Child Labour


CHILD LABOUR

children in mines

In the early days of coal mining it was not uncommon for a family to work alongside each other. The father and sons worked the face, while the mother and sisters were “Bearers”, and carried the coal out of the mine in baskets on their back.

As the coal was won on a larger scale, and the mines increased in size, family members would not necessarily work together. Many fathers and sons may still have worked at the same coalface, but the women and girls could be working elsewhere in the complex as Horse Drivers, Trappers, Trailers, Hurriers and Thrusters.

Until the introduction of the Coal Mine Act of 1843, there was no legislation covering the employment of children in the pits and any children were often employed due to the low wages they received.

A list was produced on May 8th, 1802 of all the people employed in the Howgill Colliery, which consisted of Kells, Saltom, Croft and Wilson, plus other smaller pits. The document listed the starting age for children as follows:

Age of commencement

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

Total

Males employed

2

7

11

20

9

11

1

2

63

Females employed

1

1

5

7

6

10

5

4

39

A further list, produced in 1842, lists starting ages for 280 males, employed in the mine:

Age on commencement

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

Number employed

1

17

43

50

76

41

35

8

9

The youngest person employed was six years old, and his name was Jonathan Johnston. He was employed as a Trapper.

Lonely-trapper-boy

Before getting to their place of work, the miners, including the children, had to be lowered down the shaft, which in the case of King and William Pits, were over 1000 feet deep. Before metal cages were introduced in the shafts, lowering was done in wicker baskets. The adults would climb inside and the children would scramble on top, where they clung onto the suspension chains as best they could. Many deaths, from falling from these baskets, have been recorded in the Whitehaven district. Smaller pits would have used a Jackroll (a simple hand operated winch) for winding miners and coal from the pit.

Aided only by the light of a single candle, the children had to find their way through the maze of passages to their place of work, which could be anything up to 2½ miles from the shaft bottom. The children could be responsible for a number of tasks.

The youngest children usually started as Trappers as this required little strength. As the air was “coursed” around the workings, ventilation doors and brattices were set to direct the airflow. The Trapper’s task was to sit by one of the doors and open it when miners or horses approached, usually for fourteen hours a day. If the child fell asleep or neglected to close the door, the air would not circulate around the workings as designed and lead to a build up of gases. One case occurred on 9th February 1830 when Thomas Fox (17), James Downie (14) and Thomas Shields (12) were killed by an explosion of fire-damp after a Trapper had left a door open.

An extremely graphic description of the work of a Trapper at William Pit, appears in Ayton and Daniells “A Voyage Around Great Britain 1813 – 1823”:

One class of sufferers in the mine moved my compassion more than any other, a number of the children who attend at the doors to open them when the horses pass through, and who in this duty are compelled to linger through their lives, in silence, solitude, and darkness, for sixpence a day. When I first came to one of these doors, I saw it open without perceiving by what means, till, looking behind it, I beheld a miserable little wretch standing without a light, silent and motionless and resembling in the abjectness of it’s condition, some reptile peculiar to the place, rather than a human creature. On speaking to it, I was touched with the patience and uncomplaining meekness with which it submitted to it’s horrible imprisonment, and the little sense that it had of the barbarity of it’s unnatural parents. Few of the children thus inhumanely sacrificed were more than eight years old, and several were considerably less, and had barely strength sufficient to perform the office that was required of them. On their first introduction into the mine, the poor little victims struggle and scream with terror at the darkness, but there are found people brutal enough to force them to compliance, and after a few trials they become tame and spiritless, and yield themselves up at least without noise and resistance to any cruel slavery that it please their masters to impose on them. In the Winter time they never see daylight, except on a Sunday, for it has been discovered that they can serve for thirteen hours a day without perishing, and they are pitilessly compelled to such a term of solitary confinement, with as little consideration for the injury that they suffer, as is felt for the hinges and pulleys of the doors at which they attend. As soon as they rise from their beds, they descend down the pit, and they are not relieved from their prison till, exhausted with watching and fatigue, they return to their beds again. Surely the savages who murder the children which they cannot support are merciful compared with those who devote them to a life like this.”

Once children were considered strong enough, usually about the age of ten, they became Trailers. Each Trailer worked to a Hagger, an experienced miner who cut the coal. The miner and Trailer worked filling large baskets, which were placed on simple bogies that ran on rails. Once full, they weighed about one third of a ton. While the Trailer then pushed the loaded basket to the main road, the Hagger would bring down more coal. If, on the return, not enough coal had been won, a girl may have had a short rest, but a boy would have been expected to take his place alongside the Hagger. This was advantageous to both, as they were paid by the amount of coal they won, and the boy would begin to learn the art of coal cutting, so as to be ready to become a Hagger himself, usually by the age of fifteen. A Trailer would be expected to push twenty or thirty tramloads a day over an average distance of 150 yards – up to 4,500 yards, depending on how far the heading had progressed. For this, he would receive about five shillings a week.

coalboys

In the Whitehaven Pits, the Bannock and Main Band seams were five or six feet deep, sometimes more. In these seams, roadways could be made high enough to allow the use of pit ponies. Other smaller seams, such as the Two Foot and Yard Band, however, were much too thin to allow this practice and children took over. The Hurrier and The Thruster were involved in moving coal away from the face and towards the main roads which were large enough to accommodate ponies.

A Hurrier worked with a leather belt buckled around the waist, which had chains from the tub attached to the front. These children made many journeys in one day, perhaps as much as 12,000 yards (7 1/2 miles) each shift. In the 1842 report, Commissioner J.C.Symonds gave the following account of Hurriers at work:

These children have 24 corves a day to hurry out of this den and consequently have 48 times to pass along the gate, which is the size of a tolerably large drain. They have the chain passing high up between the legs, and two of them, both 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.”

Where the smallest seams were being worked, it was easier and safer to push the tram, rather than pull it, and Thrusters were used. This position allowed the greatest purchase from the legs.

One of the easier jobs underground was that of Horse Driver. The 1802 list of workers records 70 drivers employed in the Howgill group of mines. Of these, 61 were aged between 11 and 15. By 1842, the number had risen to 131, aged between 9 and 16 years old, at work in the following pits: William 39, Countess 30, Saltom, 35, Duke 10, and Croft 17.

The majority of the horses could be walked to work each morning through the “Bearmouths” or drainage levels, but in pits such as Saltom, they had to be lowered down the shaft. Once there, they would spend their entire working lives below ground, never again seeing the light of the sun, feeling the wind in their hair, or the grass beneath their hooves.

Commissioner J.C. Symons recorded the following observations at William Pit for the 1842 Report to Parliament:

In the William Pit, they have 500 acres under the sea, and the distance is two miles and a half from the shaft to the extreme part of the workings. There is a stable, also under the sea in this immense pit, for 45 horses. The shaft is 110 fathoms … the work [of the Drivers] is toilsome, and, as will be seen by the evidence of the surgeon attending the Earl of Lonsdale’s collieries, accidents sometimes occur by the foot slipping off, and getting stuck by the wheel or axle.”

CHILDREN PUTTING A TUB

Accidents & explosions were not the only threat to children underground. Men were known to ‘interfere’ with the defenceless girls, and women often worked far too late into pregnancy, and occasionally gave birth in horrific conditions in the Mine. It is a horrendous thought that children would be born in the pit, see nothing but the pit for most of their short lives, then die in the same darkness they were born into.

An article in the Cumberland Pacquet refers to an incident in Saltom Pit involving a Collier who, like many at the time, regarded the young girls as ‘fair game’, and there are implications of sexual abuse.

Robert Carter of Whitehaven, was charged with the killing of Peter Andrew the younger. On Friday, 10th September 1824, he approached a young driver, Susan Shaw. She told the court – I was driving a horse and tram in the pit, and the prisoner and the deceased were present. I had a candle in my hand, and Carter coming to me, I put the candle in his face, which raised his anger and he gave me a blow. He was going to his work again when Peter Andrew said: Bob Sponge, what did you strike my driver for ? I heard him in his reply speak very angry to the little boy, so his right arm swing back, and immediately I heard the little boy shout out, and I went to him, and said to Joe Lucas who was present: Robert Carter has kilt the little boy. I found the deceased standing bleeding from the head, there was a wound on his left temple. I believe the blow was  given with a piece of coal.”

The surgeon later diagnosed a fracture on the frontal lobe. Peter Andrew died on the Sunday evening. Carter was sentenced to one months imprisonment with hard labour, for Manslaughter. At that time, the penalty for stealing a sheep was death. For killing a small child in the mines? One month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

These conditions, suffered by thousands of children throughout Great Britain, were finally brought to the attention of Parliament by the 1842 Report. The 1843 Coal Mines Act was the result, & with further Acts that were to follow, gradually removed many of the evils that existed in the pits.

On March 30th 1988, Mr Ray Proctor, Managing Director of the British Coal Opencast Executive, unveiled a memorial in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church, bearing seventy seven names of children who lost their lives in Whitehaven’s pits over a 200 year period. Some spaces have been left for any further names that come to light.

Futher information is available in the book “Children of the Pits” by Ray Devlin, ex Chief Mining Instructor, Haig Pit.

2043

 

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2 thoughts on “Child Labour”

  1. Hi, I would be very interested in buying a copy of this book. Also…my great great grandmother was a Mary Devlin!

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