This research addresses the neglect of disability in the social, economic and cultural history of the coal industry, central to Britain’s industrial development between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
The presentation of coalmining history in museums and the media focuses on high rates of mortality, but not on the even higher rates of disablement experienced by coal workers. As a result, disabled people’s experiences are absent from public understanding of mining history, and industrial heritage more widely.
The research stems from a five-year investigation, led by Professor David Turner, into the history of disability in the British coal industry, covering the growth of the industry in the late eighteenth century to the nationalisation of coalmining after the Second World War.
The research reveals the hidden histories of men, women and children disabled and working in, or servicing, the coal industry and sheds new light on the experiences of disabled people in the Industrial Revolution. It examines medical, welfare and community responses to disability in the coalfields of North East England, South Wales and Scotland and has challenged the notion that disability inevitably led to the end of a person’s working life by showing that the occupationally-diverse nature of the coal industry allowed employment opportunities for those left impaired by accidents.
The research has enhanced public understanding through the exhibition, 'From Pithead to Sickbed and Beyond: The Buried History of Disability in the Coal Industry before the NHS', in collaboration with Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum. In highlighting an aspect of the Welsh industrial past previously ignored in museum interpretations, the exhibition extended the range and improved the quality of evidence for an important aspect of the region's history and identity. It has also introduced a new strand of interpretation to the Museum’s presentation of the history of coalmining through a new panel on disability history in the Coal Gallery.
The research has raised awareness of disability history in Wales and has also empowered disabled people and organisations to undertake their own research projects drawing on the expertise of Swansea’s research team.