Domestic Life

Mining families often rented accommodation from the mine owners and most mine workers lived in rows built near each pit as it was developed. Around the Meadow Pit in the early 19th century rows were built in Park Lane and Park Street and, at the same time, those of the ‘Neck End’ were built near the Hills Lane Pit. Around the 1840s the rows for Halesfield Pit were built at Cuckoo Oak and the Aqueduct Rows were built for the Court Pits – as were the houses in Court Street.

By the mid-nineteenth century many Madeley miners were accommodated in two-storey dwellings with reasonable ventilation and ‘several roods of garden ground’ (often between 1/6 and ¼ of an acre) while ‘piggeries and privies’ were put at the extremity of the premises. Those so inclined cultivated cabbages and other greens and potatoes and most fed a fat pig. Some miners enjoyed growing flowers.

Miners received a coal allowance and their cottages were usually heated by an open fire and the grate might have an oven at the side, sometimes with a hob. Hooks, which could be swivelled, hung from a bar enabling pots and kettles to be heated over the fire. The firegrate and its surround and accessories (poker, shovel, tongs) required regular blackleading which was very hard work but a source of pride to the housewife. Sometimes a ‘jack’ stood on an iron stand in front of the open fire. It consisted of a hook, on which a joint could be suspended, and a system of winding gear which could raise the meat and turn it to ensure even cooking and with could be regulated (after a fashion). Dutch Ovens (metal grill tins) would also sometimes also be placed in front of the fire and bacon or ham cooked in them.

Iron tea kettles, heavy iron saucepans and frying pans were the normal utensils. Knives and forks would often have to be shared. Water was essential for cooking but few miners’ houses had piped, running water. Most placed butts outside their houses to catch rainwater and run-off. Because water had to be physically carried into the house it was a precious commodity and used sparingly. Washing facilities for both people and clothing were basic. Lighting in the cottages was provided by tallow candles.

Diets varied enormously. Breakfast usually consisted of porridge or gruel, perhaps with bread and butter and sometimes a bit of cheese or ham. The workers would take hunks of bread with (again) cheese or ham to eat down the pit for lunch but any women and children left at home might have to do without if times were hard. A hot meal was usually eaten in the evening consisting of potatoes, meat and perhaps some greens. Tea and coffee were drunk, also milk and water, as well as a considerable quantity of beer and a surprising amount of spirits. The best meal of the week was usually Sunday lunch which might comprise something like rabbit stew with potatoes and greens followed by rhubarb and custard. People would dress in their ‘Sunday best’ and some would spend the morning at church before eating a hearty meal and often returning to church later in the day. Excessive drinking was usually shunned on Sundays.

The housing improvements throughout the nineteenth century encouraged better hygiene as did the lowering of the price of soap and cheaper and more easily available cotton, linen and woollen goods. Food preservation techniques had also improved. This in its turn reduced the incidence of disease although typhus and cholera still occurred from time to time while scarlet fever and scarlatina remained an occasional problem and head-lice seem to have been endemic. A serious cholera outbreak in 1832 resulted in many deaths. Six of the children of St. Michael’s vicar, the Reverend James Phillips, died in childhood – four within ten days of each other in 1856 probably as a result of cholera.

Mortality rates among young children in mining districts, and elsewhere, remained a worry and neglect was often cited as a major cause but another was the fondness for mothers to administer quack medicines to their offspring. Particularly popular was Godfrey’s Cordial, a mixture of treacle and opium, which was readily available while crying babies were often given ‘scalded bread’ mixed with coarse brown sugar and liberally laced with gin!

It was considered ‘more respectable’ for women to cease working on marriage but, often this was not an option and many married women worked as sorters at the pithead, in one of the local factories (e.g. the China Works) or in domestic service. Large families were common, despite the high child mortality rates, and working mothers often left young children in the charge of older siblings or orphan girls taken in as ‘boarders’. Domestic life, for the poor, was hard although conditions gradually improved throughout the nineteenth century and life for the Madeley colliers and their families was probably a lot better than the life of the working classes in many areas.

The distinguished geologist Sir Joseph Prestwich, who spent several summers in the East Shropshire Coalfields, commented that he found the miners there particularly civil and well-behaved. He attributed this to the district not being extensive (a mere seven miles long by two broad) and a considerable number of gentry residing in it ‘by which means a considerable degree of refinement and civilisation is kept up’. However, even in the latter part of the 19th century some followers of the Revd. John Fletcher attributed the same ‘high degree of civilisation among the working class in Madeley and the unusual standard of cleanliness and comfort in the local miners’ cottages’ to the influence of the great man’!

At least both seemed to agree on the general high standards to be found among local miners and their families.

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