Workers’ Representation Part Three: Mining and Modernity

Mark Hailwood

So, I thought it was about time to introduce another image of woodcut workers from my trawls through the English Broadside Ballad Archive, and what could be more appropriate than an image from a special new year’s ballad: A New-Years-Gift for Covetous Colliers, published sometime in the 1680s or 1690s. The ballad itself praises Parliament for acting against price-hiking colliers – those involved mainly in the distribution and sale of coal – but includes an image of the primary workers in the coal trade, miners:


The image isn’t particularly remarkable. There is no evidence in this depiction of the hostile stereotype that miners were a ‘race apart’ from other workers; no coal-blackened faces to help symbolise this cultural otherness; no visual indicators that miners were, as Daniel Defoe put it, ‘subterranean wretches…a rude, boorish kind of people’.[1]

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

The reason why this image caught my attention was not that it was rich with symbolism, but rather because I couldn’t remember seeing any depictions of early modern miners before, despite having read rather a lot about them. A quick search of the British Printed Images to 1700 database (a great resource, especially for livening up lecture slides) revealed only this 1688 engraving of a coal seller, again not looking especially wretched:

I did manage to find a rather more interesting image of a miner among the works of the sixteenth-century Nuremberg-based woodcut illustrator Jost Amman, who is known for producing a whole series of worker woodcuts for the 1568 German publication The Book of Trades by Hans Sachs. Sadly, his image of the miner doesn’t seem to be one of those included in this particular collection, or it would have been accompanied by a rhyming couplet about the trade, but it is nonetheless extant:

Amman, Jost: <em>The Miner</em>

The miner in the foreground here again looks anything but wretched, but much more intriguing is the figure rushing into the mine-shaft on the left of the image: is that a blackened face? This miner seems to resemble a New World savage, dressed only in a loin-cloth, charging manically into the underworld. Perhaps the hostile stereotype of the miner as belonging to a different, uncivilised race is in evidence here. If anyone has any thoughts, or any other early modern images of miners, I’d be very interested to hear about them.

Just when I thought this was as much as I had to say in a blog-post about miners, I sat in on a lecture about work and the environment by friend and colleague Will Cavert that set me thinking about the peculiar early modernity of this group of workers. On the one hand, mining is often closely associated with modernity: it was an industry at the forefront of technological advances associated with industrial development – steam engines were used to pump water out of mines (around the turn of the 18thC) long before they ushered in the great age of the railways; it was a precocious industry for introducing waged labour; and some historians even suggest that the coal-mining industry in particular was the key driver of Britain’s industrial revolution (the world’s first), and that its development explains the ‘great divergence’ between the economies of Northwest Europe and those of the rest of the world in the early modern period.[2]

But if the development of mining in early modern England was a precursor to modernity, miners themselves were more likely to be labelled as ‘backward’, even by many of their contemporaries, and a number of their beliefs certainly do not look modern to our eyes. They were big believers in the supernatural, with the lead miners of the Derbyshire Peak for instance putting their faith in mystical creatures known as ‘knockers’, who made hammering noises to warn miners of danger or alert them to the presence of ore. Cornish tin miners were guided by underground imps known as ‘noggies’, and even Austrian miners received aid from a supernatural assistant known as the ‘Bergmann’. The Derbyshire miners also believed in a deity-like character called ‘T’Owd man’, who was the collective spirit of earlier miners, and when they found large skeletal remains in the earth (most likely those of prehistoric creatures such as mammoths) they were sometimes thought to be the bones or skull of ‘T’Owd man’ himself.[3]

Miners and mining therefore represent a prime example of what is so fascinating about the early modern period for those of us who study it – it can at one and the same time seem so familiar and modern (industrial, capitalist, technological) at yet so strange and distant, with its supernatural beings and beliefs.

[1] Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-7). Available here:

[2] I am thinking in particular of Kenneth Pommeranz’s influential book The Great Divergence (2000), but for more on the wider debate about the ‘great divergence’ wikipedia has a fairly full entry.

[3] Andy Wood, The Politics of Social Conflict: The Peak Country, 1520-1770 (1999).

8 thoughts on “Workers’ Representation Part Three: Mining and Modernity

  1. Striking images, Mark. One thought that occurred to me: I wonder if different types of miners might have different ‘looks’ too?

    The wage-earning colliers of the Newcastle area (investigated by Levine and Wrightson) would have had very different circumstances from Andy Wood’s fiercely independent ‘free miners’ in Derbyshire or Simon Sandall’s in the Forest of Dean. And, then there were the ‘serf’ miners of Scotland, who were quite different again.

    To us, the Tyneside colliers must seem more ‘modern’ (= waged, large-scale, with capitalist employers) whereas the ‘free miners’ were ‘traditional’ (= independent, governed by custom) and the Scottish ones were ‘backward’ (= ‘servile’, ‘feudal’). On the other hand, at the time the ‘free miners’ might have seemed more ‘normal’, equivalent to rural smallholders, whereas the others might have seemed subhuman due to their ‘servile’ status. Might that have been reflected in their appearance, contemporary reputations and perhaps visual depictions?

    [Sources: David Levine and Keith Wrightson, The making of an industrial society: Whickham 1560–1765 (1991); Wood, cited in the post; Simon Sandall, Custom and Popular Memory in the Forest of Dean, c. 1550-1832 (forthcoming); Christopher A. Whatley, ‘Scottish ‘collier serfs’, British coal workers? Aspects of Scottish collier society in the eighteenth century,’ Labour History Review, 60:2 (1995), pp. 66-79]

    • Thanks Brodie, some interesting thoughts. No doubt there were some subtle variations in the reputations of different types of miners, but my sense is that there was nonetheless a stereotype of ‘the miner’ that was often applied to all of these groups. For instance, Defoe’s description of ‘subterranean wretches’ relates to the ‘free miners’ of the Peak – they were anything but ‘normal’ to him! I’ll keep my eyes peeled for other images/comments on miners and add them here, and if other readers do the same we may be able to build up a clearer picture to answer that question.

  2. Pingback: A miscellany: wandering woodcuts, Greifswald glosses, digital Defoes and Thompson tributes | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: Everyday Life and the Art of the Dutch Masters: A Social Historian’s Perspective | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Living Broadside Ballads: An Immersive Conference Experience | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: On periodisation: a defence of ‘early modern’ | the many-headed monster

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