Working Conditions

Miners worked twelve-hour days, working in an area no taller than the height of the seam which was often less than 60cm and lit by a single candle.


Most workers started their shifts between 5am and 6am and worked a twelve-hour day. It was usual to work six days a week with days off on Sundays and holy days and the occasional ‘treat day’ if there was a big national or local event. After a breakfast of bread and milk, or porridge, they would walk – often several miles – to the pithead. Underground workers were transported down the shaft then had to walk to the coalface along low, narrow, roadways. It was pitch-black underground with no light apart from tallow candles (which the miners had to buy themselves) until the introduction of lamps. These were first used in the early 19th century but their introduction was gradual and not universal.

Mining was dirty, difficult and dangerous and conditions underground were cramped and particularly perilous. Some mines were hot and wet – others hot and dusty – and underground workers often worked naked or semi-naked. Ventilation was poor and water sometimes seeped in through the rocks above and gathered in old workings. Flooding was always a possibility and an ever-present fear. Accidents and injuries were a common occurrence. Roof-falls were probably the commonest cause of injury or death and shaft accidents were also common while mine gases could cause explosions or poison the workers. Few colliers reached the age of 30 without suffering respiratory problems and, in the 1840s, it was accepted that it was rare for them to live beyond their early 50s. Perhaps largely because of the difficult conditions the mining community was noted for its tremendous camaraderie.

At the coalface the collier worked in an area no taller than the height of the seam which was often less than 60cm and lit by a single candle. The coal was then shovelled into large baskets or small carts which were then pulled and pushed to the bottom of the shaft. This was sometimes done by older children although ponies might be used for parts of the journey when space permitted. In some areas this work was done by women although no women were working underground in Shropshire by the mid-19th century.

Deformities were common among children who worked in the mines with conditions such as ‘stunted growth, crippled gait and irritation of head, back and feet’ all being recorded. Many suffered skin sores resulting from the wearing of the girdles used to attach them to the wagons although this practice had been largely discontinued by the 1860s. A surgeon, who made a submission to the Children’s Employment Commission, reported that most of the children were asthmatic by the age of 20 and that respiratory diseases were common – disorders no doubt exacerbated by the living conditions of the time.

There was no regular meal-break but workers usually managed to relieve one another to allow a quick snack around mid-day. Lunch might be a hunk of bread or an oatcake with perhaps a small piece of cheese or meat.

Rats and mice were common (although most pits had one or the other). They were an especial problem in mines using horses and ponies as the animals’ bedding and food provided scraps for the rodents as did crumbs dropped by the miners. Thirteen-year-old Henry Canning, who worked at the Madeley Wood Colliery as a ‘dan-pusher’ in the late 1830s and early 1840s, told the 1841 Children’s Employment Commission that there were no mice at that colliery but plenty of rats “quite as big as half-grown rabbits” and a wide range of insects.

Many mines were also believed to be the haunt of hobgoblins and their evil reputation was sustained by those in charge to help ensure good behaviour from the workers.

When a shift finished workers were drawn up the shaft and had to dress over their dirt and walk home – washing facilities at the mine were a long way in the future although at some there was a cabin and a fire at the top of the shaft. Bathing was unusual; most just washed their upper body, hands and arms, face and neck (in cold water) before putting on their working clothes again and sitting down to their main meal –usually potatoes and meat. The amount of meat depended on how much money the household had – inevitably families usually ate better just after payday. Bedtime would be between 8pm and 9pm.

It is difficult to make direct comparisons with wages earned today and it has to be born in mind that there was no standard rate with workers being paid according to productivity but, in the mid-nineteenth century a collier might earn around 25 shillings a week (£1.25), older children between 5 and 12 shillings a week (25p – 70p) and a little ‘trapper’ around 6d (2p – 3p) a day while the women employed as sorters at the pit-head received about 8 shillings (60p) a week. Mine workers were generally considered to earn a relatively good wage compared with other workers and the following ditty, which circulated in the mid-nineteenth century Yorkshire coalfields, illustrates the point nicely:

Collier lads get gold and silver.
Factory lads get nobbut brass
Who’d get married to a two-loom weaver
When there’s plenty of collier lads?
(19th century, traditional)

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