The Workers

The mines employed large numbers of people, both above and below ground, in a wide range of jobs. In the mid-19th century it has been estimated that there were over 150,000 men working in coal mining. Until the passing of the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act both women and children could be employed underground although, in Shropshire, only men and boys went below.

The coal (or in some cases ironstone) was mined at the ‘face’ of the seam by colliers sometimes called ‘hewers’ who used hand tools e.g. a sharp pick. It was then shovelled into large baskets or small carts or ‘mobbies’ by a ‘getter’. The ‘mobbies’ were used to transfer material from the coalface to the main roadways where it was then loaded onto wagons or ‘dans’. Boys as young as eight acted as ‘trappers’ opening and shutting the ventilation doors to allow the movement of the wooden sleds or tubs Their small size and agility made them valuable members of the team. When the Commissioners visited Madeley’s Hills Lane Pit in 1840 - 1841 they came across one four-year-old boy helping his father underground! The ‘mobbies’ and ‘dans’ were often moved by ‘drawers and thrusters’ – older, bigger children employed to push and pull them from the face to the bottom of the shaft. At one time these children were attached to the wagons by girdles, comprising a rope or strap and a chain. However, ponies were used, where possible, to perform this task and, by the 1860s the use of girdles had been largely phased out following improvements to the roadways.

From the base of the shaft the coal was raised to the surface by a hoist which was used to wind up or let down various loads into the pit. The hoist was operated by a ‘gin’ (engine) which was usually powered by a horse going in a circle and working a wheel! At the pithead the coal was cleaned and sorted, often by women or by older or injured miners and the waste was piled on slag heaps.

Although women were not employed underground in Shropshire mines, by the middle of the 19th century several hundred worked on the waste heaps and around the pit mouths (the ‘banks’). Women employees sorted the ironstone nodules from the clay or dragged coal on their backs or on sledges or wagons. Young girls were often to be found helping their mothers above ground. Many of the young women who worked on the ‘banks’ went up to London during May and spent several months in the service of the market gardeners, first as weeders, and then carrying vegetables and fruit to market. These ‘Shroppies’ had a good reputation and were well-paid. Annie Payne, the last Shropshire ‘Pit Girl’, died in 1991 shortly before her 104th birthday.

Most women and children employed were the wives, children or widows of miners and the mine was, to them, a familiar environment.

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