Children in the Mines

Sunderland Accused

   (Author Lawrence Scollen, Publication  Sunderland Echo)

Sunderland Accused of Corrupting Pit Lads

The morals of the lads here are worse than in most colliery districts. The cause is the nearness of Sunderland, “this view of the influence of the town upon the collier lads of the outlying districts was expressed by Mr George Elliott, the 27-year-old Head Viewer, or Manager, of Monkwearmouth, Belmont and Washington Collieries in 1841, “Generally,” he continued, “the neighbourhood of a town corrupts the colliery people. Fairs, dances, theatres, etc. seduce them. Drunkenness is prevalent here. The police prevent at present many disorders.” Mr Elliott’s opinion was endorsed by Messrs Pemberton and Smith, owners of Wear-mouth Colliery, who were at the time assisting some “Dissenters” to establish a school by providing them with house and coal.
Mr Henry Morton, of Biddick, Agent for the Countess of Durham’s collieries, also remarked on the prevalence of drunkenness, and stated that the pitmen considered themselves vastly superior in the scale of society to agricultural labourers. Dog-fighting was a favourite amusement, and there was much swearing down the pit. He paid tribute, however, to the native moderation and self-discipline of the miners, even under extreme provocation. His written report to the Children’s Employment Commission contains the following observations:

“It is much to their credit that during the great strikes, when under the most violent excitement and urged by their leaders to annoy their employers in every way scarcely a solitary instance of the destruction of colliery machinery occurred. In these strikes there is a class of self-sufficient leaders, who are generally local preachers, and who are decidedly the most difficult to control and who urge on the others to acts of very great insubordination”.
“There is a great want of veracity among the boys, and all their statements must be received with the greatest caution; they are exceedingly prone to mischief of all kinds, and to acts of insubordination.” This remark concerning the untruthfulness of the boys accords with statements made by several other witnesses from the ranks of the coal owners

This is the seventh of a series of articles on the children who worked in the mines of County Durham during the 19th Century.
and their senior officials. Few serious allegations were made against their characters or behaviour, but always this imputation of lying. One cannot escape the inference that by endeavouring thus to discredit the boys they hoped to prevail upon the officers of the Children’s Employment Commission to disregard the evidence given by them where it was unfavourable to the owners and their representatives.

Indeed, this point of view is explicitly stated by no less a person than Dr Headlam, an eminent physician, a magistrate, and one-time Mayor of Newcastle, a member, in short, of the very class which was constantly at such pains to give the pitfolk a bad reputation. Dr Headlam opined that the colliery children suffered not so much from an inborn wickedness as from the want of proper education. He thought it would be an admirable arrangement if no boy were taken into a colliery before he could read and write, and employers should unconditionally refuse to employ any boy who, at the age of 12 or 13, was unable to read and write. “The evidence of viewers and persons employed in the management of collieries,” he went on, “ought to be taken great caution, as they are naturally prejudiced, and disposed as far as possible to prevent any interference with their concerns. They are opposed to any improvement or alteration in the education of their workmen, which they suppose might diminish their control or power over the labour of their workmen. With respect to all information obtained from collieries, parties would be decidedly influenced by the prejudices of their superiors: and hence the great difficulty of obtaining correct information, even though employers give the semblance of full permission to investigate these things.”

Mr Green, the Governor of Durham Jail, was asked for his views on the behaviour of the men and boys in the colliery districts, and he had many faults to find. They were addicted to. drinking and swearing, not industrious except in their own particular work (one wonders who could be expected to be very industrious on emerging in a state of near-exhaustion after 12 hours of sustained physical effort in the dreadful conditions we have seen to exist below ground!) and they showed a great want of attention to good habits, to domestic order and arrangement. This last stricture is in direct opposition to the views expressed by more eminent observers as set out in last week’s article: the possibility presents itself that Mr Green was not deliberately attempting to vilify the miners, but by reason of his position had contact with and Knowledge of, only the worse types. His chronicle of evil goes on to say that the miners were thriftless, very fond of good living and wasteful in their expenditure, purchasing unsuitable and unnecessary articles, such as large quantities of fat meat, sugar, and butter. Irregular in their payments, often in debt, unsettled and fond of change, they were ill-informed, fond of drinking, gaming, fighting, quarrelling, swearing and poaching for which last offence they were often in jail.

To complete his picture of a brutalized and lawless race, Mr Green volunteers the information that “they have small heads and are low of stature.” Then, stricken by remorse, perhaps, he admits that they were usually cleanly, cultivated domestic peace, were tolerably honest and far from vindictive. Of great and acknowledged thefts they were rarely guilty of minor peculations, very often. The children were exceedingly mischievous. That the views of Mr Green were possibly biased is shown by the explanation of the Commissioners that “the remarks of this witness are perhaps more applicable to new than to old collieries.” In other words, if these vices and faults were prevalent they were found among the itinerant and migratory workmen flocking to work in the new collieries rather than in the settled mining communities. Men were at that time flooding into Durham from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Cornwall, Northumberland, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Rev. Dr. Besley, Rector of Long Benton, can well be visualized as suppressing a genteel shudder as he gave his evidence:

“The habits of lodging together so closely and of the men washing half-naked in the presence of women, are productive of evil, and render it impossible for the clergyman to take his lady with him when visiting the pitmen’s houses. Although the pitmen marry early, yet, perhaps out of 12 marriages five would be very shortly followed by the birth of a child. Most of these people take their brides to Newcastle, partly from fashion, and partly to elude observation and joking. In ten years there has been a marked improvement. At first, Saturday night and Sunday morning were times of great riot and disorder; so much so that it was difficult to sleep on Saturday nights. This might partly be owing to the village being a sort of halting place between Newcastle and the sea-coast villages, and houses for market people.”
Coming down on the side of the miners we find, perhaps surprisingly, the evidence of Thomas John Taylor, Esquire, a coal-owner an a gentleman, extensively connected and acquainted with collieries: “There is no class among whom great crimes are rarer than among pitmen, at the same time their morals, particularly of the young men, are not very strict: but much of this may and must be owing to the want of proper instruction. The pitmen owe so much of religious knowledge as they possess to certain sects of Dissenters, especially the Wesleyan Methodists. The Church should have done her duty better towards them.”

Mr Cousens, a schoolmaster, of Killingworth, also pleads the case of the miners, and unwittingly answers some of the criticisms of Mr Green, the Jailer. “With respect to the moral condition of colliers, I can affirm that they are much better than they were 20 years ago; I think the dissemination of religious knowledge by the various branches of the Christian Church has done much good. I have the most correct recollection of the various states of colliers, being in a great measure brought up among them for the last 40 years; formerly their food and clothing were of the commonest description, but now a collier’s family in general, if careful, eat the best and most wholesome food, and have the clothing of a first-rate merchant 20 years ago; I may remark that a collier requires the most nourishing food on account of his hard labour. I have questioned a father and a mother with respect to their children being sent to work so early, and if they gained as much by the evening school and the Sunday school as they lost by being sent early to work they said by no means; the one was totally inadequate to redeem the other. The people were religious, viz., Methodists, who gave me this information; but there are some exceptions, where parents and children are determined at improvement.
 I am sorry to say that much of the vulgarity and wickedness of the boys is got in the pit, and from the example of their parents; when the boys go early to the pit, they lose that necessary training to subjection, decency and order which might make them more useful members of society, and also too many of the girls are most vulgarly brought up, and in school will scarcely submit to any subordination, but use the most vulgar language to their teachers.” Dr William Morrison, of Chester-le-Street, who has already provided us with an insight into such matters as the housing conditions in the mining villages, the state of education and the effects of underground employment on the health of the colliers, made a lengthy statement on the moral condition of the pitmen and their families. “Persons employed about collieries,” he wrote, “possess prejudices of a remarkable nature, and a credulity which often sets the dictates of reason at defiance, peculiarities of the human mind that may be stated to be the rude fabric on which religion amongst all people is based. It will not, therefore, be wondered at that, however great may be the excesses of pitmen, a religion is a very important and essential feature in the constitution of their social economy. In a colliery village of any standing we find two or three dissenting chapels devoted to the various offshoots from Methodism — Wesleyans, Ranters. Kilhamites, New Connexion and Warrenites; sects which appear to differ from each other very little in points of government, and less in doctrinal points. The dissenting chapels at collieries are well attended, and prayer meetings are held in them during the week. In the County of Durham there are to be found most excellent clergymen of the Church of England, connected with churches near colliery villages, whose moderation exerts a beneficial influence over the minds of pitmen.”

Dr Morrison goes on:
“The prominent vices of colliers are gambling and intemperance. The gambling consists in cock and dog fighting, bowling, card playing and chuck-penny. Each is often carried to a fearful extent. Instances are not wanting of a whole month’s earnings of a man and his sons being staked on a cock, a dog, or a favourite bowler. The consequences of such profligacy are, whether in losing or winning, the same. Misery, destitution, and dirt prevail where comfort and affluence might have been. Cocks and dogs are either bought or stolen and, in either case, are obtained at considerable cost. The cocks are also kept at a great expense, being always in the hands of trainers. Drunkenness is not the worst, although a very prominent vice in pitmen; and among them, as among all other classes of labouring men, teetotal principles have effected a most gratifying improvement. Drunkenness is not however an habitual vice in pitmen; yet in their periodical debauches they nearly make up for the daily omission. The pay day presents the scenes of drunkenness and riot: and beer is the favourite beverage. This periodical intemperance is attended with several advantages over habitual intemperance; it inflames both mind and body less. Indeed the extreme revulsion occasioned in the system by the excessive drinking on the pay day operates as an alterative. One fact is certain, that medical men find pitmen recover from injuries, which, in the London hospitals are speedily fatal, or require immediate and formidable operations for their cure. It can be shown that instances of success surgery occur in collieries which are unknown among the hospitals especially the metropolitan.

“It remains to be proved how far the system in practice at collieries of paying several men together in bank notes may contribute to the vice of drunkenness. Many publicans on a pay day provide 200 L. or 300 L. worth of change in silver and gold, and each man is expected to ‘take a glass’ when he goes to receive his portion of change. It is a well-known fact that a glass of beer is a thing of very great fecundity, many glasses issuing from the one with considerable rapidity.”

Reverting to the matter of credulity in miners and the prevalence of superstition briefly touched on by Dr Morrison, a tale is quoted in the evidence of a surgeon attending to a boy at a Durham pit who had suffered a serious wound in his back from being struck by a pick. The surgeon, after dressing the wound, was discussing with the friends of the sufferer the probable manner in which the wound was inflicted, and seeing a pick lying underneath the table was about to pick it up so that the action by which the injury was inflicted could be demonstrated to them. “That is the very pick.” said a grave old man, “with which the assault was committed.” “Why is it here?” asked the surgeon. “Oh, we wished to see if the wound would canker,” replied the old man. “How would the presence of the pick assist you?” asked the surgeon. “If the blood on the point of that pick rusts, sir,” the old man answered with great solemnity and emphasis, “the wound in that boy’s back will canker, and he will die!”

To what vices were the little collier boys addicted? Too young to take an active part in the evil pastimes of drinking, gaming, and cockfighting, what devil-inspired work did they turn their idle young hands to? As we have seen, the length of the shift and the severity of the labour left the younger ones with little energy for anything beyond the business of washing and eating their meal before dropping off to sleep, but in the summer months there was not the same demand for coal as in the winter. The hours of work were shorter, and the boys coming up from the pit had a little more leisure time. They would play at marbles, at “tag,” quoits or cricket, or striking a ball against a wall, “pye-ball” and “stot-ball.” Bowling an iron or wooden hoop and flying a kite were favourite amusements. One boy admitted to running about and catching birds with bird-lime but hastened to volunteer the information that he would never do this, or play any games, on a Sunday. In all, the mass of evidence concerning the children the most serious charge against them, apart from their want of veracity and their habit of swearing in the pit, seems to be that they were in the habit of throwing stones. That stern critic of the pitfolk, Mr Green, the Jailer of Durham, vowed that “It is not uncommon for them, particularly the bits of mischievous boys, to pelt the windows of each other’s houses for various motives, and to break them quite in sometimes.” Sundays were set apart for attendance at divine worship and going, sometimes twice in the day, to Sunday school. The reading of the Bible, but not of any other books, was permitted, and even such a harmless pursuit as walking in the fields was frowned upon.

Here again, the powerful influence exerted by the various Methodist groups is much in evidence, and most of the boys questioned by the Commissioners were found to possess a basic knowledge of Christian principles and religious teachings. This is in striking contrast to the situation in the neighbouring coalfields, where Methodism had not gained such a foothold and the children were thus denied even the scanty education to be acquired from attendance at the Sunday schools. One Cumberland boy of 11 did not know who Jesus Christ was “and I never heard of God, neither.” One of his little friends claimed to have heard of God — “the men damned at him very often”. A 14-year-old boy had never heard of Jesus Christ and didn’t pray, not because he did not want to, but because he did not know what prayers were. In Yorkshire a pit-lad knew that God made the world and had a son but “I don’t know who he was; I never heard.”

It is not easy to come to any valid conclusions regarding the moral state of the colliery communities in the face of the great volume of conflicting evidence.
The statements of the boys were not to be credited because, according to the colliery owners and their officials, all the boys were young as they were, they were highly – successful conspirators, since their evidence tends to be surprisingly consistent, whether it comes from the collieries on the Tyne, the Wear, or the Tees. The men were not to be relied upon since they were drunkards without any form of education. This was not to be wondered at when the owners countenanced the payment of wages in public houses and (with some notable exceptions) discouraged the provision of educational facilities, belittled the efforts of the “Ranters” and other Methodists to bring education to the villages, and publicly announced that it would be a dangerous step to educate the masses.
Most evidence is to some extent coloured by the personal feelings of the person giving it, and we can imagine the teetotaller, for example, denouncing as an incorrigible drunkard a man singing to himself as he made his way peacefully home after a couple of pints of ale. A gamekeeper, for his part, might brand the miners as a race of lawless poachers, just as the Governor of Durham Jail thought them a bunch of hardened criminals. And yet the evidence of all these people was valid and honest, no doubt, in their own eyes, because it was based on their own personal knowledge and experience, and viewed against the background of their personal feelings and beliefs. But how difficult it makes it for us to establish a true and properly-proportioned picture!
If we find it difficult to evaluate the fragments of the evidence which we have studied, not only, on the moral aspect, but on all the other facets of colliery work and pit village life, we can sympathize with the Children’s Employment Commission in their task of giving each submission its proper assessment, discounting the more obvious prejudices, and eventually producing a report and making recommendations. But they did in due course complete this Herculean task.

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