Gone For Ever
This is the last of a series of articles on the children who worked in the mines of County Durham during the 19th Century
A far cry from the 1840s. Wearmouth Colliery, one of the most modern and highly-mechanized pits in the country.
foot of the shaft, so far from being in itself an unhealthy employment, is a description of exercise which, while it greatly develops the muscles of the arms, shoulders, chest, back and legs, without confining any part of the body in an unnatural and constrained posture, might, but for the abuse of it, afford an equally healthful excitement of all the other organs; the physical injuries produced by it, as it is at present carried on, independently of those which are caused by imperfect ventilation and drainage, being chiefly attributable to the early age at which it commences, and to the length of time during which it is continued.
“There is, however, one case of peculiar difficulty, viz. that in which all the subterranean roadways, and especially the side passages, are below a certain height: by the evidence collected tinder this Commission, it is proved that there are coal mines at present In work in which these passages are so small that even the youngest children cannot move along them without crawling on their hands and feet, in which unnatural and constrained posture they drag the loaded carriages after them; and yet, as it is impossible, by any outlay compatible with a profitable return, to render such coal mines, happily not numerous nor of great extent, fit for human beings to work in, they will never be placed in such a condition, and consequently they never can be worked without inflicting great and irreparable injury on the health of the children.”
Steps To Reform.
The last two conclusions of the Commission tend to paint a rosy picture of work in the coal mines, of healthful exercise such as might have been recommended by a remedial gymnast, carried out in conditions preferable to those which one would encounter in most forms of surface employment, with the exception of a few pits where the roadways were low. We may quarrel with their conclusions, but we cannot deny that they did a thorough job ol carrying out their investigations, sifting the evidence, and presenting it in full to Parliament. The result was that steps were speedily taken to begin the process of reform, although many years were to pass before conditions showed any noticeable improvement, and certainly the poor, uneducated northern colliers and their children could have had no inkling of the important and far-reaching changes which were to come about as a result of the evidence so ill-expressed and so hesitantly given by them. Simple minded, credulous, gullible folk that they were, with their faith in old wives’ tales, their habit of resorting to ‘charmers” and quacks. their docile acceptance of the serfdom into which they were born, they could never have visualized the future that stretched ahead for their successors.
The more romantic of the collier children, with their fertile imaginations and their belief in fairy-tales, would certainly have been credulous enough to believe the predictions of some prophet springing up among them with tales of man conquering gravity, splitting the atom, flying through the air exploring the sea-bed, even probing the secret places of the moon, of man travelling smoothly in the space of a few hours from our northern coalfield to London, of the marvels of radio, television, radio-communications, computers and
In our brief excursion backwards through time to the days of the 1840s what have we learnt? We have seen something of the way of life in our Durham Colliery villages, of the world into which the collier children were born, of their early life and upbringing, their schooling, their initiation into pit-work at what seems to us an unbelievably early age, their progress through the various grades of employment; we have studied them at work and at play and we have looked through their doors to see something of their home life. We have followed their career from the cradle to the grave.
The members of the Children’s Employment Commission did likewise, but of course their investigations were carried out in much greater detail. Thousands of witnesses were interviewed, written reports were obtained from eminent local personalities, and the whole mass of evidence, running into thousands of pages, was carefully sifted and analysed so that a full report and a summary of the Commission’s conclusions could be presented to Queen Victoria. These conclusions ate set out below in full.
1. That instances occur in which children are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age, sometimes at five and six, not infrequently between six and seven, and often from seven to eight, while from eight to nine is the ordinary age at which employment in these mines commences.
2. That a very large proportion of the persons employed in carrying on the work of these mines is under 13 years of age; and a still larger proportion between 13 and 18.
3. That in several districts female children begin to work in these mines at the same early age as the males.
4. That the great body of the children and young persons employed in these mines are of the families of the adult workpeople engaged in the pits, or belong to the poorest population in the neighbourhood, and are hired and paid in some districts by the workpeople, but in others by the proprietors or contractors.
5. That there are in some districts also a small number of parish apprentices, who are bound to serve their masters until 21 years of age, in an employment in which there is nothing deserving the name of skill to be acquired, under circumstances of frequent ill-treatment, and under the oppressive condition that they shall receive only food and clothing;, while their free companions may be obtaining a man’s wages.
6. That in many instances much that skill and capital can effect to render the place of work unoppressive, healthy and safe is done, often with complete success, as far as regards the healthfulness and comfort of the mines; but that to render them perfectly safe does not appear to be practicable by any means yet known; while in great numbers of instances their condition in regard both to ventilation and drainage is lamentably defective.
7. That the nature of the employment which is assigned to the youngest children, generally that of “trapping” requires that they should be in the pit as soon as the work of the day commences, and. according to the present system, that they should not leave the pit before the work of the day is at an end.
8. That although this employment scarcely deserves the name of labour, yet, as the children engaged in it are commonly excluded from light and are always without companions, it would, were it not for the passing and repassing of the coal carriages, amount to solitary confinement of the worst order.
9. That in those districts in which the seams of coal are so thick that horses go direct to the workings, or in which the side passages from the workings to the horseways are not of any great length, the lights in the main ways render the situation of these children comparatively less cheerless, dull and stupifying; but that in some districts they remain in solitude and darkness during the whole time they are in the pit, and, according to their own account, many of them never see the light of day for weeks together during the greater part of the winter season, excepting on those days in the week when work is not going on, and on the Sundays.
10. That at different ages, from six years old and upwards, the hard work of pushing and dragging the carriages of coal from the workings to the main ways or to the foot of the shaft, begins; a labour which all classes of witnesses concur in stating requires the most exertion of all the physical power which the young workers possess.
11. That, in the districts in which females are taken down into the coal mines, both sexes are employed together in precisely the same kind of labour, and work for the same number of hours; that the girls and boys and the young men and young women, and even married women and women with child, commonly work almost naked, and the men, in many mines, quite naked; and that all classes of witnesses bear testimony to the demoralizing influence of the employment of females underground.
Hours Of Work
12. That in the East of Scotland, a much larger proportion of children and young persons are employed in the mines than in other districts, many of whom are girls; and that the chief part of their labour consists in carrying the coals on their backs up steep ladders.
13. That when the workpeople are in full employment, the regular hours of work for children and young persons are rarely less than 11; more often they are 12; in some districts they are 13; and in one district they are generally 14 and upwards.
14. That in the great majority of these mines night-work is a part of the ordinary system of labour, more or less regularly carried on according to the demand for coals, and one which the whole body of evidence shows to act most injuriously both on the physical and moral condition of the workpeople, and more especially on that of the children and young persons.
15. That the labour performed daily for this number of hours, though it cannot strictly be said to be continuous, because, from the nature of the employment intervals of a few minutes necessarily occur during which the muscles are not in active exertion, is nevertheless generally uninter-reputed by any regular time set apart for rest and refreshment; what food is taken in the pit being eaten as best it may while the labour continues.
16. That in well-regulated mines, in which in general the hours of work are the shortest, and in some few of which from half-an-hour to an hour is regularly set apart for meals, little or no fatigue is complained of after an ordinary day’s work, when the children are ten years of age and upwards; but in other instances great complaint is made of the feeling of fatigue and the workpeople are never without this feeling, often in an extremely painful degree.
17. That in many cases the children and young persons have little cause of complaint in regard to the treatment they receive from the persons in authority in the mine, or from the colliers; but that in general the younger children are roughly used by their older companions; while in many mines the conduct of the adult colliers to the children and young persons who assist them is harsh and cruel; the persons in authority in these mines, who must be cognizant of this ill-usage, never interfering to prevent it, and some of them distinctly stating that they do not conceive that they have any right to do so.
18. That, with some exceptions, little interest is taken by the coal owners in the children and young persons employed in their works after the daily labour is over; at least little is done to afford them the means of enjoying innocent amusement and healthful recreation.
19. 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.
20. That one of the most frequent causes of accidents in the 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 a»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 places into which it is safe or unsafe to go with a naked lighted candle, and the security of the propping.? to uphold the roof, etc.
21. That another frequent cause of fatal accidents in coal mines is the almost universal practice of intrusting the closing of the air-doors, to the very young children.
Food And Clothing
22. 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 workpeople.
23. That there are moreover two practices peculiar to a few districts which deserve the highest reprobation, namely—first, the practice not unknown in some of the smaller mines in Yorkshire, and common in Lancashire, of employing ropes that are unsafe for letting down and drawing up the workpeople; and second, the practice, occasionally met with in Yorkshire, and common in Derbyshire and Lancashire, of employing boys at the steam engines for letting down and drawing up the workpeople.
24. That in general the children and young persons who work in the mines have sufficient food, and when above ground, decent and comfortable clothing, their usually high rate of wages securing to them these advantages; but in many cases, more especially in some parts of Yorkshire, in Derbyshire, in South Gloucestershire, and very generally in the East of Scotland, the food is poor in quality, and insufficient in quantity; the children themselves say that they have not enough to eat; and the Sub-Commissioners describe them as covered with rags, and state that the common excuse they make for confining themselves to their homes on Sundays, instead of taking recreation in the fresh air, or attending a place of worship, is that they have no clothes to go in; so that in these cases, notwithstanding the intense labour performed by these children, they do not procure even sufficient food and raiment; in general, however, the children who are in this unhappy case are the children of idle and dissolute parents, who spend the hard-earned wages of their offspring at the public house.
25. That the employment in the 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.
26. 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 in life than is common in other branches of industry.
27. 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 of 30 and 40, and each generation of this class of the population is commonly extinct soon after 50.
When we consider the extent of this branch of industry, the vast amount of capital embarked in it, and the intimate connexion in which it stands with almost all the other great branches of trade and manufacture, as a main source of our national wealth and greatness, it is satisfactory to have established, by indubitable evidence, the two following conclusions:
1. That the coal mine when properly ventilated and drained, and when both the main and the side passages are of tolerable height, is not only not unhealthy, but, the temperature being moderate and very uniform, it is, considered as a place of work, more salubrious and even more agreeable than that in which many kinds of labour are carried on above ground.
2. That the labour in which children and young persons are chiefly employed in coal mines, namely, in pushing the loaded carriages of coals from the workings to the mainways or to the all the thousand and one miracles that we so calmly take for granted today. But the prophet would have had to travel far to find one so gullible as to believe in the story of the miner of today, the miner who would take his place in society as 1he equal of other men, who would be indistinguishable in dress and bearing from the “masters”, who would have his own car at the door awaiting his pleasure, who would, if so minded, take his holidays abroad, who would go through life assured of security in times of sickness and of comfort in old age. Scientific achievement has brought about the first series of developments, social evolution the second: the latter would surely have seemed the more fantastic and fanciful to those children of long ago.
By its promptings of the social, conscience, the Report of the) Children’s Employment Com; mission took a hand in the events leading to the commencement of this process of evolution; it was, at any rate, the first real attempt on the part those in authority to examine what actually went on in coalmines and our colliery villages.
Gone For Ever
It has been interesting examine the fabric of the life of our forebears in those turbulent days, but it is far from easy to draw any definite conclusions from the evidence we have studied. Colliery owners and officials tried to conceal matters which might reflect discredit on them; little boys did not always speak the truth. The working men addressing high-ranking officials were inarticulate or suspicious, afraid of saying what might displease the colliery owners, doctors, magistrates and the “gentry” on the other hand expressed their opinions forcefully and cogently. They spoke the same language as Her Majesty’s Commissioners and were more likely to be believed than their inferiors. If the Commission had a difficult task in evaluating the evidence and arriving at logical conclusions, how much moral difficult do we find it having studied only a fraction of the evidence and looking back as we do through the mists of their passing years to the ghostly and unreal picture of life as it used to be in our colliery communities, a picture recognizable only because the names of the ageing collieries remain unchanged….Wearmouth, South Hetton. Trimdon, Kelloe, Houghton, Shotton, Thornley, Craghead, Brancepeth ….
The brave little rows of cottages have long since disappeared; have been replaced by others which in their turn have been demolished, modern housing estates stand in the place of the colliers’ potato patches and colourful little flower gardens. Generations have come and gone. Little broken bodies have been tenderly borne from the pit and laid to “rest in the churchyard; their playmates, more fortunate perhaps, surviving to fight the battle for coal for a score or two more years before being laid beside them, “slipping thankfully into the grave.” More fortunate, or less? Who knows: who cares? Their graves are overgrown, “forgotten of the foot that passeth by’
Only the pit goes on, delivered day by day of the burden of coal wrought from its bowels, clanking, hissing, shuddering and moaning in the stillness of the night. But of all the strange and eerie sounds that issue from its depths and find echo in its gloomy workings, there is one we shall not hear; the bitter sobbing of a frightened four-year-old abandoned in its inky confines.
The Children of Darkness are gone for ever
Children in the Mines
Descent into a Coal Mine
New Seaham Colliery
Our Colliery Villages
Pits and Pitmen
Seaham Colliery Disaster
Seaham Colliery 1872
Vane Tempest Colliery
When Coal was King