Questions & Answers - Evidence from the 1842 Mines Report

How old were children when they first worked underground?

R. H. Franks, Inspector:

' will find in the evidence a sufficient number of instances to enable you to appreciate the very early age at which it is the practice to take children down to work in the collieries, and that it can scarcely be said to be an uncommon occurrence for a child to work at the early age of five years and a half - this is the youngest age at which I myself have found any employed.'

Mr. Thomas Josephs, mineral agent of the Plymouth Works, Merthyr Tydfil:

'..children are employed as air-door keepers at 5 years of age; as horse drivers at 14, as colliers at 12 years of age.'

Mr. William Stange, medical assistant, Llanvabon:

'They (the people) certainly had a bad practice here of taking children down as soon as they can creep about, many as early as five or six years of age.'

Did parents want their children to go to work so young?

'In many parts of the country a large family is considered a heavy burden, here it is often the means of bringing a considerable income to the parents. The combined effects of these causes is to lead people to marry before they understand the duties and responsibilities which they take upon themselves; and young girls leave the Sunday-school at 15 or 16 to get married.'
'In many instances, in the works under inquiry, ... the younger hands are employed by the men and not by the master, and the terms on which they are hired are of course determined by the adult whom they assist, and in the collieries the collier boy is, to all intents and purposes, the property of his father (as to wages) until he attains the age of 17 years, or marries; his father receives his wages, whether he be an air-door boy of five years of age or a haulier of 15.'

Was this work harmful to the children?

James Probert, surgeon to the Plymouth Iron-Works, Merthyr Tydfil:

'The employment of children in mines at a very early age tends to produce disease by exposing a constitution not matured to foul air; but other causes contribute to this ???? Such children are very much exposed to wet and cold, especially during winter and ???? seasons. They are also deprived of solar light, which is as necessary to the proper development of animals as vegetables.'

Were there any other dangers?

James Probert, surgeon to the Plymouth Iron-Works:

'The diseases incident to, and prevalent amongst the colliers, as a class, are chronic diseases of the respiratory organs, especially asthma and bronchitis; general ill health, the consequences of a depraved or cachectic state of the system. Chronic pain of the back is a very common complaint amongst colliers, arising from overstraining the tendinous muscles and is the source of much discomfort to the colliers.'
'The accidents to which the working population of this district are subject are principally burns arising from explosions of "fire-damp", wounds and contusions of the scalp, fractures of the skull, injuries of the spine, fractures of the extremities and injuries of the joints (very frequent), and severe contusions of the trunk and body, arising from the falling of earth and rubbish in mines.'

Were the children sometimes badly treated?

Samuel Richards, aged 40, Derbyshire:

'No rewards excepting the stick, that's all the rewards in pits for little lads. Has within three months seen a boy 9 years old beaten by a butty until he wetted his breeches, because he had not come the day before. He has often seen them beat so that they were black and blue, and if the parents were by they dare not say anything or they would be turned off the ground directly.'

Thomas Moorhouse, collier boy:

'I don't know how old I am; father is dead...mother is dead also; I don't know how long she has been dead;..
I began to hurry(*) when I was 9 years old for William Greenwood; I was apprenticed to him till I should be 21... The overseers gave him a sovereign to buy clothes with, but he never laid it out; I ran away from him because he lost my indendtures(**), for he served me very bad; he struck a pick into me twice in my bottom. (Here I made the boy strip, and I found a large cicatrix(***) likely to have been occasioned by such an instrument... There were twenty other wounds, occasioned by hurrying in low workings...) He used to hit me with the belt, and mawl(****) or sledge, and fling coals at me; he served me so bad that I left him, and went about to see if I could get a job.'

(*) hurry = dragging large baskets or carts of coal;
(**) indentures = official contract for the apprenticeship;
(***) cicatrix = healed wound;
(****) mawl = type of mallet.

Joseph Wild, chief constable of Oldham:

'There have been cases of the maltreatment of children in collieries brought before the magistrates - perhaps one or two a year. The maltreatment was always according to barbarous rules among the workers themselves, inflicting punishment on supposed delinquents, generally by holding the head fast between the legs of another, and inflicting each a certain number of blows on the bare posteriors with pieces of wood,... about a foot long and an inch in diameter...However the one punished may cry, they stick to him; and in the last case, where a hungry lad had stolen a pit-dinner, they mangled his body seriously.'