Glories of the mine?

Christopher Donaldson on the creative commerce that’s missing from the approval of a new Cumbrian coalmine

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King Coal once reigned in Cumbria but should he still hold sway today? That’s a question a lot of us have been pondering over the past few years.

Michael Gove’s announcement last week that he was approving the Woodhouse Colliery at Whitehaven may have brought an end to months of delays and postponements, but it’s unlikely to be the final word on the matter. For all that some are celebrating his decision, it’s left a lot of people feeling perplexed.

How, given the UK’s supposed commitments to net zero and “building back greener”, can this decision be defended? Didn’t Boris Johnson declare just last year that it was high time to “consign coal to history”? Wasn’t Rishi Sunak just in Cairo counselling the world that “investing in renewables is precisely the way to insure ourselves against the risks of energy dependency”?

Politics requires compromise, and the current government does seem particularly adept at putting itself in compromised positions. Still, in light of Sunak’s intention to make Britain a “clean energy superpower”, the decision to approve Woodhouse Colliery seems like an untenable contortion. Can the UK really proceed with these plans while maintaining its claims to be as a climate-change world leader?

For all the advances that have been made in capturing carbon emissions from burning coal, opening the Woodhouse Colliery seems like a step in the wrong direction. I live in Carlisle, in northern Cumbria, and I fully appreciate the need for the 500-plus jobs the colliery is likely to create. But why can’t these – and more – jobs be created through investing in the renewables that Sunak has suggested we ought to be prioritising?

I also appreciate the aspiration to provide a domestic source of coking coal to reduce Britain’s dependence on international imports. Once again though, Sunak’s statements about renewables being the “way to insure ourselves against the risks of energy dependency” spring to mind.

So, too, do the doubts that have repeatedly been expressed about the market for the coal the Woodhouse Colliery will produce. As Adam Vaughan reported in the New Scientist this past summer, four-fifths of that coal is earmarked to be exported, and “even the remaining fifth appears unwelcome. British Steel, one of the UK’s primary steelmakers, has said the coal’s sulphur content means it wouldn’t want it.”

The sulphur content of Whitehaven’s coal is discussed at some length in the long letter that was issued last week to outline Gove’s decision. I confess I’ve not yet combed through all its 419 pages, but what I’ve read in favour of the colliery so far provides more assurance than proof that the coal will be of sufficient quality for steel manufacturers in Britain.

In sum, I find Gove’s decision disappointing, and not least because it’s not in keeping with the inventive spirit that guided the development of the industrial towns of West Cumbria during the early years of the industrial revolution. Whitehaven, in particular, was once renowned as a place where cutting-edge technologies were introduced to increase both the productivity of the mines and the safety of mine workers.

Whitehaven’s fortunes back in the 1700s depended on a lot more than just coal, of course. The town holds the dubious distinction of having been the fifth most active English port engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. That needs to be acknowledged. Still, coal mining was the mainstay of Whitehaven’s economy, and its mines were among the most advanced in the world.

Whitehaven was one of the first places where the Newcomen atmospheric engine was used to draw water from flooded mine shafts. And this technology, along with the development of new ventilations systems, enabled the sinking of the famous Saltom Pit.

That pit provided access to a portion of the Cumberland coalfield that’s under the Irish Sea, and when the mine opened in 1732 it was regarded as one of the wonders of the age. Visitors from as far away as America, including Benjamin Franklin*, came to tour the Saltom Pit. And the mine even inspired works of literature, such as A Descriptive Poem by the Rev John Dalton published in 1755.

That poem is a bit kooky. It’s the sort of literary work that’s more important as a historical artefact than as a piece of art, but it does contain some memorable lines that affirm that the “glories of the mine” had less to do with coal than with the industriousness and enterprising spirit of Whitehaven’s people. “These are the glories of the mine!” Dalton declares. “Creative Commerce, these are thine!”

This quotation returns me to what Sunak has recently been stressing about the importance of renewable energy generation. I don’t agree with Sunak on several issues, but if he meant what he said in Cairo, then we’re in agreement on at least this point: renewables are precisely the sort of creative commerce that stands to benefit both Whitehaven and Britain in the long run.

The Woodhouse Colliery may yield some short-term solutions to the crises we’re facing, but it’d be folly to think there’s a long-term future in Cumbrian coal. We’d do far better to invest in developing the new forms of energy generation that can produce the sort of renewables we and the whole world so sorely need.

Christopher Donaldson is lecturer in cultural history at Lancaster University

*You can read Christopher Donaldson’s piece about Benjamin Franklin’s visit in the Features section of

Image: Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery (Alamy)

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