Past Events

Landscapes of Waste: Towards an Urban History of Coal Spoil in Modern Britain

Research Seminar – Moa Carlsson, Otto Saumarez Smith

  • 31 May 2023
  • 5:00 – 7:00 pm
  • Architecture Summer Series

    A series of talks and discussions showcasing new research and approaches to thinking about buildings, cities, and landscapes in Britain and elsewhere.
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

Coal, as a main source of fuel and energy, was central to the development of modern Britain. A lot has been written about the British coal industry, about collieries, mining communities and how coal transformed cities, the national economy and everyday lives. What is less well known is what impact the waste produced during coal mining has had on the national landscape. Between 1913 and 1983, according to records from the National Coal Board (NCB), more than fourteen billion metric tons of coal were mined in the United Kingdom. But for every ton brought to the surface, the waste output was almost a third of that. This paper addresses what happened to the more than six billion tons of colliery waste, also known as coal spoil, generated during that same period.

Coal spoil was piled into huge conical heaps, sometimes reaching a height of forty-five metres. Colliery waste was also spread out across agricultural areas (“lost” in NCB’s parlance) to be absorbed into fields and grazing areas over time. Used as aggregate, coal spoil was also stashed away in large engineering works such as new motorways, bridges, power stations and railways. From Aberfan to the "Wigan Alps", this paper will discuss some key strategies deployed by the NCB for disposing of this waste. Concentrated in particular regions and towns, these efforts left marks across the national landscape that can be traced over time in aerial photographs.

The research on the architectural, environmental and social history of coal spoil is drawn from the book project Scenic Calculations: Landscape, Industry and Planning in Twentieth-Century Britain, which traces how the national landscape was transformed with the expansion of the coal, electricity and oil industries. This paper argues that the activities of disposing of coal spoil amount to a distinct urbanism of increasing environmental, social and economic importance. Due to climate change, many historic coal spoil deposits, notably in South Wales, are today posing growing and significant threats to their local communities. Intense rainfall, for example, increases the risk of landslides of spoil tips that are located on sloping ground, which is what happened in Aberfan in 1966. Coal waste is thus a growing issue for planners, and this paper seeks to chart the largely overlooked history of this abundant resource’s effects on the geography of Great Britain.

Respondent: Otto Saumarez-Smith

A Research Seminar Series co-organised with Rixt Woudstra (Assistant Professor in Architectural History, University of Amsterdam).

Image caption: The Three Sisters, known to locals as the Wigan Alps. Wigan Archives & Local Studies and Friends of Three Sisters. Published in Ian Winstanley, ‘A History of Three Sisters Recreation Area, Ashton-in-Makerfield’ (2011).

About the speakers

  • Moa Carlsson headshot

    Moa Carlsson is an architect, historian and lecturer at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA). With a PhD in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), taking a Minor in science, technology and society (STS), she is specialised in the history of technology, landscape and urban planning in twentieth-century Britain. Her first book, Scenic Calculations: Landscape, Industry and Planning in Twentieth-Century Britain is currently under review at a major university press. 

  • Otto Saumarez Smith is Assistant Professor in Architectural History at the University of Warwick, and chair of the Twentieth Century Society’s Casework Committee. His most recent book is Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Redevelopment in 1960s Britain, published by Oxford University Press.