Wreck of the lovely Nelly- 1861

On January 1st 1861, Cullercoats Lifeboat was asked to save life on a brig called “Lovely Nelly”. The description below was written a few years after the event by Richard Lewis. The illustration is a painting called “The Women”, painted in 1904 by John Charlton, and rather dramatically shows the women of Cullercoats pulling the lifeboat through a blizzard to launch it near the wreck.

On a New Year’s morning some years since, a severe tempest was experienced on our north-east coast, and soon after daybreak, the coastguard-men on the look-out at the Spanish Battery, Tynemouth, saw the brig “Lovely Nelly” of Seaham, deeply laden, with a flag of distress flying. She was struggling to get to the northward, but struggling in vain, and driving rapidly in upon the coast.

The coastguard-men followed her along the shore with the rocket-apparatus, and, as they went on, the people of the villages turned out to join them : so that, ere long, each headland had its anxious crowd of lookers-on. It was a very sad sight to see. Some of the vessel’s sails had been blown away, and she grew more unmanageable amid the heavy seas that broke around and over her.

At length, abandoning the desperate effort to get to the northward, her crew, as the last chance of life, ran her for Whitley Sands, five miles north of Shields. She was so deeply laden, that she struck on a ridge of sunken rocks and was still three-quarters of a mile from the shore. It was impossible to reach her with rockets. Only one hope remained – the Lifeboat!

As fast as they could run through the snow, driving wind and rain, Life-boat men and fishermen made off to Cullercoats for the Lifeboat belonging to the National Life-boat Institution. Six horses were fastened to her carriage and down they came at a gallop to the sands. She was speedily manned – by a gallant crew of Cullercoats men, who pulled out as for their own lives; not a moment too soon did they reach the ship, which was now broadside on to the sea, her crew in the rigging, and the waves breaking over her half mast-high.

Cleverly and deftly was the Life-boat laid alongside; the vessel was grappled, and the boat held to her by a strong rope. Instantly, the crew made towards their deliverers; but even as they left the rigging, one man was much cut in the face and the head, the mate had his shoulder dislocated, and three of them were swept into the sea. The Life-boat was handled with great skill; two of the crew were at once picked up, and as the third man went down to his death, a strong hand seized him, with a grasp of iron, by his hair, and dragged him up to life.

Did any remain on the ship? Yes: how overlooked, how so left to die, we know not – but the little cabin-boy remained. The boy’s cry for help grew very pitiful: for some time he dared not venture out of the weather rigging; at last he did so, and was seen in the lee shrouds: “he had got wounded in the head, and his face was covered with blood”.

One of the Lifeboat’s crew has since said to the Author that every face around him grew pale, and tears came from eyes little used to shed them – “They clenched their teeth, and with their own lives in their hands”, dashed in their boat to save him. The sea beat her back. They dashed in again, to be swept back once more.

Again and again they tried; the poor boy, meanwhile, crying terribly in great loneliness and despair. He was so young, and the coast was so near! But the vessel began to part, and the unstepped mast must fall, and would crush the Life-boat if she stayed one minute longer in her then position. Then, sacrificing one life to save many, a brave man gave the order, in a hoarse and broken voice, to “cut the rope”. In an instant she was swept away under the vessel’s stern – not a second too soon, for at once the mainmast fell, on the very spot she had just left, and the vessel immediately broke up. The boy – “his face covered with blood” – fell into the sea. Clenched in agony or clasped in prayer, his little hands were seen once – twice – lifted above the waves! The Life-boat again rushed towards him, but the tempest swept away his boyish cry before the roar and tumult of the winds: he did not rise again. The LifeBoat was pulled back to the land.

The crew of the lifeboat that day were Coxswain John Redford, Second Coxswain John Taylor, Bowman John Chisholm, William Dodds, William Harrison, Thomas Mills, Joseph Robinson, John Smith, George Smith, Robert Storey, Francis Storey, William Storey, William Stocks, Barty Taylor and Robert Taylor. In addition, some believe, the Chief Boatman of the local Coastguard was also aboard. He was called Lawrence Byrne.

The cabin-boy’s name was Thomas Thompson.

The Mystery behind the Wreck of the “Lovely Nelly”

The Boat
The brig “Lovely Nelly” was in her 57th year when she was wrecked. A collier brig was said to have a lifespan of about 60 years. Owned by a Seaham Harbour company since 1856, she had seen previous service with Wright & Co of Kings Lynn in Norfolk, during which time she was insured through Lloyds of London. This insurance policy did not continue under the new ownership, who presumably sought cover elsewhere.

The Owner
Her new 1856 owner, James W Watson, was born in Gateshead in about 1829. He was married to Mary, a year younger than himself, who was born in Burnopfield a small village a few miles southwest of Gateshead. In the census of April 1861, they are not shown as having any children. At the time of buying “Lovely Nelly”, Mr Watson and his wife were moving into a newly built house in Marlborough Street in Seaham. This was a middle class part of town and the residents were all well-to-do. In other words, it was a posh place to live.

The Prelude to the Fateful Voyage
“Lovely Nelly” was normally captained by Sunderland-born Wilkinson Bond, who was aged 36 at the time of her loss. His mate was Henry Stanbridge (aged 38). These men had charge of “Lovely Nelly” on her voyages immediately prior to her loss. She shuttled back and forth between Seaham and London from July until December of 1860 when she bypassed Seaham and berthed in Sunderland on the 4th of that month. She idled her time in Sunderland for several weeks and on the 14th of December, her captain and mate were discharged from the ship, while the remainder of the crew were retained on the ship’s books. Later in the same day, the mate (Stanbridge) was re-instated and promoted to Captain.

Why should there be such a commotion over appointments which seem to have worked perfectly well in the past? Were the captain and mate concerned over some aspect of the ship’s condition? Did the mate later recognise an opportunity for advancement which he could not afford to ignore? Stanbridge did not formally gain a mate’s certificate until 1864 (three years after the loss of “Lovely Nelly”), when one was issued to him at Seaham Harbour.

Fully laden with coal, the brig sailed from Sunderland on December 28th 1860, bound for London with Henry Stanbridge in control.

The Final Voyage

“Lovely Nelly” set out for London and was reported to have reached Flamborough Head when she had to turn back, apparently because of a heavy leak. This incident took place on the morning of Sunday, December 30th 1860.

(Was this issue of seaworthiness the background to the dispute between the owner and the captain earlier in the month?)

The weather worsened but Stanbridge, who must have had many years’ experience of the sea to be entrusted with the command of a ship, attempted the run to Sunderland – some 62 miles – rather than put into any of number of nearer ports. As time passed, the storm grew stronger and “Lovely Nelly” was swept past Sunderland, whither it seems that Stanbridge had sought to shelter while, perhaps, having repairs carried out.

This strategy failed and he and his ship were driven further north, missing the entrance to the Tyne. Watched from the shore on New Year’s Day, “Lovely Nelly” continued past Tynemouth and Cullercoats with alarmed observers calling for the emergency services of the day (the coastguardmen) to “do something”. These fellows followed the ship with their rocket equipment, ready to bring it into play should the opportunity arise. Eventually, the crew of the brig realised that they losing the battle against wind and sea and turned their craft towards Whitley Sands. While threequarters of a mile offshore and still heavily laden, the boat struck a reef – beyond the range of the rocket apparatus!

Nothing would do now but to send for the Cullercoats Lifeboat and its crew. This was speedily fetched and the gallant crew put out into the storm to attempt a rescue.

The rescued crew were:

  • Henry Stanbridge (captain) aged 38
  • George Kirby (mate) aged 40
  • Robert Bond (mariner) aged 37
  • John Adamson (mariner) aged 24
  • John Walton (mariner) aged 20
  • Henry Watson (mariner) aged 20,
  • while the only fatality was:-  Thomas Brown Thompson (apprentice) aged 12.

    The Aftermath
    The survivors were treated well by the shore party, dried out and warmed and, upon recovery, made their way home. Thomas Thompson’s body was soon recovered from the sea and returned to his family for burial in his home town of Seaham.

    The owner of “Lovely Nelly”, Mr Watson, you may remember, lived in a well-to-do part of town. On March 25th 1861, he re-located to The National School, Church Street in Seaham. This school had been set up in 1848 but by the early 1860s it was so neglected that it very rarely qualified for its annual Government grants. The headmaster, John Hetherington, was also a shipowner and was well noted for keeping both eyes on his profits from the sea. It would seem that Mr Watson had suddenly fallen on very hard times indeed, to have moved from his respectable and comfortable home to take up some form of lodgings. Had he been bankrupted by the loss of his ship? Presumably, she had not been insured and he had been forced to meet the demands of his creditors from his own pocket.

    Final Resting Place
    Tommy Thompson was buried on January 13th 1861 at St John’s Church in Seaham Harbour. A re-organisation of the churchyard in the 1950s led to the removal of the old headstones without a plan being made of their previous whereabouts. Thus, the final resting place of the real victim in this story will now never be known.

    “Lovely Nelly” still lies off Whitley Sands, opposite the Brier Dene, three quarters of a mile from the shore. There are several more wrecks to keep her company now. Maybe sports divers will one day identify her position more accurately and recover some relic or memento.

    This information has been made available to me by Mr Alan M Gregg of Chester-le-Street. He researched the ship, the crew and the owner, including paying for the use of a professional researcher in the London maritime archives.
    Pictures and text from Brian Slee

    Russian Cannon

    Article from
    Of Saturday, August 28th 1858


    cannon2Few, if any, of our seaport towns can boast such youth and vigour as the harbour of Seaham. Less than thirty years ago it had no existence. A bold rocky foreshore, with little inlets and sandy bays, indicated its site. No fishermen’s huts crowned the banks ; no boats lay basting on the beach. As far as progress was concerned, all was at a dead stand. Now and then a few women from the neighbouring town of Sunderland might be caught sight of among the rocks in search of bait; or a stray artist, sketch-book in hand, in quest of the picturesque. No sounds reached the ear other than the scream, of the gull or the constant chafing of the waves against the rocks.
    Happily, other eyes than those of the painter scanned the place, and other drawings than those for mere ornament were made. The energetic mind of Charles Stewart, then Marquis of Londonderry, conceived a nobler destiny for this rocky shore than pictures and shellfish. He saw here a suitable place for the shipment of his coals for the London market. Battling with every difficulty, blasting out of the rocky cliff a dock, carving out a harbour, protecting it by piers, and indicating its bearings by a lofty lighthouse ; laying down an iron road from his coal-mines; planting powerful steam-engines; erecting whole streets of workmen’s dwellings and suitable workshops: in fact, starting Seaham Harbour, properly equippel.
    As a natural consequence, ships crowd the dock and harbour; factories, houses, shops, schools, charitable institutions, churches, chapels, and public buildings, have sprung up, and visitors are now whirled to and fro on the railway from Sunderland. Thus has the great scheme of the late Marquis been crowned with complete success. Seaham has now 7000
    inhabitants; and it is no un¬common occurrence for seventy vessels to leave at one tide.
    cannon1Like a true-hearted English lady, Frances Anne, Marchioness of Londonderry, after the death of the Marquis, carried on the work with increased vigour, trimmed up the place with taste and neatness, erected buildings with an eye to the beau¬tiful, and still watches over the health and prosperity of the place with genuine solicitude; and as, year by year, she pays her visits, she invariably leaves some souvenir of her love and attachment for the place.
    Seaham has recently been the scene of two interesting demonstra¬tions on the occasion of a visit by the Marchioness of Londonderry to her seat at Seaham Hall.
    On Monday, the 2nd instant, the children attending the various colliery schools founded and maintained by the Marchioness attended at Seaham Harbour, to receive from the hands of her Ladyship prizes for ability and good conduct. The ceremony took place in a large and handsome marquee erected for the occasion contiguous to the new school at Seaham Colliery. Upwards of 1300 scholars were present, who were conveyed to Seaham in colliery wagons’, and then marched to the rendezvous, each school with the master or mistress at its head. The children were addressed by her Ladyship and the Lord Bishop of Durham in a spirit of affectionate and earnest simplicity.
    The other demonstration which forms the subject of our en¬graving was the inauguration of a Russian gun. This event took place on Saturday, the 31st ult., in the presence of two thou¬sand of the principal inhabitants of Seaham and neighbourhood. The interesting trophy—a 38-pounder, weighing 66s cwt.—was erected on a stone pedestal and placed in the centre of ‘* The Green,” which has been laid out as a public promenade, and faces the sea.
    Near to the spot was erected a platform for the accommodation of Lady Londonderry and her visitors, who arrived shortly after one o’clock—the Earl and Countess Vane, Lord Ravensworth, Lord A. Vane Tempest, the Countess of Portarlington, and the Misses Longley arriving first in an omnibus-carriage drawn by four greys, and followed by a second carriage in which was Lady Londonderry and the Bishop of Durham.
    Having ascended the platform, Lady Lon¬donderry stepped to the front, and gave the signal for displaying the gun, which was covered by a large naval ensign. At this moment her Ladyship’s private band struck up ” God Save the Queen,” and a salute of twenty-one guns was fired by the coastguard men. This was followed by loud cheering, on the subsidence of which the assemblage was addressed by Earl Vane, Lord Ravensworth and Lord Adolphus Vane Tempest.
    An address was then presented to the Marchioness of Londonderry expressing the gratitude of the inhabitants of Seaham for the important benefits recently conferred by her Ladyship upon the place ; to which the Marchioness replied as follows:—”Gentle¬men,—I confess that the spontaneous and unexpected expression of your kind feeling towards me has caused me the deepest gratification. It is encouraging and cheering to find my humble efforts to improve this place have been appreciated; and it is most satisfactory to watch its increased prosperity and importance during my care and tenancy. While I thankfully acknowledge the progress and contemplate the rise with pride and pleasure, believe me I take no merit for any little share I may have had in this, for it is my happiness as well as my duty to direct my best energies to the wel¬fare of a place which I have watched from its commencement, thirty years ago, and received as a sacred legacy from its founder, to whose name it remains as a touching monument that all connected with him may well feel proud of.
    The ceremony this day is particularly satisfactory, for these guns have only been presented to towns of certain importance and population ; and the promise of a County Court from the Lord Chancellor, after four years’ patient and re¬peated petitioning, is another just advance in the scale and position Seaham town and harbour holds in this county. Gentlemen, I thank you sincerely for your affectionate address and good wishes, and in return can only reiterate my promise, that while God spares my life it will be devoted to the interests of this place, and the welfare of all in my employ.”

    This terminated the proceedings of the ” inauguration.” Three cheers were then given for Lady Londonderry, three for Earl and Countess Vane, one for their son, Lord Seaham, an interesting child, who bowed acknowledgment, and three for Lord Adolphus Vane.



    In July 1878 a poorly educated master cobbler, William Marwood, closed his shop (which still exists) in Church Lane, Horncastle, in the county of Lincolnshire and packing a small bag and saying goodbye to his wife Ellen left his home nearby at 149 Foundry Street, to keep an appointment in Durham. Although it was unusual for a poor artisan to undertake such journeys in those days, Ellen was used to such occasions which he undertook on a regular basis. William had an appointment with Robert Vest a cook on the sailing ship William Leckie in Durham for he was the Crown Executioner.

    The 26 of June 1878 was one of the hottest days of the year and the Port of Sunderland lay idle as the ships awaited a breeze to fill their sails. The crew of the sailing ship William Leckie lay exhausted in the heat awaiting a wind that would drive their ship to Montivideo in South America.

    When ship’s Master, Captain Lumley Fletcher, who had been on shore on business returned to the ship he was dismayed at the conditions he found on the deck. The ships new cook, a stocky man with a badly scarred face whose duty it was to feed the 20 crew, was slumped on the deck waving his arms and mumbling incoherently. The captain, a strict disciplinarian, assuming Vest was drunk told him he would not allow drunkenness on his ship and that he should pack his kit and leave. As his torrent lessened the ship’s Pilot John Wallace a 62 year old well respected man, jokingly shouted to the crew,” Lay aft boys and put him in Irons” and as the Captain and Pilot left, Robert Vest stumbled to his galley.

    By evening the temperature was still over 90 degrees and as the pilot passed the galley Robert’s mind snapped, he grabbed a 10 inch knife and ran after the pilot slashing his throat and stabbing him in the stomach. As the pilot tried desperately to remove the knife he screamed “Boys I’ve been stabbed”. In an attempt to save him the captain ordered a crew member to fetch rum and bandages but within seconds the pilot was dead.

    As the crew covered him with the ships ensign the captain ran up a distress signal for assistance to which Inspector James Larkin of the River Police in Low Row responded an hour later.

    As the crew apprehended Robert Vest who put up no resistance, he became more incoherent and mumbling but in a statement later, the apprentice Thomas Talbot who had been charged with guarding him, said, he mumbled “I hope the poor man’s soul is in heaven” and that he explained for a long period he had suffered horror dreams of hanging and murder.

    Two days later, the jury, after visiting the home of the victim John Wallace in Peel Street and seeing his body, retired to Salem House in Salem Street, Hendon, the home of Mr Hugh McAllister to hold an inquest and on the 12  of July Robert Vest was taken to Durham Assizes where he pleaded not guilty to murder, as his wife and five daughters, who had travelled from their home in Seaham looked on from the public gallery.

    Reports in the local press said Robert Vest had five terrible scars on his forehead and a deep depression on the side of his head none of which he could account for but only that they gave him constant pain.

    However in his defence a relative cast light upon the scars and gave evidence that Robert had received them in the army.

    At the age of 17 years he had joined the 16 th Regiment of Infantry and was later in the Horse Artillery serving in India where he had suffered badly from sunstroke.

    In 1854 whilst serving in the Crimea serving a gun, he had been severely injured when a shell exploded near him and during an attack he had been stabbed in the forehead with a bayonet. This was confirmed in a letter sent to the court from the War Office.

    In his defence his brother said, prior to his army service Robert had been a steady young man and told of the agony and depression he had suffered since his return from the war.

    Dr Mathew Francis gave evidence as to the extent in which Roberts injuries had affected his sanity and that the injuries from which he had suffered from for 24 years were severe enough to cause loss of sanity in the hot conditions that had been experienced on the fateful day, the temperature having been in the nineties.

    The prosecution however disputed this and said it was due to alcohol despite the fact no one had observed him drinking and that all the bottles were still sealed.

     On Friday 12 July 1878 the jury found Robert guilty but recommended mercy and the hope that he would be sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane but their hopes were misplaced.

    Donning his black cap, Judge Justice Baggley told Robert “The law imposes upon me the duty of passing sentence of death upon every person convicted before me of the crime of wilful murder. The jury have recommended a strong recommendation for mercy. It will be my duty to forward the recommendation to the appropriate authority where it will receive its fullest consideration. However I implore you not to rely on that recommendation to mercy leading to your sentence being commuted but to endeavour from this moment to make your peace with God. It remains with me only to pass the sentence on you in the terms of law and that is, you shall be taken to the place from whence you came and from thence to a place of execution and shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And your body shall then be buried in the prison in which you shall be last confined after this your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy on your Soul”

    Such was public feeling that a petition was raised and names collected from as far dispersed as Sunderland, Seaham, Durham and Chester le Street in an attempt to have his sentence commuted and money was collected for his wife and daughters who, lived in Seaham who were to be left destitute.

    The Grim Walls of Durham Prison where Robert Vest spent his last days Dr Smith of Sedgefield and The Reverend Blunt of Chester le Street mounted a campaign for an in depth inquiry as to his mental condition but to no avail. The newspapers gave detailed descriptions on the 30 of July 1878, how Robert not having slept the night before and with tears running down his cheeks walked to meet his fate. As the hangman went to tie his arms and legs together he begged him to be allowed to shake the hand of everyone present. He turned to the Chaplain as the hood was placed over his head and said. “I’ll pray for you in Heaven”.The trapdoor opened and William Marwood kept his appointment with Robert. He collected his £10 fee and set off to return to his cobblers shop in Hornchurch, travelling to 177 such appointments throughout the country in his nine years in the post.

    Colin Clifford

    November 2010

    Robert Vest had arrived in Seaham sometime after 1871 (probably from Spennymoor) and at the time of the murder lived in Gunn’s Buildings, by 1881, his wife lived at 32 William Street with her three daughters Martha 17, Isabella 14 and Margaret 10.   DA

    Children in the Mines


    In August 1842 the Children’s Employment Commission drew up an act of Parliament which gave a minimum working age for boys in mines, though the age varied between districts and even between mines. The Mines and Collieries Act also outlawed the employment of women and girls in mines. In 1870 it became compulsory for all children aged between five and thirteen to go to school, ending much of the hurrying. It was still a common profession for school leavers well into the 1920s


    Children as young as three or four were employed, with both sexes contributing to the work. The younger ones often worked in small teams, with those pushing the corf from the rear being known as thrusters. The thrusters often had to push the corf using their heads, leading to the hair on their crown being worn away and the child becoming bald.

    Some children were employed as coal trappers, particularly those not yet strong enough to pull or push the corf. This job saw the child sit in a small cutting waiting for the hurriers to approach. They would then open the trapdoors to allow the hurrier and his cargo through. The trappers also opened the trapdoors to provide ventilation in some locations.

    As mines grew larger the volume of coal extracted increased beyond the pulling capabilities of children. Instead horses guided by coal drivers were used to pull the corves. These drivers were usually older children between the ages of 10 and 14

    This is one of the toughest jobs for anybody, let alone a child, to carry out. Hurriers are all about six to eight years old. You’ll be equipped with a wide leather ‘gurl’ belt with a swivel chain attached. After harnessing yourself into this, you’ll attach the free end of the chain to a sled. Then, for over a mile underground, you’ll make your way through the small tight passages of the mine, so small that you can’t stand up.  Once you reach the coal face, you’ll have to fend for yourself among the adult miners as these tough men load your sled with chunks and slabs of coal. Then you’ll have to scrabble and crawl back to the surface pulling your load. This must be completed many times during a 12-hour shift. If you’re lucky, you might get an even younger child to act as your ‘thruster’ and shove the sled from behind.

    Danger waits around every corner in this sorry and thankless endeavour


    (Author Lawrence Scollen, Publication  Sunderland Echo)


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

    “Oh, Sir, this is sore, sore, sore work. I wish to God that the first woman who tried to bear coals had broke her back, and none would have tried it again!”
    Such was the despairing lament of a woman, struggling under an excessive weight of coals, trembling in every nerve, as she sank in sheer exhaustion to her knees before the colliery manager on his inspection of the pit. Although women and girls were employed below ground in both the Yorkshire and East of Scotland coalfields, the practice never spread to Northumberland and Durham. Hard though the times might be, and desperate the circumstances of the collier folk, the women of this coalfield were spared the degradations and indignities imposed upon their neighbours to the north and south.
    Mr Jellinger C. Symons, Reporting in 1841 to the Children’s Employment Commission on the state of the Yorkshire Coalfield, found that girls performed all the various offices of trapping, hurrying, filling, riddling, topping and even hewing. (Hurrying was the local term for putting, and involved pushing the tubs of coal along the tramways. In filling, the hewer shovelled up the smaller coal and cast it into a riddle or sieve; such coal as remained after shaking was thrown into the tub. When the tub was almost full the hewer and hurrier topped it off with large coal loaded by hand. Hence the expressions “riddling” and “topping.”) The work most commonly done by the girls was that of hurrying. In thin seams of coal the roadways were as low as 22 inches from floor to roof, and only small children could be used. Horses could be used In the thicker seams, but it would have been too expensive for the owners to enlarge the roadways where the seams were thin and, as one official stated in his evidence ”Horses are not so handy as Christians, and we could not do with them.”


    The method of propulsion adopted in these low places was what was termed the “girdle and chain” system. A broad belt was buckled round the waist, to the front of which a chain was attached. When the child went down on all fours the chain was passed between the legs and attached to the tub, which the child drew along harnessed like an animal. Some of the tubs had small wheels, and ran on rails, others were rather smaller and had “sledge” bottoms so that they slid, or rather were dragged, along the uneven ground. Sub – Commissioner Symons considered that hurrying in low places was quite the hardest of all the operations performed in coalmining, yet by its very nature it precluded the employment of any but the very smallest and youngest of the children. Not only the nature and severity of the work gave Mr Symons cause for concern.

    “The chain,” he wrote, “passing high up between the legs of these girls, had worn large holes in their trousers, and any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work. No brothel can beat it.”
    He found on descending a Barnsley pit a group of men, boys, and girls assembled around a fire, the girls as well as the boys stark naked down to the waist, their hair bound up with a tight cap, and trousers supported by the hips. “Their sex,” he wrote, “was recognizable only by their breasts, and some little difficulty occasionally arose in pointing out to me which were boys, and which caused a good deal of laughing and joking.”

    In the Flockton and Thornhill pits, although the girls were clothed, most of the men for whom they hurried were stark naked, or wearing only a flannel waistcoat. “It is not to be supposed,” Mr Svmons reported, “but that where opportunity thus prevails sexual vices are of common occurrence. Add to this the free intercourse, and the rendezvous at the shaft or bull-stake, where the corves are brought, and consider the language to which the youngest ear is habituated, the absence of religious instruction, and the early age at which contamination begins, and you will have before you, in the coalpits where females are employed, the picture of a nursery for juvenile vice which you will go far and wide above ground to equal.” He did find, however, that “a very general practice prevails among the colliers of marrying the girls they seduce.”


    Women and girls in the collieries of Eastern Scotland were chiefly employed as coal bearers and putters. The coal bearer’s duty was to carry on her back loads of coal varying from three-quarters of a hundredweight to three hundredweight in weight. The coal was loaded into a “creel,” a large wicker or wooden tray which was placed on the girl’s back (the girl bending well forward so that the creel lay reasonably level) and straps or “tugs” attached to the creel were passed around the forehead to prevent the load from slipping. Thus laden, the girl had to struggle along the unrailed roads of the steeply-sloping “braes” of the pit from the face to the shaft bottom. Other hazards to be negotiated were the turnpike stairs, which were rough spiral staircases leading to a surface outlet in the hillside, or trap staircases, a series of near-vertical ladders leading from one level to another and eventually to the surface. Accidents were numerous on the trap staircases, due to the inevitability of a certain amount of coal falling from the creel as the bearer climbed the ladder, and most of the women and girls were badly scarred from being struck by coal in these circumstances. The heavy load carried, and the grossly unnatural posture which had to be adopted under its weight, made coal-bearing one of the most intolerable occupations that could be imagined, and it resulted in early and permanent physical damage.

    A 40-year-old bearer, Jane Peacock Watson, submitted the following evidence to Mr Robert Franks, investigating the state of the East of Scotland coalfield. “I have wrought in the bowels of the earth 33 years; have been married 23 years, and had nine children; six are alive, three died of typhus a few years since; have had two dead born, I think they were so from the oppressive work; a vast number of women have dead children and false births, which are worse, as they are no’ able to work after the latter. I have always been obliged to work below till forced to go home to bear the bairn, and so have all other women. We return as soon as we are able never longer than ten or 12 days, many less if they are needed. It is only horse-work, and ruins the women; it crushes their haunches, bends their ankles, and makes them old women at 40.” Another witness, Isabel Hogg, aged 53, formerly a coal-bearer, was described by the Sub-Commissioner as one of the most respectable coal-wives in Penston, her rooms being well-kept and well furnished, and her house the cleanest he had seen in East Lothian. Mrs Hogg averred that from the “great sore labour” false births were frequent and very dangerous.


    “I have four daughters married,” said Mrs Hogg, and all work below till they bear their bairns – one is very badly now from working while pregnant, which brought on a miscarriage from which she is not expected to recover.
    “Collier people suffer much more than others – my guid man died nine years since with bad breath; he lingered some years, and was entirely off work 11 years before he died.
    “You must just tell the Queen Victoria that we are guid loyal subjects; women-people here don’t mind work, but they object to horse-work, and that she would have the blessings of all the Scotch coal-women if she would get them out of the pits, and send them to other labour.”
    The evidence submitted regarding the work of the coal-bearers was such as to present a picture of what Sub-Commissioner Franks termed “deadly physical oppression and systematic slavery, of which I conscientiously believe no one unacquainted with such facts would credit the existence in the British dominions.”

    The Scottish putter girls, like their Yorkshire counterparts, used wheeled tubs, or “hutchies” in seams with adequate height, and sledge – bottomed boxes (“slypes”) in low places. The hutchies held up to l0cwt of coal and the slypes from 2 and a quarter cwt to 5cwt. The girdle and chain of the type used in Yorkshire was not employed in the Scottish pits; instead a harness was worn over the shoulders and back, to the strong girth of which an iron hook was attached. This hook could be inserted into the chain of a hutchie and by straining at the harness like a horse the putter could drag her burden along the rails. Where the gradient was particularly severe, smaller girls were sometimes needed to push at the back of the hutchie, and they did this by placing their heads against the back of the carriage and exerting what strength they could through their arms and head to propel the unwieldy vehicle forward. So far as the moral state of his district was concerned, Mr Franks seems to have been more preoccupied with the evils of drink than with immorality of the type reported in the Yorkshire coalfield. He quoted the following passages from the Report of William Stevenson. Esq., on “the Sanatorv Condition of the Parish of Inveresk in the County of Midlothian”: “Those colliers with whom I came into connexion, I found a dissipated, drunken, improvident, and dirty set of people, with no notion of anything but drunkenness and rioting: laying by no provision for the future, though in receipt of good wages, which might be considerably larger if they would abandon their dissipated habits, and work the whole six instead of only four days in the week.

    Many of the colliers abuse their wives and children in a shameful manner, kicking and striking them for no cause whatever; but we shall find that this is the case with most men who give themselves up to drunkenness and dissipation in the way that many do. Their wives are also very drunken; and I have seen the young children, many of them from not more than eight or ten years of age, take a glass of whisky just as readily as their parents. When any accidents happen, or when through intemperate habits they are laid on a bed of sickness instead of being a warning to them it is always made an excuse for drinking, for the neighbours usually congregate in numbers in the house of the sick man, when the whisky bottle is produced; and although it may not follow that they get intoxicated in that house, still it being a beginning leads them on either to adjourn to the public house, and there keep up a constant drinking for two or three days, or else they go to the other houses, and getting a dram at each finish the day in a state of beastly inebriety; the same is often the case even when their comrade is lying a corpse.”


    It was generally agreed in principle by both owners and workmen that from every aspect the employment of women and girls in mines was undesirable. The extra expense which would have been incurred by the owners, however, in replacing female labour by men prevented their taking any active steps in the matter. Similarly, the loss of wages which would have resulted made the men and their families reluctant to agitate for a change in the system. But the dreadful tale unfolded by the Commission had a remarkably quick response, and legislation was introduced in 1842 which, among other reforms, prohibited the employment of women and girls in mines and collieries.
    There was in consequence a measure of financial loss on both sides, as had been anticipated. Women with qualifications for no other employment that the dull routine of carrying heavy burdens and pushing loaded tubs in constricted working places were thrown on to a labour market which could offer them no opportunities. There were numerous complaints of hardship occasioned to widows, orphans, families without sons to aid a father who was old or ailing, and so on. Nevertheless the great majority of those affected adapted themselves to the change, and indeed found that in the long run they were not significantly worse off. A married woman with four children, who had formerly been employed at Pencaitland Colliery, explained the position thus:
    “While working in the pit I was worth to my husband 7s a week, out of which we had to pay 2s 6d to a woman for looking after the younger bairns. I used to take them to her house at 4 o’clock in the morning, out of their own beds, to put them into hers. Then there was 1s a week for washing, besides there was mending to pay for, and other things. The house was not guided. The other children broke things; they did not go to school when they were sent; they would be playing about, and got ill-used by other children, and their clothes torn. Then when I came home in the evening, everything was to do after the day’s labour, and I was so tired I had no heart for it; no fire lit, nothing cooked, no water fetched, the house dirty, and nothing comfortable for my husband. It is all far better now, and I wouldna’ gang down again.”


    Younger women obtained employment at the pit banks, some took up farm work, went into other industries or entered domestic service. After a few years it seemed incredible that women had ever worked below’ ground, and few would ever have considered returning to the back-breaking labour of hurrying or putting.
    So far as the cost to the owners was concerned, this proved in the event to be less than was feared, nor was it generally necessary to increase the price of coal. The work went on with greater regularity and efficiency than hitherto and the extra money involved was regarded as well-spent. In some districts, mine-owners opened washhouses, and engaged women to teach their former employees washing, sewing and other domestic crafts.
    Thus came into effect. a law which, in addition to prohibiting the employment of females below ground, also made regulations governing the employment of boys in the mines. Since the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission was not presented until April, 1842, the passing of the Act in August of the same year is remarkable not only as a great step forward in social legislation, but also as an example of the efficiency of the Parliamentary and legal processes of the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign.

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