Children in the Mines


(Author Lawrence Scollen, Publication  Sunderland Echo

DR WILLIAM MORRISON, of Pelaw House, Chester-le-Street, a physician professionally engaged in the Countess of Durham’s collieries, was asked to give evidence to the Children’s Employment Commission on certain aspects relating to the health of those working in the pits and the influence upon them of starting work at an early age. His opinion was that the pitman could be distinguished from every other operative by his outward appearance, his stature being diminutive, his figure disproportionate and misshapen, his legs bowed, his chest protruding (the thoracic region being unevenly developed), his cheeks hollow, brow over hanging, cheekbones high, fore head low and retreating, his physical condition denoting a tendency to glandular swellings and consumption. “I have seen,” he wrote, “agricultural labourers, blacksmiths,carpenters, and even those among the wan and distressed stocking weavers of Nottinghamshire, to whom the term “jolly” might not be unaptly applied, but I never saw a jolly-looking’ pitman.”

In seeking the cause of this physical degeneration, Dr Mitchell, the Sub-Commissioner who interviewed Dr Morrison, studied* the living and working conditions of the miners from their earliest days. The duties of a miner’s wife being arduous and numerous, with meals to cook for men and boys on various shifts, pit clothes to wash and men, baths to prepare, and the general running of the household to see to, she had little time to attend to her duties as nurse to the younger children. Dr Mitchell attributed a certain lethargy and dullness of spirit in the youngsters, to the fact that as babies they were left for long periods in the cradle by their overworked mothers, with no opportunity for playful activity. As little boys they followed the monotonous occupation of “trapping” which virtually condemned them to 12 hours’ solitary confinement below ground each day. and lack of education left their young minds with no mental resources by which they could while away the lonely hours.


Epidemic and contagious diseases being most prevalent where living conditions are most crowded and sanitation most primitive, more children in pit villages fell victims to such diseases than in other communities. Isolated as they were in their villages, the pitmen became a distinct race of beings.
Inter-marriage and marriage between close degrees of relationship had the effect of transmitting natural and accidental defects through the generations. The miners obtained medical treatment for themselves and their families by subscribing perhaps one shilling per month to a club, the whole amount thus subscribed being paid over to the medical man. Where the colliery was near a town, good medical attention and conscientious treatment were available, but in the remoter districts such easy money attracted unqualified and ignorant adventurers with the result that the contributors, to quote Dr Morrison again, were “purchasing misery or death concealed in the garb of salutary advice.
Those who successfully weathered the hazards of early neglect, epidemics, inherited weaknesses and doubtful medical care, were subjected as they grew older and stronger to the physical stresses and dangers of the particular class of work upon which they were engaged, each promotion or upgrading bringing with it exposure to new forms of strain and exertion and added perils.

This is the fifth of a series of articles on the children who worked in the mines of County Durham during the 19th Century.

The tiny trapper boys, as we have seen, suffered not so much from the severity of their labours as from the sheer fatigue induced by long hours spent underground. The younger putters (the “foals”) found their strength inadequate for their work; the bad air and the length of the shift rendered them liable to severe headaches, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. Strains, ruptures and backs permanently skinned from rubbing against the roof, were the hallmarks of their calling. Boils were symptomatic of the debilitated state to which the boys were reduced; one boy in his evidence blamed the heat and the salt water dripping from the roof for a crop of boils “the size of hen’s eggs” upon his legs and thighs and under his arms.


But it was upon the hewers, the young men reaching their full strength and stature in their twenties, that the blow of physical decline fell most heavily. Their bodies weakened and strained by being overtaxed in earlier life, they now had to muster all the effort of which they were capable in the merciless and unceasing battle to wrest coal from its fastness in the bowels of the earth. Curvature of the spine, bow legs (or in some cases, a deformity of the legs described as being “in-kneed”), respiratory disorders, heartstrain, chronic diseases of the stomach and liver all took their toll. The average hewer was a disabled man with the marks of old age upon him, at an age when most other men had scarcely passed their prime. If he was fortunate enough to be able to maintain the spark of life by the age of 50, then almost certainly his working life was finished! One of the medical experts giving evidence to the Commission described the progressive deterioration of health in the following terms:

“Between the twentieth and the thirtieth year many colliers decline in bodily vigour and become more and more spare; the difficulty of breathing progresses, and they find themselves very desirous of some remission of their labour. This period is fruitful in acute diseases, such as fever, inflammation of lungs and pleura, and many other ailments, the product of over-exertion, exposure to cold and wet, violence, insufficient clothing, intemperance and foul air. For the first few years chronic bronchitis is usually found alone and unaccompanied by disease of the body or the lungs. The patient suffers more or less difficulty of breathing, which is much affected by changes of the weather and by variations in the weight of the atmosphere; he coughs frequently, and the expectoration is composed, for the most part, of white frothy and yellowish mucous fluid, occasionally containing blackish particles of carbon, the result of the combustion of the lamp and also of minute coal dust.

 At first and indeed for several years, the patient for the most part does not suffer much in his general health, eating heartily and retaining his muscular strength little impaired in consequence. The disease is rarely if ever, entirely cured, and if the collier be not carried off by some other lesion in the meantime, this disease ultimately deprives him of life by slow and lingering process. The difficulty of breathing increases and becomes more or less permanent, the expectoration becomes very abundant, effusion of water takes place in the chest, the
feet swell, and the urine is secreted in small quantity, the general health gradually breaks up, and the patient, after reaching premature-old age, slips into the grave at a comparatively early period with perfect willingness on his part, and with no surprise on that of his family and friends.”


Slipping into the grave with a perfect willingness was not, however, the happy lot of all the miners of the 1840’s—many were prematurely blasted into eternity in a searing sheet of flame, crushed under a falling roof, drowned by an inrush of water, or hurled down the shaft through the breakage of a

rope. Safety precautions were rudimentary, inspections were haphazard, and even calamities of such proportions as would today merit the description “colliery disasters” were regarded as the natural risks attendant on the business of winning coal, and were thus not the subject of official inquiry, nor was any complete register of such accidents maintained.
The custom of entrusting to trappers of tender years the duties of opening and closing air-look doors was the cause of many frightful accidents declared Dr Mitchell in his report of conditions in South Durham. If a trapper should leave a door open when it ought to be closed, the current of air taking the wrong direction could allow inflammable gases to accumulate and explode. Such an incident was held to be the cause of an explosion at Willington Colliery in 1841 in which 32 lives were lost. “One act of omission of assigned duty, one solitary momentary neglect, may cause the instant destruction of life and property to an indefinite extent.” And the guardians of the safety of all the men and boys working in the pits were babes of anything from four years of age upwards!

Winding accidents took their toll of many lives, and although most colliery owners claimed they had regulations as to the numbers of men ascending and descending at any one time, it was difficult to ascertain what these regulations were, or whether they were in fact enforced. Very often it was left to the discretion of the banksman at the shaft top and the onsetter at the bottom. At South Hetton Colliery the rule was that the combined weight of the men being drawn up should not exceed the weight of coals usually drawn up by the rope. This pit was 180 fathoms deep, the rope 220 fathoms long, and two tons in weight. Two cages came up at a time, each with a tub of 20 or 30 pecks (6 or 9 cwt.), the combined weight of cage, tub. and coal being 35cwt. At Wearmouth Colliery a large iron tub 13cwt. in weight was used for drawing coals and workmen. The top diameter was 3ft. 8in., the middle 4ft. 2in and the bottom diameter 3ft.10in, the depth being 6ft. 3in. Eleven men or up to 14 boys were conveyed in this contrivance at each winding.


Such luxuries as cages and tubs were unknown at many pits, and it was customary for men to ride in pairs on the “loop”. This was a loop formed in the shaft chain into which a pair of men would each insert one leg, grasping the chain above with one hand and wielding a stick in the other to counteract the oscillations encountered as they proceeded up or down the shaft. Many accidents were occasioned by rope or chain breakages, by falling down the shaft by being struck by falling materials or by being wound over the pulley due to the lack of a proper signalling system between the shaft and the winding engine-man.

Leaving aside occurrences such as explosions and shaft accidents which killed or maimed numbers of workmen at one blow, the Commissioners turned their attention to the numerous accidents in the pit which resulted in individual deaths or injuries. Inadequate roof support was responsible for many such accidents and the method of knocking out the supports in board and pillar working practised in Northumberland and North Durham came in for severe criticism from Dr Leifchild, a criticism heightened perhaps because he was investigating the operation at close quarters. After removal of the coal pillars as far as possible. the timber props supporting the roof were drawn or knocked down by two men, who then beat an extremely hasty retreat, since the withdrawal of each prop was usually accompanied by the fall of large masses of stone “in perilous proximity to ourselves,” wrote Dr Leifchild “a proximity none the less alarming when one was aware of the number of accidents that occur from such falls in the performance of this dangerous duty.”
Lacerations, internal injuries, fractures, crush injuries, loss of eyes, of hands and of limbs, brain damage, haemorrhage – so the dreary catalogue goes on and the list lengthens, while the laconic explanation against each incident at those pits where records were kept reads “Fell down shaft.” “Slipped off rope,” “Wagons fell on him.” “Drawn into drum of engine,” “Jammed by tubs,” “Fell before tram,” and so on through all the gamut of doleful misadventures.


The Children’s Employment Commission, in its final summing-up. made the following reference to the frequency of accidents in the mines:
“That in all the coalfields accidents of a fearful nature are extremely frequent, and that the returns made to our own queries, as well as the registry tables, prove that of the workpeople who perish by such accidents, the proportion of children and young persons sometimes equals and rarely falls much below that of adults.
“That one of the most frequent causes of accidents in these mines is the want of superintendence by overlookers or otherwise to see to the security of the machinery for letting down and bringing up the workpeople, the restriction of the number of persons that


ascend and descend at a time, the state of the mine as to the quantity of noxious gas in it, the efficiency of the ventilation, the exactness with which the air-door keepers perform their duty, the place into which it is safe or unsafe to go with a naked lighted candle, and the security of the proppings to uphold the roof, etc.
‘That another frequent cause of accidents in coalmines is the almost universal practice of intrusting the closing of the air-doors to very young children.
“That there are many mines in which the most ordinary . precautions to guard against accidents are neglected, and in which no money appears to be expended with a view to ‘” secure the safety, much less the comfort, of the work- people.”


Concerning the physical effects” of work below ground, the report continues:
“That the employment in -these mines commonly produces in the first instance, an extraordinary degree of muscular development accompanied by a corresponding degree of muscular strength; this preternatural development and strength being acquired at the expense of the other organs, as is shown by the general stunted growth of the body.
“That partly by the severity of the labour and the long hours of work, and partly through the unhealthy state of the place of work, this employment, as at present carried on in all the districts, deteriorates the physical constitution; in the thin-seam mines, more especially, the limbs become crippled and the body distorted; and in general the muscular powers give way, and the workpeople are incapable of following their occupation, at an earlier period of life than is common in other branches of industry.
“That by the same causes the seeds of painful and mortal diseases are very often sown in childhood and youth; these, slowly but steadily developing themselves, assume a formidable character between the ages or 30 and 40; and each generation of this class of the population is commonly extinct soon after 50.”


Thus emerges a melancholy picture of waifs being condemned to the darkness of the pit at an age when children today are not considered ready for the infant school, of their constant exposure to maiming or sudden death, of their development into stunted, crippled, anaemic adults fighting for every breath, their energy sapped and their vital organs irreparably damaged by injury and overstrain with no glimmering of light ahead of them until the day when they would prematurely but “with perfect willingness” slip into the grave.
Was it possible against this dismal background for their short lives to hold out any promise of pleasure; was there to be any escape whatever from the grinding tyranny and stark tragedy of their daily routine; was any rest or comfort to be found in their leisure-time pursuits or their home lives? The next article will endeavour to throw some light on the recreations, living conditions, and social aspects forming the background to the existence of the Children of Darkness.

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