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At the peak of the mining industry near 300,000 miners were employed. In 1945 there were over 120,000 miners working in over 130 pits in the valleys of South Wales. That figured decreased to only 20,000 by the 1980’s. This decline came as a result of the shutdown of over 150 collieries resulting in a massive decrease in mining jobs available. The mining period can crudely be divided into two sections.(Arnot, 1975) The first period was in full swing until 1939, this mainly involved employer action to maintain the competitive economic aspect of mining, this had a profound effect on the local communities. Communities became cohesive and politically active to deal with this and the various health issues associated with the mining profession. The second period involved the decline of the mining industry after the second world war, this decline of the mining industry effectively destroyed the political and social cohesion created within communities. Although closing the mines reduced the health problems implicated within the mining profession, this was the start of other psychosocial conditions within the communities. The health and social related problems arose as a result of economic inactivity and despair. Many miners lost their place in society marking a new era in the social cohesion of welsh community life.(Kenway, 2007)
Period 1 – Until 1939
Until 1939 the mining industry was in gradual decline as cheaper coal was increasingly being imported from abroad. Welsh mines attempted to remain competitive by cutting miners wages, reducing the cost of health and safety policies and restricting the benefits of miners. During this period there was a transition from government run mines to private mines. (Coombes, 1945)The government only ran the mines as a strategic asset during the two world wars. Privately owned mines were increasingly concerned with money and not with the wellbeing of miners who were seen as a production factor. The miners had to find ways of surviving the harsh conditions and adversity imposed on them. A strong sense of community and social cohesion evolved as a result of this in mining communities. Several organizations groups and unions gave a purpose and structure to the community;(Dolan J., 2009)
The co-operative movement became increasingly more popular in Wales. These were economic groupings which rewarded the people of Wales accordingly based on the amount of purchases made from the co-operative. (Dolan J., 2009)
Strong chapels and religious groups
Each miners family gave a small amount of money towards chapels and deacons that were formed in each mining village. These chapels provided a strong sense of local identity in rural towns and allowed a collective gathering place for the miners.(Coombes, 1945)
Activities were created and based around the economic unit of the mining village. These activities included Galas, Eisteddfods and many other sports activities. Each mining villages had their own rugby teams and had many famous rugby stars in their midst. Mining villages were also the source of many of the famous voices for the Welsh Male Voice Choirs. (Coombes, 1945)
Politicisation of the community
Many political groups were set up to campaign for better conditions and wages for miners. The famous hunger marches in 1927 and 1932 were mainly organized by mining communities. Major strike action in 1926 was heavily promoted by the welsh mining communities. Mining support groups formed and these formed a social cohesion of the local communities. Aneurin Bevan (founder of the national health service) grew up in a mining community and was motivated by the suffering encountered by the miners. He obtained his political knowledge through the miners institutes funded by mining funds. Many miners also empathised with other struggles against oppression. This united them in support for the anti-franco forces in the 1936-39 spanish civil war, many volunteers came from the mining communities. Although the mining profession was a dangerous one, which provided plenty of health and safety risks. The social cohesion formed between communities as a result of this adversity had a profound beneficial effect on the individuals involved. The structure and organization involved in the tightly knitted communities probably reduced mental health issues dramatically. Many individuals who suffer from depression to the present day would benefit from having tight social groups in order to overcome individual problems.(Coombes, 1945)
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Health matters and prescribed diseases
The lack of health and safety enforcement in the mines lead to dust induced prescribed diseases such as pneumoconiosis. No protective masks were offered to miners to prevent pneumoconiosis and silicosis. This was not recognized as a disease that could be caused by the mining profession until 1931 when the Workmen’s compensation act allowed miners to apply for silicosis compensation.(Fletcher, 1948) There were no communal bath facilities until 1939 causing the miners to risk illness by coming back from work soaking wet and dirty. Children were encouraged at an early age to go down the mines to provide for their families. This led to lack of education and a life of unskilled work. Few house in the mining communities had basic hygiene facilities leading to an increase in infection rates.(Bennett, 2009, Michael, 2008)
The lack of health and safety protocols for miners lead to horrific accidents. The famous disaster being that of Aberfan. This was where a slag heap collapsed and buried a primary school in October of 1996. This caused the death of over 140 people many of whom were children. This could have happened in any other mining community in Wales and led to the passing of the 1969 mining act. (Johnes, 2000)
Period 2 – After 1945
The end of the second world war marked the rapid decline of the welsh mining industry due to economic factors. Imported foreign coal became cheaper than welsh coal. In addition to this it became increasingly un-economic to mine for coal in Wales as it was necessary to mine very deep in order to find good quality coal. After the second world war the mines were nationalized and reclaimed by the government. This increased health and safety aspects considerably but the economic status lead to mines being progressively being shut down as they became increasingly uncompetitive. This caused a downwards spiral of unemployment.(Bennett, 2009)
The decline of mining
The coal mines of South Wales accounted for approximately one third of the total world exports of coal. The loss of the mining industry in Wales has destroyed it’s main industry and many think this is why South Wales is now considered to be the one of the “sickest” areas of Europe. Once the pits were closed whole communities fell apart. Families lost their major source of income, and without the trade that the miners brought, shops and businesses went bankrupt. This caused many people to move away from the rural communities to search for work, for those who stayed it was very difficult to remain in work as they had very little qualifications. (Michael, 2008, Hughes, 1995)Sociologists have studied former coal mining communities. They have found may social problems within them. Poor school attendance, family problems, very young teenage pregnancy and many single parents. Former miners are afflicted with pneumoconiosis and COPD, for those who have not had health issues they are afflicted with poor diet and alcohol abuse due to poor education. Obesity is big problem as well as petty crime and drug abuse. The prevalence of poor quality and damp Victorian housing contributes to asthma and bronchitis especially in young children. The individuals of post-mining communities often have very low self esteem as a result of their loss of position in society. The national assembly for Wales annual report on social inclusion 2003 stated that Wales was suffering from pronounced deprivation and low standards in health with very little people owning good qualifications.(Michael, 2008, Broomfield, 1981)
Financial impact on mental and health problems
Many parts of South Wales are so poor that they qualify for EU development aid, this is usually reserved for severely financially distressed countries. A study conducted by the Joseph Rowntree foundation stated that 17 of the 180 poorest areas in the UK were situated in Wales and estimated that a third of children in Wales suffered from poverty. (HBAI 2007/2008) Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff university echoed that the problems in Wales are problems that developing countries have, such as poor diet and substandard housing. Once the coal mining industry collapsed many peoples lives were shattered, coal mining provided the economic base for many communities. The combination of industrial diseases caused by the mining profession and the depression as a result of the closure of the mines means that South Wales has some of the worst health issues in western Europe. Mental illness is a large factor for former mining communities as well as a lack of confidence and an unwillingness to work because of fear of redundancy. Former miners in particular have lost their place in society and consequently have no reason to exist. Alcoholism and substance abuse have proliferated out of the despair.
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Social cohesion destruction
Miners institutes that were owned by groups that gave a small amount of their wages into a communal fund to pay for the construction and running of the building. These institutes usually contained a library and reading room to allow the working miner to educate himself adequately. As discussed previously Aneurin Bevin owes his intellectual prowess to a miners institute. At the time of the second world war there were over 100 miners institutes. Many of these institutes managed to survive into the 1970’s however without the financial backing from the miners these instituites crumbled. At the recent election for the welsh assembly in 1999 there was only a 45% turnout. Sociologists have been puzzled over this issue as it does not make sense that there is not a stronger welsh political nationalism when there is such a strong emotional welsh pride. The explanation for this may be that there is a lack of national confidence due to the steep decline of the major industries such as coal mining.(12) The decline of the coal industry has had a profound effect on welsh culture especially in South Wales. It is hard to appreciate the extent to which towns and communities have been devastated by it’s decline.
Solving the problem
There may not be an easy solution for solving the social problems caused by the decline of the coal industry in Wales however the town that Aneurin Bevan originated from has a new scheme set up by an institution known as “Timebanking Wales”. This scheme aims to reform the social cohesion that has been lost in the community. Time banking Wales is an organisation which has been put in place in the town of Tredegar in order to improve the general mental health and social cohesion of the local community. Tredegar is approximately 35 miles away from Cardiff and is a small welsh town with almost 10,000 inhabitants. During the war era Tredegar had a booming coal industry along with a large proportion of Wales and this provided jobs and financial stability to the town and inhabitants within it. With the fall of the coal industry due to many reasons Tredegar has followed a fairly downhill path ever since and the social cohesion and mental and financial stability of the population has suffered a great deal. The health service within Tredegar has always been of utmost importance to the local inhabits and Tredegar can make the bold claim that it is the “cradle” of the NHS. This implies that it was within Tredegar itself that the idea of the NHS was first thought up so to speak. Geoff Thomas claims that over the course of the last 50-60 years the way the community interacts with health professionals has changed dramatically. He claims that this may possibly be the root of the problem itself.
In the past the relationship between the health professionals (such as doctors, consultants and nurses) and the community and inhabitants of Tredegar was supposedly a much more mutual one. The patients were thought to play a much more active decision in their treatments and therapies. Geoff Thomas argues that the health system has changed in the last 50 years and that this is not the case anymore. He believes that the community of Tredegar have now become “passive beneficiaries” that take the word of professionals for gospel and are not involved enough in the decision making process.
Timebanking Wales aims to “reinvent” this mutual relationship between professionals and citizens in order to recreate the social cohesion present in this community long ago. A currency of time has been created in order to achieve a shift in the community and change people from “passive beneficiaries” to “active citizens for change” as portrayed on the timebanking Wales website.
There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to Geoff Thomas ideas. Re-establishing social cohesion within the town would clearly be an advantage to the community and would provide a much needed boost to mental health in the town. However the currency of time has several obvious flaws. If time is to be used as currency this will clearly not improve the dire financial situation the town is already under. Also can the social cohesion of the community ever be re-established to the same degree as when the mining profession was in full swing? Perhaps this is not a realistic goal and more effort should be focused on rebuilding industry in the town.
The decline and collapse of the coal mining industry has had a profound effect on communities that relied on them – in health, political, economic and social terms. The social and political cohesion created in the communities to endure the effects of decline up to the first part of the 20th century, have been reversed in the second half as the industry has effectively almost disappeared. With such a dirty and dangerous industry, health problems have always existed. However, the unhealthy consequences of direct coal mining were replaced to some extent by the unhealthy consequences of economic inactivity, unemployment and despair. The new Wales of the 21st Century has an opportunity to repair the damage by investment in the industries of the future.
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