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Emancipation via self-education

In the Welsh coalmining village of Mountain Ash, Glamorgan, the future novelist Joseph Keating (1871—1934), born into a mining family of Irish immigrants, worked his way up from collier boy to haulier, reading every book he could get his hands on. Classical authors were comparatively accessible to the intellectually thirsty poor because they were out of copyright and available in cheap reprints.1 Keating recalled in his autobiography My Struggle for Life (1916) that he was fascinated by a ‘book about old Greek philosophers’,2 especially the maxim ‘Know thyself’, gnothi seauton, inscribed in the forecourt of the Apollo temple at Delphi (Pausanias 10.24.1).3 Perhaps the book was The Greek Philosophers (1882) by Alfred William Benn, who discussed the aphorism in these terms:

Let us suppose that each individual has a sphere of activity marked out for him by his own nature and his special environment, then to discern clearly the limits of that sphere and to keep within them would be Sophrosyuef

Keating had a dawning desire to change his ‘sphere of activity’.

His job was to extract coal and other minerals from the earth’s crust and transport them by shovels, trams and horses. But Keating did not know how his self-education would shape his future self. ‘Euclid, French, shorthand, or Greek philosophy would be of little use in “cutting” coal, and certainly, no thought of ever doing any other kind of work had entered my mind’.5 Keating was, however, not physically suited to hard labour: ‘My youthful body had not matured, and the strain began to be unbearable. I was a boy doing, not a man’s work, but an elephant’s’.6 He gradually navigated his way towards gentler occupations around the pit and landed a perfect job tending to a pumping engine.

Now I tasted joy. In a little shed with a brown canvas top, down at the water’s edge, I oiled my engine, regulated valves and levers, and pumped the river into boilers, to make the steam for all the engines of the pit, on the surface and underground.

Since no one inspected him, he turned the engine hut into ‘a study, library, and a university’. He read all day and his mind was free.7 Not long after, Keating left his hut and the pit to complete his education and become a journalist.

Miners have featured in previous chapters not only as self-educators who read Pope’s Homer, Plutarch and Aesop, but as Dissenters, Chartists, lecturers, activists, volunteer soldiers, commissioners of Trade Union banners, amateur archaeologists, founders of the Independent Labour Party and adult education initiatives; as future parliamentarians, poets, autobiographers and journalists; as audiences of Greek tragedy and purchasers of mass-produced ceramics. But mining communities, historically the backbone of industrial Britain, merit a chapter devoted to classical presences amongst them.8 The large concentrations of mining activity in the coal regions of South Wales and north-eastern England have so far been best researched, rather than the Cornish tin and copper mines and the collieries of Scotland, especially the Clyde and Ayrshire regions.9 Our discussion opened with Keating’s story because it introduces a recurrent theme in miners’ representation of educational experience. Keating escaped what he perceived as the bondage of the pits: his first novel, Son of Judith: A Tale of the Welsh Mining Valleys (1900), depicted the lives of the miners accurately and without sentimentality. After World War I he became a member of the Irish Self-Determination League and a prominent voice in local politics, working as a Labour Party councillor until his death.10

The peculiarly dark, dangerous and oppressive atmosphere of pit life resulted in the common articulation of miners’ engagement with books and culture as a form of manumission, as a process in which chains were discarded and freedom embraced. This was partly a consequence of the actual serfdom which, in Scotland, disgracefully remained legal until 1799 and continued to haunt the national memory long afterwards. Acts of 1606,1641, 1661 and 1672 had allowed coal-masters who could not hire voluntary recruits to arrest vagrants and force them to work for life down mines." In 1751, Lord Bankton learnedly compared colliers with ‘the coloni adscripticii among the Romans’.12 Coal-owners granted ‘arles’ (recruitment ‘bounty’) in return for a period of colliers’ time, often a lifetime, and usually laid a contractual claim to any children born to them as well.13 Scottish miners absconded to English coalfields, bringing their enslavement narratives with them, but if arrested were subject to criminal convictions: ‘Bondage, like the mark of Cain, was difficult to expunge’.14 Floggings and other cruel punishments were common: at its worst,

mining serfdom was a system of labour open to acts of studied humiliation by the master or his agents and to depths of personal degradation, most graphically seen in the work of the female members of the colliery communities in eastern Scotland.15

These miners were strictly speaking bound serfs rather than slaves, but once G. Booth had translated Diodorus Siculus in 1700, protests at their suffering and that of other miners were informed in the English-speaking world by the ancient historian’s account (V.38) of the Roman mines in Spain in the 1st century все:

Now though these Slaves that continue as so many Prisoners in these Mines incredibly inrich their Masters by their Labours, yet toyling Night and Day in these Golden Prisons, many of them being over-wrought, dye under Ground. For they have no rest nor intermission from their Labours; but the Task-masters by Stripes force them to intollerable hardships, so that at length they dye most miserably.16

Mineworkers have often taken an interest in ancient mining, identifying themselves with their ancient forebears (as can be seen in the NUM banner from the Lanchester division which serves as the frontispiece to this book), becoming amateur archaeologists and from the 1880s onwards enrolling in university extension courses in Roman Britain (see below).17

On the other hand, the ancient evidence of the importance of mining in wealth acquisition, economic development and empire-building has inspired rulers and owners of mines ever since the publication of Georg Bauer’s much-read treatise De Re metallica (1556); there was an intimate historical relationship between the rediscovery of the ancient mines and mining technology in the Renaissance and Early Modern worlds. Mining prospectors identified with Pliny the Elder, who administered those Roman mines in Spain. Opening or re-opening apertures into the world beneath has also often coincided with or precipitated archaeological investigations and collecting activities. The leisure that made possible Athenian philosophy, drama and architecture was crucially funded by the vast revenues produced by the silver mines of Laureion discussed in the PBiys and Means of Xenophon (c. 355 все), a popular text in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when mining activity intensified in the run-up to the industrial revolution.18 The re-opening of the Laureion mines as commercial operations in the 19th century went in tandem with a dynamic new archaeological interest in the outlying areas of ancient Attica.19

Our view of miners’ intellectual lives is however in danger of being skewed by the prevalent tropes of enslavement and escape from the pit, since numerous self-educating miners did not want to change their occupations or leave their native communities. It also risks distortion by stressing Greek and Roman Classics, since they were usually not central to autodidactic miners’ reading lists. Jonathan Rose’s account of the thriving atmosphere of the Miners’ Libraries in the South Wales coalfields shows that classical reading in English translation was but one strand in a vibrant fabric of self-education.20 The unique mixture of relatively paternalist mining companies, tight-knit communities energised by Nonconformist religious conviction, an organised and politically engaged workforce and the ‘peculiar cultural environment of the region’ created a Rhondda oasis of autodidacticism.21 Other British mining regions, especially those in the Great Northern coalfield around Newcastle-on-Tyne and Durham, in the late 19th century became cultural as well as commercial and industrial hubs, and the intersection of Hadrian’s Wall and various Roman settlements fired miners’ imaginations.22

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