia Mary

Abstract

The coalminers as a social and occupational group have always been referred to by historians as a "race apart," living in communities which were both physically and culturally isolated from other working-class groups. In order to distinguish and examine the special circumstances and characteristics which set them apart from the rest of the working class, the present thesis stresses a number of problems: male and female roles; the family; the special place of women in the family; working and living conditions; and the special attitudes and outlooks that these conditions fostered. Although the sources examined are drawn from all coalfields, the study focuses on the relatively new South Yorkshire coalfield which has not yet been studied in a systematic fashion. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, the South Yorkshire coalfield underwent its period of most rapid expansion. While this coalfield was newer than the others, its miners exhibited similar features to those of the older coalfields, and it is not my aim to prove that they were different. Rather, the South Yorkshire coalfield is used as a model to identify some social aspects of life in a coalmining community. In addition, the study attempts to contrast the environment of the coalminers with that of other working-class groups. Demographic material is derived from the Census Reports, and studies of living and working conditions from Government reports, eye-witness accounts of social investigators, autobiographies of coalminers and personal memoirs, contemporary newspaper reports, and relevant secondary works. Despite the influx of new immigrants into the new or expanding coalmining towns and villages, they rapidly came to exhibit patterns to be found in older coalmining communities. The most impressive mark of a coalmining town was its distinctive social solidarity and cohesion. These strong social bonds were engendered and maintained by a common identity produced by occupational dependency upon the pit, and by the camaraderie fostered by shared living and working experiences. The need for cooperation under dangerous working conditions, the communal struggle against an unfavourable environment, the economic insecurity of pit-life, the limitations enforced upon women by the lack of employment opportunities, the traditional commitment to large families! These factors ensured a common pool of experiences and a common set of expectations. The coalmining communities were marked by a unique culture and outlook on life. These features of coalmining served to isolate its populations even more from other working-class groups and offer an explanation for the view which has been advanced by labour historians that the radicalism of the coalminers was restricted to their particular needs and interests, and eschewed a total working-class solidarity, which was the goal of the organized working-class movement in Britain.

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