Reforms to coal mining
Commonly known as the Mines Act of 1842, was an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
At the beginning of the 19th century methods of coal extraction were primitive and the workforce, men, women and children, laboured in dangerous conditions.
In 1841 about 216,000 people were employed in the mines. Women and children worked underground for 11 or 12 hours a day for smaller wages than men.
The public became aware of conditions in the country’s collieries in 1838 after a freak accident at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone, near Barnsley. A stream overflowed into the ventilation drift after violent thunderstorms causing the death of 26 children; 11 girls aged from 8 to 16 and 15 boys between 9 and 12 years of age.
The disaster came to the attention of Queen Victoria who ordered an inquiry.
Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury headed the royal commission of inquiry which investigated the conditions of workers especially children in the coal mines in 1840. Commissioners visited collieries and mining communities gathering information sometimes against the mine owners’ wishes. The report, illustrated by engraved illustrations and the personal accounts of mineworkers was published in May 1842.
Victorian society was shocked to discover that children, as young as five or six worked as trappers, opening and shutting ventilation doors down the mine before becoming hurriers, pushing coal tubs. Lord Ashley deliberately appealed to Victorian prudery, focussing on girls and women wearing trousers and working bare breasted in the presence of boys and men which “made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers”. Such an affront to Victorian morality ensured the bill was passed.
A month after the report was issued, Lord Ashley delivered a speech to Parliament, demanding a bill which would regulate the employment of women and children in the mines. In his speech he asked the audience attention to be focused on the harsh working conditions of the miners that he qualified to ’perfectly intolerable’. To support his conviction, he made a parallel between ’ the simplicity and the kindness’ of the workers and ’the folly and cruelty’ of the system. Moreover, to support his request, he raised the fact that the honest mines’ owners themselves begged for the right to improve the working conditions underground.
The bill was presented to the House of Lords which modified some of its points. The age under which child labour was forbidden decreased from thirteen to ten years old, the employement of workhouses apprentices remained allowed from ten to eighteen years of age, and boys from fifteen years old were allowed to control the machines. Last but not least, the obligation to put children at work only one day on two was erased from the text. The House of Commons accepted the modified bill and the essential was at least saved. On 10th of August 1842, the bill became law with an astonishing rapidity. The Mines Act, as it was named, was a seven page Act. The Act prohibited female labour as well as the employment of boys under ten years old in coal mines. It demanded more inspections underground but did not regulate the working hours of the miners.
Further legislation in 1850 addressed the frequency of accidents in mines. The Coal Mines Inspection Act introduced the appointment of inspectors of coal mines, setting out their powers and duties, and placed them under the supervision of the Home Office.
The Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1860 improved safety rules and raised the age limit for boys from 10 to 12.
By 1870 over 1,000 lives were still being lost in mining accidents each year.
In 1872 the Coal Mines Regulation Act introduced the requirement for pit managers to have state certification of their training. Miners were also given the right to appoint inspectors from among themselves.
The Mines Regulation Act, passed in 1881, empowered the Home Secretary to hold inquiries into the causes of mine accidents. It remained clear, however, that there were many aspects of mining that required further intervention and regulation.
Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftsbury was born on 28th April 1801 and he became the Earl of Shaftsbury in 1851. He was a politician and a reformer who wanted to make lives better for Victorian children.
Next, Lord Shaftsbury led a campaign for a reduction in the hours that children worked in textile factories, which led to the 1847 Factories Act being introduced. It was also known as the ‘Ten Hour Act’ as it set the limit that women and children could not work for more than ten hours per day.
Lord Shaftsbury was also interested in education for working children. In 1844 he became chair of the Ragged Schools Union – an organisation that set up free schools for poor children run with charity money, and helped to pass the 1878 Factory and Workshop Act. This introduced new laws for every trade and business in the country:
No child anywhere under the age of 10 was to be employed.
Education was to be compulsory for children up to 10 years old.
10-14 year olds could only be employed for half days.
Lord Shaftsbury died on 1st October 1885.