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Wales-New Zealand Family History Society

a.k.a.    WANZ

The life of a child in the mines.

Published in:              The Welsh Connection            October 2003,   #49


Adult life for the children of a mining family in South Wales, could begin at a very early age.  Boys and girls as young as six years old worked underground in the early years of the coal industry.  Many of them were employed as doorkeepers.  Their job was to open and shut the doors which cut off sections of the workings underground and which helped to control the ventilation of the mine.

In 1842, 10 year-old Elizabeth Williams who worked at a mine near Dowlais told a Government inquiry, that she earned 2d a day as a doorkeeper.  Every day she risked being involved in an accident with a full truck of coal.

Some boys and girls as young as nine had the much more demanding job of dragging carts loaded with coal along the underground tramlines.  If they stumbled and fell they risked being run over and crushed by the carts.

June 7th 1842, Lord Ashley detailed to the House of Commons, the horrors of women's work underground in mines.  The two-volume edition complete with illustrations of women harnessed like horses to mining equipment, resulted in legislation that prohibited women and children from working underground.

Before this 1842 legislation, women were employed in the mines mainly as hurriers, loading small wagons with coal, or as drawers, drawing the wagons behind them in places too low for horses to go.
They worked twelve to sixteen hours a day, often under the direction of their father or husband, who loaded them up with a hundred pounds of coal at a time.  There were over six thousand women and girls so employed, primarily in the most primitive and least productive mines.  The work paid about 2s. a day or less, although men were earning 3s. 6.  But for the women who lived in otherwise un-industrialized areas, especially in parts of Wales and Scotland, mine work was the best available source of wages.

1842 - Margaret Gomley, aged 9:

They call me Peggy, for my nick-name down here, but my right name is Margaret; I am about 9 years or going on 9; I have been at work in the pit thrusting corves (baskets) above a year; come in the morning sometimes at seven o'clock, sometimes, half-past seven, and I go sometimes home at six o'clock, sometimes at seven o'clock, when I do over-work.  I get my breakfast of porridge before I come, and bring a piece of muffin, which I eat on coming to  pit; I get my dinner at 12 o'clock, which is a dry muffin, and sometimes butter on, but have no time allowed to stop to eat it, I eat is while I am thrusting the load; I get no tea, but get some supper when I get home, and then go bed when I have washed me; and am very tired .... I get 5d a day pay.   Peggy

-Betty Harris, aged 37:

I am a drawer, and work from six o'clock in the morning to six at night.  I have two children, but they are too young to work ...... I have a belt round my waist, and a chain passing between my legs, and I go on my hands and feet.  The road is very steep, and we have to hold by a life rope; and when there is no rope, by anything we can catch hold of.
There are six women and about six boys and girls in the pit I work in: it is very hard work for a woman.  The pit is very wet where I work, and the water comes over our clog-tops always, I have seen it up to my thighs;  it rains in at the roof terribly: my clothes are wet through almost all day long .... I have drawn till I have had the skin off me: the belt and chain is worse when we are in the family way.  My feller (husband) has beaten me many times for not being ready.  I were not used to it a first, and he had little patience; I have known many a man beat his drawer.  I have known men take liberties with the drawers and some of the women have bastards.

After 1842, it was illegal to employ children under 10 underground.  The age limit was later raised to 12.  But many children below this age continued to work at the coal face.  Many boys followed their father down the pit as soon as they legally could, often on their 12th birthday.

Date Person(s) killed or injured
Cause of Death
Un-named person
"lost his way in the dark and died before he was found"
Un-named person
"fell down ladders at pit"
2 un-named persons
"Fall of roof"
3 un-named persons
"fall of a basket during the sinking of a new pit"
2 un-named persons
"coal carrying basket fell on them"

Reference Source:  
Appendix to First Report of Children's Employment Commission, Part 11, p. 695.
(collieries were all "un-named")
Coal Mining in the Llanelli Area - Volume One: 16th century to 1829, by M.V. Symons
The Western Mail January 2, 1995 - pages from the Past, The Industrial Revolution
Strong-minded Women, by Janet Horowitz Murray

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 Life in the Coal Mines
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