YMHC #5: A study of sound and voice during coal miners’ strikes, Northern France, (1833-1884) – by A. Quièvre

The fifth issue of the series Young Mining Historians Corner is online!

In this issue, Adrien Quièvre (PhD candidate, Univ. Lille, CNRS, UMR 8529 – IRHiS – Institut de Recherches historiques du Septentrion) presents his doctoral research about sounds’ history in contemporary coalmining industry.

Go to previous issues.


by Adrien Quièvre (adrien.quievre@univ-lille.fr)

What did the 19th-century strikes of the French coal miners sound like? What were the words, the songs or the sounds miners used to trigger and spread their strikes? Did this soundscape change during the century? These are the questions I try to answer in my PhD thesis.

The starting point were the numerous books and articles in social history dedicated to the coal mines of the North of France in the 19th century. Works by Michelle Perrot, Bruno Mattéi, Diana Cooper-Richet, or Bernard Plessy and Louis Challet [1] They all depicted the strikes of miners as spontaneous, tumultuous, and violent revolts; as the miners were heard shouting and chanting in bands, for hours long and without any prior organization. The noise, the chants, the music were pictured as an impulse, driven by a collective anger, always improvised but still systematic.

Coming from a background of musicology and sound studies, I was intrigued by the sonic and musical dimension of the strikes. Yet something appeared missing in all these descriptions. For instance, I could not understand why and how these sonic practices came to be. How hundreds of workers could get together spontaneously; sing and shout the same songs, the same slogans? What made such synchronicity of sounds and voices possible? Were they only noisy because they were angry? Or were they considered angry because they were making noise? And in this case, why were they shouting, and at whom?

To find answers, I needed to study the strikes at the smallest possible scale – the scale of body, gestures, and voices. Hence my choice for a micro history perspective. In my thesis, I concentrate the research exclusively on the workers of the Anzin mining company. Founded in 1757, the Anzin coal company, in the North of France, was the first major mining company in the country. In the middle of the 19th century, it hired 12,000 workers and operated thirty mine shafts over an area of 265 km2, from which an average of 1,300,000 tonnes of coal were extracted per year, amounting to around the 15% of the national production. As for the chronological borders, my study goes from 1833 which marked the first great strike of the workers of Anzin, to 1884, their last major strike of the century.

It turns out that, between 1833 and 1884, the workers of the Anzin mining company launched nineteen strikes and attempted strikes. The archival sources available for the Anzin strikes are considerable. From police records, correspondence between prefects, press writings, company records – all giving a detailed yet quite intimidating account of the conflicts; hour by hour, sometimes minute after minute.

While analysing these documents, I came upon a great variety of vocal and sonic practices employed by the miners to begin, propagate, and hold their strikes: noise intended to wake sleeping miners and force them to engage in the conflict; clandestine meetings; improvised or planned negotiations with their superiors; illicit acoustic communication using some sort of morse code; songs directed against their employers or in favour of the French Republic; dispersal of groups of silent demonstrators in the countryside to escape the gendarmes’ roadblocks; presence of musicians in parades.

What struck me first is that while the majority of historians have insisted on the tumultuous, violent, and suddenness aspects of these conflicts, this explosive aspect largely deserved to be mitigated. Between 1833 and 1884, the vast majority of the strikes were initiated without any racket or violence following a similar scenario: the miners would reunite at dawn, at the coal mines entrance and calmly state the reason of their refusal. There was very little trace of uproar, not one word spoken louder than another, nor apparent hostile intentions. On many occasions, archives describe the miners as trying to engage a discussion with their superiors, convincing them and other workers of the legitimacy of their action, debating and negotiating the conditions of their work reprisal. Some strikes, lasting only a few hours, even resorbed without noise or violence.

What about noise then? Is it entirely absent from the records? No, as the miners – men, women, and children – did in fact march together, hundreds, thousands sometimes, to sing and shout their revendications. However, these sounding marches were all but unorganized and tempestuous demonstrations. Strikers used a great variety of words, of chants, and vocal intensities depending on the contexts, their objectives and their interlocutors. For instance, specific shouts were used to signal the start of the strike near the workers’ house. At the same time, near the superiors’ offices, strikers would collectively sing their demands to make sure they’d get heard. Nonetheless, even tumultuous, crowds of miner were always inclined to engage in discussions with their superiors of the authorities. The restitution of this kind of moments highlights how the noise of the miners is made up of myriad dynamics, effects, and trajectories; that it is triggered intermittently according to various intentions.

Finally, it is common to read in the historiography that the Anzin miners became quieter and more controlled over the course of the century, largely due to the influence of unionization in the coalfield which began in the early 1880s [2]. But it seems that, from the first protest events of the century, miners used a wide variety of strategies to make themselves heard – ranging from planned and noisy demonstrations, loud voices, and charivaris, to silences, discussions, and discreet vocal manoeuvres. This sheds light on the plural and reasoned way in which the workers used their voice and their body to protest.

Of course, these are only few exemples of the sounds and the voices that make the miners’ strike history. There would be much more to say, for instance on the specific strategies deployed by the authorities in order to block the discussions between workers and silence the sound processions of strikers [3] but these few elements prove, I believe, how social history and sound history can be used together to help bring a new understanding of the mining history from a corporal and sensorial perspective.

[1] See: Michelle Perrot, Les ouvriers en grève : France 1871-1890, Paris, Mouton, 1974; Bruno Mattéi, Rebelle, rebelle ! Révoltes et mythes du mineur, 1830-1946, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 1987; Diana Cooper-Richet, Le peuple de la nuit. Mines et mineurs en France, xixexxe siècle, Paris, Perrin, 2011 [2002]; Bernard. Plessy, Louis Challet, La vie quotidienne des mineurs au temps de Germinal, Paris, Hachette, 1984.

[2] I discuss the influence of unionization on the vocal and sonic practices of strikers in: « A sounding politic of objects: coal miners charivaris during the 1884 strike in Anzin », Christopher Fletcher (dir.), Everyday Political Objects From the Middle Ages to the Contemporary World, London, Routledge, 2021, pp. 151-169.

[3] For instance: roadblocks, identity check, reinforced surveillance, closing of cabarets where the strikers meet and discuss their next steps.

Cite this blog post
LIM COORDINATORS (2022, May 5). YMHC #5: A study of sound and voice during coal miners’ strikes, Northern France, (1833-1884) – by A. Quièvre. Labour In Mining. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qwdk

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