A giant pony shaped from coal fragments is a poignant reminder of the underground industry that put Britain ahead of the world.
The pony sculpture, affectionately nicknamed ‘Sultan’ after a well-loved pit pony from the local mines, is more than 200m long. Built out of coal shale from those mines, it is a reminder of an industrial past that changed Britain, and the world, forever.
Coal was the fuel of the Industrial Revolution; coal-powered steam engines put Britain ahead of the world for more than a hundred years in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The steam engines were probably one of Britain’s greatest contributions to human history.
And coal also fuelled an Empire that spanned every continent except Antarctica. For good reasons and bad, it was a remarkable achievement.
Hazardous and unhealthy
Britain is endowed with high quality coal, but it is not the easiest to mine. Deep, narrow seams, difficult to access, made mining a hazardous and unhealthy job. In the early days miners often had to work long shifts at the coal face and were in constant fear of the gas leaks and cave-ins that took the lives of many of their colleagues.
The conditions were summed up well by George Orwell in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, written in 1937: “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there - heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.”
Decline of the coal industry
Production from across Britain’s coalfields - South Wales, north and north east England - peaked in 1913 at a staggering 300 million tonnes. The number of miners increased dramatically too, from 300,000 in 1865 to around 1.2 million in 1920. This contrasts starkly with our current coal production of around 20 million tones (half of this from surface workings) and just 5,000 people employed.
Only a third of the coal burned in Britain today is British, the rest is imported from countries such as Russia, Colombia and South Africa. The closure of many mines in the 1970s and 1980s and the massive unemployment this caused led to violent strikes that were one of the defining issues for Margaret Thatcher’s government.