Labour History Review

Industrial Relations in the British Non-ferrous Mining Industry in the Nineteenth Century

Labour History Review (2006), 71, (1), 57–79.


The record of industrial relations in the coal and metal mining industries during the nineteenth century was sharply different. The coal mining sector developed large and permanent trade unions from an early date and experienced increasingly troubled relations between management and labour, while the non-ferrous mining sector saw largely peaceful relations and no significant unionisation before the inter-war period. These differences have been observed in all parts of Britain and in the behaviour of British miners overseas. The unusual experience in the non-ferrous sector has been variously explained in terms of the organisation of its labour process, rapid decline in its product markets, the availability of land and additional sources of income for many communities, and long-established socio-cultural influences. This article also explores the potential importance of fraternal organisations — particularly Freemasonry — in providing alternative conduits for communication between capital and labour. Focusing on the experience of six mining communities in the central copper and tin mining region of Cornwall, it shows how lodges might have provided mechanisms for the avoidance of conflict and the formation of consensus, as well as facilitating migration to other areas of expanding employment overseas. Preliminary results from limited comparative surveys of other metal and coal mining communities are contradictory but suggest that this may be a fertile area for future research.

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Author details

Burt, Roger