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.




The Little Trapper

(Author unknown, Publication possibly Sunderland Echo)

The little trapper of eight years of age lies quiet in bed. The labours of the preceding day had procured sleep.
“It is now between two and three in the morning and his mother shakes him, and desires him to rise, and tells him that his father has an hour ago gone off to the pit. Instantly he starts into conscious existence. He turns on his side, rubs his eyes, and gets up and comes to the blazing fire, and puts on his clothes. His coffee, such as it is, stands by the side of the fire. and bread is laid down for him. The fortnight is now well advanced, the money all spent, and butter, bacon, and other luxurious accompaniments of bread, are not to be had at breakfast till next pay-day supply the means. He then fills the tin bottle with coffee, and takes a lump of bread, and sets out for the pit. into which he goes down with the cage, and walking along the horse-way for upwards of a mile, he reaches the barrow-way over which the young men and boys push the trams with the tubs on rails to the flats, where the barrow-way and the horse-way meet, and where the tubs are transferred to trolleys or carriages drawn by horses.


“He knows his place of work. It is inside one of the doors called trap-doors, which is in the barrow-way, for the purpose of forcing the stream of air which passes in its long many-miled course from the down-shaft to the up-shaft of the pit: but which door must be opened whenever men or boys, with or without carriages, may wish to pass through. He seats himself in a little hole, about the size of a common fireplace, and with the string in his hand and all his work is to pull that string when he has to open the door, and when man or boy has passed through, then to allow the door to shut of itself. Here it is his duty to sit, and be attentive, and pull his string promptly as anyone approaches. He may not stir above a dozen steps with safely from his charge, lest he should be found neglecting his duty, and suffer for the same.

“He sits solitary by himself and has no one to talk to him: for in the pit the whole of the people, men and boys, are as busy as if they were in a sea: fight. He however sees every now and again the pullers urging forward their trams through his gate, and derives some consolation from the glimmer of the little candle of about 40 to the lb which is fixed on their trams. For he himself has no light. His hours, except at such times, are passed in total darkness, For the first week of his service in the pit his father had allowed him candles to light one after another, but the expense of three-halfpence a day was so extravagant expenditure out of ten pence, the boy’s daily wages, that his father of course withdrew the allowance the second week, all except one or two candles in the morning, and the week after the allowance was altogether taken away; and now except a neighbour kinder than his father now and then drop him a candle as he passes, the boy has no light of his own.


“Thus hour after hour passes away, but what are hours to him, seated in darkness, in the, bowels of the earth? He knows nothing of the ascending or descending sun. Hunger, however, though silent and unseen, acts upon him and he betakes to his bottle of coffee and slice of bread and if desirous, he may have the luxury of softening it in a portion of the water in the pit, which is brought down for man and beast.
In this state of sepulchral existence an insidious enemy gains upon him. His eyes are shut, and his ears fail to announce the approach of a tram. A deputy overman comes along and a smart cut of his yard-wand at once punishes the culprit, and recalls him to his duty and happy was it for him that he fell into the hands of the deputy overman, rather than one of the putters; for his fist would have inflicted a severer pain. The deputy overman moreover consoles him, by telling him that it was for his good that he punished him and reminds him of boys well known to both, who when asleep had fallen down, and some had been severely wounded and others killed. The little trapper believes that he is to blame, and makes no complaint; for he dreads being discharged and he knows that his discharge would be attended with the loss of wages, and bring upon him the indignation of his father, more terrible to endure than the momentary vengeance of the deputy and the putters all taken together.


“Such is the day-work of the little trapper in the barrow-way. At last the joyful sound’ of “loose, loose” reaches his ears. The news of its being four o’clock, and of the order “loose, loose” having been shouted down the shaft, is by systematic arrangement sent for in any miles in all directions round the farthest extremities of the pit. The trapper waits until the last putter passes with his tram, and then he follows and pursues his journey to the foot of the shaft and takes an opportunity of getting into the cage and going up when he can. By five o’clock he may probably get home. Here he finds a warm dinner, boiled potatoes, and broiled bacon lying above them. He eats heartily at the warm fire, and: sits a little after, he dare not go, out to play with the other boys, for the more he plays the more he is sure to sleep the next day in the pit. He therefore remains quiet at home, until, feeling drowsy he then repeats the prayer taught by our blessed lord takes off his clothes, and is thoroughly washed in hot water by his mother and is laid in his bed.
“The Saturday after Pay Friday is a holiday in the pit and on that day the trapper lies in bed till between eight and nine, He rises and gets his breakfast, and then goes out to the highway to gather the manure of the horses to put on his father’s potato-garden. In the afternoon he indulges heartily in .play, as he is not afraid of falling asleep next day and of receiving the yard-wand of the deputy overman, or the fist of the putter.


“On Sunday he goes to the Sunday School an hour before divine service. The fatigues of the week have left him but little spirit to attend to any learning, but his presence in the school secures his presence in .the place of worship. He returns and dines between twelve and one. He goes again to the Sunday School, and attends divine worship. He gets tea on his return. Then he walks out, and may be tempted to join other boys in some diversion. He returns home, say his prayers, undresses, washes, and goes into bed.”
This passage is not quoted from some fanciful description
of working-class life in the middle ages, or of the treatment of children in some distant slave nation of long ago: it is an example of the daily routine of a little Durham pit lad 125 years ago, as submitted in evidence to Queen Victoria by one of the examiners appointed by her to investigate conditions in the mines.
‘Up to 1840, although various Committers of the House of Commons had inquired into the condition of those employed in mills and factories, little was generally known of the circumstances of workers in the mining industry, beyond the fact that their occupation was “amongst the most laborious in which it is the lot of human beings to toil” and that large numbers of children were employed at an incredibly early age. No attempt of any kind had been made to ascertain the ages at which children began work in the mines, the number of hours worked the exact nature of their employment or its effect on their morals and health. Vague rumours having reached the ears of those in high places concerning the ill-usage of children in colliery districts and the sacrifice of young lives in an appalling spate of mining accidents, the Children’s Employment Commission was instructed to inquire into the “Employment of Children of the Poorer Classes in Mines and Collieries.”


All mining districts in the United Kingdom and all forms of mining—coal, ironstone, tin, copper, lead and zinc came within the scope of the survey, and to conduct inquiries on the spot twelve sub-commissioners were appointed by the Home Secretary from among persons whose previous knowledge and pursuits seemed to qualify them| for investigating industry in the districts assigned to them.
If these gentlemen had any doubts as to the arduous nature of work in the mines they were soon dispelled, the mere task of inspecting the mines proving too much for them, as the following extract from the Commission’s report indicates.
“Such was the severity of the season in which these gentlemen had to commence their labours, that nearly all of them incurred serious indisposition, which in a short time compelled Mr Wood to give up the task he had undertaken, and from which Mr Roper never recovered during the whole term of his labours. Mr Austin, also, towards the close of his labours, suffered from severe indisposition induced by-unusual fatigue: nor will this amount of illness occasion surprise to any one Who knows the toilsome nature of the duty of inspecting mines, or who is acquainted with the character of the other places of work which were visited in rapid succession by persons accustomed only to ordinary exposure, and to ordinary changes of temperature.”‘


However, by making further appointments as necessary, the Commission was able to proceed with its work and the various sub – commissioners undertook responsibility for particular districts. The Northumberland and Durham Coalfield was of great importance at that time, supplying as it did not only the coal requirements of its own area but also the markets of. North Yorkshire, the Scottish border counties, and the whole of the eastern and southern coasts as far west as Cornwall, in addition to the great South – Eastern region, largely due to the fact that cheap sea transport was available for the supply of coal from Northumberland and Durham to those areas, and to a flourishing overseas market. The coal-field was divided for the purposes of investigation into two districts, South Durham being that portion of County Durham lying to the south of the River Wear, and North Durham and Northumberland the remainder of the coalmining district.
With a few exceptions the employers of child labour afforded all facilities to the sub-commissioners in the pursuit of their investigations, but not so many co-operated by completing the required forms and tables. The result was that no reliable estimate could be formed of the total number of child workers, but from those returns which were submitted the Commission, was able to evaluate the respective proportions of young persons and adults in the mining industry.


Some difficulty was experienced in obtaining a true picture of the minimum age at which children were allowed to begin work in the mines, since the tendency was for a higher age to be quoted by colliery owners, their agents and officials than was given by the children themselves, by the adult workmen, doctors, schoolmasters, clergy, and magistrates who were questioned. It was commonplace for children of five, six and seven years to be employed below ground, but the evidence of the owners and their representatives seems to point to the fact that they were ignorant of this. Dealing with the owners’ evidence, the report has this to say:
“With regard to the coal owner it must be borne in mind that they seldom or never descend into the pits, that few of them have any knowledge, or take any superintendence whatever of the workpeople; that, therefore, they may be wholly ignorant of the early ages at which children are employed in their own mines, so that, when they make such declarations as have been cited they may state only what they really believe to be the truth, though the, incorrectness of their evidence is indubitably established by other classes of witnesses.”
Another possible explanation of the reluctance of the owners and masters to admit to the facts might be a sense of guilt in the matter, but it must in fairness be stated that parents
often pleaded with colliery officials to take their children into employment at a tender age and were inclined to represent the children as being older than they were. One reason for their eagerness may have been the fact that in certain areas there were rules among the colliers for limiting or “stinting” each other’s earnings to some 3s 6d or 4s 0d per day..


In other words, whatever quantity of coal was delivered at the pit bottom the employer paid no more than this sum, it having been fixed as the man’s darg, or day’s work, even though the employer might be willing to pay more. But if a man had children, they could assist him in his work, so that he could get through his darg in a shorter time and with less personal effort.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the ages admitted to by the owners and management in respect of children employed by them were generally higher than those quoted by all other parties interrogated. The following exchange is reported by one of the Sub-commissioners in his investigation when he questioned a colliery official known as the ground bailiff. Also present were two charter-masters (men who contracted for a stipulated sum to work the mines) and a collier. “I say, Jonas said the ground bailiff to one of the charter-masters, ‘that there

Tender Trappers Of County Durham

are very few children working in this mine: I think you have none under ten or eleven. The collier immediately said Sir, my boy is only a little more than four. This was a very unseasonable interruption; and all that the ground bailiff said was Well I suppose that you take good care of him; you take him down and up when you go yourself.”
It seems incredible that a child of four should be employed below ground, but his was by no means a unique instance, in the North Durham and Northumberland district a sub-commissioner, Mr Leifchild, reported one case of four and a half year old, and several cases of five-year-old underground workers were noted. Mr George Elliott was head viewer (manager of a group of collieries) for Monkwearmouth, Washington and Belmont and he quoted several instances of five-year-old children being employed, saying he was “very much pressed and entreated by parents to take children at a very early age, from six years and upwards.”


Mr Leifchild saw a little boy, of six, Thomas Roker, keeping a door down Flatworth pit at about 7 o’clock on a Sunday evening in early summer. (The practice of entrusting the opening and closing of air lock doors to children was condemned by the Commission as being a frequent cause of fatal accidents). Mr Leifchild visited the boy’s home and questioned his mother, who stated that Thomas had started school at the age of three, his father wishing him to acquire some degree of education before going down the pit. Since starting work the boy’s timetable was to rise at 3 a.m. descend the pit at 4, return home at 4:30 or 4:45 p.m., wash and have his dinner and go to bed between 6 and 7 so as to rise again at 3a.m. She explained that although Thomas thus had only about two hours of spare time in the day when he became more hardened to the work it was the intention of his parents to stop an hour off his sleep and send him to night school. “It is a dusty pit”, said Mrs Roker, but he never complains, though he tells many a queer story of the pit. The pit does not hurt him, but makes him a little white, and perhaps thinner. He was a very fat boy when he was three years old.”

Sub-Commissioner Dr. Mitchell, in his investigations at South Durham collieries, found that the majority of trapper boys employed were under ten years of age! The conclusion which he drew from his inquiries was that though the extremely young, children represented a small proportion, there were nevertheless “‘such a number as is painful to contemplate, which the great coal-owners will perhaps now learn for the first time; and I feel a firm belief that they will do so perhaps with sorrow and regret.” Having acheived only limited success in their quest for a true picture of the actual number of children employed below ground and of the proportions in the various age groups, the Commissioners proceeded to study the evidence concerning the working hours, wages and conditions of the children, the way in which they were treated and the effects of their employment on their morals and bodily health. Their inquiries took them not only into the mines, but into the homes of the colliers, and their descriptions of home life, of the fortnightly budget, of the diet imposed on the families by a combination of little money and the need for maximum nourishment to undertake the arduous work involved, all are woven together to form a revealing backcloth against which the drama of everyday life was played. These aspects, allied to the observations of the Commissioners on the education, recreation, and social life of the youngsters as they grew up, constitute the materials for a fascinating composite picture of life in the mining villages of Durham in the 19th Century and will be examined in greater detail in the course of future articles.

The New Driver 

 (Author unknown, Publication possibly Sunderland Echo)

DR JAMES MITCHELL, LID., in reporting to Queen Victoria his findings concerning the “Employment of Children and Young Persons in the Mines of the South Durham Coalfield between the Wear and the Tees” painted a vivid picture of working conditions and social life in the 1830’s. His report was no mere collection of dry statistics and bald statements of fact; although well documented and confining itself to the main headings of inquiry laid down by the Commission, it nevertheless contains some graphic descriptions of County Durham as it appeared to the eye of a newcomer and describes with many a picturesque turn of phrase the way of life in those turbulent days.
His account of the work of the underground driver is not just a catalogue of the duties performed, but a revealing pen-picture of his day’s work, his grievances, and his personal feelings. Drivers were usually appointed from the ranks of the more experienced trapper-boys, and Dr. Mitchell, by way of introduction, described the trapper’s progress through the grade of rolley way trapper before becoming a driver.

“Year after year passes on, and the trapper, being now of increased size and strength, is promoted to hold a string of a door on the rolley-way or horse way. There is no increase in his pay, but he holds a higher rank in the pit, and is in a fair way of soon rising to be driver of horses, and of getting 15d a day. The doors on the rolley-way are heavier than on the barrow-way. but his strength is abundantly great for the work. He is now less in the way of the yard wand of the deputy over-man, but if he neglect his duty and fall asleep, he will most probably be wakened by the thong of the first horse-driver who is stopped at his door; and if he dare to be saucy the driver will leap from his carriage, and treat him with his clenched fist. For diverse and strong reasons he takes this very quietly, and the overman, the managers, and proprietors of the pit, finding no complaints, believe that their boys are the most orderly in the world and as gentle as lamb.


“At last the beginning of April arrives, and the trapper, now a strong lad is informed that his name appears on the list of drivers; and that he will now enter on the dignity, duty, and emoluments of that office.
“The late trapper, now promoted to be a driver, rises at the same hour as before, and by 4 o’clock is down the pit at the foot of the shaft ready to begin his work. He finds his horse duly caparisoned by the horse-keeper, and he takes him and hooks him to the first carriage, which is called a, rolley, and to which another rolley is hooked, and a third one to that; he gets upon the limber behind the horse, and sets forward on his first journey, rejoicing in his horse, his carriages, his whip, and — the most agreeable of all — the candle by his side, he comes up to the termination of the horseway, where he is to receive loaded tubs from the putters; he places the horse so that the forepart of his first rolley is just before the tramway, and he rolls the tub upon his rolley. He moves his horse forward a pace or two, and then rolls another tub on his rolley; he then moves his horse and loads his second rolley and then his third rolley. He then unhooks his horse, and brings him to the other end of the rolleys and hooks him to what was the third, which now becomes the first rolley, and getting on the limber, sets out with his first cargo towards the shaft.

“When he meets another driver coming with his empty rolleys he boldly keeps his way by right of his load, and the driver, horse, and empty rolleys must move on a siding until he passes. Woe to the trapboy who this day is found asleep when he comes up. He recollects what was done in such case to himself, and he luxuriates in his new-born power He arrives at the foot of the shaft, and has now performed his first journey. His tubs of his first rolley are now pushed off into a cage and are carried up; and the tubs of his second and third rolley, as cages come down. His cargo being delivered, and. empty tubs placed on his rolleys, he sets out on his second journey, and thus he goes on throughout the day, travelling altogether perhaps 30 miles in the12 hours.


“This promotion to be a driver, though flattering to his feelings, and adding largely to his pecuniary resources, is not without its drawbacks: he has no time allowed to eat his dinner; ever onwards must he go; all he can do is to snatch a mouthful at the foot of the shaft, or wherever else he can. He now envies the trapper who. sitting quietly in his seat, can eat his morsel when nature prompts him to do so
“There is another grievance inflicted on his order which every driver feels to be an oppression. Till within a few years ago, it was the custom to have a crane at the flats, where the barrow-way and the horse-way meet, and every tub was hoisted up and deposited on the rolley by men and boys kept for that purpose. Now, in many pits the cranes are withdrawn, and the plan is to make the horseroad a little deeper so that the top of the rolley shall be as low as the tram, and the tub is rolled from the tram to the rolley. The cranes-men are withdrawn along with the crane, and the question was, who should perform the new duty – of rolling on the tubs – the putters or the drivers. The weakest go to the wall. The drivers were compelled to undertake this additional labour, without additional pay. This hereditary grievance is murmured against by every succeeding set of drivers, but in vain, and they must submit
“On an equal footing with the drivers, as to honour and emolument, are boys whose employment is to attend to the switches, and so to place them, where two or more roads in the pit diverge, as that the rolleys may be sent the road by which they are ordered to go. At some openings of two roads a rolley is to be sent by one of the roads, and the next rolley by the other, alternately. There are switches also on the tram ways, otherwise called barrow ways. Misunderstandings some times occur between the switchers, and the drivers and putters.
“Of the same tank and emolument are the boys who sweep the railways or the barrow-ways or tramways. If the road be wet. the operation is performed with a straw and an iron shovel. If the road be dry it is done by bundles of straw in the hands of the tramway cleaner Formerly, wheelbarrows were used, and hence the name of barrow-way which is still continued.”


Other occupations assigned to boys and described in the report include helpers-up, materials leaders, cranesmen and accountants.
Helpers-up were youths employed to assist in pushing the trams up severe gradients. In some cases they had horses which they attached to the trams, walking with them to the top of the incline, then unhooking them and returning to repeat the operation. At 16 or 17 years of age these youths were paid 3s a day.
Some boys led horses with water-carts around the workings. The water was for consumption by the men and boys, and by the horses; it was also sprinkled on the roadways to “lay” the dust. In addition the water leaders were responsible for carrying away the water which collected in some parts of the pit, and for bringing in wood which was used to support the roof. Stone leaders were boys who conducted carts with stones for repairing the roadways and sometimes building walls at the side of the roadways.
The cranesmen worked at the flats, the flat plates of coarse cast iron which stood at the termination of the tramway and close to the rolleyway. At some of the older pits it was the practice to make use of a crane at the flats for hoisting the corves (wicker baskets holding from four to seven cwt. of coal) up from the trams and transferring them to a rolley which then carried the coals to the shaft This work was performed by boys, and was extremely arduous A more usual method was to use tubs – square wood or metal boxes – instead of corves, and to lay the horseway at a lower level than the tram-way. When the tram arrived carrying its tub it was thus above the rolley and the tub could be rolled from the tram into the rolley.
The boys dignified by the name of “accountants’1 were lads who noted down the number of corves or tubs brought to the flats by each putter. There were also arrangements for noting the amount of work done by the piece-rate hewers. Account was similarly kept of the coals brought to the surface and this had to agree with the total of the under ground accounts


The Sub-Commissioner noted, perhaps with some surprise, that errand boys were not kept in the pits for the convenience of the men. as was done in some other coalfields. The extent of the roadways and the distance of the shaft from the inbye workings made it impracticable for men to send up to the surface for anything required during their shift Men from other coalfields coming to work in Durham expressed their displeasure on being informed there was no one to wait upon them
As the boys grew bigger and stronger they became eligible for employment as putters. Those who were not yet able to push a tram unaided were allowed to work in pairs as partners, or half-marrows, performing the work by dint of their combined efforts, and sharing the wages for the job. Sometimes a youth was not quite able to get through a day’s putting, alone yet did not require a half-marrow. In such circumstances a little boy of ten or 11 would be detailed to work with him, the older boy being known as the “head man’ and his little assistant the “foal.” Usually the head man pulled the tram by means of a rope, the foal pushing from behind

Promotion to the full status of putter, however marked an important advance for the young underground worker His wage was doubled, and his position was inferior only to that of the hewer. His own talent, strength, and diligence determined his wages, for his duty was to convey to the shaft as much coal as the engine could draw up. and to this end he spared no effort, glorying in his new-found importance and his growing strength, not stopping even for a meal break. but taking a bite whenever he could His working day was 12 hours, and such was the state of weariness induced by his labours that after walking home and enjoying an ample meal by the fireside he had energy enough only to drag himself off to bed ” and his heavy eye lids move not until he hears the rap. rap, rap at the window, and the voice of the callman calling aloud to get up and prepare for the labour of the day.”


In return for something less than £2 per fortnight the duties of the putter were to take a small, four-wheeled tram, place it on the rails of the tram-
way or barrow-way; lift an empty tub on it and roll it up close to the coal hewed down by the hewers. With the assistance of the hewer he filled the tub, then pushed it forward on the tram along the rails to the flats. Here a horse would be waiting with a line of three rolleys behind him. The putter rested a moment while the full tub was rolled from the tram on to the rolley, then on receiving in exchange an empty tub he would immediately return to the face to carry out the process once again. Day by day he worked alongside the hewers, straining every sinew to keep pace with their output, envious or the fact that they left the pit at about 10 a.m. after working from 2 a.m..-and that their eight hours work had earned them wages similar to his own reward for 12 hours of concentrated effort. His sole ambition was to join their ranks, to be on the books of the colliery as a man doing a man’s work, a boy no longer.

Generally speaking the hewers were aged from 21 upwards. There were exceptions, especially in the more northerly collieries, and there are cases on record of ten and 12-year-old boys being employed as hewers. On his arrival at the coalface early in the morning, the hewer would receive his instructions from the deputy overman, strip off most of his clothes, then get down “on his hams” to under-mine the coal. The Durham miner, unlike those in southern coalfields, traditionally hews sitting on his hams. A Staffordshire miner with experience of work in both areas, expressed the difference as follows:
“The Durham man sits down on his hams and with the force of his pick, and the swing of his arms, he manages to undergo the coals one yard six inches. The Staffordshire man lies down on his side, and throws into his blows the whole weight of his body, and hence he undergoes far quicker than the Durham man; but when the Durham man rises to his legs and cuts down at the side, then he appears to advantage, and in this part of his work he is much superior to his southern rival.”

£50 A YEAR

Having undermined the coal, he made a perpendicular cut from roof to floor, drilled a hole, inserted a charge of gunpowder and brought the coal down He helped the putters to fill the tubs, then place his metal token on each tub so that it would be credited to his account. The tub had to be completely filled otherwise it was liable to forfeiture and nothing whatever would be paid for it. It must contain no stone, or a fine of 6d would be incurred When properly loaded the tub was left in the hands of the puller who pushed it, or “put” it, as already described, to the flats for checking by the accountants and transfer to the rolleyway en route for the shaft. The hewer paid for his own gunpowder and candles, each item costing 1s per fortnight He had to provide his own pick the iron of which might cost him 1s 6d and the shaft 4d. These items, together with the fines and forfeitures incurred, represented sizeable deductions from his pay and it was rare for a hewer to make more than £50 a year after off takes. He was, however, the aristocrat of the pitmen, recognizable by his jaunty swagger as he made his way homewards before 11 o’clock in the morning where, wrote the Sub Commissioner he “washes his hands, and his face and neck, wipes his body with a towel and sits down to his baked potatoes and broiled ham He may if he thinks fit put on good clothes and walk about like a gentleman in the afternoon. He takes his tea a little after four sits an hour or two by the fire, and then goes to bed and sleeps sound till the voice of the call-man arouses him to his labour.

The highest position, in the mine to which a working man could normally aspire was that of overman. These were men chosen for their diligence, steadiness of character, natural abilities and education, their duties being the general superintendence of labour in the pit.
Early in the morning, perhaps at one o’clock, the overman would descend the mine, accompanied by one of his deputies, and inspect the entire pit to ensure that it was free from gas, at the same time examining the general standard of workmanship and checking the roof supports. He would then: allocate the deputies to their various districts and give them their orders in accordance with the general instructions of the manager, or, as he was then known, the coal-viewer. An overman could expect to receive a salary of about £100 per annum
The deputy overmen were immediately subordinate to the overman, and were entrusted with the particular duty of going down at night after the workmen had left the pit and setting props to support the roof. In addition, they measured the hewers’ working places and assessed the task to be performed by the putters, made out accounts of the work done by the men and boys and the wages due to them, and kept a record of the total expenditure for their own district. Other officials of similar rank were the chief of the stonemasons who erected the walls in the pit, the chief carpenter or joiner, and the head blacksmith


A colliery, like a ship of war, said the Sub-Commissioner, must be complete within itself and must have its officers in every department.
The labours of the pit went on day after day around the clock. From about 1a.m. when the overman made his inspection the cycle continued, hewers arriving at 2 or 3 boys (putters, drivers and trappers) at 4 and remaining until 4 p.m. After the departure of the main body of workmen the deputies and maintenance men arrived to make their inspection and to withdraw and re-set the props nearer to the coal face, in preparation for the overman’s visit at 1 am next day. There is no evidence of any general dissatisfaction with the length of the working day, although it usually meant 14 hours away from home. The pit was the source of livelihood and must be worked continuously; the men and boys had some two or three hours of rest and recreation apart from their working and sleeping hours: they knew no other way of life and sought no change
Over the course of the year, due to trade fluctuations and market conditions, the masters were unable to offer employment on every working day. This, coupled with the miners’ custom of taking every other Saturday (the day after Pay Friday) as a holiday, meant that only seven or eight days’ work was available in the fortnight, and wages were paid accordingly. In times of exceptional demand for coal much overtime was worked, and the men and boys might remain down the pit for 24 or even 36 hours at a stretch. Indeed, cases were said to have been known of boys spending an entire week below ground.
. Hours were long, work laborious, leisure time severely restricted. But at least the Durham pits never claimed little girls and young women as their victims. The demoralizing and brutalizing effect of the employment of female labour for manual work underground were well known in other areas however, and the next article will examine this degrading aspect of the merciless battle to win coal at the cheapest possible price.


(Author Lawrence Scollen, Publication  Sunderland Echo

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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




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.

                                                        s.     d.
1½ stone of flour at 2s 8d        4       0
11/2 lbs of sugar at 81/2d          1       03/4
4 oz tobacco                                  1      0
1 lb soap                                         0      6
1lb butter                                         1      2
2oz tea                                            0       91/2
4 oz coffee                                      0       6
5lb meat                                          2     11
Blue Starch                                     0        01/2
1 oz. mustard                                  11/2
Gill of pease                                   0      11/2
Soda for washing                           0        01/2
Milk                                                  0        4
Half peck potatoes                         0        5
Water to the man who
brings it with the cart                  0        2
Salt                                                   0         01/2
Pepper                                             0         01/2
Oatmeal                                            0         3

13         63/4       thirteen shillings and sixpence three-farthing  (68 new pence)

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.


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.


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 Cen

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.

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.

Daylight Unseen
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.

“Moral Disease”
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.

“More Salubrious”
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

More on this article to be published soon

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