Event Archive

Panel: Constructing Disability in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century British Coalmining Industry

Thu 10th July - Sat 12th July 2014

Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference 2014, St Anne's College, Oxford University, UK


Daniel Blackie, Alexandra Jones and Mike Mantin will be presenting a panel at the Society for the Social History of Medicine 2014 conference in Oxford entitled 'Constructing Disability in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century British Coalmining Industry'. David Turner will chair.


Panel abstract

This interdisciplinary panel draws on the Wellcome Trust Programme Award, ‘Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields, 1780-1948’. The first paper shows how the rhetoric of mutual friendly societies echoed the nineteenth-century state’s abhorrence of the ‘undeserving’ poor. The second paper uses A.J. Cronin’s novel, The Citadel (1937), to dissect the doctor/state relationship in identifying disability. The final paper focuses on 1940s public information films to examine medical rehabilitation as a strategy for returning disabled miners to useful employment. Overall, the session demonstrates the interplay of the state with medicine and work in shaping perceptions of disability.


Paper 1: Daniel Blackie - Friendly Societies and the Rhetoric of Disability in Nineteenth-Century Britain

The friendly society in Britain gathered momentum from the early nineteenth century and by 1913 an estimated one-in-six of the population were members. This expansion has been attributed to the effects of industrialization: to an increasing surplus income among the lower orders, the disruption of family and community networks, and the commodification of health care. Also important, however, was the growth in industrial injuries and diseases. Coal mining was a particularly dangerous occupation and miners were hence more at risk than other industrial workers. Concentrating on the friendly societies that these miners joined, this paper will tease out the rhetorics associated with this important component in the ‘mixed economy’ of nineteenth-century welfare. Societies paid monetary benefits and provided medical attendance to members who were too incapacitated for work. However, such assistance was not automatic, but depended upon members following the societies’ rules and regulations. Interrogating these documents sheds light on the cultural construction of the figure of the ‘deserving’ disabled person, central to nineteenth century ideas about welfare. This figure was a morally upstanding, provident, deferential and sober Christian citizen whose disability was no fault of his own. By outlining the conduct and character required of benefit claimants, friendly society rules reveal what was expected of disabled people when they fell on hard times. In stressing these expectations, the paper argues that the rhetorics of disability influencing disabled Britons’ lives in the nineteenth century were informed by the medical, moral and economic conditions of the time.


Paper 2: Alexandra Jones“There ought to be some better scheme”: Disability, Medicine and the State in British Coalfields Literature of the 1930s

This paper will explore representations of disability, medicine and the state in British coalfields literature of the 1930s, focusing primarily on AJ Cronin’s The Citadel (1937), which was set in the South Wales coalfield.  This novel has commonly been perceived as a radical critique of medical practices in the 1920s and 1930s and as a text which helped promote the radical socialist ideology that led to the founding of the National Health Service. However, a recent article by Christopher Meredith has suggested that this novel is shaped to serve a fundamentally pessimistic and individualistic view of humanity that contradicts received views of The Citadel. This paper will interrogate the way Cronin depicts the interaction between doctors, medical organisations and the state, with particular reference to disabilities connected to industrial injury or disease. The novel will further be contextualised by comparisons to other examples of 1930s coalfields literature from South Wales, North East England and Scotland which deals with disability, medicine and the role of the state - for example, the work of Scottish miner, Joe Corrie; of North East English novelist and coalminer Harold Heslop; and of the coalminer and activist, Lewis Jones, from South Wales. Representations of disability within the literature are predominantly related to occupational injury or disease, for which medical treatment is provided via workplace contribution schemes. This includes depictions of medical institutions such as hospitals and sanatoriums, as well as of individual medical practitioners.


Paper 3: Mike Mantin - They Live Again! Representations of Disability and Coalmining in 1940s Documentary Films

The transition towards the welfare state in the 1940s was accompanied by a vigorous publicity campaign. Central to this mission were the documentary films centred on human interest and how the new services would affect individuals and their families. The short films introducing the new National Health Service are now well-known, but the mining industry was the subject of a series of films highlighting the health provision available to miners who had experienced injury or disease. Reaching both cinema audiences and medical professionals, the films were an acknowledgement of the extremely dangerous conditions in which miners worked, and the responsibility of the state to provide healthcare and support for them. Yet the presentation of even permanent disability was as a setback on the road to an eventual return to work and, by extension, society and usefulness. The films took tours of the miners’ rehabilitation centres and new health centres, checking in with miners as they engaged in medical recovery programmes and participated in games and recreation. This paper will examine three of these films – Life Begins Again (1942), Fit to Work! (1944) and Miners’ Health Centre (1948) – and argue for their significance in reflecting state and public attitudes to mining and disability. Despite their short lengths, the films say much about the increasing role of the medical profession in diagnosing mining disease, as well as the impact of disability upon constructions of work and masculinity. Disability in the mining industry was not in all cases a hidden issue: by the 1940s, the debate was taking place in the public eye on the big screen.