By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the growth of both population and industry meant a greater need for coal, the first combustible in Great Britain. Between 1830 and 1865, the coal production, mostly in the North East of England, reached its apogee with approximatively fourty millions tonnes each year. Coal was the major source of British mining incomes through the nineteenth century. The methods of coal extraction were very primitive. The mines were nearly totally deprived of mechanization, the output was low and therefore a significant number of people was needed to work underground in exhausting and dangerous conditions.
In 1841, the mining industry employed about 216,000 people, including men, women and children. Women and children had the key role of wage earner when belonging to poor families of the working class. Their working day was officially of 11 or 12 hours, but some remained underground for 26 hours, working in narrow and dark tunnels. Their work consisted in trapping, hurrying and picking down coal in pits deprived of lighting and ventilation. Although the problems in the mines had existed for many years, it was somewhat a case of ’out of sight, out of mind’, where inspection was not an easy mission with only four inspectors for all collieries. The dangers faced by the miners all day long like gas explosion or the breaking down of tunnels added to diseases like bronchits or asthma provoked about 4000 dead each year in the mines.
The first sign of a growing consciousness concerning the miners condition was when eleven girls from eight to sixteen years old and fifteen boys from nine to twelve years old died while they were working in a colliery in 1838. Queen Victoria herself ordered a public inquiry into the incident. In 1840, Lord Ashley, a famous former reformer known for his involvement in factory reforms, persuaded Parliament to set up a royal commission of inquiry into the children’s employement in the mines. The publication of the report was made in early May 1842. It was illustrated by drawings and testimonies from miners, and was relayed by the national newspapers. The report created a sensation. The first impression that middle class got was that miners were simply savages, surrounded by illiteracy, drunkeness, a lack of religion and disgsting sexual practices. Added to the problems concerning miners working conditions, the problem of immorality was then raised by the report.
A month after the report was issued, Lord Ashley delivered a speech to Parliament, demanding a bill which would regulate the employement 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 employement of boys under ten years old in coal mines. It demanded more inspections underground but did not regulate the working hours of the miners.
The Victorian ideal was based on a strict gender ideology. In a family, the man was supposed to be the breadwinner and the woman’s place was home. The woman had to embody the role of angel of the house, a well-educated woman, far from sins and temptations, and within her family, to be a good mother for her children. Lord Ashley, conscious of the weight of this ideal in Victorian society, knew how to deal with the report of the 1840 commission. In the speech where he spoke of the report, he did not focus entirely on the misery of children and women’s labour but tried to centre more around young girls, wearing trousers like men and working bare breasted underground surrounded by boys and men, far from school and religious education, with so little supervision. He emphasized the risk of moral degradation in the mines, ’an immoral conduct which made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers’. His speech was not a call for humanitarian sentiments but an appeal to Victorian prudery. He knew Victorian morality could not tolerate such ’ degredation’ and that the bill would pass rapidly.
Nevertheless it is important to reconsider the consequences of the Act in a mining family of the nineteenth century. In opposition to Victorian ideal society, in every day life, women and children’s work was essential when the family was poor so that it could survive. Lord Ashley’s desire to protect female miners did not take into account the workers’ point of view as they obviously worked by necessity. One member of the parliament who was against the adoption of the bill dared to say : ’be careful, the bill will deprive many children from work’ and insisted on the fact that it could have unexpected consequences concerning ’the public order’. Added to this, at the same period, the mines owners proclaimed a general decrease of the wages which brought many miners to strike during a whole month.
Lord Ashley’s implications in the poor’s lives led to set up a Royal commission whose report rapidly led to the coal mines Act prohibiting the employement underground of all women and boys under ten. The ambiguity of this law resides in the fact that its rapidity of enactment was certainly more to keep the Victorian morality intact than out of a real desire from the middle and upper class to protect the workers. Moreover this law did not take into account economic necessity and deprived workers from an important source of income however small.
Speech of Lord Ashley to the Parliament, June 1842.
Sir, the next subject to which I shall request your attention is the nature of the employement in these localities. Now, it appears that the practice prevails to a lamentable extent of making young persons and children of a tender age draw loads by means of the girdle and chain. .this practice prevails generally in Shropshire, in Derbyshire, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in Lancashire, in Cheshire, in the east of Scotland, in North and South Wales, and in South Gloucestershire. The child, it appears, has a girdle bound round its waist, to which is attached a chain, which passes under the legs, and is attached to the cart. The child is obliged to pass on all fours, and the chain passes under what, therefore, in that posture, might be called the hind legs ; and thus they have to pass through avenues not so good as a common sewer, quite as wet, and oftentimes more contracted. This kind of labour they have to continue during severals hours,hours in a temperature described as perfectly intolerable. By the testimo,y of the people themselves it appears tha the labour is exceedingly severe ; that the girdle blisters their sides and causes great pain. ’ Sir ’, says an old miner, ’I can only say what the mothers say, it is barbarity- absolute barbarity .’
Robert North says, ’I went into the pit at 7 years of age. When I drew by the girdle and chain, the skin was broken and the blood ran down. . . . If we said anything, They would beat us. I have seen many draw at 6. They must do it or be beat. They cannot straighten their backs during the day. I have sometimes pulled till my hips have hurt me so that I have not known what to do with myself .’
In the West Riding, it appears, girls are almost universally employed as trappers and hurriers, in common with boys. The girls are of all ages from 7 to 21. They commonly worked quite naked down to the waist, and are dressed- as far as they are dressed at all- in a loose pair of trousers. These are seldom whole on either sex. In many of the collieries, whom these girls serve, work perfectly naked.
Near Huddersfield the sub-commissionner examined a female child. He says, ’I could not have believed that I should have found human nature so degraded ’. Mr Holroyd, and Mr Brook, a surgeon, confessed, that although within a few miles, they could not have believed such a system of unchristian cruelty could have existed. ’Speaking of one of the girls’ , he says, ’She stood shivering before me from cold. The rug that hung about her waist was as black as coal, and saturated with water, the drippings of the roof’ .’In a pit near New Mills’ , says the sub-commissionner, ’the chain passing high up between the lgs of two girls, had worn large holes in their trousers. Any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work. No brothel can beat it’.
Sir, it would be impossible to enlarge upon all these points ; the evidence is most abundant, and the selection very difficult. I will, however, observe that nothing can be more graphic, nothing more touching than the evidence of many of these poor girls themselves. Insulted, oppressed and even corrupted, they exhibit, not unfrequently, a simplicity and a kindness that render tenfold more heart-rending the folly and cruelty of that system that has forced away these young persons, destined, in God’s providence, to hollier and happier duties, to occupations so unsuited, so harsh, and so degrading. . .
Surely it is evident that to remove, or even to mitigate, these sad evils will require the vigorous and immediate interposition of the legislature. That interposition is demanded by public reason, by public virtue, by the public honour, by the public character, and, I rejoice to add, by the public sympathy : for never, I believe, since the disclosure of the horrors of the African slave-trade, has there existed so universal a feeling on any one subject in this country, as that which now pervades the length and breadth of the land in abhorrence and disgust of this monstrous oppression. It is demanded, moreover, I am happy to say, by many well-intentioned and honest proprietors- Men who are anxious to see those ameliorations introduced which, owing to long established prejudices, they have themselves been unable to effect. From letters and private communications which I have received on the subject, I know that they will hail with the greatest joy such a bill as I shall presently ask leave to introduce.
Testimonies gathered by Ashley’s Mines commission :
N° 116. Sarah Goodler, aged 8 years.
I’m a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have a trap without a light and I’m scared. I got at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and I come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I’ve light, but not in the dark ; I dare not sing then. I don’t like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning. I go to sunday schools and read Reading made Easy. She knows her letters, and can read little words. They teach me to pray. She repeated the Lord’s Prayer, not very perfectly, and ran on with the following addition : ’God bless my father and mother,and sister and brother, uncles and aunts and cousins, and everybody else, and God bless me and make me a good servant. Amen’. I have heard tell of Jesus many atime. I don’t know why he came on earth, I’m sure, and I don’t know why he died, but he had stones for his head to rest on. I would like to be at school far better than in the pit.
N° 137. Thomas Wilson, esq., of the banks, Silkstone, owner of three collieries.
The employement of females of any age in and about the mines is most objectionable, and I should rejoice to see it put an end to ; but in the present feeling of the colliers, no individual would succeed in stopping it in a neighbourhood where it prevailed, because the men would immediately go to those pits where their daughters would be employed. The only way was effectually to put an end to this and other evils in the present colliery system is to elevate the minds of the men ; and the only means to attain this is to combine sound moral and reliious training and industrial habits with a system of intellectual culture much more perfect than can at present be obtained by them.
I object on general principles to government interference in the conduct of any trade, and I am satisfied that in mines it would be productive of the greatest injury and injustice. The art of mining is not so perfectly understood as to admit of the way in which a colliery shall be conducted being dictated by any person, however experienced, with such certainty as would warrant an interference with the management of private business. I should also mosy decidedly object to placing collieries under the present provisions of the Factory Act with respect to the education of children employed therein. First, because, if it is contended that coal-owners, as employers of children, are bound to attend to their education, this ovligation extends equally to all other employers, and therefore it is unjust to single out one class only ; secondly, because, if the legislature asserts a right to interfere to secure education, it is bound to make that interference general ; and thirdly, because, the mining population is in this neighbourhood so intermixed with other classes, and is in such small bodies in any one place, that it would be impossible to provide separate schools for them.
N° 14. Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer .
Works on mother’s account, as father has been dead two years. Mothers bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is weak in her body from early labour. I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work ; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit’s bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on average ; the distance varies from 100 to250 fathom.
I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back ; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs. When first down frequently asleepwhile waiting for coal from heat and fatigue.
I do not like the work, nor do the lassies, but they are made to like it. When the weather is warm there is difficulty in breathing, and frequently the lights go out.
N° Isabel Wilson., 38 years old, coal-putter.
When women have chidren thick (fast) they are compelled to take them down early. I have been married 19 years and have had 10 bairns ; seven are in life. When Sir John’s work was a carrier of coals, which caused me to miscarry five times from the strains, and was gai ill after each. Putting is no so oppressive ; last child was born on Saturday morning, and I was at work on the Friday night.
Once met with an accident ; a coal brake my cheek-bone, which kept me idle some weeks.
I have wrought below 30 years, and so has the guid man ; he is getting touched in the breath now.
None of the children read, as the work is no regular. Idid read once, but no able to attend to it now ; when I go below lassie 10 years of age keeps house and makes the broth or stir about.
Nine sleeps in two bedsteads ; there did not appear to be any beds, and the whole of the other furniture consisted of two chairs, three stools, a table, a kail-ot and a few breaking bases and cups. Upon asking if the furniture was all they had, the guid wife said, furniture was of no use, as it was so troublesome to flit with.
N° 26. Patience Kershaw, aged 17, May 15.
My father has been dead about a year ; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses ; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four ; three lasses go to mill ; all the lads are colliers, two etters and three hurriers ; one lives at home and does nothin ; mother does nought but look after home.
All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school ; I go to sunday-school, but I cannot read or write ; I go to a pit at five o’clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening ; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first ; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go ; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose ; I get nothing elde until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket ; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves ; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill ; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and black ; they weigh 300 cwt. ; I hurry 11 a-day ; I wear a belt and chains at the workings, to get the corves out ; the getters that I sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands ; they strike me upon my back ; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about ; I am the only girl in the pit ; there are about 20 boys and 15 men ; all the men are naked ; I would ather work in mill than in a coal- pit.
This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon.
N° 72. Mary barrett, aged 14. June 15.
I have worked down in pit five years ; father is working in next pit ; I have 12 brothers and sisters- all of them but one live at home ; they weave, and wind, and hurry, and one is a counter, one of them can read, none of the rest can, or write ; they never went to day-school, but three of them go to Sunday-school ;I hurry for my brother John, and come down at seven ; I do not like working in pit, but I am obliged to get a living ; I work always without stockings, or shoes, or trousers ; I wear nothing but my chemise ; I have to go up to my headings with the men ; They are all naked there ; I am got well used to that, and don’t care now much about it ; I was afraid at first, and did not like it ; they never behave rudely to me ; I cannot read or write.
N° 7. Benjamin Miller, Underlooker at Mr. Woolley’s, near Staley Bridge, April 14, 1841.
How do you account for women being used so frequently as drawers in the coal-pits ?
One reason is, that a girl of 20 will work for two s. a-day or less, and a man of that age would want 3s. 6d. : it makes a difference to the coal master, he pays the same whoever does the work ; some would say he got his coal cheaper, but I am not of that opinion, the only difference is that the collier can spend 1s. to 1s. 6d. more at the alehouse, and very often the woman help him to spend it.
Do women ever become coal-getters ?
Not one woman in a hundred ever becomes a coal-getter, and that is one of the reasons the men prefer them.
SG Checkland, The rise of industrial society in England, 1815-1855, London : Longman, 1964.
Elie Halevy, Histoire du peuple anglais au 19ème siècle, Le milieu du siècle,1841-1852, Paris : Hachette Littérature, 1974.
Michel Delacroix et Mary Rosselin, La Grande-Bretagne au 19ème siècle, Technologie et Mode de vie, Paris : Masson, 1991.
Deane and Cole, British economic growth, 1688-1959, Trends and Structure, Cambridge University Press, 1962.
François Crouzet, Regards sur l’Histoire .L’économie de la Grande-Bretagne Victorienne , Paris : S.E.D.E.S., 1978.
Friedrich Engels, The condition of the working class in England, Penguin, 1987 (1845).
Angela V. John, By the sweat of their brow : women workers at Victorian coal mines, London : Croom Helm, 1980.
Andrew Walker, << ’’Pleasurable homes ? Victorian Model Miners’ Wives and the Family wage in a South Yorkshire colliery district’’>>, Women’s History review, volume 6, n°3, 1997.
PRIMARY SOURCES :
Lord Ashley’s speech following the Report of the Commission, June 1842.
Testimonies gathered by Ashley’s mines’ Commission.
Parliamentary Papers, 1842, volume 16, pp. 24-26, 196.