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Disability and Industrial Society

A major study of experiences of disability in Britain’s coalmining communities is answering the question, what happened to disabled people during the Industrial Revolution?
Exhibition project display board about the coal industry.

The Swansea University-led Disability and Industrial Society project focuses on experiences of disability in Britain’s coalmining communities between 1780 and 1948 and is funded by a 5 year Wellcome Trust Programme Award in Medical History.

Loss of life in the coal industry is well known, but the scale of disablement – resulting from factors ranging from roof falls to chronic illness – is not. The number of men, women and children left permanently impaired by working in, or servicing, the coal industry was much larger than those killed. 

Project team with speaker

Our work has challenged conventional stereotypes of disabled people as ‘dependent’ and uncovered their multiple roles in coalfield communities, exploring the ways in which they responded to injury or changed bodily capability. In fact, disablement was not necessarily the end of people’s working lives and some disabled miners even returned to work underground.

Sick and disabled workers faced many hardships in the era before the modern welfare state. Nevertheless, they were not helpless in the face of disability. Individually, and via trade unions, disabled miners fought for better medical care and financial support, called employers to account, and challenged medical negligence.

The research has enhanced public understanding through the exhibition, From Pithead to Sickbed and Beyond: The Buried History of Disability in the Coal Industry before the NHS, in collaboration with Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum. It has also introduced a new strand of interpretation to the Museum’s presentation of the history of coalmining through a new panel on disability history in the Coal Gallery. 

From Pithead to Sickbed and Beyond Exhibiton

The research has raised awareness of disability history in Wales and has also empowered disabled people and organisations to undertake their own research projects drawing on the expertise of Swansea’s research team. 

Project lead: David Turner (Swansea University). Project Members: Kirsti Bohata, Anne Borsay (2011-14), Mike Mantin, Daniel Blackie, Alexandra Jones (Swansea University); Vicky Long, Victoria Brown (Glasgow Caledonia University); Arthur McIvor, Angela Turner (University of Strathclyde); Steven Thompson, Ben Curtis (Abersystwyth University).

Project duration: 2011-2016

Contact David Turner:

Follow David on Twitter: @DrDavidMT