Chapter Two: Child Labor, Coal Miner
“I Was Put to Work at the Age of Seven Years”
The Cry of the Children
In the census of 1851 three percent of the laborers in Northwest Leicestershire worked in the mining industry. By 1861 this was 10 percent and eventually increased to a high of about 30 percent. On the other hand in 1851, 35 percent worked in manufacturing, 28 percent in agriculture and 28 percent in service. (Vision of Britain)
Isaac’s work career began when he was seven years old. “I was put to work at the age of seven years. At nine years old I was to work in the lead mines. I was after put to work to learn the rope making business. I only stayed at that work a short time as the family moved to the town of Coalville. I was put to work in the coal mines again. I continued to work at the same place until I was 18 years old.” (Wardle, Isaac) There is some discrepancy between Isaac’s histories. In his other history he wrote, “I was put to work at the age of seven years in a rope factory at nine years I went to work at the coal mines where I worked for ten years.” (Wardle, Isaac 2)
There were four major collieries around Coalville: Whitwick, Ibstock, Bagworth and Snibston. Snibston was developed by George Stevenson and his sons in 1833 and he settled in Ravenstone. This mine was the closest to Ravenstone and was a great success.
An unfortunate consequence of the industrial revolution was the need for cheap labor. Children worked cheap. Grolier defines child labor as, “…Work performed by children that either endangers their health or safety, interferes with or prevents their education, or keeps them from play and other activity important to their development.” (Grolier) Young people had always done work on family farms, but the use of child labor during the industrial revolution was much different. Children were used in manufacturing, agricultural, mining, service and chimney sweep industries, often in conditions that were not favorable.
Child labor not only serviced the employer, but because of poverty, is also helped the families who had no other means of support:
That the shameful practice of child labor should have played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset is not to be wondered at. The displaced working classes, from the seventeenth century on, took it for granted that a family would not be able to support itself if the children were not employed…. The children of the poor were forced by economic conditions to work, as Dickens, with his family in debtor's prison, worked at age 12 in the Blacking Factory. In 1840 perhaps only twenty percent of the children of London had any schooling…. The others were working. Many of the more fortunate found employment as apprentices to respectable trades…or as general servants... but many more were not so lucky. Most prostitutes (and there were thousands in London alone) were between 15 and 22 years of age.
Many children worked 16 hour days under atrocious conditions, as their elders did. Ineffective parliamentary acts to regulate the work of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day had been passed as early as 1802 and 1819. After radical agitation, notably in 1831, when "Short Time Committees" organized largely by Evangelicals began to demand a ten hour day, a royal commission established by the Whig government recommended in 1833 that children aged 11-18 be permitted to work a maximum of twelve hours per day; children 9-11 were allowed to work 8 hour days; and children under 9 were no longer permitted to work at all (children as young as 3 had been put to work previously). This act applied only to the textile industry, where children were put to work at the age of 5, and not to a host of other industries and occupations. Iron and coal mines (where children, again, both boys and girls, began work at age 5, and generally died before they were 25), gas works, shipyards, construction, match factories, nail factories, and the business of chimney sweeping, for example (which Blake would use as an emblem of the destruction of the innocent), where the exploitation of child labor was more extensive, was to be enforced in all of England by a total of four inspectors. After further radical agitation, another act in 1847 limited both adults and children to ten hours of work daily. (The Victorian Web)
Over time the consciences of people were pricked by literature, including Charles Dickens’ "Oliver Twist" published 1838. Of note are two poems. The first, The Chimney Sweeper was written by William Blake in 1789 and rewritten in 1794. The 1789 version begins:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep,
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep. (Blake) (For complete poems see appendix)
Just as poignant were the words written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1844 (cited in entirety at the beginning of this chapter):
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers---
And that cannot stop their tears. (Browning)
The life of Isaac reflected this poem in many aspects. “Grandfather has told us how his mother would have his supper ready for him when he would come home after a ten or twelve hours of work at the mine and he would sit up to the table too tired to wash himself first and that he would go to sleep while eating and then his mother would wash and clean him up, putting him to bed without him ever washing. Then he would be up and at the mine the next morning at seven o’clock for another long day. This would seem impossible to us for a child to work such long hours at such hard labor.” (Rupp) “He would sit at the table, he remembered, too tired to wash himself. Then he would go to sleep while he was eating. His mother would then wash and clean him, little boy that he was, and put him to bed. The night never seemed long enough as he had to rise early enough the next morning to be at the mine by seven o’clock for another long day… These long hard hours were endured six and sometimes even seven days a week. Play, as known by the children of our day, was an almost totally unknown part of growing up so far as Isaac was concerned.” (Wardle, Orrin)
Poetry pricked the consciences of people, and laws dealing with child labor were passed. These included the Chimney Sweep Act of 1840, Mines Act of 1842 and Factory Act of 1844. A discourse before parliament by Anthon Ashley Cooper Earl of Shaftesbury, in relation to the Mines act in 1842, talked about the horrid conditions of children and women in the mines. It compares the mines, and indicates children as young as five were in the mines. This included those in Leicestershire. However it makes the point that women were not employed in the mines in the Leicestershire district. He points out that after fourteen, or sixteen hours in the mine, sometimes children would have to walk “a mile or two at night without changing their clothes.” The children often had constrained posture because of the lowness of the ceiling, and there were often drainage and ventilation problems. (See Kessen) He lamented the lack of education. “…It is a mockery to talk of education to people who are engaged, as it were, in unceasing toil from their cradle to their grave.” (Kessen)
Cooper had proposed that women not be allowed to work in the mines, as well as children under thirteen. The Mining Act of 1842 prohibited women from working inside the mines, and children under 10. It was decided an education in the mines was worth more than a reading education. (Kessen) The Factory Act of 1844 limited the work day of children to six hours and women to twelve. (Wikipedia) Even though laws had been passed, enforcement was another issue. The Mining Act of 1842 was not initially enforced and it would be some time before if would keep children from working in the mines. In fact the number of children under fifteen working in the mines increased with the censuses of 1861 and 1871. It wasn’t until the census of 1881 that the number started to show significant decline—1851 37,300; 1861 45,100; 1871 43,100; 1881 30,400. (Economic History Association) These numbers don’t differentiate those working on the surface and those below ground. If strictly enforced, Isaac could not have started working in the mines until after his tenth birthday.
Coal mining was an industry where child labor played an important part. “Child labor… proliferated in coal mining. Half-naked children as young as six labored incredibly long hours in the damp and dark. Many of them carried coal in packs on their backs up long ladders to the surface.” (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)
The industrial revolution increased the demand for coal, but unfortunately methods of extraction were not improved:
Coalmining was another industry that was heightened by the advent of the Industrial Revolution. However, the technology employed in mining remained unchanged. Most of the mines refused to implement advanced means of mechanical conveyance and remained inefficient and labor-intensive.
Child laborers in coalmines were employed to work with haulage and ventilation. Most child miners worked in underground haulage operations as 'putters' (pulling carts and sledges) or as 'drivers' (driving horse and pony carriages). The narrow roads and low ceilings have made it inevitable to use increasing numbers of child laborers in coalmining industry. Some children 'trappers' opened and closed the underground ventilation door to maintain the direction of air currents, for the miners were always at the risk of explosion and suffocation due to accumulations of toxic gas. According to an interview conducted by the Children's Employment Commission in 1841 in Britain, only thirty percent were working in ventilation whilst fifty percent were in haulage. Also, it is notable that only few children remained as 'trappers' beyond the age of eleven or twelve and the vast majority of coalmining children aged ten to fourteen remained concentrated in the haulage sector. The hazardous working environment, poisonous gas, and lack of sunlight posed lasting threat to the well-being of the child laborer. (Chung)
Isaac worked in the mines starting from as early as the age of seven. “He had very little schooling as at the age of seven he was put to work as a runner at the coal mines. At the age of nine he went to work inside the mines.” (Rupp) Whether Isaac started in the rope business, or as a runner for the mines, we know he was working at seven, and by nine years old was working inside the mines, where, much of the year, he would go to work in the dark, be in the dark mine all day, and then come home again in the dark. In Isaac’s history he mentions working in the lead. (Wardle, Isaac 1) It is possible lead coexisted with the coal.
George Cunningham, a fellow hand cart pioneer, also worked in the coal, starting at the age of seven. Of this experience he said, “I labored there for six years, often working twelve or fourteen hours a day, sometimes not seeing the light of heaven for a whole week, only on Sunday… No one knows the danger and privations experienced there, only those who have gone through the same. (Olsen, p 44)
Coal mining was often a family career, with brothers and fathers and sons working the same mine. I noticed this in reviewing the rosters of the dead and injured from mining accidents. (The Mining History Resource Centre) Isaac and his older brothers, as well as Joseph, are listed as coal miners on different census reports. “…Boys and girls opened and closed the vents that controlled the supply of air underground. (Most of these children came into the mines with their fathers or some other relative.)” (Mitchell)
Earl Anthony Cooper pointed out that working in the mines affected the character of the children. “A clergyman, the Rev. W. Parlane, of Tranent, says—‘Children of amiable temper and conduct, at 7 years of age, often return next season from the collieries greatly corrupted, and, as an old teacher says, with most hellish dispositions.’ See, too, here how the system superinduces habits and feelings of ferocity that are perfectly alarming.” (Kessen)
A novel I read, tried to present this change in attitude. It tells of a young man, who worked in the mines with his family, comparing the mines to his life on the plains:
“I am free here,” he says. “I can stand up straight. Stretch out my arms and legs. Look up whenever I choose and see the sun. You have no idea what it is like to go for days and days without seeing the sun because you are buried in the belly of a mine.”
…”Papa took me to work with him the morning I turned thirteen,” he says. “I felt proud of myself as I walked in the colliery with him. I was a man. Just like Papa. Just like my brother…”
“By the time Papa and I reached the pithead, I was sick with excitement. I couldn’t wait to enter the mines with the rest of the men. I stepped into the crowded pit cage, waiting to be lowered to the bottom.
“They dropped us nearly a quarter of a mile.
“The ride was fast and hard and dark. Bits of dust and coal blew into my face. Wind whistled in my ears. I screamed, Charlotte. In front of all of them…”
John shrugs, “I hated the deep darkness of the pit and the way is smothers a soul like a filthy blanket. I hated tasting dust and slithering on my stomach through tight places. And I hated myself for hating it all...” (Cannon)
Isaac was initially a “runner” which would give the impression that he was not working inside the mines, but was running messages or materials, and other duties as assigned. At the age of nine he started to work inside the mines, most likely as a “trapper.” A trapper was in charge of opening and closing doors to control the flow of air when those hauling coal needed passage.
The job of “trapper” was important, as failure to do the job properly could result in a lack of oxygen or a build-up of gas which could be hazardous. In 1841 the deaths of 32 persons at a mine in Northumberland were blamed on a “trapper” not being at his post as the deputy viewer of the colliery explained:
I am further of the opinion that the accident happened as I have stated, from the body of the boy, the trapper, Cooper, being found at a place he could not have been forced by the explosion and who must, in all probability, gone there to play with two other boys, who had also charge of trap doors near to where he was found, add one of whom was found close to him. My son had come through the supposed deserted trap door, to put some coals from the board where the explosion took place. The consequence of that door being left open would be the accumulation of the gas in the middle and northwards boards, from the total absence of the proper current of air which would have passed through them had the door been kept shut.
Several other witnesses were of the same opinion and the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death from the explosion of hydrogen gas.’ (The Coalmining History Resource Centre, April 1841)
As Isaac grew older he likely worked as a hauler known also as a “hurrier” or “putter.” “Work as a ‘putter’ was very difficult. You had to work a tub of coal (which usually did not have wheels) from where it was mined to where it could be taken by a central route to the surface. ‘…Hurriers’ dragged away the cut coal in wheel-less tubs or small trucks to the pit bottom, where it was hoisted to the surface or carried up ladders in corves [baskets]. (Damon quoting J.F.C. Harrison) Women often did this job. A girl who worked at the mines as a hauler testified before a commission set up by English Parliament in the 1830s to look at problems of working children:
I never went to day school; I go to Sunday school, but I cannot read or write; I go to the mine at 5 o'clock in the morning and come out at 5 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 that purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I work in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by carrying the coal buckets. I carry the buckets a mile and more under ground and back; I carry 11 a day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings to get the buckets out; the miners that I work for are naked except for their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; 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; I would rather work in a mill than in a coal-pit. (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)
Isaac, when older, also likely worked at the end of the hole, as a “hewer,” extracting coal. These men often had to stoop and but weight on their knees in an uncomfortable manner while using pick and shovel to extract the coal. “At the coal face the “hewers,” naked and on their knees, hacked away at the coal with their picks. In narrow seams,…the face worker had to lie on his side, use his elbow as a lever, and pick away at the coal. (Damon quoting J.F.C. Harrison)
D.H. Lawrence, whose Uncle died in a mining accident, described coal mining in this manner:
A coal mine remains a hole in the black earth, where blackened men hew and shovel and sweat.
The men might be crushed or buried alive by a sudden fall of earth that blocked their way out of the mine. The deep pits might suddenly be inundated with floods or choked with poison gas and firedamp [a combustible gas…]. The miners’ lungs were clogged with dust as they breathed the odors of stinking horses and sweating men… The mines were always dark, dirty, and dusty as well as hot, wet and cramped. Eating, drinking, urinating and defecating all took place in a confining space, and rats ran through the stagnant water. (Damon quoting D.H. Lawrence)
Cooper provides some documentation of the abuse towards the children:
Isaac Tipstone says—“I was bullied by a man to do what was beyond my strength. I would not, because I could not. The man threw me down, and kicked out two of my ribs.” Jonathan Watts says—“A butty has beaten a boy with a stick till he fell. He then stamped on him till the boy could scarcely stand. The boy never told, and said he would not, for he should only be served worse.” Boys are pulled up and down by the ears. I have seen them beaten till the blood has flowed out of their sides. They are often punished until they can scarcely stand. John Bostock, speaking of Derbyshire, says—“the corporals used to take the burning candle-wicks after the tallow was off, light them, and burn his arms. I have known my uncle take a boy by the ears and knock his head against the wall, because his eyesight was bad, and he could not see to do his work as well as others.” (Kessen)
Coal mining was not only detrimental to children; it was hazardous to all who worked in the mines. Life expectancy for miners was only a little more than 45, while productive life was less than that. (Engels) Frederick Engels, who was a major player in the development of communism, wrote a report of working conditions in England in 1845, which included an assessment of the mining industry. He reports on the consequences from mining of poor health and shortened life span. His report may be biased as indicated in the title of the chapter, “The Mining Proletariat:”
In the coal and iron mines which are worked in pretty much the same way, children of four, five, and seven years are employed. They are set to transporting the ore or coal loosened by the miner from its place to the horse-path or the main shaft, and to opening and shutting the doors (which separate the divisions of the mine and regulate its ventilation) for the passage of workers and material. For watching the doors the smallest children are usually employed, who thus pass twelve hours daily, in the dark, alone, sitting usually in damp passages without even having work enough to save them from the stupefying, brutalizing tedium of doing nothing. The transport of coal and iron-stone, on the other hand, is very hard labour, the stuff being shoved in large tubs, without wheels, over the uneven floor of the mine; often over moist clay, or through water, and frequently up steep inclines and through paths so low-roofed that the workers are forced to creep on hands and knees. For this more wearing labour, therefore, older children and half-grown girls are employed. One man or two boys per tub are employed, according to circumstances; and, if two boys, one pushes and the other pulls. The loosening of the ore or coal, which is done by men or strong youths of sixteen years or more, is also very weary work. The usual working-day is eleven to twelve hours, often longer... Set times for meals are almost unknown, so that these people eat when hunger and time permit…
The children and young people who are employed in transporting coal and iron-stone all complain of being overtired. Even in the most recklessly conducted industrial establishments there is no such universal and exaggerated overwork… It is constantly happening that children throw themselves down on the stone hearth or the floor as soon as they reach home, fall asleep at once without being able to take a bite of food, and have to be washed and put to bed while asleep; it even happens that they lie down on the way home, and are found by their parents late at night asleep on the road. It seems to be a universal practice among these children to spend Sunday in bed to recover in some degree from the overexertion of the week. Church and school are visited by but few, and even of these the teachers complain of their great sleepiness and the want of all eagerness to learn. The same thing is true of the elder girls and women. They are overworked in the most brutal manner. This weariness, which is almost always carried to a most painful pitch, cannot fail to affect the constitution. The first result of such overexertion is the diversion of vitality to the one-sided development of the muscles, so that those especially of the arms, legs, and back, of the shoulders and chest, which are chiefly called into activity in pushing and pulling, attain an uncommonly vigorous development, while all the rest of the body suffers and is atrophied from want of nourishment. More than all else the stature suffers, being stunted and retarded; nearly all miners are short, except those of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, who work under exceptionally favourable conditions. Further, among boys as well as girls, puberty is retarded, among the former often until the eighteenth year… Distortions of the legs, knees bent inwards and feet bent outwards, deformities of the spinal column and other malformations, appear the more readily in constitutions thus weakened, in consequence of the almost universally constrained position during work… The women seem to suffer especially from this work, and are seldom, if ever, as straight as other women… The coal-miners suffer from a number of special affections easily explained by the nature of the work. Diseases of the digestive organs are first in order; want of appetite, pains in the stomach, nausea, and vomiting, are most frequent, with violent thirst, which can be quenched only with the dirty, lukewarm water of the mine; the digestion is checked and all the other affections are thus invited. Diseases of the heart… are readily explained by overwork; and the same is true of the almost universal rupture which is a direct consequence of protracted overexertion. In part from the same cause and in part from the bad, dust-filled atmosphere mixed with carbonic acid and hydrocarbon gas, which might so readily be avoided, there arise numerous painful and dangerous affections of the lungs, especially asthma… The peculiar disease of workers of this sort is "black spittle", which arises from the saturation of the whole lung with coal particles, and manifests itself in general debility, headache, oppression of the chest, and thick, black mucous expectoration. In some districts this disease appears in a mild form; in others, on the contrary, it is wholly incurable... Here, besides the symptoms just mentioned, which appear in an intensified form, short, wheezing breathing, rapid pulse (exceeding 100 per minute), and abrupt coughing, with increasing leanness and debility, speedily make the patient unfit for work. Every case of this disease ends fatally… Rheumatism, too, is, with the exception of the Warwick and Leicestershire workers, a universal disease of the coal-miners, and arises especially from the frequently damp working-places. The consequence of all these diseases is that, in all districts without exception, the coal-miners age early and become unfit for work soon after the fortieth year, though this is different in different places… This applies to those who loosen the coal from the bed; the loaders, who have constantly to lift heavy blocks of coal into the tubs, age with the twenty-eighth or thirtieth year, so that it is proverbial in the coal-mining districts that the loaders are old before they are young. That this premature old age is followed by the early death of the colliers is a matter of course, and a man who reaches sixty is a great exception among them… (Engels)
Engels mentioned the mines in Leicestershire on two occasions. First he mentions that the stunting of growth is not so pronounced giving the impression the caverns were larger and so the miners were not as confined. However this is not to imply that things were good. A statue from Bagworth, Leicestershire, honoring the miners of a past era, shows the miner on his knees as he picks the coal. (Wikipedia) The other advantage was the dryness of the mines in Leicestershire as compared to others in England, thus reducing the rate of rheumatism.
In addition to poor health, the mines were also dangerous. An accident occurred almost daily in some mine in England. (Engels) There were over 164,000 mining injuries and deaths between 1700 and 2000. That is over 500 a year. This included over 15,000 children. These numbers are likely conservative, as before 1850 accurate records were not kept. (The Mining History Resource Centre) Damon indicates that over 1000 miners died annually due to accidents. (Damon) I have reviewed much of the data with regards to the mine mishaps. The most common accident was explosion in the mines. There were also fires, collapses, drowning (when water from one shaft would flood another, elevators falling, boilers blowing, injuring workers on the surface. The fatalities from the mining accidents killed children as well as men and occasionally woman.
In reviewing the record I only found one accident in the Coalville mines. This was at the Whitwick mine in 1898. 33 men and two boys were killed. The timbers of the mine caught fire and because of the fire it was impossible to get the men out. The men succumbed to carbon monoxide gas. There had been problems with fires at this mine prior to this, but no one had been killed. (The Mining History Resource Centre)
During the time when Isaac was working in the mine, March 1847, a mining accident occurred at a mine in Church “Gresley, Derbyshire, about 20 miles from where the Wardle family lived. This accident occurred as the elevator was letting the miners down the shaft to enter the mine. The rope of the elevator broke, and the elevator fell about 230 yards killing nine men and boys and injuring others. The inquest for this accident took place at Leicester. (The South Derbyshire Graveyard Rabbit)
Although Isaac primarily worked in the coal, he also worked for a time in the rope making business. “I was after put to work to learn the rope making business. I only stayed at that work a short time as the family moved to the town of Coalville. (Wardle, Isaac 1) “…He was put to learn the rope making trade, but only stayed with it for a short time…” (Rupp) “When he was about eleven or twelve, he was put out by his parents as an apprentice to learn the rope making trade. This didn’t seem to work out because he stayed with it only a short time.” (Wardle, Orrin)
To be “put out” refers to learning a trade through apprenticeship:
APPRENTICE signifies a person who is bound by indenture to serve a master for a certain term, and receives in return for his services instruction in his master's profession, art, or occupation. Apprentices and masters are equally bound to perform their portion of the contract towards each other; and if the master neglect to teach the apprentice his business, or the apprentice refuse to obey his master's instructions, both are liable to be summoned before a magistrate to answer the complaint against them. A master cannot legally compel his apprentice to work an unreasonable length of time. There is no specific duration marked out by law, but doubtless the habitual employment of an apprentice for more than twelve hours daily (exclusive of meal times) would be deemed unreasonable. Compelling an apprentice to work on Sunday is clearly illegal… Indentures may be cancelled by mutual consent; the safest and most economical mode in such a case is simply to cut off the names and seals of the parties in the indenture, and endorse thereon a memorandum, signed by all parties, to the effect that they give their consent to the cancelling of the same… A master may administer reasonable corporal chastisement to his apprentice, but he cannot discharge him...
The usual term of apprenticeship is seven years, namely, from fourteen to twenty-one years of age, but that period of probation is not always necessary, and, generally speaking, it is optional to determine upon a shorter term. (Human Resource Management)
Isaac going back to the mines was likely a mutual decision between Isaac, his parents and his apprentice. The exact nature of this is not known as Isaac simply states his family moved to Coalville and he felt compelled to go with them. (Wardle, Isaac)
Isaac may also have worked as a brick maker’s assistant. The census of 1851 gives this as his profession. (findmypastUK) The 1851 census included the occupations of the family. It lists John, the head of the household and his two oldest sons, Thomas, 21 and William, 18 as coal miners. Isaac, 16 is listed as assistant to brick maker. Joseph, 14 is listed as an assistant to coal miner. Hannah, 12 and James, 9 are listed as “at home.” No occupation is listed for the mother, Mary. Perhaps the child labor laws were starting to have an effect as James was listed at home at nine years old.
Isaac worked in the mines almost exclusively from age seven to nineteen. He tried rope making, and perhaps brick making but worked for ten years in the coal mines, and for two years before entering the mines. “I went to work at the coal mines where I worked for ten years.” (Wardle, Isaac 2) He must have known of the dangers to health, and the risk of accident involved.