Chambers Journal 1860
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A Peep at the Mining Districts 
Chambers Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts Vol X111 (Edinburgh 1860) pp174-76

We have in our mind’s eye, as we write, a grimy hole in the side of hill, dotted with stunted oak, hazelnut bushes, and bramble. It is not a large hole – not by any means large enough to admit a man entering it upright. Out of its ooze a dirty, red-brown fluid flows, which mingles with, and moistens and soaks the black smudge around and in front, and flows down over the adjoining turnpike, to the horror of the pedestrian, a stream of liquid coal-dust. Rank leaves grow in its neighbourhood, and the atmosphere is raw and unhealthy. The impartial sun himself seems to shun the place; and if ever, by chance, he directs his radiant glance on it, it is but to withdraw if again in a moment in disgust. Altogether, one shrinks form it, and turns away from it; yet over this rank leaves, through that black puddle into the grimy hole, many men pass day by day – men who would have  been tall, straight limbed, shapely men, but who, from the necessity they are under of entering that hole, are bandy legged, misshapen beings. Children of ten and twelve years of age follow into that dark hole every morning; weird-looking, stunted creatures they are, already bowed down by their unsuitable labour, as men are bowed down by old age.

The hole is the entrance to a West Riding of Yorkshire coal pit, that extents horizontally into the hill; and if we stand by a short time, we shall see these children – little old men, they look – emerge as black and soaking wet as the surroundings of the pit, each pushing before him a loaded wagon, not large, but too heavy for his child-strength, which he no sooner empties on one side, than he splashes back through the mud into that confined aperture, to enter which, even he has to bow his head. Poor child, he ought to have been at school, but here he must work eight or ten hours per day in his wet dirty clothing, and feast off an indigestible ‘pasty’, composed of unsweetened bramble berries or sour apples, or off fat bacon and sodden bread, with a drink of muddy ‘home brewed’ to swill it down. His grown-up companions dine on similar fare. What he is they were; what they are he shall become. Now, he stoops to push his hurly to the mouth of the pit, where he gets just a glimpse of the sky during his working hours; in a short time he will grovel on his belly or his back, or crouch on his knees to pick the mineral, for other children to wheel away, without a solitary peep at the empyrean, from the time he enters to the time he goes out – that is to say, if he not be killed by an explosion, or a falling  of the roof, or other accident common to coal mines, before he reaches the years of manhood. This is by no means impossible as a few figures from a parliamentary document will demonstrate clearly enough. In Yorkshire alone, between March 1856 and November 1858 no less than 219 lives were sacrificed by casualties in coal mines, and this does not include fatal accidents in which only one life was lost in each case. We may, therefore, presume to add twenty more lives to he number of fatalities which would give a total of 239 lives lost in one coal district of England in a period not more than two years and eight months.

According to the doctrine of compensation the miner should have something in return for his hard, dirty, disagreeable work and danger. Has he really so? Let us see.

All that can be said of a miner’s home is that it not quite so uncomfortable, unhealthy, dirty and dangerous as the coal pit. On the side of the valley opposite to the coal pit, the entrance of which we have attempted to give an idea, stands a mining village. The road from the pit to it was first down the muddiest of lanes, then down a footpath through the fields, whose native clay, mingle with coal slack, stuck to the feet like snow balls, then over a dirty red-brown stream, then by means of slimy red-brown stones, up more clay field-paths laid with slack equally sticky; and finally up some slippery stone steps, worn and broken by miners’ long use of them as scrapers to take the more salient of the ‘muck’, as they term it, from their shoes. Once at the top of the steps you are in the centre of the village. Parallel to the steps we have ascended, others descend to a public well; the landing place, as it may be called, is therefore about as agreeable to the wearers of shiny boots as the fields. To the right, in the sort of angle formed by the meeting of two roads, stands a beer house, with dirty-green outside shutters thrown back to the wall, and a dirty-green door, three-quarters open. The pipe-clay sanded passage is soiled with the marks of collier’s feet, and the beech-table, seen through the half-open window is studded with the bottom marks of pint pots. It isn’t by any means a pleasant looking retreat, but it is better than a collier’s home, and this fact together with his love of drink and company, makes him a pretty frequent visitor. To the left is the store where the miners obtain their necessaries, generally on ‘tick’, from pay-day to pay-day their improvidence preventing most of them from ever being a week beforehand with their wants. At one side of the door stands an open bag of flour and a box of candles, at the other, a calico print and a cotton handkerchief overhang a sack of potatoes and a half-keg of butter, set on an empty sugar barrel. Conspicuous in one window is a parcel of spit-pease, some uncleansed currants, and a few pairs of woollen stockings; in the other a sample of coarse tea jostles some sandy looking sugar, which in its turn, infringes upon a roll of fat bacon. These are the principle edifices of the village. The colliers’ houses are small and low with an air of squalor, and a feeling of damp about them. The flags that pave the floor are in a dilapidated condition. The chairs are equally so, and are tossed down anywhere, without the slightest regard to order, and one of them bears unmistakable evidence that it was recently used as a baking board. A lot of unwashed crockery stands on greasy table, and few cakes of sour ‘snapping-rattle’ hang over some strings stretched over the joists. A turn-up bed, painted to resemble maple, stands to one side of the room; opposite to it, a chest of mahogany-coloured drawers; and in a corner, a headless, paint-less cradle, suspended above which is a wheezy German clock. As a general rule, there is no book or periodical to be seen. The houses are of course, badly drained. Outside in front, is an almost stagnant sewer, throwing off its malaria; and at the back there is a pigsty nuisance. No wonder that fevers now and again decimate these ignorant, hard-worked, improperly fed, badly housed people. This is no fancy picture, neither is it a description of things that once were, and now have no existence. It is a truthful portraiture of what exists today.

The poor collier children who are born in these unpromising places are unusually smart. A Wesleyan minister, unacquainted with the district, asked one of the urchins who was returning from his labour in the mine, if he could tell him the way to a certain place, which we may call Oldmill. ‘Ay,’ he said, ‘am beawn ther mesen (I am going there myself).’ The clergyman entered into a conversation with his guide, in the course of which he asked him what he did for a livelihood. The boy told him, and in return enquired what he did for a living. ‘Oh, my little lad,’ replied the minister, ‘I shew people the way to heaven.’ ‘Well, aw never heerd o’ sich a thing,’ said the boy in astonishment; ‘Heaw can yo’ show folk that far road, when thee doesn’t knaw the way to Oldmill?’

The last annual report of Mr Tremenheere, the commissioner appointed, under parliamentary sanction, to enquire into the condition of the mining population shews, however, that education and cleanliness are slowly creeping into some mining districts. Educational-prize schemes have been established in many places, with a view to encourage miners to send their children to school, and the children to learn when they are there; but  they are not taken advantage of to such an extent as is desirable, and might have been expected. The great bulk of the children are removed from school before they have been sufficiently grounded in elementary knowledge. Mr Tremenheere is of the opinion, and in this he is supported by persons of influence in the colliery districts, that nothing but legislative enactment will insure a fair measure of education for the children of miners; though educational means have been afforded to, and in some degree made use of by, men at present employed in the capacity of foremen. There can be no doubt, that with properly educated and qualified overmen, viewers, etc., the casualties in coal-mines would speedily decrease.

It may be an incentive to collier-boys to mention that there is an excellent prospect for those who distinguish themselves in school. Educated men are in much demand at all collieries. One of the gentlemen connected with the very extensive works of Messrs Baird of Gartsherrie (who have shown great anxiety to improve the condition of their workmen) said to Mr Tremenheere; ‘We have always acted on the principle of drawing from our schools when we want to fill up vacancies of trust connected with our works. Of such we have about 50, the salaries attached to which are from L.70 to L.150 a year, and some higher; and there are frequent changes, many being drafted on to other works, on promotion, as it were. The other day we wanted one, on a vacancy occurring, but no youth was found sufficiently qualified, although mathematical and other useful instrumentation is offered in our schools, and several boys are in the classes where these branches are taught. However, they frequently leave school before they have sufficiently qualified themselves, although their parents could well afford to keep them there a little longer. We have a direct inducement to look out for well-qualified lads for those situations of trust, and merit and ability cannot escape us. The manager of the many large pits of Messrs Merry and Cunnigham says, ’In Ayrshire we have forty pits. We want one underground foreman, who must be a man of superior knowledge, and an overman on an average for each pit; in some pits we have two. We have great difficulty in getting such men; we have to pick them out among the common colliers. There is no class men worse to get than a good underground man or overman.’ Mr Galloway of Barleith and Dollar collieries says that out of fifty applications for an underground foreman, of which he was recently in want, only three were worthy of a moment’s consideration.

And yet, in the face of such facts, the majority of parents are selfish enough to sacrifice their children’s future prospects, rather than forego the trifling produce of their ten-year-old labour. The present looms so largely in the eyes of these people, that it entirely hides the future; and their children grow up to be nothing more than common miners, when, with two years more schooling, and a little after-application, they might have risen to managers with an excellent salary, and much lighter labour.

Girl’s schools have also been established in some of the mining districts. In addition to the usual elementary instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. special prizes are given by the Birmingham Association, ‘for sewing a shirt sleeve, 7 inches long, 8 inches wide, with a gusset 3 inches square, and a piece for a wristband, 5 inches wide and three inches deep; the material to be white calico of 6d per yard, well scalded.’ For running with darning-cotton the heel of a woman’s stocking at the price of 8d per pair. For knitting the heel of a worsted sock. For darning linen; for patching linen. For the best examination in Tegetmeier’s Manuel of Domestic Economy.’ At Gartsherrie, a school has been established during the present year to ‘train young females in the art of housekeeping, at least so far as this consists in the proper selection and careful cooking of food, in the washing, dressing, and mending of clothes, and thorough cleanliness.’ We augur much good from these efforts to instruct those who are to be future wives and mothers of colliers. Many a man is now driven to the public house by the untidiness and general incapacity of his wife. By her want of management, his earnings are needlessly and foolishly squandered. Discomfort, debt, and overwork of the children are the consequences; whereas, had she been intelligently thrifty, they might have lived in comfort, put aside occasionally a little money for a ‘rainy day’, and have been under no necessity of withdrawing their children so early from school.

In connection with the training institution for girls at Gartsherrie, is a boarding-house for unmarried men. It is under the charge of a matron; and Mr Tremenheere describes it as scrupulously clean and comfortable in all parts, the bedrooms and bedding especially presenting a striking contrast to those of ordinary lodging-houses. There is a washing and bath room, in which a warm bath can be had at any time; and there are conveniences for drying wet clothes. ‘The charge for all this is 3d per night, or 18d per week. Nevertheless, it is almost sufficient to make the establishment almost self-supporting. For food and washing, as well as lodging, the highest charge is 10s per week, for which meals are; breakfast – coffee, bread and butter, ham and eggs; dinner – broth, beef or mutton, and potatoes and bread; supper – tea, bread and butter, and cheese. The lowest at present is 8s 6d, the difference in the diet being porridge and milk for breakfast and supper; and if any lodger prefer a less expensive dinner, he can have it.’ Arrangement is also made for supplying dinners to any of the work-people, not inmates, who may desire them.

Many improvements, we are glad to learn from this report, are being made in house-accommodation for miners in certain districts, particularly in Scotland. Attention is being paid to drainage; the houses are being built more commodiously, and on plans that take decency into account; and it is satisfactory to know that experience has shewn that by a judicious outlay, excellent accommodation can be provided for labouring-men, and their families at a rate which affords a satisfactory return upon the capital.’ The fever, which proves so fatal in many mining villages, being, as Dr Simon expresses it , ‘essentially a disease of filth,’ we may expect, as a result of these better houses, a decrease in the rate of mortality.

At Gartsherrie and Eglington, the houses of the employees of the Messrs Baird have gardens attached, which the colliers now take a pride in keeping neat, though, when the gardens were first introduced, some of them were allowed to lie neglected. ‘The gardens,’ says Mr Tremenheere, ‘attached to the rows of collier’s houses of the Barleith and Dollar Collieries (Mr John Galloway’s), the Annandale (Mr Finnie’s), and the Caprington (Mr Cunningham Smith’s), in Ayrshire, can scarcely be exceeded in neatness and the mode of cultivation’. At the former, a narrow bed on each side the door afforded room for roses, carnations, etc., to ornament the font of each cottage. The roadway was under-drained, and kept quire clean. Each garden, corresponding in width to the front of the cottage, was enclosed, and each had its small grass plot. At the bottom of the garden, and consequently well removed from the house, was the ash pit, and every proper convenience. Premiums of L1, 10s and 5s are offered for the best kept cottages and gardens; and a card, with an ornamental design printed in colours, is given with each and is much valued by those who gain it. It is framed, and hung up in their cottages. At Annandale, also, there are flowers in much profusion all along the front of each house. The plots in front of the houses at Caprington were laid out with as much taste as could be seen in any gentleman’s grounds; they are neatly bordered with box, and the paths made of a light-coloured material from some adjoining lime-works. The flowers are various in kind, and in great perfection. ‘The emulation among themselves rendered an offer of prizes unnecessary. The refining influence of a taste of this kind, and the counteraction it affords against debasing enjoyments, are obviously as much within the reach of the colliery population as of any other, wherever duly encouraged by their masters’.

There is evidently a desire on the part of the masters generally to treat their men in a much more rational way than was customary a few years ago, and on the side of the men there is a growing disposition to regard the masters less as tyrants than they formerly did. They are both beginning to see that their interests are identical, not antagonistic; that what is ill for the master, is not good for the  man; and vice versa. There are still, however, causes of dissention on both sides. The men still complain of the ‘truck’ and ‘butty’ systems, and the masters of combinations and strikes. To get rid of these grievances, the men must distrust those stump-orators whose gain is their misery, and masters must not rely so much on the reports of their agents. As far as possible, all grievances on either side should be stated personally, for the more frequent the personal intercourse, the less likelihood of misunderstanding.



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