These days we use electricity and gas to power and heat our homes and factories, but in Victorian times these forms of energy hadn’t been developed.
Coal was the primary fuel used, coal which was chipped from mines deep underground – and it was being used in larger quantities than ever.
One reason is that the population increased tremendously during this time, from 19 million people in 1831, to over 32 million in 1901.
This was because improvements in health and medical treatments meant that people lived for longer, and could have larger families.
These new families needed new homes, all needing coal for the grate.
Another massive reason for the demand for coal is that factories were springing up at a phenomenal rate.
With the expansion of factories during the Victorian period, there was a growing demand for coal to power machinery, and coal has always come from underground, down dark damp dangerous tunnels.
Thanks to technology, mines could be dug deeper, with narrow tunnels running literally miles underground.
And dotted all through these tunnels were children who could fit into the tightest spaces and work for hardly any money. The jobs they did were as bad as the factories, with the added downside of those who work day shifts saw sunlight only once a week.
Entire families would work at the mine, children often as young as four. The pay was very poor and so families tried to earn as much as they could by sending all their children to work too.
It was extremely unhealthy and dangerous work and it was common for children, and adults to be injured or even killed.
In 1842 It became illegal for children and women to work in mines, but things didn’t change immediately.
There was only one inspector for the whole country, and he had to give notice that he would visit a mine, and so it was easy for mine-owners to ignore the change in the law.
It wasn’t just coal mines people used to work in…
Slate is a useful mineral because it’s both light and watertight- even the Romans used it because it was so versatile. It’s mined from deep underground, and in the UK is found in various places, but commonly in parts of Wales. It’s used to this day for bricks and for roof tiles.
There was a massive increase in the demand for slate in the Victorian era. By 1898 17,000 workers were producing over half a million tonnes of slate every year. Many of these workers were children. So what caused the demand?
One reason is the change in technology. New steam-powered boats meant that we could send our goods all over the world – and the world was keen to buy from us. We could send ships packed with our slate to America, making the mine owners very rich.
Technology such as steam-power lead to many new factories too – and these factories needed slate tiles for their roofs, as did the new housing which was being built for our increasing population which increased by a third over the 1900s.
Working in slate mines was, like all mine work, extremely dangerous for children, and explosions and collapses were commonplace.
It took time for the laws to change.
Between 1840 and 1842, government inspectors visited the Welsh coalfields and spoke to many child miners. These interviews were presented to Parliament as part of The Commission of Enquiry into the State of Children in Employment.
Although things didn’t change overnight it did at least to public attention being raised about the plight of child mine workers and by the turn of the century schooling was compulsory for the under 11s – saving them from this unpleasant work.
Mining Jobs that children did
• Boys and girls who worked on their hands and knees in the deepest tunnels, dragging carts of coal behind them using chains attached to their belt.
• As the mines were often dripping wet, children would spend all day in sopping wet clothes.
• Scabby knees was the least of their worries – you’d have hardly notice them when your muscles are screaming and got a crippling backache.
• Not all children pulled carts – some pushed them using their heads (giving them bald patches) and other carried coal up ladders and along passageways in baskets on their backs.
• Some coal mines used pit ponies to move the coal around the mines. A haulier would guide the horses from the coal face to the mine shaft. Hauliers were generally aged 14 to 17 years of age, and size was important – to big and would not fit in the mine shafts.
• Boys and girls as young as 6 would open ‘trap doors’ in the tunnels whenever a cart needed to come past. For the rest of the time they sat on their own in the dark waiting for the next cart.
• They often did not have a candle because candles cost money. And couldn’t leave their post for a minute just in case a door needed opening.
• Whilst boring and pretty frightening, it was an important job for the safety of the mine and miners. Keeping doors shut whenever possible helped stop dangerous gases from building up.
• Boys and girls who separated impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker.
• The first function was to break coal into pieces and sort these pieces into categories of nearly uniform size, a process known as breaking.
• But coal is often mixed with impurities such as rock, slate, sulphur, ash, clay or soil, and so second function was to remove as many impurities as possible and grade the coal based on impurities remaining. This was not necessary when coal was used in cottage-industry grade production methods, but became necessary when economies of scale moved production into early factories with a larger workforce and those installations began producing glass and iron in greater quantities.
• Coal breaking was very dangerous and difficult, working an intensive 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.
• They would sit on wooden benches perched over chutes and conveyor belts. Some of the boys would work on top of the chutes. These boys would stop the coal by pushing their boots into the stream of coal flowing beneath them and try to pick out the impurities. Others would divert the coal into a horizontal chute where they sat to pick out the unwanted material before the coal would go to the clean coal bins.
• If you think you can handle terrible blisters freezing cold, aching arms, long hours and not much money, you could try being a washer boy washing the lead ore that your dad has dug up down a Victorian lead mine.
• First you smash it with a hammer which means dodging the razor sharp tiny pieces that fly into the air every time you wallop it. Then you collect up all the pieces with your bare hands and put them into a sieve on the end of a pole. After that comes the chilly part. You pump the sieve up and down in a bucket of ice cold water. It’s not easy – the end of the pole is higher than you are so you have to jump to reach it. It is back breaking work and you won’t stop shivering. it might not be too bad in the summer but imagine doing this in the middle of winter.
You can find out more about coal mining and the jobs that children used to do at the National Coal Mining Museum
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