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Women and Children in the Mines

From Harriet Martineau, History of England, Book VI, Chapter 7 (1849)

In 1842, Lord Ashley had brought forward a Bill on behalf of a set of people who really appeared to have been neglected by all mankind, and whose case, when exposed by Lord Ashley, startled Parliament and the country. People who move about above-ground, in the face of day, may exhibit their own case, and hope to have it considered by those who look on; but it now appeared that there was a class moving about underground, in the mines and coal-pits of England and Scotland, whose condition of suffering and brutalization exceeded all that had ever been known, or could be believed. A commission of inquiry, obtained by Lord Ashley, laid open a scene which shocked the whole country. Women were employed as beasts of burden; children were stunted and diseased, beaten, overworked, oppressed in every way; both women and children made to crawl on all-fours in the passages of the pits, dragging carts by a chain passing from the waist between the legs; and all lived in an atmosphere of filth and profligacy which could hardly leave a thought or feeling untainted by vice. This was seen at once to be a special, as well as an extreme case; and a Bill for the relief of the women and children of the colliery population was passed with a rapidity which somewhat injured its quality. It was known that a strong opposition would be raised if the thing were not done at once. It was certain that a multitude of women and children would be thrown out of employment after the passage of the Bill; and not a few persons declared the commissioners' report to be full of exaggeration; and the great permanent objection remained, of the disastrous consequences of interfering with the labor-market. The great majority of the nation, however, felt that it was better to have a large burden thrown on the parishes for a time, than to let such abuses continue; that, making every allowance for exaggeration, the facts were horrible; and that, the labor-market being already interfered with by Factory Bills, this was not the point to stop at. So the Bill passed, with some amendments which Lord Ashley submitted to, rather than wait. By this Bill, women were excluded from mining and colliery labor altogether. Boys were not to be employed under the age of ten years; and the term of apprenticeship was limited. The Secretary of State was empowered to appoint inspectors of mines and collieries, to see that the provisions of the Bill were carried out. The new law took effect after nine months from its date. The operation has, from time to time, been reported as beneficial; and, though it has been found difficult to prevent women from getting down to work in the pits after the habits of a life had made other employment unsuitable or impossible to them, the pressure upon parish or other charity funds turned out to be less than had been anticipated. It was a great thing to have put a stop to the employment of women in toil wholly unsuited to their frame and their natural duties; and to have broken in upon a system of child-slavery which could never have existed so long in our country, if it had not been hidden in the chambers of the earth.

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