The most intensive mining of the county’s coal, however, was mainly confined to the post-industrial revolution period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was concentrated in the districts around Musselburgh, Wallyford, Prestonpans, Tranent, Ormiston and Pencaitland. While coal mining was never carried out on a scale to match neighbouring Midlothian, it was nevertheless an important factor in East Lothian’s economic and social development. The early Statistical Accounts contain many references to the industry.
Although coal made a very significant contribution to East Lothian prosperity, the county was arguably lucky in that coal did not dominate its economy. There was always more of a balanced situation among the various industries than in other parts of Scotland. East Lothian was never so heavily dependent on coal as say Lanarkshire that for a long time was the major provider of the fuel which powered Scotland’s heavy industries and consequently suffered severely when its coal was virtually worked out. To put this in perspective, in 1900 for example, East Lothian produced around 500,000 tons of coal with the collieries employing some 1,500 miners, but this only represented 1% of Scotland’s coal production. The peak output of over 1 million tons was reached in 1913, but this was still only 2.5% of the Scottish total.
Various reasons could be put forward for coal extraction being kept on a relatively small scale, but basically the general distribution and shallowness of the seams meant that in most cases it made more sense to stick to small profitable short-term mines than to go for the high capital cost of creating large collieries. Notable exceptions to this were, of course, the coastal pits of Prestongrange and Prestonlinks sunk in the latter part of the nineteenth century with the potential to extract the deep undersea reserves, and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Wallyford Colliery which became a fair-sized, long-term enterprise.
A significant social consequence of what might be termed the small mine philosophy was that when in the early nineteenth century the larger and deeper collieries in Scotland had embraced the mechanical advantages available as a result of the Industrial Revolution, most of East Lothian’s mines seem to have continued to rely on the presumably cheaper option of manual labour. That this was probably the case is indicated in the report by a Royal Commission in 1842 on the employment of women and children where a large and disproportionate amount of evidence on the, sometimes, appalling working conditions was given by East Lothian witnesses. The report resulted in Parliament banning the employment, underground, of all females and boys under ten.
The coal industry in the county, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, provided steady and stable employment that led to the development of several largely mining-based communities. Tranent and Prestonpans grew to considerable size mainly due to coal and its allied industries. As such they came to be regarded as traditional mining towns. The smaller places such as Ormiston and Pencaitland and other villages tended to retain rural connections giving an easy relationship between industry and agriculture.