Children in the Mines

The Little Trapper  (Author unknown, Publication possibly

Little Trapper

The little trapper of eight years of age lies quiet in bed. The labours of the preceding day had procured sleep.
“It is now between two and three in the morning and his mother shakes him, and desires him to rise, and tells him that his father has an hour ago gone off to the pit. Instantly he starts into conscious existence. He turns on his side, rubs his eyes, and gets up and comes to the blazing fire, and puts on his clothes. His coffee, such as it is, stands by the side of the fire. and bread is laid down for him. The fortnight is now well advanced, the money all spent, and butter, bacon, and other luxurious accompaniments of bread, are not to be had at breakfast till next pay-day supply the means. He then fills the tin bottle with coffee, and takes a lump of bread, and sets out for the pit. into which he goes down with the cage, and walking along the horse-way for upwards of a mile, he reaches the barrow-way over which the young men and boys push the trams with the tubs on rails to the flats, where the barrow-way and the horse-way meet, and where the tubs are transferred to trolleys or carriages drawn by horses.

He knows his place of work. It is inside one of the doors called trap-doors, which is in the barrow-way, for the purpose of forcing the stream of air which passes in its long many-miled course from the down-shaft to the up-shaft of the pit: but which door must be opened whenever men or boys, with or without carriages, may wish to pass through. He seats himself in a little hole, about the size of a common fireplace, and with the string in his hand and all his work is to pull that string when he has to open the door, and when man or boy has passed through, then to allow the door to shut of itself. Here it is his duty to sit, and be attentive, and pull his string promptly as anyone approaches. He may not stir above a dozen steps with safely from his charge, lest he should be found neglecting his duty, and suffer for the same.”He sits solitary by himself and has no one to talk to him: for in the pit the whole of the people, men and boys, are as busy as if they were in a sea: fight. He however sees every now and again the pullers urging forward their trams through his gate, and derives some consolation from the glimmer of the little candle of about 40 to the lb which is fixed on their trams. For he himself has no light. His hours, except at such times, are passed in total darkness, For the first week of his service in the pit his father had allowed him candles to light one after another, but the expense of three-halfpence a day was so extravagant expenditure out of ten pence, the boy’s daily wages, that his father of course withdrew the allowance the second week, all except one or two candles in the morning, and the week after the allowance was altogether taken away; and now except a neighbour kinder than his father now and then drop him a candle as he passes, the boy has no light of his own.


Thus hour after hour passes away, but what are hours to him, seated in darkness, in the, bowels of the earth? He knows nothing of the ascending or descending sun. Hunger, however, though silent and unseen, acts upon him and he betakes to his bottle of coffee and slice of bread and if desirous, he may have the luxury of softening it in a portion of the water in the pit, which is brought down for man and beast.
In this state of sepulchral existence an insidious enemy gains upon him. His eyes are shut, and his ears fail to announce the approach of a tram. A deputy overman comes along and a smart cut of his yard-wand at once punishes the culprit, and recalls him to his duty and happy was it for him that he fell into the hands of the deputy overman, rather than one of the putters; for his fist would have inflicted a severer pain. The deputy overman moreover consoles him, by telling him that it was for his good that he punished him and reminds him of boys well known to both, who when asleep had fallen down, and some had been severely wounded and others killed. The little trapper believes that he is to blame, and makes no complaint; for he dreads being discharged and he knows that his discharge would be attended with the loss of wages, and bring upon him the indignation of his father, more terrible to endure than the momentary vengeance of the deputy and the putters all taken together.


“Such is the day-work of the little trapper in the barrow-way. At last the joyful sound’ of “loose, loose” reaches his ears. The news of its being four o’clock, and of the order “loose, loose” having been shouted down the shaft, is by systematic arrangement sent for in any miles in all directions round the farthest extremities of the pit. The trapper waits until the last putter passes with his tram, and then he follows and pursues his journey to the foot of the shaft and takes an opportunity of getting into the cage and going up when he can. By five o’clock he may probably get home. Here he finds a warm dinner, boiled potatoes, and broiled bacon lying above them. He eats heartily at the warm fire, and: sits a little after, he dare not go, out to play with the other boys, for the more he plays the more he is sure to sleep the next day in the pit. He therefore remains quiet at home, until, feeling drowsy he then repeats the prayer taught by our blessed lord takes off his clothes, and is thoroughly washed in hot water by his mother and is laid in his bed.
“The Saturday after Pay Friday is a holiday in the pit and on that day the trapper lies in bed till between eight and nine, He rises and gets his breakfast, and then goes out to the highway to gather the manure of the horses to put on his father’s potato-garden. In the afternoon he indulges heartily in .play, as he is not afraid of falling asleep next day and of receiving the yard-wand of the deputy overman, or the fist of the putter.


“On Sunday he goes to the Sunday School an hour before divine service. The fatigues of the week have left him but little spirit to attend to any learning, but his presence in the school secures his presence in .the place of worship. He returns and dines between twelve and one. He goes again to the Sunday School, and attends divine worship. He gets tea on his return. Then he walks out, and may be tempted to join other boys in some diversion. He returns home, say his prayers, undresses, washes, and goes into bed.”
This passage is not quoted from some fanciful description
of working-class life in the middle ages, or of the treatment of children in some distant slave nation of long ago: it is an example of the daily routine of a little Durham pit lad 125 years ago, as submitted in evidence to Queen Victoria by one of the examiners appointed by her to investigate conditions in the mines.
‘Up to 1840, although various Committers of the House of Commons had inquired into the condition of those employed in mills and factories, little was generally known of the circumstances of workers in the mining industry, beyond the fact that their occupation was “amongst the most laborious in which it is the lot of human beings to toil” and that large numbers of children were employed at an incredibly early age. No attempt of any kind had been made to ascertain the ages at which children began work in the mines, the number of hours worked the exact nature of their employment or its effect on their morals and health. Vague rumours having reached the ears of those in high places concerning the ill-usage of children in colliery districts and the sacrifice of young lives in an appalling spate of mining accidents, the Children’s Employment Commission was instructed to inquire into the “Employment of Children of the Poorer Classes in Mines and Collieries.”


All mining districts in the United Kingdom and all forms of mining—coal, ironstone, tin, copper, lead and zinc came within the scope of the survey, and to conduct inquiries on the spot twelve sub-commissioners were appointed by the Home Secretary from among persons whose previous knowledge and pursuits seemed to qualify them| for investigating industry in the districts assigned to them.
If these gentlemen had any doubts as to the arduous nature of work in the mines they were soon dispelled, the mere task of inspecting the mines proving too much for them, as the following extract from the Commission’s report indicates.
“Such was the severity of the season in which these gentlemen had to commence their labours, that nearly all of them incurred serious indisposition, which in a short time compelled Mr Wood to give up the task he had undertaken, and from which Mr Roper never recovered during the whole term of his labours. Mr Austin, also, towards the close of his labours, suffered from severe indisposition induced by-unusual fatigue: nor will this amount of illness occasion surprise to any one Who knows the toilsome nature of the duty of inspecting mines, or who is acquainted with the character of the other places of work which were visited in rapid succession by persons accustomed only to ordinary exposure, and to ordinary changes of temperature.”‘


However, by making further appointments as necessary, the Commission was able to proceed with its work and the various sub – commissioners undertook responsibility for particular districts. The Northumberland and Durham Coalfield was of great importance at that time, supplying as it did not only the coal requirements of its own area but also the markets of. North Yorkshire, the Scottish border counties, and the whole of the eastern and southern coasts as far west as Cornwall, in addition to the great South – Eastern region, largely due to the fact that cheap sea transport was available for the supply of coal from Northumberland and Durham to those areas, and to a flourishing overseas market. The coal-field was divided for the purposes of investigation into two districts, South Durham being that portion of County Durham lying to the south of the River Wear, and North Durham and Northumberland the remainder of the coalmining district.
With a few exceptions the employers of child labour afforded all facilities to the sub-commissioners in the pursuit of their investigations, but not so many co-operated by completing the required forms and tables. The result was that no reliable estimate could be formed of the total number of child workers, but from those returns which were submitted the Commission, was able to evaluate the respective proportions of young persons and adults in the mining industry.


Some difficulty was experienced in obtaining a true picture of the minimum age at which children were allowed to begin work in the mines, since the tendency was for a higher age to be quoted by colliery owners, their agents and officials than was given by the children themselves, by the adult workmen, doctors, schoolmasters, clergy, and magistrates who were questioned. It was commonplace for children of five, six and seven years to be employed below ground, but the evidence of the owners and their representatives seems to point to the fact that they were ignorant of this. Dealing with the owners’ evidence, the report has this to say:
“With regard to the coal owner it must be borne in mind that they seldom or never descend into the pits, that few of them have any knowledge, or take any superintendence whatever of the workpeople; that, therefore, they may be wholly ignorant of the early ages at which children are employed in their own mines, so that, when they make such declarations as have been cited they may state only what they really believe to be the truth, though the, incorrectness of their evidence is indubitably established by other classes of witnesses.”
Another possible explanation of the reluctance of the owners and masters to admit to the facts might be a sense of guilt in the matter, but it must in fairness be stated that parents
often pleaded with colliery officials to take their children into employment at a tender age and were inclined to represent the children as being older than they were. One reason for their eagerness may have been the fact that in certain areas there were rules among the colliers for limiting or “stinting” each other’s earnings to some 3s 6d or 4s 0d per day..


In other words, whatever quantity of coal was delivered at the pit bottom the employer paid no more than this sum, it having been fixed as the man’s darg, or day’s work, even though the employer might be willing to pay more. But if a man had children, they could assist him in his work, so that he could get through his darg in a shorter time and with less personal effort.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the ages admitted to by the owners and management in respect of children employed by them were generally higher than those quoted by all other parties interrogated. The following exchange is reported by one of the Sub-commissioners in his investigation when he questioned a colliery official known as the ground bailiff. Also present were two charter-masters (men who contracted for a stipulated sum to work the mines) and a collier. “I say, Jonas said the ground bailiff to one of the charter-masters, ‘that there

Tender Trappers Of County Durham

are very few children working in this mine: I think you have none under ten or eleven. The collier immediately said Sir, my boy is only a little more than four. This was a very unseasonable interruption; and all that the ground bailiff said was Well I suppose that you take good care of him; you take him down and up when you go yourself.”
It seems incredible that a child of four should be employed below ground, but his was by no means a unique instance, in the North Durham and Northumberland district a sub-commissioner, Mr Leifchild, reported one case of four and a half year old, and several cases of five-year-old underground workers were noted. Mr George Elliott was head viewer (manager of a group of collieries) for Monkwearmouth, Washington and Belmont and he quoted several instances of five-year-old children being employed, saying he was “very much pressed and entreated by parents to take children at a very early age, from six years and upwards.”


Mr Leifchild saw a little boy, of six, Thomas Roker, keeping a door down Flatworth pit at about 7 o’clock on a Sunday evening in early summer. (The practice of entrusting the opening and closing of air lock doors to children was condemned by the Commission as being a frequent cause of fatal accidents). Mr Leifchild visited the boy’s home and questioned his mother, who stated that Thomas had started school at the age of three, his father wishing him to acquire some degree of education before going down the pit. Since starting work the boy’s timetable was to rise at 3 a.m. descend the pit at 4, return home at 4:30 or 4:45 p.m., wash and have his dinner and go to bed between 6 and 7 so as to rise again at 3a.m. She explained that although Thomas thus had only about two hours of spare time in the day when he became more hardened to the work it was the intention of his parents to stop an hour off his sleep and send him to night school. “It is a dusty pit”, said Mrs Roker, but he never complains, though he tells many a queer story of the pit. The pit does not hurt him, but makes him a little white, and perhaps thinner. He was a very fat boy when he was three years old.”

Sub-Commissioner Dr. Mitchell, in his investigations at South Durham collieries, found that the majority of trapper boys employed were under ten years of age! The conclusion which he drew from his inquiries was that though the extremely young, children represented a small proportion, there were nevertheless “‘such a number as is painful to contemplate, which the great coal-owners will perhaps now learn for the first time; and I feel a firm belief that they will do so perhaps with sorrow and regret.” Having acheived only limited success in their quest for a true picture of the actual number of children employed below ground and of the proportions in the various age groups, the Commissioners proceeded to study the evidence concerning the working hours, wages and conditions of the children, the way in which they were treated and the effects of their employment on their morals and bodily health. Their inquiries took them not only into the mines, but into the homes of the colliers, and their descriptions of home life, of the fortnightly budget, of the diet imposed on the families by a combination of little money and the need for maximum nourishment to undertake the arduous work involved, all are woven together to form a revealing backcloth against which the drama of everyday life was played. These aspects, allied to the observations of the Commissioners on the education, recreation, and social life of the youngsters as they grew up, constitute the materials for a fascinating composite picture of life in the mining villages of Durham in the 19th Century and will be examined in greater detail in the course of future articles.


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