Mijncité Winterslag.

Winterslag, the first mining village in Limburg, 1923. Today it houses Feniks, previously the Limburg Associazioni Cristiane Lavoratori Italiani (ACLI) | Genk, Collectie Geheugen van Genk, Emile Van Dorenmuseum


Landscape, Environment & Mobility
1901 - 1992
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Multicultural Mining Villages

Coal in Limburg

The discovery of coal in Central Limburg in 1901 heralded a new era for the region. There suddenly appeared in the quiet Limburg Campine derricks, roads, railway lines and new estates. The mining villages were gradually populated by workers from home and abroad.

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To mine the recently discovered coal seams, various mining companies established themselves in Limburg. There was no shortage of capital for the developers, though there was one of labour. Because the region was sparsely populated, the future workforce must come from elsewhere. For those thousands of workers and their wives the mining companies had mining villages or cités built. Besides houses they built schools and churches, sports infrastructure and theatre auditoria. In this way the mine bosses exercised a lot of control over their employees.

The plan of the mining boards to attract workers from far and wide with green streets and nice houses, was only a partial success. So they recruited miners from Eastern and Southern Europe, Turkey and North Africa. Hence the mining villages grew into a melting pot of languages, cultures and religions.

Opbouw mijn Winterslag.

Hasselt, State Archives

After the discovery of coal deep underground, drilling towers appeared on the Limburg heathlands. The photo shows the construction of the Winterslag mine, 18 April 1910.

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Coal in Limburg

The discovery of coal in Limburg in the summer of 1901 was great news. At the time coal was the principal source of energy and so many hoped that the poor province would progress towards a period of prosperity and economic development.

Large financial and industrial groups, which were also active in Wallonia, set up mining companies in Limburg in 1907. They faced great challenges: the coal seams were at a depth of five hundred metres or more that was difficult to reach. In addition, the sparsely-populated heathland lacked many basic provisions, such as sufficient housing and road infrastructure. In 1914 the war also broke out. As a result, the first mine – Winterslag in Genk – did not go into production until 1917. In the next few years five other mines opened. At the height of their exploitation, shortly after the Second World War, they provided employment for a labour force of 44,000 workers.

The coal mines brought the Catholic, rural population into contact with phenomena from the modern industrial world, such as Socialism and trades unions. In addition, the coal industry brought a strong increase in population with a very diverse cultural composition. Seldom had one branch of industry in Flanders transformed a whole region so fundamentally in such a short time.

Focal points

Fatih moskee.

Collectie PCCE, photo Bert Van Doorslaer

The Turkish Fatih mosque helps define the skyline of Beringen-Mijn.


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‘Guest Workers’

Mining was a hard and unhealthy occupation. As a miner you descended every working day hundreds of metres underground in order with a heavy hammer, lying on your belly or your back to dig out coal seams in a stiflingly hot shaft. Dust and noise were everywhere and the danger of collapses, fire or explosions was real. Brown lung was a feared disease. Among the local population there was little enthusiasm for going down the mines.

Hence the mining companies, as well in Limburg as in Wallonia, went abroad in search of mineworkers. As early as the 1920s thousands of workers came from Eastern Europe and Italy and wound up in the Limburg mines. After the Second World War the mines recruited masses of workers from countries around the Mediterranean. An agreement with Italy in 1946 opened the door to the arrival of 50,000 Italian workers. The Italians were eager to flee the unemployment and poverty in their homeland and were seduced by the wages offered by the Belgian mines. Their first working day underground was a shock for many of them. They had been totally unable to imagine what the work involved. Some immediately handed in their notice, but a large group stayed on, often for want of an alternative.

After additional agreements and recruitment campaigns Spanish and Greek and post 1964 also Turkish and Moroccan workers who could not find work in their home countries, followed suit. They settled with their families in the cités and built a life for themselves even after the mine closures. In that way they laid the foundation for the ethnic-cultural diversity of Central Limburg.


Marcinelle © SIR

The mine disaster in Marcinelle in Wallonia on 8 August 1956 cost 262 lives, 136 of them Italian. The disaster continued to reverberate in Flanders too.

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The Decline of the Coal Industry

In 1957 the six Limburg mines celebrated. Not only did they make much of their fiftieth birthday in that year, but they came up with new production records. However, the birthday year also heralded the beginning of a decline. The coal mines felt the competition of foreign imports and the up-and-coming petroleum industry.

Actually the Limburg mines were no longer profitable in the early 1960s. Meanwhile Belgium formed part of the European Community for Coal and Steel (ECSC): that provided financial support, but obliged the sector to reform. In 1960, after the closure of various Walloon mines, a first Limburg mine – Zwartberg – had to close. The miners reacted furiously. They went on strike and occupied the mine. During violent conflict with the gendarmerieBelgian police service. In 2001 it was integrated into the federal police. two people were killed. But the protest could not stop the closure.

The other mines continued production for a while with government support, but in the long term their fate was sealed. With closure of Zolder in 1992 the curtain fell on the Limburg – and Belgian – coal industry. The closure of the Belgian mines, however, did not mean the end of the coal era. Despite the proven negative impact of fossil fuels on the climate, coal remains an important source of energy worldwide.

Onmiddellijk na de bevrijding werden Duitse krijgsgevangenen in de mijnen tewerkgesteld. Ze verbleven in barakkenkampen die ze tijdens de oorlog voor Russische krijgsgevangenen hadden opgetrokken. Deze foto toont de barakken van Eisden.
Eisden, Stichting Erfgoed Eisden

Immediately after the liberation in 1945 German prisoners-of-war were put to work in the mines. They were housed in hutted camps, which they had built for Russian prisoners-of-war during the war. This photo shows the huts of Eisden.

Word mijnwerker.
Private collection Luc Minten

After the Second World War, in order to attract miners, the government introduced the Miner’s Statute. This entitled miners to a mix of concessions, paid holidays and other benefits such as exemption from military service and free train tickets.

Vriendschap ondergronds.
Eisden, Stichting Erfgoed Eisden

The heavy work underground also created bonds of comradeship.

Gastarbeiders Vespa.
Eisden, Stichting Erfgoed Eisden

Guestworkers and their families found their way to the Limburg mining area. In some mines guestworkers made up more than half the workforce.

Eisden, Stichting Erfgoed Eisden

Brown lung disease was a dreaded affliction among miners. Constantly breathing in coal and stone dust damaged the lungs, eventually resulting in death.

De steenkoolmijnen lieten blijvende sporen na in het landschap, zoals afvalheuvels of terrils. Na de mijnsluitingen kregen een aantal van die terrils een tweede leven als natuurgebied of, zoals hier in Beringen, recreatieplek. Beeld uit 2017.
Beringen, be-MINE Beringen

The coalmines left lasting traces in the landscape, such as slag heaps or spoil tips. After the closure of the mines a number of those tips acquired a second life as nature reserves, or like here in Beringen, as a recreational area. Photo from 2017.

Discover more on this topic

Kinderen van de migratie
Kinderen van de migratie: Het beloofde land. Een nieuw leven.

Bron: VRT archief, AMSAB, Musée de la Vie wallonne – 31 aug 2021 – 7 sep 2021

Boulevard – Eigen volk en ander volk (2)

Bron: VRT archief, AMSAB, Cinematek, Belgisch Leger – 30 dec 1992

Te voet door Vlaanderen

Bron: VRT archief en Mijnmuseum Beringen – 12 nov 1963

Vlaanderen Vakantieland

Bron: VRT archief, Museum van de mijnwerkerswoning Eisden – 16 apr 2005


Beyers Leen
Iedereen zwart: het samenleven van nieuwkomers en gevestigden in de mijncité Zwartberg, 1930 – 1990

Aksant, 2007. 

Coppieters Guy
De Belgische Kolenslag 1944-1951: het mirakel dat er geen was

Algemeen Rijksarchief, 2021. 

Delbroek Bart
In de put. De arbeidsmarkt voor mijnwerkers in Belgisch-Limburg, 1900-1966

Verloren, 2016. 

Geheugen Collectief
Limburg in 9 vragen

OKV, 2018. 

Minten Luc, Raskin Ludo & Soete Antoon
Een eeuw steenkool in Limburg

Lannoo, 1992.

Van Doorslaer Bert & De Rynck Patrick (red.)
Mijnerfgoed in Limburg. Ondergronds verleden, bovengrondse toekomst

OKV, 2012. 

Van Meulder Griet & De Rijck Tine
De ereburgers: een sociale geschiedenis van de Limburgse mijnwerkers

EPO, 2000. 

Veldeman Johan
Diep. De mijnologen

Coalface, 2018. 


Beerten Luc
De put: een stomme film

SUN, 1988. 

Demyttenaere Bart & Sneyers Joachim
Licht in de tunnel: Emiel, ridder van de mijn

Clavis, 2022. (9+) 

Kustermans Paul
Voor Paulien

Averbode, 1995.(12+) 

Van Looi Minus

Pro Arte, 1946. 

Nu kijken

Limburg in 9 vragen: de Limburgse steenkoolmijnen
Uit de grond, uit het hart

(Erfgoedcel Mijn-Erfgoed)

Bijkomend kijk/luister materiaal

De mijnen. 14 films over de Belgische steenkoolmijnen


50 jaar Turkse migratie