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Conditions in the Mines

In 1840 a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the working conditions of children in coal mines. The report was issued in May 1842 and the following month, Shaftesbury delivered the following speech to parliament, asking leave to bring in a Bill to regulate the employment of women and children in mines.

Sir, the next subject to which I shall request your attention is the nature of the employment in these localities. Now, it appears that the practice prevails to a lamentable extent of making young persons and children of a tender age draw loads by means of the girdle and chain. This practice prevails generally in Shropshire, in Derbyshire, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in Lancashire, in Cheshire, in the east of Scotland, in North and South Wales, and in South Gloucestershire. The child, it appears, has a girdle bound round its waist, to which is attached a chain, which passes under the legs, and is attached to the cart. The child is obliged to pass on all fours, and the chain passes under what, therefore, in that posture, might be called the hind legs; and thus they have to pass through avenues not so good as a common sewer, quite as wet, and oftentimes more contracted. This kind of labour they have to continue during several hours, hours in a temperature described as perfectly intolerable. By the testimony of the people themselves it appears that the labour is exceedingly severe; that the girdle blisters their sides and causes great pain. `Sir,' says an old miner, `I can only say what the mothers say, it is barbarity - absolute barbarity.'

Robert North says, 'I went into the pit at 7 years of age. When I drew by the girdle and chain, the skin was broken and the blood ran down. . . . If we said anything, they would beat us. I have seen many draw at 6. They must do it or be beat. They cannot straighten their backs during the day. I have sometimes pulled till my hips have hurt me so that I have not known what to do with myself.'

In the West Riding, it appears, girls are almost universally employed as trappers and hurriers, in common with boys. The girls are of all ages, from 7 to 21. They commonly work quite naked down to the waist, and are dressed - as far as they are dressed at all - in a loose pair of trousers. These are seldom whole on either sex. In many of the collieries the adult colliers, whom these girls serve, work perfectly naked.

Near Huddersfield the sub-commissioner examined a female child. He says, `I could not have believed that I should have found human nature so degraded. Mr Holroyd, and Mr Brook, a surgeon, confessed, that although living within a few miles, they could not have believed that such a system of unchristian cruelty could have existed.' Speaking of one of the girls, he says, 'She stood shivering before me from cold. The rug that hung about her waist was as black as coal, and saturated with water, the drippings of the roof.'

`In a pit near New Mills,' says the sub-commissioner, `the chain passing high up between the legs of two girls, had worn large holes in their trousers. Any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work. No brothel can beat it.'

Sir, it would be impossible to enlarge upon all these points; the evidence is most abundant, and the selection very difficult. I will, however, observe that nothing can be more graphic, nothing more touching than the evidence of many of these poor girls themselves. Insulted, oppressed and even corrupted, they exhibit, not unfrequently, a simplicity and a kindness that render tenfold more heart-rending the folly and cruelty of that system that has forced away these young persons, destined, in God's providence, to holier and happier duties, to occupations so unsuited, so harsh, and so degrading ...

Surely it is evident that to remove, or even to mitigate, these sad evils will require the vigorous and immediate interposition of the legislature. That interposition is demanded by public reason, by public virtue, by the public honour, by the public character, and, I rejoice to add, by the public sympathy: for never, I believe, since the disclosure of the horrors of the African slave-trade, has there existed so universal a feeling on any one subject in this country, as that which now pervades the length and breadth of the land in abhorrence and disgust of this monstrous oppression. It is demanded, moreover, I am happy to say, by many well-intentioned and honest proprietors - men who are anxious to see those ameliorations introduced which, owing to long established prejudices, they have themselves been unable to effect. From letters and private communications which I have received on the subject, I know that they will hail with the greatest joy such a bill as I shall presently ask leave to introduce.

Speeches of the Earl of Shaftesbury (1868), pp. 36-45.

This site has a great deal of primary information about the Durham pits.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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