By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Down the Mine’ is an essay by George Orwell (1903-50), originally published as the second chapter of his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier but later reprinted as a separate essay. In ‘Down the Mine’, Orwell describes his experience of going down an English coal mine to see the conditions of coal miners in the 1930s.
You can read ‘Down the Mine’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Orwell’s argument below.
‘Down the Mine’: summary
Orwell describes the experience of miners working in a typical coal mine in 1930s England. He describes mine-workers as ‘splendid’ men (they are always men) who are usually small, because the tunnels down the mine are so small that taller men would find it difficult (if not impossible) to work there.
These men are physically fit from their labour, having worked down the mine since they were children in most cases. They have bodies of ‘iron’, like statues (at the end of the essay he refers to their ‘muscles of steel’). They tend to work in shifts of seven-and-a-half hours, stopping perhaps for a short break to eat something (bread and cold tea, in many cases). Orwell focuses on small details of the miners’ everyday working lives, such as their habit of chewing tobacco, because it staves off thirst.
Orwell pays particular attention to the long journeys along the underground tunnels which miners often have to make: once they have been lowered down into the mine, they often have to walk (bending as they do so, but with their heads kept facing forwards to watch out for beams overhead) for a mile, sometimes three miles, and (in the case of one mine) up to five miles below-ground before they can begin work.
This is their ‘commute’, a journey which Orwell likens to Londoners having to walk from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. (Earlier, Orwell had described the journey down into the mine, in the densely packed cage that transports miners from the surface down to the coal-face, as like going down the lift on the Piccadilly line on the London Underground; though he makes this comparison in order to contrast that relatively short journey with the extreme depths underground that many miners travel, as much as four hundred yards below the Earth’s surface.)
Once Orwell has described the miners’ journey travelling to and from their place of work, he then reports on the ways in which coal is extracted from the earth. ‘Coal lies in thin seams between enormous layers of rock,’ he tells us, ‘so that essentially the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice.’ The ‘fillers’ load up the coal, while the shale is used in road-building; everything else is dumped above-ground in ‘dirt-heaps’.
Orwell is frank about just how back-breaking and intensive coal-mining is. Although he figures that he could perform many kinds of manual labour, being a coal-miner would prove completely beyond his strength or stamina:
When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.
Orwell points out that the world inhabited by coal-miners is a different world from the one he and many other people inhabit: it’s one that people who don’t work in mining very rarely heard about (and, in many cases, probably wouldn’t want to hear about).
Yet, as Orwell states, ‘it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above’, because so much of what people do involves the use of coal. But ‘we are not aware of it’. He likens coal, in a biblical reference, to ‘manna’ – the mysterious food that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites during their travels in the wilderness – except it has to be paid for. But its origins are, in some ways, just as mysterious to those who benefit from it.
He concludes ‘Down the Mine’ by observing that, as hard as these conditions are, they used to be even harder. Pregnant women, until relatively recently, were put to work in the mines. Even today, Orwell writes, everyone in society owes their relative comfort to those workers who toil away in those dark, cramped, dirty conditions underground.
‘Down the Mine’: analysis
‘Down the Mine’ is a classic example of Orwell’s willingness to put himself at some discomfort in order to experience the conditions of other people first-hand. In order to understand working conditions of people in the north-west of England (Wigan is located around 15 miles northwest of Manchester), Orwell went and lived among them, and his journey down the mine showed his commitment to documenting as faithfully as he could the plight of mine-workers in a fairly typical coal-mine.
For much of ‘Down the Mine’, and especially in his closing paragraphs, Orwell is keen to remind his readers – the vast majority of whom would never so much as seen the inside of a mine, let alone worked in one – that the world is governed by coal, and even some mass shake-up of the current world order, such as a war or a revolution, would still necessitate the mining of coal to heat fires, fuel machinery, and do the countless other things it either directly or indirectly contributes to in the course of daily life.
His mention of Adolf Hitler reminds us that, even in 1937, the threat of imminent European conflict was growing, and sure enough, the war effort (once the Second World War broke out a couple of years after Orwell was writing) would be just as reliant on the production of coal as it would be on farming and manufacturing – indeed, it was even more important than these, because much manufacturing would have been impossible without coal.
Orwell wishes to remind his relatively privileged readers of the exhausting and demanding work that miners undertake. He doesn’t pay attention to mining accidents, which is a curious omission, but he does focus on the day-to-day conditions – the dust, the physical strain, and the darkness – with clarity and attention to detail.
It is noteworthy how often, throughout ‘Down the Mine’, Orwell employs the second-person pronoun, writing not ‘I’ but ‘you’ to describe his own experiences as a sojourner among this world rather than a seasoned miner. This colloquial touch succeeds in placing us down there in the mine with Orwell, involving us in his own journeying through this subterranean other-world.