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
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 HARDEST JOB
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.”
A STEP FORWARD
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.