Croeso Network

Children in Coal Mines


Children working in coal mines was a fact of life in the early ninetieth century. As mines got larger and more mechanised the demand for workers above ground increased. This reduced the labour force available to work underground and so children appear to have been increasingly used.

Indeed, this increasingly grim situation caused the Government to appoint a ‘Children’s Employment Commissioner’ during the 1840’s. This persons role was to ‘Inquire on the state, condition, and treatment of such children and young persons in mines and mineral in North Wales’. The report provides a stark picture.

The general picture was that children worked twelve hours per day, earning at the most one shilling per shift. Girls under eighteen worked at various surface jobs but never underground.

Underground the coal seams were often so thin that boys as young as seven years old were employed. They often worked a shift system starting either six in the morning or six in the evening. Shifts lasted at least ten hours. These boys undertook the more supportive jobs rather than directly dig the coal. These jobs included filling the wagons, pumping, driving the horses employed underground. They also drew the coal wagons themselves.

A report by a H.H. Hones Esq. of the time states; ‘Drawing or pushing coal wagons forms the principle employment of children and young persons…Drawing is performed by means of a chain passing from the coal wagons (called ‘pyches’ in North Wales incidentally) between the boys legs and fastened to a girdle around his waste, being thus attached to the load he draws it by stooping down , proceeding on all fours’.

The report goes on to sympathise with the work these children undertook stating it is a ‘grievous subject for reflection and a sad spectacle to behold: they pass the day working many fathoms underground, where daylight never enters’. The report then states that the children could not stand upright for most of the time and they continually breath coal dust and noxious gases.

However, all is not lost. The children are ‘Treated with humanity and propriety by the charter-masters and colliers, many of which are religious and good moral characters, and often pray aloud in the pits, and give good advice to both children and adults’ . Pity that advice couldn’t have been to go to school or work the fields in the fresh air.

Further on the report details the food these children survived on. Breakfast, dinner and supper consisted of bread, butter, potatoes, milk and ‘occasionally bacon’. There is no mention of vegetables or other essential food for a balanced diet. However, the report states ‘Their physical condition is proof that they have a sufficiency of nutritive food to maintain health and strength…. Their clothing is on most instances well calculated to their work and station….the boys are sufficiently clad and non whom I examined had less than two suits and three shirts’ . The mental and physical long term effects of this work and diet can only be imagined.
A factual report of the time presents this account:

Gardden Colliery, Ruabon, Denbighshire. (April 30th , 1841)
No 17 - John Tinna, Aged 11.
‘Has been working two years. Drove the pony in the pits for six months. Now draws the pyches by girdle at 1s a day. Had 1s 4d a day at first: but wages have been lowered. Works from 6 to 6. Half an hour for breakfast and a hour for dinner. Has not always so much. Has sometimes come up to eat, though very seldom. Men never beat him. Goes three times every Sunday to worship at Methodists’ chapel, and to the Sunday school. Has sometimes worked all night when the pit had to be cleared. Is very healthy. Never hears the bad language in the pits. Some of the men often pray along.’

 

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