Children in the Mines

The New Driver 

 (Author unknown, Publication possibly Sunderland Echo) 

DR JAMES MITCHELL, LID., in reporting to Queen Victoria his findings concerning the “Employment of Children and Young Persons in the Mines of the South Durham Coalfield between the Wear and the Tees” painted a vivid picture of working conditions and social life in the 1830’s. His report was no mere collection of dry statistics and bald statements of fact; although well documented and confining itself to the main headings of inquiry laid down by the Commission, it nevertheless contains some graphic descriptions of County Durham as it appeared to the eye of a newcomer and describes with many a picturesque turn of phrase the way of life in those turbulent days.
His account of the work of the underground driver is not just a catalogue of the duties performed, but a revealing pen-picture of his day’s work, his grievances, and his personal feelings. Drivers were usually appointed from the ranks of the more experienced trapper-boys, and Dr. Mitchell, by way of introduction, described the trapper’s progress through the grade of rolley way trapper before becoming a driver.

Year after year passes on, and the trapper, being now of increased size and strength, is promoted to hold a string of a door on the rolley-way or horse way. There is no increase in his pay, but he holds a higher rank in the pit, and is in a fair way of soon rising to be driver of horses, and of getting 15d a day. The doors on the rolley-way are heavier than on the barrow-way. but his strength is abundantly great for the work. He is now less in the way of the yard wand of the deputy over-man, but if he neglect his duty and fall asleep, he will most probably be wakened by the thong of the first horse-driver who is stopped at his door; and if he dare to be saucy the driver will leap from his carriage, and treat him with his clenched fist. For diverse and strong reasons he takes this very quietly, and the overman, the managers, and proprietors of the pit, finding no complaints, believe that their boys are the most orderly in the world and as gentle as lambs.


“At last the beginning of April arrives, and the trapper, now a strong lad is informed that his name appears on the list of drivers; and that he will now enter on the dignity, duty, and emoluments of that office.
“The late trapper, now promoted to be a driver, rises at the same hour as before, and by 4 o’clock is down the pit at the foot of the shaft ready to begin his work. He finds his horse duly caparisoned by the horse-keeper, and he takes him and hooks him to the first carriage, which is called a, rolley, and to which another rolley is hooked, and a third one to that; he gets upon the limber behind the horse, and sets forward on his first journey, rejoicing in his horse, his carriages, his whip, and — the most agreeable of all — the candle by his side, he comes up to the termination of the horseway, where he is to receive loaded tubs from the putters; he places the horse so that the forepart of his first rolley is just before the tramway, and he rolls the tub upon his rolley. He moves his horse forward a pace or two, and then rolls another tub on his rolley; he then moves his horse and loads his second rolley and then his third rolley. He then unhooks his horse, and brings him to the other end of the rolleys and hooks him to what was the third, which now becomes the first rolley, and getting on the limber, sets out with his first cargo towards the shaft.

“When he meets another driver coming with his empty rolleys he boldly keeps his way by right of his load, and the driver, horse, and empty rolleys must move on a siding until he passes. Woe to the trapboy who this day is found asleep when he comes up. He recollects what was done in such case to himself, and he luxuriates in his new-born power He arrives at the foot of the shaft, and has now performed his first journey. His tubs of his first rolley are now pushed off into a cage and are carried up; and the tubs of his second and third rolley, as cages come down. His cargo being delivered, and. empty tubs placed on his rolleys, he sets out on his second journey, and thus he goes on throughout the day, travelling altogether perhaps 30 miles in the12 hours.


“This promotion to be a driver, though flattering to his feelings, and adding largely to his pecuniary resources, is not without its drawbacks: he has no time allowed to eat his dinner; ever onwards must he go; all he can do is to snatch a mouthful at the foot of the shaft, or wherever else he can. He now envies the trapper who. sitting quietly in his seat, can eat his morsel when nature prompts him to do so
“There is another grievance inflicted on his order which every driver feels to be an oppression. Till within a few years ago, it was the custom to have a crane at the flats, where the barrow-way and the horse-way meet, and every tub was hoisted up and deposited on the rolley by men and boys kept for that purpose. Now, in many pits the cranes are withdrawn, and the plan is to make the horseroad a little deeper so that the top of the rolley shall be as low as the tram, and the tub is rolled from the tram to the rolley. The cranes-men are withdrawn along with the crane, and the question was, who should perform the new duty – of rolling on the tubs – the putters or the drivers. The weakest go to the wall. The drivers were compelled to undertake this additional labour, without additional pay. This hereditary grievance is murmured against by every succeeding set of drivers, but in vain, and they must submit
“On an equal footing with the drivers, as to honour and emolument, are boys whose employment is to attend to the switches, and so to place them, where two or more roads in the pit diverge, as that the rolleys may be sent the road by which they are ordered to go. At some openings of two roads a rolley is to be sent by one of the roads, and the next rolley by the other, alternately. There are switches also on the tram ways, otherwise called barrow ways. Misunderstandings some times occur between the switchers, and the drivers and putters.
“Of the same tank and emolument are the boys who sweep the railways or the barrow-ways or tramways. If the road be wet. the operation is performed with a straw and an iron shovel. If the road be dry it is done by bundles of straw in the hands of the tramway cleaner Formerly, wheelbarrows were used, and hence the name of barrow-way which is still continued.”


Other occupations assigned to boys and described in the report include helpers-up, materials leaders, cranesmen and accountants.
Helpers-up were youths employed to assist in pushing the trams up severe gradients. In some cases they had horses which they attached to the trams, walking with them to the top of the incline, then unhooking them and returning to repeat the operation. At 16 or 17 years of age these youths were paid 3s a day.
Some boys led horses with water-carts around the workings. The water was for consumption by the men and boys, and by the horses; it was also sprinkled on the roadways to “lay” the dust. In addition the water leaders were responsible for carrying away the water which collected in some parts of the pit, and for bringing in wood which was used to support the roof. Stone leaders were boys who conducted carts with stones for repairing the roadways and sometimes building walls at the side of the roadways.
The cranesmen worked at the flats, the flat plates of coarse cast iron which stood at the termination of the tramway and close to the rolleyway. At some of the older pits it was the practice to make use of a crane at the flats for hoisting the corves (wicker baskets holding from four to seven cwt. of coal) up from the trams and transferring them to a rolley which then carried the coals to the shaft This work was performed by boys, and was extremely arduous A more usual method was to use tubs – square wood or metal boxes – instead of corves, and to lay the horseway at a lower level than the tram-way. When the tram arrived carrying its tub it was thus above the rolley and the tub could be rolled from the tram into the rolley.
The boys dignified by the name of “accountants’1 were lads who noted down the number of corves or tubs brought to the flats by each putter. There were also arrangements for noting the amount of work done by the piece-rate hewers. Account was similarly kept of the coals brought to the surface and this had to agree with the total of the under ground accounts


The Sub-Commissioner noted, perhaps with some surprise, that errand boys were not kept in the pits for the convenience of the men. as was done in some other coalfields. The extent of the roadways and the distance of the shaft from the inbye workings made it impracticable for men to send up to the surface for anything required during their shift Men from other coalfields coming to work in Durham expressed their displeasure on being informed there was no one to wait upon them
As the boys grew bigger and stronger they became eligible for employment as putters. Those who were not yet able to push a tram unaided were allowed to work in pairs as partners, or half-marrows, performing the work by dint of their combined efforts, and sharing the wages for the job. Sometimes a youth was not quite able to get through a day’s putting, alone yet did not require a half-marrow. In such circumstances a little boy of ten or 11 would be detailed to work with him, the older boy being known as the “head man’ and his little assistant the “foal.” Usually the head man pulled the tram by means of a rope, the foal pushing from behind

Promotion to the full status of putter, however marked an important advance for the young underground worker His wage was doubled, and his position was inferior only to that of the hewer. His own talent, strength, and diligence determined his wages, for his duty was to convey to the shaft as much coal as the engine could draw up. and to this end he spared no effort, glorying in his new-found importance and his growing strength, not stopping even for a meal break. but taking a bite whenever he could His working day was 12 hours, and such was the state of weariness induced by his labours that after walking home and enjoying an ample meal by the fireside he had energy enough only to drag himself off to bed ” and his heavy eye lids move not until he hears the rap. rap, rap at the window, and the voice of the callman calling aloud to get up and prepare for the labour of the day.”


In return for something less than £2 per fortnight the duties of the putter were to take a small, four-wheeled tram, place it on the rails of the tram-
way or barrow-way; lift an empty tub on it and roll it up close to the coal hewed down by the hewers. With the assistance of the hewer he filled the tub, then pushed it forward on the tram along the rails to the flats. Here a horse would be waiting with a line of three rolleys behind him. The putter rested a moment while the full tub was rolled from the tram on to the rolley, then on receiving in exchange an empty tub he would immediately return to the face to carry out the process once again. Day by day he worked alongside the hewers, straining every sinew to keep pace with their output, envious or the fact that they left the pit at about 10 a.m. after working from 2 a.m..-and that their eight hours work had earned them wages similar to his own reward for 12 hours of concentrated effort. His sole ambition was to join their ranks, to be on the books of the colliery as a man doing a man’s work, a boy no longer.

Generally speaking the hewers were aged from 21 upwards. There were exceptions, especially in the more northerly collieries, and there are cases on record of ten and 12-year-old boys being employed as hewers. On his arrival at the coalface early in the morning, the hewer would receive his instructions from the deputy overman, strip off most of his clothes, then get down “on his hams” to under-mine the coal. The Durham miner, unlike those in southern coalfields, traditionally hews sitting on his hams. A Staffordshire miner with experience of work in both areas, expressed the difference as follows:
“The Durham man sits down on his hams and with the force of his pick, and the swing of his arms, he manages to undergo the coals one yard six inches. The Staffordshire man lies down on his side, and throws into his blows the whole weight of his body, and hence he undergoes far quicker than the Durham man; but when the Durham man rises to his legs and cuts down at the side, then he appears to advantage, and in this part of his work he is much superior to his southern rival.”

£50 A YEAR

Having undermined the coal, he made a perpendicular cut from roof to floor, drilled a hole, inserted a charge of gunpowder and brought the coal down He helped the putters to fill the tubs, then place his metal token on each tub so that it would be credited to his account. The tub had to be completely filled otherwise it was liable to forfeiture and nothing whatever would be paid for it. It must contain no stone, or a fine of 6d would be incurred When properly loaded the tub was left in the hands of the puller who pushed it, or “put” it, as already described, to the flats for checking by the accountants and transfer to the rolleyway en route for the shaft. The hewer paid for his own gunpowder and candles, each item costing 1s per fortnight He had to provide his own pick the iron of which might cost him 1s 6d and the shaft 4d. These items, together with the fines and forfeitures incurred, represented sizeable deductions from his pay and it was rare for a hewer to make more than £50 a year after off takes. He was, however, the aristocrat of the pitmen, recognizable by his jaunty swagger as he made his way homewards before 11 o’clock in the morning where, wrote the Sub Commissioner he “washes his hands, and his face and neck, wipes his body with a towel and sits down to his baked potatoes and broiled ham He may if he thinks fit put on good clothes and walk about like a gentleman in the afternoon. He takes his tea a little after four sits an hour or two by the fire, and then goes to bed and sleeps sound till the voice of the call-man arouses him to his labour.

The highest position, in the mine to which a working man could normally aspire was that of overman. These were men chosen for their diligence, steadiness of character, natural abilities and education, their duties being the general superintendence of labour in the pit.
Early in the morning, perhaps at one o’clock, the overman would descend the mine, accompanied by one of his deputies, and inspect the entire pit to ensure that it was free from gas, at the same time examining the general standard of workmanship and checking the roof supports. He would then: allocate the deputies to their various districts and give them their orders in accordance with the general instructions of the manager, or, as he was then known, the coal-viewer. An overman could expect to receive a salary of about £100 per annum
The deputy overmen were immediately subordinate to the overman, and were entrusted with the particular duty of going down at night after the workmen had left the pit and setting props to support the roof. In addition, they measured the hewers’ working places and assessed the task to be performed by the putters, made out accounts of the work done by the men and boys and the wages due to them, and kept a record of the total expenditure for their own district. Other officials of similar rank were the chief of the stonemasons who erected the walls in the pit, the chief carpenter or joiner, and the head blacksmith


A colliery, like a ship of war, said the Sub-Commissioner, must be complete within itself and must have its officers in every department.
The labours of the pit went on day after day around the clock. From about 1a.m. when the overman made his inspection the cycle continued, hewers arriving at 2 or 3 boys (putters, drivers and trappers) at 4 and remaining until 4 p.m. After the departure of the main body of workmen the deputies and maintenance men arrived to make their inspection and to withdraw and re-set the props nearer to the coal face, in preparation for the overman’s visit at 1 am next day. There is no evidence of any general dissatisfaction with the length of the working day, although it usually meant 14 hours away from home. The pit was the source of livelihood and must be worked continuously; the men and boys had some two or three hours of rest and recreation apart from their working and sleeping hours: they knew no other way of life and sought no change
Over the course of the year, due to trade fluctuations and market conditions, the masters were unable to offer employment on every working day. This, coupled with the miners’ custom of taking every other Saturday (the day after Pay Friday) as a holiday, meant that only seven or eight days’ work was available in the fortnight, and wages were paid accordingly. In times of exceptional demand for coal much overtime was worked, and the men and boys might remain down the pit for 24 or even 36 hours at a stretch. Indeed, cases were said to have been known of boys spending an entire week below ground.
. Hours were long, work laborious, leisure time severely restricted. But at least the Durham pits never claimed little girls and young women as their victims. The demoralizing and brutalizing effect of the employment of female labour for manual work underground were well known in other areas however, and the next article will examine this degrading aspect of the merciless battle to win coal at the cheapest possible price.

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