Most of the energy we use today comes in the form of electricity or oil. In Victorian times, energy came from water-power (waterwheels), from horses and above all from burning coal. Coal was as important to Victorians as oil is to us today. Steam engines burned coal. Steam engines drove factory machines, locomotives pulling trains and steamships. All this coal had to be dug from coal mines. Britain had a lot of coal, deep in rocks beneath the ground. .
What were coal mines like?
Most coal was dug from deep mines. A long vertical shaft was dug down from the surface. Leading off from it were side tunnels. Miners rode in a lift, worked by a steam engine. In the tunnels, they hacked at the coal with picks and shovels. Coal mines were dark, dirty and dangerous. The only light came from candles and oil lamps. Gas in the mine could choke miners, or explode. Tunnels could flood or collapse. Accidents killed many miners.
How were coal mines run?
Coal mines were owned by the person on whose land they were dug. The mine owners sold their coal to the factories. Some mine owners were very rich, but they paid miners low wages. They did not care about health and safety, so at first they let small children and women work underground.
In 1842, Parliament stopped women and children under 10 years old from working underground. In 1860 the age limit for boy-miners was raised to 12, and in 1900 to 13.
What jobs did children do in mines?
Some children pushed trucks of coal along mine tunnels. They were called ‘putters’.
‘Trappers’ opened and shut wooden doors to let air through the tunnels. A trapper boy sat in the dark, with just a small candle, and no-one to talk to.
Some children started work at 2 in the morning and stayed below ground for 18 hours. Children working on the surface, sorting coal, at least saw daylight and breathed fresh air.
Child miners started work very early. They often got before sunrise to walk to the mine.
Miners got covered in coal dust. There were no baths at the mine. At home child-miners sat in a tin bath in front of the fire.
Mine children often worked in complete darkness. There were no electric torches. Candles cost precious pennies.
Horses also worked underground. Pit-ponies pulled wagons of coal along the tunnels.
Miners took their dinner down the mine – perhaps bread and cheese, or bread with a bit of cold bacon.
Any miner (man or child) who stole another miner’s dinner was beaten with a stick.
To drink, most miners took a tin can of cold tea with them.
It was often very wet in a coal mine. Water dripped into the tunnels, soaking the miners as they worked.
Some miners took canary birds in cages down the mine. If it breathed in dangerous gas, the canary passed out (fainted), and the miners hurried to safety.
In just 40 years the amount of coal dug from British mines rose from 17 million tons (1830) to over 121 million tons (1870).
To wake miners early in the morning, a man called the ‘knocker-up’ went from house to house, tapping on bedroom windows with a long pole.
At England’s National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield, Yorkshire, visitors can go down 140 metres underground.