Cleaning the Caryatid: architecture and miners’ bodies in Britain 1921-1946

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From the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the bodies of coalminers were of special significance to industrial nations. Acknowledging its labour intensive nature, George Orwell described the industry’s importance in corporeal terms as a ‘grimy caryatid’ underpinning the conditions of everyday life in the British Empire. The cleanliness, health, fitness, psychological state and well-being of miners – and the effect these had on their political outlook – became issues of national importance. Drawing extensively on previously unseen archival material, this paper discusses the works of Miners’ Welfare Commission (MWC) in the United Kingdom from 1921 to 1946, arguing it represented an unprecedented series of governmental interventions, effected through architecture, onto the bodies of workers. Of critical significance was the emergence of precisely designed responses to the specific nature and consequences of the work itself. The deprivation of light and other deleterious conditions underground – including the frequency of accidents and the enduring relationship between miners’ bodies and the gathering and absorption of mineral dust both externally and internally – led the MWC to create hospitals, health clinics and rehabilitation centres to address a range of conditions from spinal injuries to pneumoconiosis. But the most pervasive and socially impactful of these interventions was the over 800 pithead baths dedicated to addressing coal dust in its most superficial form, as dirt. On a daily basis, the bodies of hundreds of thousands of miners intimately confronted buildings whose equipment and spaces embodied decades of scientific and architectural enquiry. Yet, as this paper also explores, the significance of these buildings was not only within these qualities or in the modern aesthetics of light, space and air they also invoked. It was equally found in the effects their existence had on another series of less visible bodies, the women of the coalfields whose domestic circumstances they simultaneously transformed.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2022
EventThe 75th Society of Architectural Historians Annual International Conference - Westin Hotel, Pittsburgh, United States
Duration: 27 Apr 202201 May 2022


ConferenceThe 75th Society of Architectural Historians Annual International Conference
Abbreviated titleSAH 2022
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address


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