Children in the Mines



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

IT was one o’clock on a bright, sunny day, and the stranger making his way along the front street was struck by the neatness of the houses and the tidy, newly-swept condition of the path he trod. Happening to hear through the open door of one of the houses the chimes of an eight-day clock, he paused to glance within and was struck by the shining cleanliness of the interior. A chest of drawers, with brass handles and ornaments, reached from the floor to the ceiling, a huge four-poster bed boasted a coverlet made up of squares of printed calico, brightly-gleaming saucepans and other tinware utensils were displayed upon the walls. His interest being noted by the occupants he was invited to enter. The man of the house, his shift at the local colliery just completed, was fresh from his bath and about to begin his meal of baked potatoes and grilled bacon which stood on the table, flanked by a jug of foaming beer. His wife, attentive to the needs of the breadwinner, hovered in the background, neat as a pin and happy to see her man safe home from his work. It was the summer of 1840, and the stranger was Dr James Mitchell, of New Bond Street, London, who was visiting the village of Coxhoe in the course of his investigations into the employment of children in coalmines.

The house he visited on that summer day he regarded as typical of the dwellings of the better class of pitman, the hardworking man in steady employment, earning about 5s per shift and expending it on the maintenance of his home and the provision of the creature-comforts of his family. Within the previous ten years collieries had opened at numerous places between the Wear and the Tees: at each locality there had sprung into being a large village or town, with a population “almost exclusively of the collier people, beer-shop people and small shopkeepers.” The houses were built by the colliery owners or by others who let the houses on lease to the colliery owners so that the invading hordes of workmen and their families could secure accommodation within walking distance of the pit head. So great was the rush to occupy their new homes that many families settling in before the houses were properly dried, fell victims to disease and even death.

The village of Coxhoe, as described by Dr Mitchell, extended for a mile on both sides of a public road, but the houses were not continuous, there being a break after every ten or 12 houses, giving access to the streets running off to right and left. The cottages were built of stone plastered with lime, with blue slate roofs, each one identical to its neighbour. There was no yard behind or in front of them; there was no dust-hole, or convenience of any kind “nor any small building, such as is usually considered indispensable and necessary,” yet there was no unpleasant nuisance, no filth nor ashes, no decaying vegetables.

All was swept and clean. It was explained that carts came round at an early hour each morning with small coals, which were left at every front door. The carts then proceeded along the back lane, collecting all the ashes, filth and refuse, which they deposited in a heap in the adjoining field.

The houses in Coxhoe village were built to a standard pattern with a floor composed of clay, sand and lime. The front room was 14ft. by 14ft. 10in., the back room 14ft. by l0ft. and the pantry leading off from the back room 6ft. 6in. x 3ft. The upper storey consisted of one bedroom with a sloping roof. The height of the front wall of the cottage was 13ft. l0in. or 14ft. 9in., the back wall being somewhat lower. The cost of the building was £52, and where rent was charged the amount was £5 per annum. Smaller houses, built for childless couples, consisted of one room and a pantry downstairs and a bedroom upstairs, and cost £42 to build. For a population of some 5,000 mostly workers at various collieries in the neighbourhood, there were 30 beer shops. There was no Church of England building, but the Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists held meetings and had many adherents.

In the streets of most of the colliery villages were many little brick buildings used as public ovens. Small coals were shovelled into them and burned until the ovens were thoroughly heated, then the coals and ashes were swept out, the dough put in and left to bake on the hot bricks. None of the cottages had any land attached, but large fields were divided by wooden stakes into potato plots of about one twentieth of an acre each. Here and there a bright splash of colour marked the site of a collier’s flower garden. Perhaps to offset the ugliness of the pit head and the growing spoil heap, perhaps to compensate for the gloom and the confined atmosphere of his working environment, the miner often found escape and tranquillity in creating a patch of beauty, however small. At South Hetton, the Sub-Commissioner was conducted with obvious pride around one such garden by a miner who “might have competed with a Spitalfields weaver in his choice rarities. At the local prize shows the miners often exhibited blooms of such merit that they “often carried off the palm from the gentlemen’s gardeners.”

South Hetton at this time had a population of about 2.500, who occupied houses better built and roofed than most, according to Dr R. Elliott, Lecturer in Materia Medica at the Newcastle School of Medicine, who was asked to give evidence to the Commission by virtue of his having practised in the Thornley and South Helton area during 1837 and 1838. There was no resident medical practitioner in South Hetton at the time of his report, and none nearer than two miles away, except such “irregular practitioners” as midwives, bone – setters and “charmers.”

Dr Elliott’s picture of the average colliery village is a good deal less salubrious than that painted by Dr Mitchell of conditions at Coxhoe. He found that the cottages were mostly in rows, and the rows were built in pairs with their front doors facing one another, the space between being clean, unpaved and without drains or channels. But the street separating each pair of rows, i.e. the back street, was “one long ash-heap and dung-hill, generally the playground of the children in summer, with a coal-heap and often a pigsty at the side of each door.” Each row had a large communal oven: there were no privies.

Dr. Elliott recommended “concealing” the ash-heaps so as to provide privies, and the laying-out of greens in the front streets for playing and for bleaching. Each row, he thought, should have a triangular grass plot at the front and a similarly shaped ash-heap at the back “enclosed within a suitably high wall, with privies let in, and with ash-holes opposite, the apex having a gate for leading away the manure, and pointing to a six-sided common oven.” He also wanted to see a proper system of drainage and (unheard-of luxury!) a bath-house. “In middle and advanced life” he wrote “pitmen, like all hardworking men, exposed to alterations of heat, and also to damp, and “”Very subject to articular, muscular and rheumatic pains and every colliery engine discharges regularly vast quantities of newly condensed steam, into the “hot pond”; the whole of which, excepting what the sagacious housewife walks off with (hot and distilled, i.e. soft water) to wash with, is allowed to cool! The remainder might continually supply a series of a dozen baths without any bath-waiters to fee.”

Dr William Morrison, of Pelaw House, Chester-le-Street, was also asked for his observations, and he, too, commented on the arrangement of the houses in rows or squares, but found that in his experience the pigsty was in front of each cottage and beside it were deposited the ashes, off-scourings, and the coals. The ground-floor rooms were paved with bricks and the bedroom was without a ceiling. There was a well nearby and in some villages waste pipes from the colliery engine house supplied abundant hot water to the houses. He remarked on the importance attached by the collier folk to their furniture, and described the handsome four-poster of the miner and his wife and the “desk-bed” in the same room used by the youngest children. The other members of the family slept in the back downstairs room or in the attic bedroom, where the bed, because of lack of headroom was perforce made up on the floor.

The bedding was almost always excellent and the people had unlimited small coals so that however poor the pitman and his family never knew the miseries of cold. “In a well-ordered house, the final adjustment of affairs for the night presents a gratifying picture of social comfort.” He noted, too, that the children were comfortably and decently clothed, cleanliness both in their persons and in their homes being a predominant feature in the domestic economy of the community. The children, although of necessity left very much to themselves, and the attractions of playing with dirt being as irresistible then as they are to today’s children, were never sent to bed without ample ablution.

So far as diet is concerned, Dr Morrison had this to say: “Pitmen, of all labouring classes I am acquainted with, enjoy most the pleasure of good living; their larders abound in potatoes, bacon, fresh meat, sugar, tea and coffee, of which good things the children as abundantly partake as the parents: even the sucking infant, to its prejudice, is loaded with as much of the greasy and well-seasoned viands of the table as it will swallow.”In this respect the women are foolishly indulgent, and I know no class of persons among whom infantile diseases so much prevail. Durham and Northumberland are not dairy counties, consequently the large population (excepting the hinds in the northern part of Northumberland) are very inadequately supplied with milk. Did this wholesome and nutritious beverage more abound, probably the infant population would be more judiciously fed.” Many miners kept a pig which was slaughtered for home consumption. One witness interviewed by the Commission described how he bought a pig for 27shillings and spent something over £4 on food for it. When killed it weighed 23 stone l0lbs before being salted and laid by.


Dr Mitchell analysed the weekly expenses of a miner, his wife, and two children of one and three years old, who lived at Sunderland.


House free.
6d a fortnight kept off for carrying coals. The surplus to pay for clothes, shoes and other extras.
A miner, again with wife and two children, living at Bishop Auckland and earning 20s per week,
gave the following account of his weekly expenditure:

                                                            s.        d.
1lb blasting powder                              1         0
candles for use in
the coal pit                                            0       101/2
Soap                                                     0         7
112lb sugar at 9d                                  1          11/2
2oz. tea                                                 0          6
4oz. coffee                                            0          7
11/2 stone of bread                               2          0
Yeast, salt and pepper                          0          4
71b beef at 7d                                       4          1
1 pint of milk a day at l1/4d                0          91/4
12oz butter                                            1          03/4
1lb cheese                                             0           8
1lb bacon                                              0           8
Tobacco                                               0            8

                                                           14          11     (75 new pence)

House, free: coals, 3d a week.

Surplus of wages for beer, shoes, cloths and other extraordinary charges.
A single man pays 11s a week for board and lodging, washing, mending, darning, marking. He has to pay for beer at the public house, gunpowder, picks, pick shafts, clothes and shoes. Board and lodging are frequently 9s a week.


Dr Liefchild, the Northumberland and North Durham Sub-Commissioner, found a family at Urpeth, near Chester-le-Street, living on a much grander scale, but it will be noted that there were four wage-earners, even the little trapper-boy of eight years old bringing in 2s 2d per fortnight.

                                                            £     s    d
Father, 2 weeks                                    2    4    0
Putter, 1 boy, 17 years of age               1   16    8
Driver, 1 boy, 12 years of age                   13    9
Trapper, 1 boy, 8 years of age                    9     2
Total …                                              £5    3     7

                                                                                  £     s    d
Mutton, 141b at 7d                                                           8    9
Flour 5st at 2s 8d                                                            13    4
Maslin, a mixture of different
sorts of grain, 3st at 2s 6d                                                  7    6
Bacon, 141b at 8d                                                             9    4
Potatoes, 1/2 boil at 4s 6d                                                  2    3
Oatmeal                                                                                   6
Butter, 21b at 1s 3d                                                           2    6
Milk, 3d per day                                                                3    6
Coffee, l’/41b at 2s 4d                                                       3     0
Tea 4oz at 6s                                                                     1     6
Sugar 31b at 8d                                                                 2     0
Candles 11lb. (of 16 to a lb.)                                                     61/2
Soap 1/4, at 6s 8d                                                             1     8
Pepper, salt, mustard etc.                                                          6
Tobacco and “allowance”
(beer)                                                                                4      0
Shoes, making and repairing.
9s per month                                                                      4     6
Clothes, etc., for parents and children:
Clothes, shirts, flannels, etc 5 at 3s 6d                               17     6
Stockings, say per fortnight                                                 2     6
Sundries, say                                                                      2     6
Total outlay for a fortnight                                      £4    7    l01/2

Contributions to benefit funds generally 1s 3d per month.

It will be recalled from a previous article that the wages of a fully trained adult collier might be as much as £30 per annum. Putters could earn-4s a shift and hewers the same although in some cases they made as much as 5s by extra effort. (The wages of agricultural labourers were at this time 12s per week plus free cottage and perquisites such as potatoes and produce.) Colliery workers were paid fortnightly on a Friday, and the women went to market on the Pay Saturday, which was a holiday. The other Saturday (“Baff” Saturday) was a working day when trade was good. Shopkeepers would give credit during the Baff week. In slack times the owners would pay their workmen perhaps 15s a week whether there was work or not and when trade improved deductions were made from wages until the advance was repaid. There was a good deal of custom for the hawkers who travelled the villages, and payment by instalments for the larger items was common, as much as 15 per cent being added to the cost of the article by way of interest charges. Many miners had their clothes made by itinerant tailors and paid for them by fortnightly instalments.

This glimpse into the living conditions of the pitfolk of a century and a quarter ago, allied to the knowledge we have already gleaned of their working life, brings us almost to the end of our narrative of the fortunes of the collier people in the early years of the Victorian era. It remains only for us to study in next week’s article the way the children spent their limited leisure time, the “moral condition” of the youngsters in their] progress through the only real school they knew, the hard school of experience, and the general attitude of the miners families to the religious aspects and conventions of society which for the first time were set down and crystallized through the medium of the Children’s Employment Commission.

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