Child Labour

Childhood as we know it today, a time for play and education, is a relatively modern invention. Throughout most of history access to education was the privilege of a minority, most children were really regarded as little more than small adults who must contribute to the support of the family as best they could. With the coming of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th Centuries the demand for, and opportunities for, child labour increased dramatically particularly in the new factories, but also in the coal industry in response to increased demand.

An 1842 survey revealed that one third of the underground workforce in the coal industry were under the age of 18. One of these was my great great grandfather William Ward, who is recorded in the 1841 census as a coal miner, living with his family in Pitt Lane, Coleorton. At that time William was only 10 years old, his brother John was also a coal miner and he was 12 years old.

It is recorded that boys and girls, might start work underground at the age 6 or even as young as 5, initially working as "trappers" with the job of opening and closing ventilation doors (or traps) on the wagon ways to allow the carts carrying coal through the traps, which at all other times must remain closed to control the flow of air through the mine (hence the expression "keep your trap shut". This work was not hard, but the hours were long (a full shift was 12 hours or more) and the children were often in complete darkness, lamp oil and candles were considered too expensive to waste on a child (hence the expression "you're not worth the light"). As they became older they would move on to be "hurriers" dragging carts or sledges loaded with coal from the pit face to the bottom of the pit shaft ready to be hauled to the surface, often on hands and knees through water dripping from the roof. Shifts were 12-13 hours and children would not see daylight in wintertime.

In the early years of the industry the method of descent and ascent for children into the mine was extremely hazardous. It was common for two children at a time to be lowered or raised sitting cross-legged facing one another on an iron cross bar, normally used to attach to the coal baskets, see figure. It was not uncommon for small children to lose their grip and fall to their death or injury as reported in the case below.

Northampton Mercury of the 8th August 1785:

On Monday last as John Alcock, a boy of Cole-Orton, in Leicestershire, was coming out of a Coal Pit, sitting upon the lap of another boy, he unfortunately fell down to the bottom of the pit and was killed. The Coroner's inquest sat on the body, and gave in a verdict: Accidental Death.

In 1838 something happened which was to change all of this, a flood occurred in the Huskar Pit in South Yorkshire. Twenty six children were drowned, both boys and girls, some as young as seven years old. This disaster sent a shock wave through Victorian Society, something had to be done! That something was the establishment of a Royal Commission of Enquiry into Child Employment that reported in 1842. The reports of the commissioners make heartbreaking reading. Not only was the work long and hard but tired and exhausted children might be mercilessly beaten by the butties if they were not considered working fast enough.

Following the report of the Royal Commission an Act of Parliament promoted by Lord Shaftesbury was passed in 1842 making the employment of boys under the age of ten and all girls or women below ground illegal. The exclusion of women and girls from below ground reflected the Victorians shock to learn that boys & girls, men & women were working in close proximity often in a state of immodest dress.

Compiled by: Terry Ward, member of the Coleorton Heritage Group.