Wishaw miners underground, 1936.

Lanarkshire as the King of Coal: Boom and Bust

5 min read

By the time railways began to link North Lanarkshire with the rest of Scotland in the 1830s, the area was well on its way to becoming Scotland’s premier coal producer. Lanarkshire’s coalfield boomed, providing the rapidly developing local industries and population with a cheap and widely available energy source.

Britain was the first industrialised world power – the ‘Workshop of the World’ – and by the turn of the 1900s commanded an enormous global Empire. Lanarkshire’s coal helped fuel the ships of Britain’s booming global trade networks and overseas conquests. By 1900 the area would produce around half of Scotland’s coal, with over 200 mines in this area alone. Over 40% of the Scottish coal workforce was located in Lanarkshire – about 65,000 men and women across the county.

Developments in steelmaking during the mid 1800s made the production of steel – a lighter and stronger material than iron – much cheaper than before. With its rail network and huge reserve of coal energy, Lanarkshire’s wealth shifted from iron and became more heavily focused on a variety of highly profitable engineering and steelmaking firms


Lanarkshire was also at the forefront of mining engineering technology. The world’s first chain-operated coal cutter was made by William Baird and Co. in Coatbridge during the 1860sIt was another Lanarkshire company – Anderson Boyes of Craigneuk, Motherwell – that would become synonymous with Scottish coal cutting machinery. ‘ABs’ were a major supplier to collieries across Britain and exported machinery all over the world.

By the 1920s, Lanarkshire’s coalfield was heavily mechanised, with 66% of coal produced in 1927 being extracted by coal cutting machinery – around twice the proportion of neighbouring Ayrshire. It also pushed the industry away from ‘stoop and room’ toward ‘longwall’ mining, which allowed for extraction of a larger proportion of the seam. However there was still a large amount of work being done in narrower seams – some only about 40cm high – using the humble pick.

Conditions underground varied. Some safety improvements were made over the course of the 1800s – but usually as a response to various disasters such as Blantyre in 1877. Employers were compelled to employ men such as ‘shanksmen’ who checked the safe working of the shaft down to the pit bottom, and ‘firemen’ who checked for ‘firedamp’ (methane) buildup as well as the safety of roadways and the coalface before a shift.

A change from Lanarkshire’s earlier years was the banning of women and children from working underground after the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act. Women continued to be employed at the pithead sorting coal. Pit ponies, bred for their compact size and strength, were increasingly used to shuttle hutches around underground. Miners were mostly expected to purchase their own equipment including cap lamps. This only really began to change after Nationalisation in 1947.

Lanarkshire’s miners also went through periods of industrial and political action during this time. By the 1840s they were influenced by, and involved in, the growing Chartist political movement that demanded universal suffrage. John McLay was a Coatbridge miner who is recorded as having spoken at Lanarkshire Chartist meetings in January-March 1842.

Out of this movement was born the short-lived Miners’ Association of Great Britain, with Lanarkshire and Ayrshire miners attempting to form a Britain-wide miner’s union. Local miners were also involved in the campaigns for extension of the right to vote throughout the later 1800s.

Local associations came and went over the following 50 years. The very migratory nature of the industry at this time was a barrier to forming a lasting union. It wasn’t until the formation of the Lanarkshire Miners’ Federation in 1893, bringing together the district unions, that there was a lasting Lanarkshire-wide miner’s union.

This was to become a founding member of the Scottish Miners Federation the following year, and its membership of 34,000 in 1907 was over half the Scottish union’s total. The Labour Party’s strength in Lanarkshire during its early years owed much to the involvement of the county’s miners. James Keir Hardie, who began life in the pits, was from the hamlet of Legbrannock near Holytown.

Throughout the 1900 and early 2000s many people came here for work from economically depressed Ireland, especially after the beginning of the devastating Great Famine in 1845. The huge demand for labour in the booming Lanarkshire coalfields drew a large number of Irish immigrants both Catholic and Protestant. This has had a lasting impact on the culture and traditions of the area, and these links between Lanarkshire and Ireland have continued to the present day.

Another migrant group strongly associated with Lanarkshire’s coal industry were Lithuanians.  They were primarily employed in mining, although many also worked in local iron and steel works as well as in brickmaking.

By the later 1800s the shallower coal seams in the Monklands began to become increasingly exhausted. The main centres of coal extraction in what is now North Lanarkshire shifted outwards to the borders of the area. Larger, more modern pits began opening in areas such as Wishaw and Shotts. In the north-west there was the opening of Bedlay in the early 1900s and Cardowan in the 1920s. These were also the last operational collieries in the area, both closing in the early 1980s.

Global economic depressions between the two World Wars hit Lanarkshire’s heavy industries hard. Around half of the old industrial jobs in this area disappeared between the wars, and unemployment and growing poverty were rife in the coal villages and towns of Lanarkshire.

The ending of Government subsidies to the coal industry in 1926 led to a prolonged battle by miners across Britain against wage cuts and inevitable colliery closures, eventually leading to the General Strike. With the defeat of the Strike, nearly 10,000 – around a fifth – of Lanarkshire’s mining jobs disappeared in the space of 9 months.

Something the industry also could not affect was the geology of the ground that it worked from. With the thicker seams of Lanarkshire becoming increasingly depleted, collieries had to sink deeper shafts to lower lying – but often thinner – seams. This coal was generally good quality, but more expensive to extract. In the Monklands and around Wishaw it increasingly ran into areas where flooding was unpreventable.

The centre of power in Scotland’s coal industry was shifting eastward, toward the coalfields of Fife and the Lothians. The Scottish Coalfields Committee report of 1944 concluded that Lanarkshire’s days as a coal producer were numbered. The most economical coal deposits left were on the fringes of the area. This would go on to influence the way the industry would be managed – and wound down – after Nationalisation in 1947.

Lanarkshire’s time as the king of coal was over.

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