Coalfield Welfare

Ian JS McAlpine

In 1945, there were still few jobs worse than coalmining. Inadequately equipped men went underground into black, gassy, wet conditions, often lying horizontal in order to hew coal from an unsupported face for six days per week. The pay was poor and even though housing was frequently provided, living conditions in many of the East Lothian mining villages were desperately poor too. The tendency for large families did not help, and many children died young. Families often lived in closed and close-knit communities, inter-marriage was common and few had prospects of ever getting beyond the parish boundaries.

Although the war was ending and demand for coal was high, a worsening economic situation was developing. More work was demanded; less pay was forthcoming. At the end of the war it was recognised that the mineworkers were still one of the most deprived and oppressed group of workers in the country.

Coalfield Welfare pre-1945

However, this grim picture was slightly alleviated by the strong sense of community that pervaded mining settlements, UK wide. This sense of belonging was largely the result of the long-term policy of the industry to sponsor a broad range of community activities, and dated from the Miners’ Welfare Act (1920). Co-ordination was carried out by the Miners’ Welfare Fund, which in turn was financed partly from the Government, and partly from the employers via a levy of a penny (1d) on a ton of coal, later to rise to tuppence. In 1939 the Miners’ Welfare Fund became the Miners’ Welfare Commission.

Under their auspices many fine buildings were established, some built by the efforts of the workmen and some built by the employers, but all vested in trustees and established as broadly charitable. Thus pre-1945, East Lothian (like other parts of Scotland and the UK) enjoyed many industry-sponsored community facilities at Miners’ Welfare Institutes and recreation grounds in villages and towns. All over the county, families came together to form activity groups and clubs; institutes, reading rooms and clubhouses were built and developed. Pavilions were erected, football fields, bowling greens, play parks and recreation grounds laid out. Every conceivable interest was provided for: from the pipe and brass bands; amateur dramatics to youth clubs; sports facilities to baths and bike sheds. In association with local union branches, glorious galas were established which remained a feature of mining communities up to the 1980s; up to 2000, many children’s gala days were still supported by local miners’ welfare schemes.

Imagine if you will, the annual fete and gala with the miners’ pipe and brass bands playing to an excited crowd, children’s and adult’s sports and one of the big features of any miners’ gala day had to be the competitions. Competitions for horticultural produce, dog shows, rabbit shows, whippet races, bird shows and even baby shows. One of the biggest attractions would always be the competition for the best-kept pit pony. For just two weeks a year these hard working animals came out of the pit and were sometimes grazed on the Miners’ Welfare playing fields.

1945 and beyond

Post 1945 the Miners’ Welfare Commission continued to pour money into facilities to ‘improve the conditions of living of mineworkers’ and their families and communities. There were Miners’ Welfare schemes in Elphinstone, Ormiston, Pencaitland, Prestongrange, Macmerry, Wallyford and Whitecraig. Most had a Library, reading room, games room with billiard tables and function hall for dancing and many different activities catering for all, from young children to senior citizens. In Elphinstone, Ormiston, Wallyford and Whitecraig the facilities included outdoor bowling greens, and some also boasted tennis courts.

Nonetheless, the coal industry was a victim of fluctuating demand and huge numbers of men were employed in it. The employers felt less and less able to sustain the industry and that resulted in more and more Government intervention, especially during the war years to 1945. The war years put increasing pressure upon the industry. Wages did not improve but production did. The numbers of men working underground in East Lothian were swelled by the importation of Bevan Boys. It was this time which set the stage for nationalisation in 1947.

On 1st January 1947 the new National Coal Board took over almost 1,500 deep mines and nearly 500 other small mining operations. Around half a million men were employed in the Scottish coal industry. A large percentage of the population of East Lothian was involved in or had some connection with Coal Mining (post-war, around 3500 were employed).