Coal Mines

Revised Oct 16th, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated. 

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    Many Flemings migrated to work with local people in the coal mines in Wallonia, roughly south of Hainaut and near Liege in Belgium and also in northern France (Département du Nord). No descriptions of the lives of these Belgian immigrants have been found but Emile Zola described the lives of miners and their families in his novel "Germinal"1,2. He set his story in the north of France around 1860-65 near Marchiennes-Ville. However, that never was a coal mining region so Zola presumably wished to interest his readers in France. However, it is more likely that he was describing what is known to have happened about that time in Belgium3, probably near a Belgian town similarly named Marchiennes-au-Pont, Hainault. There are numerous indications in the novel that some of the miners Zola describes were Flemings: a villain, the foreman Dansaert is described as a "coarse-faced Fleming". The local doctor is named Vanderhagen, and a miner's kitchen is described as being "kept with Flemish cleanliness".
   The working conditions were horrendous. Children and most adults took off their wooden shoes and worked down in the pit in their bare feet, sometimes up to their knees in water! Take-home pay was so low that a family's children, often as young as 8 years, had to work 14 hour days in the pits to supplement the father's meager earnings. Even then they ate inadequate amount of poor quality food; the high point of the week might be a rabbit stew. The appropriately named translator Peter Collier notes that their pitiful wages were reduced in the early 1860s to the starvation level in response to what we now call 'market forces'.
   Loosening the coal from the coal face was heavy work with a pick done by the men. However, the "
lighter" work of collecting the coal and pulling it to a lifting cage in tubs was done by pulled by children, often girls as young a 10 years. A girl of 15 years is described as capable of heaving a tub, loaded with several hundred kilograms coal, back on the track after it had run off. In certain mines children, usually girls, were hired to carry coal in sacks up a ladder to the next level.
   Safety was a major problem because the miners, who worked in teams, had to take time away from their contracted coal face to shore-up the gallery with timbers to prevent them from falling. As a result timbering was often poorly done because every minute spent on that and away from the coal face decreased the number of tubs of coal the team could deliver per day and so lowered the team's pay.

   The consequences of a poor timbering job in a mine at Montsou (a fictional place near the French town of Marchiennes-Ville) were shocking:1,2
  "Jeanlin (11 years-old), raising his lamp, and saw that the wood had given way because of continual seepage from a spring. Just then Chicot, arriving from his cutting, also stopped and examined the planking. Suddenly a tremendous cracking sound was heard, and a rock slide engulfed the man and the boy.
   Then there was absolute silence as thick dust raised by the wind of the rock fall passed through the passages. Blinded and choking, the miners began coming from every coal face, with their dancing lamps feebly lighting a galloping herd of black men. When the first group reached to the rock slide they shouted, calling their mates. A second band, coming from the cutting below, ended up at the other side of the mass of rock which blocked the gallery. All saw that the roof had fallen in for a dozen meters at most. The damage was not serious. But all hearts were froze when a death-rattle was heard from the fallen rocks.
   Young Bébert, ran up, crying: "Jeanlin is underneath! Jeanlin is underneath!" Maheu, Jeanlin's father, came out of the passage with Zacharie, his adult son. He was seized with despair, and could only utter: "My God! my God! my God!"
   Three girls, Catherine (15 years) who was Jeanlin's sister, Lydia a small doll-like child of 10 years, and Moquette (16 years) , who had also rushed up, began to sob and shriek with terror in the midst of the fearful disorder, which was increased by the darkness. The men tried to silence them, but they shrieked louder as each groan was heard from the tumbled rocks.
   Maheu kept calling to Jeanlin but not a sound was heard. The little one must have been smashed up. And still the groans continued monotonously. His mates called to their buried comrade, asking him his name. Only a groan came back.
   From each end the miners attacked the rock slide with pick and shovel. Their normal lunch hour came, but no one thought food; they could not bring themselves to go up for their soup while their mates were in peril. They tried to send off the girls. But neither Catherine nor Moquette, nor even little Lydie, would move, who remained nailed to the spot, wanting to know what had happened, and to help. It was nearly four o'clock; in less than an hour the men would have done a normal day's work; half the fall had already been removed. Maheu persisted with such energy and refused, with a furious gesture, to let another man relieve him, even for a moment.
   "Gently! said 'captain' Richomme, "we are getting near. We must not finish them off", as the groaning was becoming more and more distinct as the intermittent rattle of approaching death guided the workers. Now it seemed to be beneath their very picks. Suddenly it stopped. In silence they all looked at one another, and shuddered as they felt the cold chill of triumphant death pass in the darkness. They dug on, soaked in sweat, their muscles tense to the breaking point. They came upon a foot, and then began to remove the earth with their hands, freeing the limbs one by one. The head was not hurt. They turned their lamps on it, and Chicot's name went round. He was quite warm, but his spinal column had been broken by a rock. "Put him in a tram," ordered the captain. "Now for the lad; look sharp."
  Maheu gave a last swing with his pick, and suddenly and opening appeared, communicating with the men who were clearing away the rock from the other side. They shouted out that they had just found Jeanlin, unconscious, with both legs broken, still breathing. It was the father who took up the little one in his arms, through clenched jaws muttering "My God!" to express his grief, while his daughter Catherine and the other women again began to shriek. Bébert harnessed his horse Bataille to the coal trams. In the first 'tub' lay Chicot's corpse, supported by Étienne; in the second, Maheu was seated with Jeanlin, still unconscious, on his knees; they started at a walking pace. On each tram was a lamp like a red star. Behind followed a row of miners: fifty shadows in single file. Now, overcome with fatigue, they trailed their feet, slipping in the mud, with the mournful melancholy of a flock stricken by an epidemic. It took them nearly half an hour to reach the pit head. This procession in the deep darkness never seemed to end as they passed through galleries which bifurcated and turned and unrolled before them.
  Fortunately the Company doctor, Vanderhaghen was quickly found. As soon as the he glanced at Chicot he said: "Done for!". The captain moaned "Chicot! one of our good workers. He has three children. Poor chap!"
  Kneeling beside Jeanlin, Vanderhagen said "Nothing wrong with his head, nor the chest either. Ah! it's the legs which have given." He himself undressed the child, unfastening the cap, taking off the jacket, drawing off the breeches and shirt with the skill of a nurse. And the poor little body appeared, as lean as an insect, stained with black dust and yellow earth, marbled by bloody patches. Nothing could be made out until they began washing him. Then he seemed to grow leaner beneath the sponge, the flesh so pallid and transparent that one could see the bones. It was sad to look at this sample of a wretched people: a starveling half crushed by the fallen rocks. When he was clean they could see bruises on both thighs, two red patches on the white skin.
   Jeanlin, regaining consciousness, moaned. His father Maheu, at the foot of the mattress on which Jeanlin lay stood with hands hanging down. Looking at his son large tears rolled from his eyes. "Are you the father?" asked the doctor, raising his eyes. "No need to cry then, you can see he is not dead." He found two simple fractures. But the right leg gave him some anxiety, it would probably have to be amputated.
   Dr. Vanderhaghen ordered Jeanlin be carried to his parents' home. A
<== procession to the village formed, left the mine and moved slowly up the road to the village.
   Catherine went ahead to warn her mother. When they had placed the stretcher at her door and she saw Jeanlin alive but with his legs broken, she choked with anger, stammered, and without shedding a tear said: "Is this what's happened? They cripple our little ones now! Both legs! My God! What do they want me to do with him?"

   "Be still," said Dr. Vanderhaghen, who had followed to attend to Jeanlin. "Would you rather he had remained below?" But Maheude grew more furious, while her younger children stood around her crying. As she helped to carry up the wounded boy and to give the doctor what he needed, she cursed fate, and asked where she was to find money to feed invalids. Taking care of the Maheu's old invalid father was enough, now this kid also could no longer use his legs! But after allowing healing to take place for a few weeks possible to avoid amputation of Jeanlin's leg; but remained lame for the rest of his life. On investigation, the Company resigned itself to giving fifty francs compensation and promised to find employment for the little cripple on the surface as soon as he was well.

1"Germinal" by Emile Zola, translated by Peter Collier (1993), Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 0-19-283702-8. It is a good story that certainly conveys Zola's social concerns and political views but both translators' introductory notes emphasize that time and events were distorted if necessary to suit Zola's concerns and views. So it remains just a story rather than an account of historical events.  However, some descendants of miners now living in Belgium and in North America have confirmed that many of the conditions and events Zola described were similar to those witnessed by their family members.
2An older translation of "Germinal" by Havelock Ellis is available (in Sept 2000) online at <>.
3Valuable help on the geography of area and on the effect of the working conditions on the miners and their families was provided by Regine Brindle, Luc Matthijs and Josef Smits.

The child labor described by Zola was one of the more horrendous aspects of mining through Europe. Those children who survived physically rarely had any opportunity to have an education except a church-operated Sunday schools.

Read about education in those times
Or how economic difficulties
led to
extensive emigration

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