- Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalmining, 1780–1880 by David M. Turner and Daniel Blackie
In 2001 Douglas Baynton wrote, “Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin to look for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write” (“Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, edited by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky [NYU Press], 52). In the nearly two decades since this reflection, the field of disability history has expanded enormously, both in the Americas and across the globe. Much, however, remains to be explored by the use of disability as a lens through which to examine the past. In Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalmining, 1780–1880, David M. Turner and Daniel Blackie demonstrate just how significant the application of this analytic lens can be for the [End Page 712] re-evaluation of a subject we think of as familiar. Focusing on three mining areas—central Scotland, northeast England, and south Wales—between the transition from burning wood to coal in the late eighteenth century and the enactment of the Employers’ Liability Act of 1880, they investigate not only the extent of disabled experience in industrializing Britain but also the intersections of such experience with historical fields including economic, labor, medical, gender, and political histories.
Central to Blackie and Turner’s analysis is the assertion that “bodily non-normativity defined workers in industrialising Britain” (7). Disability history, they argue, should not be viewed as a niche perspective on industrialization in the past but rather treated as a central and indeed formative element. A new approach is needed that “takes into account the multi-faceted nature of industrial change and explores the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion within particular cohorts or occupations, and in different settings” (7). Additionally, “highlighting and examining the diverse range of roles occupied by disabled people in the past enables their historical agency to be brought more fully into the spotlight, revealing the ways in which they have actively shaped their own lives and those of people around them” (11). In chapters that address disability and work, medicine and the body, welfare provision, family and community support, and political reform, the authors locate the imperfect and damaged bodies of mine workers firmly in the center of the industry over the course of the century. In doing so, they provide insight not only into the agency and social significance of the individuals discussed but also into important related aspects of the social history of industrialization, such as the meaning of occupational hierarchies, the significance of age and life cycle, and the development of welfare debates and practices.
While thematic in structure, the chapters form a rough chronology. The first chapter, on disability and work, explores shifts in labor practices from “bord and pillar” extraction to longwall cutting (42), and the rise of “industrial time” from the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries (44). The final chapter focuses on the development of legislation in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. In between, chapters on medicine, welfare, and the family cover changes over time within mining communities. The result is an analysis that makes important interventions into a range of historiographies while also maintaining coherence in putting forward the case for the centrality of the disabled to the history of the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the reader comes away with little doubt as to the importance of disability history as a way to understand the changing world of nineteenth-century Britain.
The source material is well balanced, with the authors drawing on, where available, personal testimony of disabled workers and their communities, as well as on official documentation, institutional reports, and newspaper articles. The material is thoughtfully contextualized, with sources allowed to speak for themselves, reinforcing the book’s underlying argument that the disabled, far from being marginalized in this period, had access to a number of forms of agency and expression...