Ceri Thompson, curator of Big Pit: National Coal Museum in Blaenavon, sheds light on the role of children in the coal mines.
Until the mid-nineteenth century it was normal for women and children to work in British coal mines. This carried on the rural traditions where children were expected to do useful work around the farm as soon as their bodies were strong enough. For mining they were ideal: they were small enough to move around the narrow, low roadways and they were cheap to employ.
Most child miners aged between five and 11 years old were employed as ‘door boys and girls’ (known as ‘trappers’ in English coal fields), opening and closing ventilation doors underground to allow men and coal to pass through. These youngsters often worked up to 14 hours a day – longer hours that the colliers who cut the coal. Older children (usually from 12 to 17 years old) typically worked as ‘trammers’ (or ‘carters’) dragging the full drams and sledges of coal to the main roadways that led out of the mine.
In 1840 the Children’s Employment Commission was set up to investigate the conditions under which children worked underground, although the commissioners were also shocked by the conditions of women miners and described their hardships as well.
The findings outraged public opinion and a law was passed to stop child labour in the mines. However, only those under 10 years of age and all females were banned. In fact the practice of illegally employing under-10s continued for years afterwards because of the shortage of mine inspectors and the practice only stopped in the 1860s when attendance in school was made compulsory.
Even in the early twentieth century 12-year-old boys worked as ‘collier boys’ and the school leaving age was not raised to 15 until 1944.
For more information about the life of miners young and old, pay a visit to Big Pit – one of Britain’s leading mining museums. With facilities to educate and entertain all ages, Big Pit is an exciting and informative day out.
People’s Collection Wales hosts hoards of content about coal mining. Take a look here.
This post is also available in: Welsh