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The art in coal mining

The art in coal mining

Thomas Harrison Hair (1808-1875) was a local artist who came to be particularly known for his depictions of coal mining communities in Northumberland and Durham. His etchings, in Views of the Collieries … of Northumberland and Durham (1844) often recorded pit-head buildings and the wider coalfield setting. This illustration shows the pit-head structures and railways of Wallsend’s Church Pit.

Little is known of Hair’s early life. It is thought that he trained under the Tyneside engraver and lithographer, Mark Lambert (1781-1855) who, in turn, had assisted the innovative wood-engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Regardless, Hair was part of a strong artistic tradition in Newcastle upon Tyne. That said, he worked for a time in London, lived for a spell in Somerset and exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy.

Hair prepared watercolour sketches from which etchings were made. Today, his drawings are the only extant visual record of what the northern coalfields looked like. Just a few years after the publication of Hair’s plates, they were pirated by W. Fordyce in his Coal and Iron (1860).

Coal mining was particularly dangerous in the Nineteenth Century: gas explosions; flooding; and cave-ins. Disaster had struck the Wallsend Church Pit in 1835 when a large explosion killed 101 people, including 76 young boys.

Reference: TH/1/40, Etched print of a landscape view of Wallsend’s Church Pit showing the pithead structures and railways (1828-1860), Hair (Thomas) Illustrations, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

The image depicting Wallsend Church Pit could prompt research into the extent to which the region’s prosperity can accurately be said to have been built on coal mining. You could, for example, find out about the other industries supported by the region, such as: shipbuilding; iron works; lime production; potteries; glass-making; and chemical works. Did these industries flourish because, or in spite, of the coal trade? You might think about the impacts of collieries and the employment conditions within them. Reports told shocking stories about conditions in the mines and the employment of women and children, as well as recounting mining disasters. A consequence of such reports was the Children’s Employment Commission (1842) which was established to collect information about the condition and treatment of children working in collieries. Working conditions were generally poor. As the structure of the industry changed, how did labour relations change? You could think about the intended audience for Hair’s illustrations: what was the purpose of
his etchings?

Today, coal mining is extinct in the region but you might ask to what extent the industry shaped the region and defined some people’s perceptions of it. Was Hair an observer? Or did he play a role in the construction of the characterisation of the North East?

Selected background reading

What can I find here in Special Collections?

What can I find elsewhere?

  • Newspapers can be a fantastic source of information. Through the library, you have access to a wide range of digitised historic newspapers; local, national, and international:
  • Tyne and Wear Archives have created user guides listing all of the records they hold relating to some of the most popular research topics, including the coal industry and individual collieries.
  • Films of the North East, created in the Twentieth Century, can be viewed online at: You can filter the footage by place or by keyword. For example, NEFA 12610: Miners Strike Pickets, believed to have been filmed by Durham Police Constabulary, (1972).
  • The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME) is based in Newcastle and the library houses one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections on mining engineering. It’s print holdings comprise: 35,000 books that were printed from 1556 to the present day; 600 periodicals; 15,000 pamphlets and technical reports; as well as mine plans, maps and images. The archival holdings include manuscript records, correspondence, surveys and maps. For example, the Bell Collection
    • NEIMME/Bell/2/391 Cuttings relating to the Newcastle coal field [n.d.]
    • NEIMME/Bell/2/443 Cuttings, advertisements, press releases and manuscript letters (c.1839-1849)
  • The Mass Observation Project recorded social history. A database, contains essays on social history that were collected 1937-1972, in addition to photographs, reports and diaries.

Interested in collieries and coal mining?

The Hair (Thomas) Illustrations comprise 41 black and white photographic reproductions of Hair’s watercolours. His Views of the Collieries sit alongside other material relating to coal-mining in the Rare Books collection.

The Clarke (Edwin) Local Collection contains books and pamphlets relating to the history and description of the North of England, including coal-mining.

The Bell (Maurice) Collection was built-up by Maurice Bell (1871-1944) and features publications relating to a wide range of industries, especially coalmining.

We also have some significant archives: the Chaplin (Sid) Archive contains the papers of local writer, Sid Chaplin (1916-1986). He grew up in the pit villages of County Durham and worked in the coal industry.

The Joicey Coal Mining Archive contains material relating to the James Joicey mining company and it’s successors, operating in west Durham 1843-1929.

The Sopwith (Thomas) Diaries are the diaries of mining engineer, land surveyor and philanthropist Thomas Sopwith (1803-1879). Sopwith describes his work, projects, lectures and conversations. The diaries also include sketches and illustrations of people, views and buildings.