Coal and the role of Wales in global history

This is a guest blog post by Dr Steven Gray, History and Classics, who was kind enough to write something for us about his research on Welsh coal.


My research explores the role of Welsh coal as the crucial fuel of the Royal Navy – the primary defence of British interests and global trade. When I returned, last September, to Wales and to my old stomping ground at Swansea University, I was excited to teach aspects of my research on British and Imperial history. Earlier this year, among other things, I taught seminars on Welsh coal for the ‘Practice of History’ module. In our seminar discussion, we thought about the question ‘why should we care about the history of Welsh coal?’ Some of my students are Welsh, and rightly interested in coal as part of their local history.

There are obvious reasons why Welsh coal matters to Welsh history. Mining in Wales provided a significant source of income to the economy of Wales throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, it was a huge employer both in mining and in the industries that serviced it, and large amounts of coal were used in other industries in Wales, notably in ironworks. It was also huge part of the social history of Wales – during the first half of the nineteenth century mining was often at the centre of working-class discontent. It even continues to have huge effects on Wales today, for example through the role of trade unions, issues of (un)employment, and the effects on the landscape and environment.

However, as my own research demonstrates, Welsh coal was important beyond Wales, not just in the UK but globally. Most crucially it was key to the industrial revolution, and subsequently Britain’s ability to become a huge commercial power. The value of Welsh coal beyond Wales is exemplified by Cardiff’s status, by 1913, as the largest coal exporting port in the world. The city acquired this status on account of the quality of coal found in South Wales, and its steam coal in particular. Indeed, it was ideal as fuel to power the steam engines that drove steamships, Dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy, and steam locomotive railways across the world.

As an imperial historian, I find it notable how much has been written about Scotland and Ireland’s role in empire, while Wales’ role is only just being unearthed. Hopefully, the parochial view of Wales as a provincial hinterland, a periphery of no importance, will soon be banished. We should look at Welsh history, not as a niche study of the local but as a history which matters globally. Wales’ role as coal capital of the world is an important part of this global picture.


Written by Dr Steven Gray

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