Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Catherine Mills, Regulating Health and Safety in the British Mining Industries, 1800-1914. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. xxvi + 284 pp. $115 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6087-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald Rogers, Department of History, Central Connecticut State University.?

Catherine Mills, lecturer at Stirling University, England, has meticulously chronicled the legislative and bureaucratic growth of British government?s intervention into mine safety and health during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.? Her book draws upon a large corpus of Parliamentary papers and annual mine inspection reports, as well as newspapers, periodicals, archives and a broad reading of the historical secondary literature.? Importantly, it examines both the coal and the metal mining sectors, constructing its narrative in line with recent theories of Victorian-era British state development. [1]? Specifically, Mills revises historian Oliver MacDonagh?s notable 1958 model, arguing that British regulatory expansion was not simply a logical, if ?phased? response to industrialization (pp. 4-5), but an ?accumulative? and ?ad hoc? (p. 126) process shaped by political, technological and economic factors.

Regulating Health and Safety presents a vivid description of the dreary realities of nineteenth-century British coal and metal mining work, supplemented by a glossary of mining terms and sketches of work conditions and safety apparatus.? It thoroughly surveys floods, roof falls, explosions, hookworm disease, dust-induced respiratory ailments and other hazards that endangered miners, and it excels at explaining the technological innovations devised to remedy them.? In one fresh insight, the book reveals how falls into or climbs out of deep shafts emerged as a particular problem during the 1800s, when economic expansion pushed mines deeper underground.? Terrific on mining conditions, the book does not systematically explore mining operations from a business point of view, leaving unclear how the business development of mining affected working conditions one way or the other.?

The book focuses on the political response to mining hazards, starting with coal mining.? Skipping over the potential impact of tort law (and the fellow-servant rule), Mills contends much like other recent political accounts that mid-nineteenth-century British government (Home Office and Parliament) was a reluctant intervener into mining problems due to the influence of mining interests and doubts about government?s regulatory authority, but that it allowed incremental regulatory expansion through piecemeal legislation.? With rich detail (though regretfully without a map), Mills traces how moralistic Victorian reformers, coal mine unions, government investigatory commissions and mine inspectors cumulatively exerted pressure on British government for action.? Attention focused first on visible risks like explosions, but then broadened as authorities documented other hazards.? The result was a series of increasingly tough laws culminating with the 1872 Coal Mines Act that assigned clear responsibility for safety and health to mine management and stipulated specific mine safety rules.

In an important new finding, Mills demonstrates that metal mining had a much less positive regulatory history, contrary to MacDonagh?s model of inevitable governmental intervention.? Unlike coal mining, she maintains, a metal mine reform coalition never materialized, mining interests blocked early reform proposals, and the eventual 1872 Metalliferous Mines Regulation Act just imitated coal mining laws with little effect.? Why was this?? Concentrated in Cornwall, she argues, metal mining was a smaller and less visible sector than coal mining, and more importantly, its tradition of worker independence and the individualistic ?bargain? system of employment (pp. 213-214) discouraged the unionization that arose in coal mines.? After metal mines declined in the late-1800s, Mills adds, metal miners colluded with financially-stressed mine managers ?to defy the law and engage in unsafe practices? (p. 230), an arrangement abetted by mine inspectors? ??softly softly? approach? to regulation (p. 232), likely to avoid bankrupting struggling firms.

Mills assigns an important role to scientific knowledge in mine safety regulation?s development, but argues that it was a ?malleable? influence, rather than a ?natural? culmination of regulatory growth as the MacDonagh model hypothesizes (p. 183).?? Of course, she shows, science informed many early mine safety measures from safety lamps to ?man-hauling? equipment, but new precautions often had unsafe side effects and erroneous science stymied efforts to resolve coal dust explosions and miners? phthisis (silicosis).? Only after modern research techniques appeared in the late-1800s, did British mining regulation mature into an effectual science-based system.

A major change in the Home Office?s disposition toward mining regulation during the late-1800s facilitated that development, Mills contends.? The Home Office now moved ?without prompting? toward greater intervention (p. 186), as British leaders grew concerned about national economic decline and the labor force?s apparently deteriorating health.? This observation just hints at the British Victorian state?s larger reorientation at the end of the 1800s, when urban-industrial growth and mass electoral reform generated a broad new acceptance of government?s economic duties among elite politicians.

Mills concludes that British mining health and safety regulation was partially successful.? Presenting information from Royal Commissions and mine inspection reports in several charts and graphs, she indicates that coal and metal mining both started the century very dangerously, but adds that coal mining fatalities dropped steadily after passage of the 1872 Coal Mines Act, while metal mine deaths declined minimally, despite the 1872 metalliferous law.? Her book is less convincing on the Coal Act?s apparent success than on the Metalliferous Act?s ineffectiveness.? It is plausible to infer that the rigorous 1872 coal law caused the fatality rate?s reduction, because the drop immediately followed the 1872 measure, but the book lacks direct evidence.? In the American setting, scholars have contended that a mix of business, technological and regulatory forces lowered accident levels, and some emphasize industry?s own managerial and technological innovations.[2]? It might well be asked here how internal British coal industry developments affected mortality levels and how much in that context state intervention mattered.?

Overall, Regulating Health and Safety offers a compelling portrait of nineteenth-century British coal and metal mining, and a richly informative narrative of the inside politics that brought regulation about.? It should be helpful to economists wanting to know more about British mining, working conditions and regulatory politics in the nineteenth century.

1. Philip Harling, ?The State,? in A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. by Chris Williams (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 110-124.
2. Mark Aldrich, Safety First:? Technology, Labor and Business in the Building of American Work Safety, 1870-1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Donald Rogers is adjunct instructor of history at Central Connecticut State University and Housatonic Community College in the United States.? He is author of Making Capitalism Safe:? Work Safety and Health Regulation in America, 1880-1940 (2009).
??? ?
Copyright (c) 2010 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (August 2010). All EH.Net reviews are archived at