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1986: Coal mine canaries made redundant

More than 200 canary birds are being phased out of Britain's mining pits, according to new plans by the government.

Modern technology is being favoured over the long-serving yellow feathered friend of the miner in detecting harmful gases which may be present underground.

New electronic detectors will replace the bird because they are said to be cheaper in the long run and more effective in indicating the presence of pollutants in the air otherwise unnoticed by miners.

The gas detectors will be hand-held and carry a digital reading which appears on a screen alerting miners to the extent of the gases.

The birds' replacement will be introduced gradually next year.

Miners are said to be saddened by the latest set of redundancies in their industry but do not intend to dispute the decision.

The removal of the canaries will end a mining tradition in Britain dating back to 1911, since when two canaries have been employed by each pit.

Signs of distress

They are so ingrained in the culture miners report whistling to the birds and coaxing them as they worked, treating them as pets.

The canary is particularly sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide which is colourless, odourless and tasteless.

This gas could easily form underground during a mine fire or after an explosion.

Following a mine fire or explosion, mine rescuers would descend into the mine, carrying a canary in a small wooden or metal cage.

Any sign of distress from the canary was a clear signal the conditions underground were unsafe and miners should be evacuated from the pit and the mineshafts made safer.

In Context
Coal miners now rely on carbon monoxide detectors and monitors.

Canaries were not the only animals which were used to detect the presence of dangerous gases underground - mice were too.

But tests conducted by the Bureau of Mines showed canaries were favoured because their reaction to carbon monoxide was more apparent even if small quantities of the gas were present.

The coal mining industry was going through massive changes at the time and was in decline.

A year-long strike by the National Miners' Union had ended without much success in March 1985 and the miners had lost a lot of bargaining power because of it.

In the 1940s there had been 718,000 mine workers but by 2002 that figure had dropped to about 12,000.

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