Children working in coal
mines was a fact of life in the early ninetieth century. As mines got larger
and more mechanised the demand for workers above ground increased. This
reduced the labour force available to work underground and so children
appear to have been increasingly used.
Indeed, this increasingly grim situation caused the Government to appoint a
‘Children’s Employment Commissioner’ during the 1840’s. This persons role
was to ‘Inquire on the state, condition, and treatment of such children and
young persons in mines and mineral in North Wales’. The report provides a
The general picture was that children worked twelve hours per day, earning
at the most one shilling per shift. Girls under eighteen worked at various
surface jobs but never underground.
Underground the coal seams were often so thin that boys as young as seven
years old were employed. They often worked a shift system starting either
six in the morning or six in the evening. Shifts lasted at least ten hours.
These boys undertook the more supportive jobs rather than directly dig the
coal. These jobs included filling the wagons, pumping, driving the horses
employed underground. They also drew the coal wagons themselves.
A report by a H.H. Hones Esq. of the time states; ‘Drawing or pushing coal
wagons forms the principle employment of children and young persons…Drawing
is performed by means of a chain passing from the coal wagons (called
‘pyches’ in North Wales incidentally) between the boys legs and fastened to
a girdle around his waste, being thus attached to the load he draws it by
stooping down , proceeding on all fours’.
The report goes on to sympathise with the work these children undertook
stating it is a ‘grievous subject for reflection and a sad spectacle to
behold: they pass the day working many fathoms underground, where daylight
never enters’. The report then states that the children could not stand
upright for most of the time and they continually breath coal dust and
However, all is not lost. The children are ‘Treated with humanity and
propriety by the charter-masters and colliers, many of which are religious
and good moral characters, and often pray aloud in the pits, and give good
advice to both children and adults’ . Pity that advice couldn’t have been to
go to school or work the fields in the fresh air.
Further on the report details the food these children survived on.
Breakfast, dinner and supper consisted of bread, butter, potatoes, milk and
‘occasionally bacon’. There is no mention of vegetables or other essential
food for a balanced diet. However, the report states ‘Their physical
condition is proof that they have a sufficiency of nutritive food to
maintain health and strength…. Their clothing is on most instances well
calculated to their work and station….the boys are sufficiently clad and non
whom I examined had less than two suits and three shirts’ . The mental and
physical long term effects of this work and diet can only be imagined.
A factual report of the time presents this account:
Gardden Colliery, Ruabon, Denbighshire. (April 30th , 1841)
No 17 - John Tinna, Aged 11.
‘Has been working two years. Drove the pony in the pits for six months. Now
draws the pyches by girdle at 1s a day. Had 1s 4d a day at first: but wages
have been lowered. Works from 6 to 6. Half an hour for breakfast and a hour
for dinner. Has not always so much. Has sometimes come up to eat, though
very seldom. Men never beat him. Goes three times every Sunday to worship at
Methodists’ chapel, and to the Sunday school. Has sometimes worked all night
when the pit had to be cleared. Is very healthy. Never hears the bad
language in the pits. Some of the men often pray along.’