Billy Elliot isn’t just the story of a boy who wants to dance – it’s also about a proud community of people who were once hailed as national heroes but have fallen on hard times. As their world starts crumbling around them, the coal miners in Billy’s town and across the UK decide to fight to save their jobs and their communities. Scroll to read more about the world that Billy’s dad and the other striking coal miners grew up in.
County Durham in Northern England
Billy Elliot grew up in a small mining town in County Durham in Northeastern England, and the story takes place in 1984–85 during the UK coal miners’ strike.
After World War II, when Billy’s dad was growing up, Britain’s coal mining industry was thriving. Coal was quite literally the fuel that powered the economic boom in the UK, running factories, businesses, and homes across the country. Coal miners were treated like heroes who represented the dignity of labor, and young men like Billy’s brother Tony were excited and proud to join their fathers and grandfathers in the mines.
The Annual Northumberland Miners’ Picnic, 1968
The UK privatized the industry under the National Coal Board during WWII, and coal mines were owned and operated by the British government from that point until 1994. In the early 50s there were over 950 collieries, or coal mines, all over the country, and they employed over 800,000 people. Most of the towns built around the collieries had no other industry for miles around – everyone either worked at the mine or had a family member who did. It’s hard to imagine now how important coal mining was to British identity at the time, especially in the regions that completely depended on it, but coal mining villages were everywhere in British films, books, and music in the early 20th century. The British public had a strong sense of pride in the industry, whether or not they were from a coal town.
Miners putting up a National Coal Board sign in the 1940s
We know a lot about families in mining towns and how they lived thanks to a series of over 900 short films the National Coal Board made at the time. The British public would see these films when they went to the movies, usually before the main feature.The films show off the latest mining technology and take viewers into the mines, and there are also short documentaries about local festivals and traditions in mining towns, talent shows with miners, fictional dramas, animated shorts, and more.
Watch a short documentary about Miners’ Welfare Centres similar to the one where Billy took ballet classes
Community Life in a Coal Town
Billy’s dad, his brother Tony, Big Davey, and the other striking miners were members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which advocated for higher wages and fair labor practices much like unions in America, but the union was also the center of social life in a town like Billy’s. The community center where Billy takes ballet would have been paid for by miners’ families, with a swimming pool, a library, and a large hall for classes, weddings, social teas, and other big events. The NUM also put on big regional festivals like the Northumberland Gala Day miners’ picnic, a day-long event with families from all over the region. Every coal pit put together a brass band to compete in the festival parade, with over 150 bands playing at the festival’s height. Young women competed in the Coal Queen pageant, which grew to become a national tradition in Britain with a large cash prize.
Northumberland Coal Queen Deborah Bramley, in 1982, Courtesy Deborah Tate, accessed from http://www.museumcrush.org
Billy Elliot wasn’t the first boy to do ballet in a mining village – watch the video below to see a miners performing a silly ballet dance at a local festival in the 1950s.
Above all, miners’ families celebrated the strength of their communities at union events large and small.
The Decline of Coal
By the late 1960s, coal mining in Britain was on the decline. Coal became harder to reach and more expensive to dig, and efficient machines replaced workers in the mines. The first coal mine closed in 1968, and mines continued to close through the 1970s and 80s when Billy was growing up. When a mine closed, the community centered around it started to die as well without a central industry to employ workers, and miners saw their world collapsing around them.
An abandoned coal mine in South Yorkshire
In 1984, the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced a plan to close 20 collieries and cut 200,00 jobs, which would devastate the industry.
The mineworkers and their families weren’t going to give up their livelihoods without a fight, and in response the NUM organized strikes in coal fields all cross the country to show Britain that they were still essential to the nation’s economy. At its height, the miners’ strike involved over 142,000 workers and lasted for over a year.
This is the world that Billy, his dad, his brother Tony, his grandma, and everyone else in his town grew up in, the world they were fighting to save. This is the backdrop against which Billy wanders into a ballet class and finds his passion.