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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

Working Conditions

61. Working in the Mines, 1842

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1The report of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842 stressed the general harshness of life and work in the mines. It particularly insisted on the conditions of employment of women and children. The Commissioners found that the way the people were employed in the mining industry varied considerably: more very young children were employed in the eastern coalfields of Scotland than anywhere else in England.

2One of the most interesting features of the report was a series of interviews that clearly demonstrated the terrible conditions in which miners worked.

3The Commissioners’ Report led to the 1842 Act that prohibited all women and children under the age of ten from working underground.

4Parliamentary Papers, 1842, vol II, Children’s Employment Commission, First Report of the Commissioners, Mines, Commission for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children and in Mines and Manufactories; I. Coal Mines, Nature of the Employment in Coal Mines, East of Scotland, p. 27-28; 90-91.

  • 9 The hundredweight (abbreviated cwt) is defined as 112 pounds and is equivalent to 50.8 kg.

Of the employment of girls and women in the coal-mines in the East of Scotland, the Sub-Commissioner says, “It will now become a more painful duty to give a particular description of the employment of Children and Young Persons in those departments in which their labour is used, and in which females are, equally with males, employed at very tender years. The coal-bearers are women and children employed to carry coal on their backs in unrailed roads with burdens varying from ¾ cwt. to 3 cwt9. It is revolting to humanity to reflect upon the barbarous and cruel slavery which this degrading labour constitutes; a labour which happily has long since been abolished in England, and in the greater part of Scotland, and I believe is only to be found in the Lothians, the remnant of the slavery of a degraded age” (R. H. Franks). The preceding evidence shows how much the Sub-Commissioner is mistaken in supposing that the employment of women in this kind of labour is peculiar to Scotland and to the Lothians, and that the practice does not prevail in England. (p. 27-28)

It has already been stated that in this district girls and women are employed equally with males in all the labours of the coal-mines. Indeed it is stated to be a general rule that “girls are invariably set at an earlier age than boys to their peculiar labour from that girls are more acute and capable of making themselves useful at an earlier age than boys” […].

Janet Cumming, eleven years old, bears coals:

  • 10 Old English measure of length, now standardized at 6 feet (1.83 metre), which has long been used a (...)

I gang with the women at five, and come up at five at night; work all night on Fridays, and come away at twelve in the day. I carry the large bits of coal from the wall-face to the pit bottom, and the small pieces called chows, in a creel. The weight is usually a hundredweight; does not know how many pounds there are in the hundredweight, but it is some to carry; it takes three journeys to fill a tub of 4 cwt. The distance varies, as the work is not always on the same wall; sometimes 150 fathoms10, whiles 250 fathoms. The roof is very low; I have to bend my back and legs, and the water comes frequently up to the calves of my legs. Has no liking for the work; father makes me like it. Never got hurt, but often obliged to scramble out when bad air was in the pit. […]

No. 117. Jane Peacock Watson, aged 40, coal-bearer:

“I have wrought in the bowels of the earth 33 years. Have been married 23 years, and had nine children; six are alive, three died of typhus a few years since; have had two dead born; thinks they were so from the oppressive work: a vast of women have dead children and false births, which are worse, as they are not able to work after. […]

William Hunter, mining oversman, Arniston Colliery: “I have been 20 years in the works of Robert Dundas, Esq., and had much experience in the manner of drawing coal, as well as the habits and practices of the collier people. Until the last eight months women and lassies were wrought below in these works, when Mr Alexander Maxton, our manager, issued an order to exclude them from going below, having some months prior given intimation of the same. Women always did the lifting or heavy part of the work, and neither they nor the children were treated like human beings, nor are they where they are employed. Females submit to work in places where no even lad could be got to labour in; they work in bad roads, up to their knees in water, in a posture nearly double: they have swelled haunches and ankles, and are prematurely brought to the grave, or what is worse, lingering existence. (p. 90-91).


9 The hundredweight (abbreviated cwt) is defined as 112 pounds and is equivalent to 50.8 kg.

10 Old English measure of length, now standardized at 6 feet (1.83 metre), which has long been used as a nautical unit of depth.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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