The best books that feature the lives of coal miners

Jude Tresswell Author Of The Refuge Bid
By Jude Tresswell

Who am I?

I write fictional, contemporary gay mysteries, but I prefer to read facts and I enjoy the research that accompanies my storytelling. Industrial history and geology fascinate me, so it isn’t any wonder that I set my tales in the Durham hills of northeast England. As some of my videos in the link show, there are many abandoned quarries, lead and coal mines in the area. I can become emotional when I think about the socio-political history of mining and quarrying. My latest tale reflects my interest in quarrying and my five recommendations reflect a passion that has its roots in the UK’s once thriving, now defunct, coal industry.

I wrote...

The Refuge Bid

By Jude Tresswell,

Book cover of The Refuge Bid

What is my book about?

The Refuge Bid is a gay mystery and relationships tale set in fictional Tunhead, northeast England. Is there a link between a woman who has been missing for ten years and the people bidding to buy and redevelop Tunhead’s decommissioned church and graveyard? Can the County Durham Quad and their special friend, Nick, find out and stop the sale—one grave is special—and can they raise the cash to counter the bids with an offer of their own? Success involves their drawing on Tunhead’s industrial history and on employing their different skills but, also, they must each acknowledge what they really want from their unusual liaison.

(Note: explores asexual/ sexual relationships and contains references to teenage suicide and conversion therapy.)

The books I picked & why

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Measures for Measure: Geology and the Industrial Revolution

By Mike Leeder,

Book cover of Measures for Measure: Geology and the Industrial Revolution

Why this book?

My sole non-fiction choice. I love the scope of this book: the early engineers and industrialists who were involved, the palaeogeological conditions that made coal deposits possible, the legacy of burning carbon, and, chapter by chapter, a description of most of the coalfields of Britain and the landscapes that resulted. Add poems and songs and paintings and you have a wonderful book. My sole gripe: the illustrations are too tiny. The breadth of content deserves something better.

Billy Elliot

By Melvin Burgess,

Book cover of Billy Elliot

Why this book?

Billy Elliott is a miner’s son who wants to be a ballet dancer. This is an adaptation of Lee Hall’s original screenplay and, to me, lacks the feel of a novel, but I’ve chosen it for three reasons. It’s set in County Durham. It challenges traditional, macho values. It’s as good a description as anything I’ve read that describes aspects of the UK miners’ strikes of the 1980s. When Jackie, Billy’s dad, says, "There’s coal behind everything in this country. It’s still down there. We’re not,” you can sense the anger, hurt, and bitterness—and, forty years later, just like the coal, those feelings remain.

How Green Was My Valley

By Richard Llewellyn,

Book cover of How Green Was My Valley

Why this book?

Another book that features striking miners but, this time, set in Victorian Wales. It’s more fiction than autobiography, but I do believe in its portrayal of a family trying to deal with the change from Victorian values to more modern ones. The father clings to his belief in traditional forms of authority and in the power of prayer. The sons believe in unions and fighting for what they feel are workers’ rights. There’s more to How Green Was My Valley than that, but I felt I learnt something. It hadn’t occurred to me that the growth of unions could be so divisive within families. In fact, until I read the book, I knew very little about union development. It came at a price.

Sons And Lovers

By D.H. Lawrence, Taylor Anderson (editor),

Book cover of Sons And Lovers

Why this book?

Another book that features sons. Lawrence’s father was a Nottinghamshire coal miner and there are many little details in the book that attest to the author’s knowledge of nineteenth-century mining family life. I’ve chosen Sons and Lovers because, to me, it asks an unanswerable question and so the tale has stayed in my mind. Did Lawrence despise his own father as much as fictional Paul, influenced by Paul’s mother, despises Walter Morel? I’d love to know. I sympathised with Gertrude, the wife and mother, but I felt so sorry for Walter. He worked hard in a terrible job. He became old and tired before his time. Yes, he was uncouth and illiterate, but I felt he deserved some praise, not contempt.


By Andrew Miller,

Book cover of Pure

Why this book?

This final choice reprises the idea that a miner’s life was hard, though that isn’t the focus of the story. The plot sounds unpromising, but I loved Pure! Set in the time of Louis XVI, a provincial engineer is tasked with demolishing a Parisian church and relocating the bones of its graveyard. He employs a motley crew of coal miners to carry out the work as he knows they’ll have the necessary strength, stamina, and skill. One little episode that featured them stayed with me. The engineer stands on a platform to address the miners but years of crouching in narrow coal seams have bent and misshapen them so much that they can’t stand straight enough to see him. He was shocked. I wasn’t.

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