Monday, January 2, 2012

History of English Mines

   Among the many newspaper clippings my mother collected and left for me in her "Ancestor Albums" is this one concerning mining in England in the 19th century.
   My mother believed that the "Grape Creek resident" who submitted the article to the newspaper was her grandfather, Jonah James.  Jonah was born 6 January 1835 in Somerset, England, and was a life-long miner and coal mine manager.
   If it was Jonah who submitted the article, and if he started work in the mines at the age of 9 (about 1844) and had spent sixty years in the mines at the time the article was published that would make the publication date about 1904 and the place of publication probably Danville, Illinois.

   Back dating would also place the original date of publication in The Miners' Journal about 1885.  A newspaper of that name was published in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in the 1800s, but that identification is only a possibility.
   If you have ancestors who were coal miners in England in the early 1800s, you will find the article both interesting and disturbing.

Women and Children Worked Harnessed Like Mules, Carrying and Handling Coal.
   This articles, which deals with conditions of the mines in England as they confronted the miners of that country some thirty years ago, is the much valued property of a Grape Creek resident who has spent sixty years in the mines, both here and in England, starting in the mines when 9 years old, as a trapper boy[1], in England, and elevating himself to the position of mine manager in America.  By his request his name will not be given.
This article was published in the Miners' Journal nineteen years ago.

I first made the acquaintance of a coal mine in my native Scotland, in the year 1842, a few weeks before I had attained the age of 8 years.  At that time Lord Ashley's bill[2] had not been introduced in parliament for the exclusion of female labor and children from coal mines.  When father told me that he was going to take me to the pit my joy knew no bounds; I was so overjoyed that I could not sleep, and got up at 1 o'clock in the morning, fearing that if I fell asleep he would go off without me.  It was regarded as a great honor for a small boy to be taken to the mine; and when I returned home that evening I walked up and down the village showing myself to all my little comrades.
   My oldest recollection of the mine was seeing a young woman at the bottom of the pit as I was lifted out of the corve by father; she was standing on the plates with her hands on her sides singing a song, snatches of which I still remember, although I do not think I ever heard it since. It began as follows:
   "I've got a pain in my side, and I got it by dancing;
    Fal the deedle al al; fal the deedle ee."

   A set of harness was brought to me and I was told to put it on, which I did, and was then hitched up to one of the mine wagons and ordered to go on.  I started to pull with all my might, but could not move the empty car; the bystanders roared with laughter, and declared that I could not tighten the chain.
   There were no cages in the pits in those days.  The coal was raised through the shaft in an iron basket of circular form, made of boiler-plate, called a corve.  It held about 400 pounds of coal.  The hoisting rope was made of hemp, [an inch] in thickness and four inches wide. A double chain was attached to the end of the rope, having hooks which were hitched into the lugs of the corve.
   The miners began to gather around the pit as early as 3 o'clock in the morning; but were not allowed to go down until 4, the first on the ground having the right of descent.  The corves held four to six persons; and the father, his sons and daughters generally descended together; the youngsters sitting in the bottom of the corve, the father standing erect with one leg outside the corve and one arm guiding it to keep it from striking the sides of the pit.  The younger and bolder men who had no charge caught the rope as the cage descended below the platform and clung to it until the bottom was reached -- this was a daring plunge and sometimes three or four men would descend in this manner, one above the other.  Those who went down in this manner were not required to wait their turn.  Before going down they stuck their picks behind their backs, between their jackets and vests.  A curious habit with miners in those days was carrying their picks on their left arm.  When a miners carried a pick [in this] manner it was proof that he was not a trained pitman.

   All the hauling was done by boys and girls in Scotland; but some parts of England the women did every kind of pit work, from digging the coal to hauling it to the bottom of the shaft.
   In hauling, two women were usually employed -- one behind and the other in front; the forward one was hitched up to the mine car, with a belt around her waist and a chain passing between her legs.  In many parts of England the women were dressed like boys.  When the commissioners appointed by parliament to inquire into the operation and results of female labor in coal mines made their report, they presented a picture of deadly physical oppression and systematic slavery of which no one unacquainted with the facts would credit the existence.  The women worked 12 to 14 hours a day in the damp and unwholesome air of mines, crawling on all fours in dragging the loaded cars along roadways covered with water in many places.
   In Scotland women were not only employed in hauling the coal along such roadways, but at many mines they carried it up the shaft on their backs, through a long winding stairway, the coal being carried in wicker cribs fitted to the backs of the women and held in place by leather straps passing around their foreheads.  Mr. Robert Bald, the eminent coal viewer of Scotland, who knew them well, states that one of their days' work was equal to carrying a hundred weight from the level of the sea to the top of  Ben Lomond;[3] and Hugh Miller, who worked at his trade at one of the mining villages near Edinburgh, in 1824, says that he often saw the poor women coal bearers toiling under their loads, and crying like children along the upper rounds of the wooden stair that traversed the shaft.

   Children as young as three years were taken into the mines.  One miner stated to the commissioners that he took his child, only three years old, into the pit with him.  It was made to follow him into his room and hold a candle for him, and when the child became overcome with fatigue he cradled it upon the coals.  Some of the pit women tied their children to their apron strings to prevent them wandering away into the old working and losing themselves.  This horrible fact was, however, an exceptional case, nor was it the custom of employing women in mines general. In the thick coals of Billston, Dudley and Wolverhamdon, women were never employed in mines, and in the north of Eng[land         ] and t[       ]been volunt[arily abolished] since 1780.
  If the colored people of the United States have reason to honor the name of Abraham Lincoln for freeing the colored slaves of this country, the women of England should honor the memory of Queen Victoria, for it was one of the first acts of her administration which emancipated the pit women of Great Britain from a system of white slavery more cruyel than the worst form of negro bondage.  One pit woman of Scotland said to the commissioners: "You must just tell Queen Victoria that we are quiet, loyal subjects and that women in Scotland do not mind hard work, and that the Queen would have the blessings of all the Scotch pit women if she would get them out of the pits and find them other labor."

1. Trapper boys opened and closed underground ventilation doors -- Shorpy
2. The Mines and Collieries Act 1842 prevented boys under the age of ten and all females from working underground -- Wikipedia
3. A mountain on the shore of Loch Lomond which is 3,196 feet tall. -- Wikipedia

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